Looking for the greatest mountain road trip in North America? Follow National Geographic travel writer Robert Reid who spent four-days on one of his favorite scenic driving tours in Alberta, Canada.
Head to the Canadian Rockies where the ride from Calgary to Jasper is a 266-mile highlight reel of awe-inspiring mountain, glacier, and wildlife views. Allow ample time for unplanned breaks to check out the stunning landscapes, take photos, and embark on exhilarating outdoor adventures.
TOP FIVE REASONS TO GO
- Fill your Instagram stories with jaw-dropping backdrops: blue-green lakes, massive glaciers, and snowcapped Rocky Mountains.
- Spot abundant wildlife, such as bighorn she ep, elk, and marmots.
- Relax and enjoy the slow pace of the two-lane ride.
- Hike to uncrowded (even in summer) wild spaces.
- Drive the iconic Icefields Parkway, one of National Geographic’s Drives of a Lifetime.
DAY 1: COCHRANE AND BANFF
Cowboy Up in Cochrane
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. Experience the town’s cowboy past at Alberta’s first large-scale ranch, the Cochrane Ranche Historic Site, which dates to 1881. There’s a picnic area with views of the Rockies’ skyline, so pack a lunch and enjoy the panorama.
INSIDE TIP: “In town, the aptly named Rockyview Hotel is a Western-style hotel,” says Reid. “Its cowboy bar, known as The Texas Gate, has open mic sessions on Sunday afternoons.”
Explore Banff National Park
Banff, a bustling mountain town hemmed in by peaks, is part of Banff National Park. Make the town your launch pad for outdoor adventure in the park. Conquer the vertigo-inducing ropes course at the Via Ferrata up Mount Norquay, a ski slope in winter. Hike some of the more than 1,000 miles of trails. Watch for free-roaming elk, grizzly bears and bighorn sheep. Soak in the soothing Banff Upper Hot Springs.
INSIDE TIP: “One of Banff’s icons is the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, a castle-styled hotel that opened in 1888,” says Reid. “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.”
DAY 2: LAKE LOUISE
Glide Across Idyllic Lake Louise
Head northwest, beyond the hamlet of Lake Louise, through subalpine forests to the massive, cream-colored Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Hotel—another castle-like icon. The hotel is nice for a drink or a meal, but the main draw is its backyard: one-and-a-half-mile-long Lake Louise, probably the most photographed lake in the world and a top spot for canoeing. Rent a red canoe in the morning to glide across the calm turquoise surface toward the glacier-clad Mount Victoria, elevation 11,365 feet. Look for grizzlies sometimes seen wandering on the shore or swimming across the lake.
INSIDE TIP: “Afterward, hike the Lake Louise Lakeshore trail 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,” says Reid.
DAY 3: ICEFIELDS PARKWAY AND COLUMBIA ICEFIELD
Drive the Dazzling Icefields Parkway
Highway 93 (the Icefields Parkway) parallels the Continental Divide, passing a squadron of glaciers as it runs 143 miles through long, forested river valleys that rise and drop sharply in the mountains. Prepare to make sudden stops for jaw-dropping views on a drive recognized as one of the world’s most spectacular. One top photo stop is Peyto Lake, 28 miles north of Lake Louise. Walk a paved trail through the woods to see the lake, which gets its bright turquoise hue from glacial particles suspended in water. Farther north at Mistaya Canyon, 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.
INSIDE TIP: “Because shops and cafés aren’t common along this stretch,” says Reid, “pack your lunch before setting out. Finding a picturesque picnic spot will not be a problem.”
Walk on and Over a Glacier
Before entering Jasper National Park, stop for gas and food at the Crossing Resort, located at Saskatchewan River Crossing. Add a scenic hike at nearby Parker Ridge. The 3.4-mile out-and-back hike climbs 820 feet and reveals views of hidden valleys unseen from the road below. Even in the summer certain areas are covered in snow, and some visitors slide down the hills on cardboard. The highway’s namesake—Columbia Icefield— becomes obvious farther north and feeds eight major glaciers. Explore Athabasca Glacier by all-terrain transporter, on foot, and via Glacier Skywalk on the ice-to-sky Glacier Adventure. Heading north, the road follows the Sunwapta River. Stop at impressive Sunwapta Falls and take the short (less than a mile) walk to the lower falls.
INSIDE TIP: “Take alternate route Highway 93A to see the milky blue waters of the Athabasca Falls funneling into a chasm,” says Reid.
DAY 4: JASPER
Soar Over Mountains and Roar Down a River
Banff’s cousin city Jasper is a railroad town set within sight of four impressive mountain ranges. Small lakes—some, like Pyramid Lake, if you are up for a dip—dot the valley floor. Wilder adventure awaits on the Jasper SkyTram, a cable car that soars over the steep northern face of Whistlers Mountain. On the seven-minute glide up to the summit, soak in the 360-degree scenic views and watch for wildlife, such as such elk, bear, moose, and sheep. Book the Sunwapta Wild Water SkyTram Combo to ride the aerial tramway after taking an adrenaline-pumping rafting trip down the Sunwapta River.
INSIDE TIP: “The visitors center [Jasper Information Centre National Historic Site] has an entertaining book of bear sightings to peruse,” says Reid.
Hike on a Canyon Rim and Cruise a Glacier-Fed Lake
Southeast of Jasper, Maligne Canyon (via Trans-Canada 16 and Maligne Lake Road) 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 glacier-fed Maligne Lake, the region’s largest natural lake at 13.7 miles in length.
INSIDE TIP: “Book a boat cruise or rent a canoe to enjoy Maligne Lake’s massive beauty,” says Reid.
HOW TO TAKE THIS TRIP
Fly to Calgary and rent a car at the airport. Drive west on Highway 1A for 30 miles to the starting point in Cochrane. Continue west on Highway 1A for 90 miles to Banff, and then 36 miles northwest to Lake Louise. From here, drive north 144 miles on the Icefields Parkway (Highway 93) to Jasper.
WHERE TO STAY
Spend the first night in Banff, which offers a range of lodging options, such as cozy bed-and-breakfasts, off-the-grid backcountry lodges, and luxurious hotels. On night two in Lake Louise, splurge on the elegant Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Hotel or bunk in an authentic log cabin or rustic lodge at Baker Creek Mountain Resort. End the drive at the majestic Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. A Canadian Rockies’ institution, the luxury mountain resort on the shores of Beauvert Lake has welcomed guests since 1922.
TRAVEL TIP: The best time to drive this mountainous route is June to September, however, it’s also the busiest travel season. Consider making the trip in late May or early October instead, and check local weather conditions before you go. For additional travel information, visit travelalberta.com.