Juliette and myself spent 3 weeks in the Canadian Rockies. Driving from Oregon, we started with Canmore & Banff and drove up North to Jasper.
This guide is based on our experience…
First things first: we hate touristic places and crowds. Unfortunately the Rockies is one of the most visited places on earth. The timing of your visit is key if you want to avoid crowds! Of course there’s going to be a big/huge difference in-between summer and winter.
Our close friends and fellow vanlifers traveled across the Rockies in the winter and it was definitely a different experience. But an incredible one too.. if you don’t mind the cold and the snow… and the ice.
In our eyes, the best time to visit would be Spring. You’re not in the high season yet, the weather is mostly good, the ice on the lakes is melting, you’ll still find areas with snow and it’s a great time to spot wildlife! That said, it was crowded during the weekends and long weekends but not too much on weekdays.
If you’re living/traveling in van you’ll probably want to avoid campgrounds. That’s not so easy in the Rockies. If you want incredible free spots to camp in forests or directly on the beach and make campfires right in front of your van, you should head down to Oregon or further South to Baja.
The good news is the campground rates are fair (15-25 CAD) and there’re free spots too.
Bring bear spray on every hike. You could encounter one pretty much everywhere as black bears like to munch on garbage. Oh and make sure you know how to use it…
Check out the pamphlet you can get in a visitor center on how to react in case of an attack. Although it’s pretty confusing as your reaction has to be opposite in case of a defensive or an offensive attack. Anyways! You’ll be fine !
These are our top of things to do in the Canadian Rockies from Canmore to Japser:
1. Walking around Canmore and Banff
You have definitely heard about the charming town of Banff with it’s mountains in the background but, maybe you haven’t heard about Canmore.
Let’s say Canmore is more quiet and less touristy but charming as well. Both of these towns are perfect to stroll around the main street and check out the restaurants and shops.
Don’t forget to check out the Fairmont Hotel in Banff at the viewpoint located near a place called “surprise corner”.
Do you like sunsets? We love sunsets. Our 2 favorite places to watch the sun go down around Canmore and Banff town are:
Banff town: Vermillion lakes.
Canmore: Policeman creek with views on the Three Sisters. (Park at the off leash dog park and walk under the train tracks following a little creek. You should get to the spot in about 5-10 minutes.
If you don’t plan on coming back to one of these towns during your visit, here is were you stack up on food. You’ll find gas until Lake Louise.
2. Two Jack lake & lake Winnewanka
Both lakes are close to Banff town and are worth a visit. We saw some elks, deers and mountain goats around these lakes. Two jack lake is great for a picnic or a sunset beer!
3. The Johnston Canyon
This might be the most known hike in Banff National Park. It’s a fairly short hike but it’s very scenic. You’ll pass several waterfalls and the first part of the trail is on man made bridge over the water in the canyon.
Go early in the morning or late afternoons to avoid the crowds. And don’t forget to bring bear spray.
There’s a paved trail to the top but along the way you’ll find dirt tracks going down… that’s where the adventure starts! And that’s how you can find the hidden cave with a spectacular view including a waterfall.
Hint: it’s somewhere in between the Lower and the Upper falls. Closer to the Upper falls. Good luck!
Be careful as the trails are very slippery and the rapids are no joke. Don’t fall.
4. Lake Louise & Moraine lake
Probably the most known lakes in the world and the most scenic ones. But, it’s crowded.
Unfortunately for us both were still frozen but, we saw a glimpse on how the reflections can be at Lake Louise one evening as the ice was melting. Very, very nice.
Did I mention these places get crowed?
Get here very early (sunrise) or late afternoon to avoid the buses.
Moraine lake has a small parking lot that gets full very fast. When it’s full they close the 10km road out of Lake Louise.
Down the road a couple minutes from the Lake Louise there’s a day use picnic spot. We mostly cooked our supper there before going to the lake for sunset.
Lake Louise is the last place you can get some groceries and gas before Jasper. There’s free drink water in the visitor center.
On your way up to Japser, I highly recommend you to stop in the Yoho National Park. It’s on the West Side and officially in British Columbia but not far from Banff NP.
Natural bridges is a scenic spot at a river where the rocks form a… you guessed it… a natural bridge! Again walk away from the paved trails and fences unless you want to get lost in a forest of selfie sticks.
Emerald lake…. ooh Emerald Lake… Our favorite one maybe? Blue green, emerald water surrounded by trees and mountains.
A canoe rental here is 60 CAD per hour but it’s worth it! They close at 6pm so try to go at 4:45 pm so you can have the lake as flat as possible.
There’s supposed to be a nice hike to a big waterfall in Yoho NP but it was closed.
6. Peyto lake
Don’t forget to stop at Bow Lake on your way to Peyto lake. It’s a beautiful lake surrounded by huge mountains. It was all frozen when we were there.
To get to Peyto lake you need to park at a small carpark and do the short hike to the viewpoint. Expect the bluest water you’ve ever seen.. ! Again if you feel a bit adventurous, jump over the fence and walk down for a couple of minutes. You’ll find other viewpoints with nobody around but, be careful it’s slippery (ask Juliette) !
7. Sunwapta falls & Athabasca falls
Two beautiful waterfalls worth the visit. The Athabasca falls were our favorite because we hopped over to the other side (yes, we did it again) and walked around the canyon. We had coffee and breakfast on top of a rock there with an epic view.
There aren’t any spots to camp in the area… so we opted for a campground for once: Honeymoon campground, 15 CAD. Nothing exceptional but its location.
Walking around Jasper is good for an afternoon to get a break from all the hikes and nature (do you need a break though?). It’s not as scenic as Banff and Canmore but good to stack up some groceries and gas.
All the vanlifers sleep in a quiet street of the town.
Pyramid Lake, Edith Lake and Maligne lake were our favorites in Jasper NP.
If you want to spot wildlife we would definitely recommend to drive to Maligne Lake in the early morning (before sunrise). You want to see Maligne Lake as flat as possible anyways.
We spotted at least 3 bears and countless elk/deer on that road. Mooses hang around there too!
Than again you could see them everywhere… We saw a bear in the parking lot of Edith Lake and one crossing the street close to town!
Maligne Lake is where you can hop on a tour boat to go see the famous Spirit Island.
Don’t forget to check out the Maligne Canyon too at the beginning of the road.
We’ve been traveling for over 6 months in our homemade camper now. We started from Montreal and drove down the East Coast to Florida. From there we crossed the USA stopping in Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and California. We met two Belgians living and traveling in their van in Ventura and decided to travel together for a bit: Mexico bound! After a couple of months in Baja and Mainland Mexico we headed North towards Canada’s West Coast. We drove through California and Oregon before making it too Canada.
Although The Canadian Rockies isn’t the easiest place to travel with a van it’s definitely somewhere in our top 3 favorite places! Have fun!
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