Looking for the greatest mountain road trip in North America? Head north. Canada, people sometimes forget, is a road trip nation too. And the 266-mile (428-kilometer) ride from Calgary to Jasper is the continent’s equivalent of Switzerland’s Glacier Express railroad journey.
If you take the trip, there will be a lot of unplanned breaks to check out the stunning landscapes and abundant wildlife.
Blue-green lakes, massive glaciers, and snowcapped Rocky Mountains peaks slow the pace on the two-lane ride. Parts of the park get busy in the summer, so spring and fall are excellent seasons to experience these national parks. Regardless of season, though, hiking trails will lead travelers to wild spaces away from any crowds. That is, if you don’t mind the marmots, bighorn sheep, elk, and occasional stray bear keeping you company.
Here are key stops along the way.
West of Calgary via Highway 1A (a quainter splinter road of the Trans-Canadian Highway), Cochrane sits in the foothills—and wears the Wild West on its wrangled sleeves. The highlight of its cowboy past is Alberta’s first large-scale ranch, the Cochrane Ranche Historic Site, which dates to 1881. It has a nice picnic area with views of the Rockies’ skyline. In town, the aptly named Rockyview Hotel is a Western-style hotel. Its cowboy bar, known as The Texas Gate, has open mic sessions on Sunday afternoons.
West of Cochrane, Highway 1A rises along the Bow River (home to rafting trips), through a stirring scene of mountains via the Trans-Canadian Highway into Banff National Park—named one of National Geographic's Best Trips of 2017. It eventually reaches the park’s namesake, a bustling mountain town hemmed in by peaks.
Banff is here largely because of the Canadian Pacific Railway, an engineering achievement often considered more ambitious than the United States’ first transcontinental railroad. And, some claim, the nationwide connection is how Canada saved its west from the grasp of prying American expansionists. (Read more about traveling to Alberta by railway.)
To build the section of the railway that runs through the Canadian Rockies, surveyors climbed the mountains to find the best pass, zeroing in on Banff’s Kicking Horse Pass. Today you can do a vertigo-inducing ropes course at the Via Ferrata up Mount Norquay, a ski slope in winter. In town, the ambitious Whyte Museum covers Banff’s tenacious origins. Look for the exhibit on Mary Schäffer, a Philadelphian writer who first visited the Canadian Rockies in 1888 with a friend, went back again and again over the next 24 years, and finally stayed for life. Her writings helped popularize the area to early tourists.
One of Banff’s icons is the rustic Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, a castle-styled hotel that opened in 1888. It’s set in an enviable spot amid a rising blanket of forest. Even if you don’t stay, you can wander the historic interiors with a map, hike the trails on the property, and have a drink at one of its many restaurants and bars.
North of Banff, the trip really begins. Heading northwest, follow Highway 1, or the slower Highway 1A, beyond the hamlet of Lake Louise, through subalpine forests to the the massive, cream-colored Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Hotel—another castle-like icon. It’s nice for a drink or a meal, but the main draw is its backyard.
Named for one of Queen Victoria’s daughters, the one-and-a-half-mile-long Lake Louise is probably the most photographed lake in the world and—I’d argue—one of the best canoe spots. Go when rentals open, hop in a bright red watercraft, and glide across its calm turquoise surface toward the glacier-clad Mount Victoria, which soars up 11,365 feet. Sometimes you can spot grizzlies wandering on the edge—or swimming across. Afterward, take the Lake Louise Lakeshore trail (2.5 miles, 4 kilometers) or hike up to the Lake Agnes Tea House, a rustic chalet that’s served tea and biscuits since 1905, from the Fairmont Chateau’s trailhead (4.2 miles, 6.8 kilometers).
Connecting Lake Louise with Jasper to the north, Highway 93 (the Icefields Parkway) parallels the Continental Divide, passing a squadron of glaciers as it runs 143 miles (230 kilometers) through long, forested river valleys that rise and drop sharply in the mountains. There will be many sudden stops for photos and “wows.”
Because shops and cafés aren’t common along this stretch, pack your lunch before setting out. Finding a picturesque picnic spot will not be a problem.
This site, 28 miles (45 kilometers) north of Lake Louise, is another popular stop along the route. After a short walk on a paved trail through the woods, you’ll understand why. The water’s color is unreal. Curling far below the observation deck, the lake gets its bright turquoise hue from the glacial particles suspended in water. Wander just beyond the deck for a view all to yourself.
Nineteen miles farther north, you’ll find more space at Mistaya Canyon, where a dirt trail reaches the narrow canyon where the river flow from Peyto Lake dips and gnarls through fissures of rock that often hide its depths. Here, you’ll find plenty of picnic spots to sit on rocks, enjoy the water's cool mist, and refuel for the rest of your adventure.
Back on the Icefields Parkway, you’ll pass the Saskatchewan River Crossing and find excellent hiking at Parker Ridge, which you’ll reach before entering Jasper National Park. The 3.4-mile (5.5-kilometer) out-and-back hike climbs 820 feet (250 meters). The view reveals hidden valleys unseen from the road below—and plenty of space to have to yourself. Even in the summer certain areas are covered in snow, and some visitors come to slide down the hills on cardboard.
The highway’s namesake becomes obvious farther north. The sprawling outwash of the Columbia Icefield has heavily receded in the last 40 years. Signs mark spots of the past as you follow a gravel walkway to the dirty white of the glacier. If you want to get onto the glacier, you can book all-terrain vehicle tours with Glacier Adventure at the hopping Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre, where there’s also an interesting natural history museum.
Mount Edith Cavell
Heading north, the road follows the Sunwapta River that spills from the Winston Churchill Range to the west. Sunwapta Falls (30 miles or 48 kilometers from the Columbia Icefield Centre) is a great ripping blast of foam. Then take the alternate route Highway 93A to see the milky blue waters of the Athabasca Falls (another 15 miles or 24 kilometers north) funneling into a chasm.
Keep moving on a fun, winding, nine-mile drive to Mount Edith Cavell, a vast wall of dark gray rock and snow that reaches an impressive two-mile-high peak. The Angel Glacier perilously hangs above. You can sometimes hear the mass of ice croaking, then falling in chunks into the lake below.
Banff’s cousin city of the Rockies, lower-key Jasper is a railroad town set within sight of four impressive ranges. There are plenty of places to eat here, and the visitors center has an entertaining book of bear sightings to peruse. Small lakes—some, like Pyramid Lake, are warm enough for a dip—dot the valley floor. Take the Jasper SkyTram for views soaring over the steep northern face of Whistlers Mountain.
Southeast of town, Maligne Canyon (via Trans-Canada 16) is the most popular side attraction. The canyon cuts across forest floor as a deep, serpentine crack where the Maligne River slips, pools, swerves, and drops among potholes, hollows, and smooth overhanging walls of limestone. Stop to hike a bit on the brink of the canyon, then continue past Medicine Lake to Maligne Lake, the region’s largest natural lake at 13.7 miles (22 kilometers) in length. You can book a boat cruise or rent a canoe to enjoy its massive beauty.
When to Go
The best time to drive this mountainous route is June to September, but that’s also the busiest time. For local weather conditions, see www.weatheroffice.gc.ca.