Traverse the vast beauty of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage site from Jasper along the Icefields Parkway and beyond to Banff. Pass fleecy mountain goats licking mineral-rich silt from wide rocky riverbeds. Surmount Sunwapta Pass, where the Atlantic and Arctic watersheds divide. Ride massive ice explorer vehicles onto the otherworldly surface of the Athabasca Glacier. These dramatic 181 miles of Alberta—passing through and by Jasper, Kootenay, Yoho, and Banff National Parks plus three provincial parks—earn the route a reputation as one of the most spectacular drives in the world.
When to Go: June to September promises the best weather. Book campsites in Banff or Jasper National Parks early in the day, if not before. Popular attractions are less crowded before 10 a.m. or in early evening.
How to Get Around: Drive south from Jasper and see the vibrant lichen and moss-covered canyon walls of thundering Athabasca Falls, the rush of Sunwapta Falls, and the 1,181-foot-high limestone cliff known as the Weeping Wall. Hike trails over ancient glaciers and across alpine valleys. Paddle the opaque aquamarine waters of Lake Louise.
Bike here? Absolutely. "Cycling here only heightens one’s sense of being a humble speck in an astounding wilderness," says veteran road rider Erik Jensen, who has led countless cycling trips between Jasper and Banff. You have "graveyard flats, the outwash plain just before Rampart Creek, and the Saskachewan Crossing, a broad mountain valley with a huge blue sky," he says. "I stopped to change a tire tube there once and was in total silence, except for the rush of the river beside us. No matter how many times I go, this place is bigger than my brain can comprehend."
Where to Eat or Drink: Enjoy apple pie and tea, well earned after a 3.5-mile hike to Banff’s Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House. The Primrose dining room at Banff’s chic Rimrock Resort serves up tender medallions of elk and a wine list that includes Bad Boy, the famed garagiste French Merlot. Stop in Canmore for the Grizzly Paw’s signature home brew and bison burgers en route to Calgary International Airport.
What to Read or Watch Before You Go: Author and renowned Rockies natural history guide Ben Gadd penned the best-selling Handbook of the Canadian Rockies (National Geographic, 2010), an award-winning guide to everything from geology, botany, and bears to human history and backpacking in the Rockies. His best-selling novel, Raven's End: A Tale from the Canadian Rockies (McClelland & Stewart Ltd, 2002), is especially popular with young readers.
What to Buy: Find curious old photographs capturing early Rockies culture and kitschy Gatsby-era Canadian Pacific Railway travel posters at Mountain Lights Bookstore at Fairmont Château Lake Louise.
Where to Stay: Grand railway hotels benchmark Canada’s history through the Rockies. For contrast and total wilderness immersion, Rampart Creek Wilderness Hostel near Graveyard Flats on the Icefields Parkway has no cell service, running water, or in-room bathrooms; bathing is nearby behind a boulder in a surging glacial stream with a toasty log sauna that resembles Frodo’s house. Utterly unforgettable.
Fun Fact: Built in 1928 by the Canadian Pacific Railway, Mount Assiniboine Lodge, south of Banff in the backcountry, became the Rockies’ first ski lodge. Wealthy foreign adventurers arrived by ocean liner, traveled cross-country by rail, dined and danced in lavish railway hotels like the Banff Springs, then were ushered by guides to the backcountry. Today, visitors still hike or cross-country ski to the remote lodge, located in Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park, or helicopter in from Canmore or Calgary.
Toronto-based writer Liz Beatty is a frequent contributor to National Geographic Traveler. Her work has appeared in Toronto Life, Experience magazine, and others. She also writes for In the Hills magazine.
Staff Tip: Be prepared to stop frequently on your drive to observe the local residents—families of mountain goats, bighorn sheep of all sizes, elk in abundance, and possibly caribou performing their rut dance in fall. –Caroline Hickey, project manager, National Geographic Travel Books