The Ultimate Canadian Rockies Road Trip Guide

July 4, 2019 No Comments

The Ultimate Canadian Rockies Road Trip Guide

July 4, 2019 No Comments
canadian rockies road trip

Canada blew our minds in so many ways.

With the beautiful landscapes, to the abundance of wildlife and some of the clearest bluest water we have ever seen, we just couldn’t get enough of it. From the minute we started driving through the Canadian Rockies, we were already planning our return.

Road tripping through the Rockies is without a doubt the best way to explore this beautiful region. Giving yourself the option to stop, get out of the car and explore at your own pace, road trips let you see the world at a slower pace and gives you the chance to change your itinerary in any way you would like.

The drive through the Rockies, from Banff to Jasper along the Icefields Parkway is one of the most scenic and enjoyable drives in the world. There’s always something beautiful to look at out the window and an endless number of places to stop along the way.

Whether you’re currently planning your Rockies adventure, or still trying to decide whether a road trip is the right choice for your trip, we’ve got the answers! Here’s everything you need to know to plan your own trip to the Rockies.

canadian rockies road trip

mountains graphic

Stretching 900 miles northwest from the border of Montana in USA, the Canadian Rockies run along the border or Alberta and British Columbia in Canada.

Best time to visit the Canadian Rockies

The high season in the Rockies is during the summer months from around June to September. Generally the weather is a bit warmer during these months, although we did have one snow day when we were visiting in June!

During the summer months you’re able to do the most exploring, with more roads open to drive down and most of the hiking trails around the parks open during this time. The Rockies are also a lot more popular during this time, so expect sights to be a little more crowded (although they are still generally so quiet and peaceful) and a few more cars on the road.

If you’re coming to Canada for the snow season, than during the winter months from about October to March is when you want to visit. Most of the Rockies are snowy during this time and there are so many mountains to try skiing and snowboarding.

canmore alberta

Where to start your Rockies road trip

Calgary is a great place to start your Rockies road trip, especially if you’re flying in. The main airport, Calgary International Airport (YYC), is only an hour and a half drive from Banff, which is likely to be your first stop in the Rockies. Unless you’ve taken our advice to stay in Canmore, which is only an hour and 10 minute drive from Calgary.

If you’ve got some time to spare, spend a night or at least an afternoon checking out Calgary, as this little city has so much to offer on it’s own. There are actually so many amazing places to eat in Calgary – cute cafes, trendy restaurants and mouthwatering menus, we were actually disappointed we didn’t have more time to spend there!

If you like the idea of a one way trip, you could extend your road trip a little bit longer and drive to another destination before returning your car. Vancouver, Edmonton and Kelowna are all great destinations to finish up your trip after exploring everything the Rockies has to offer.

Find the best flight deals to Calgary for your adventure

basecamp resort canmore

Where to stay in the Canadian Rockies

If you’re visiting during the high season, Canada can book out months and months in advance. There is limited accommodation options in the main towns and they are normally booked out well in advance.

I’m normally a pretty good planner. I like to have my itinerary locked in months before we depart for a trip, just to be safe. And on this trip I knew our accommodation situation would be even trickier as we were travelling in a group of 6.

But I was shocked to see that when I started looking for accommodation options around 5 to 6 months before we were due to arrive, there were so few options available, it was basically nothing. And that wasn’t even just looking for places that fit 6 people, I couldn’t even find 3 basic hotel rooms at the same place.

Start looking for accommodation options as early as you can, as most places book out 6 months to a year in advance.

The most surprising part of our accommodation search, was that all of my normal go-to websites for hotel bookings were coming up with virtually nothing. Many of the hotels, inns and accommodation options don’t even having listings on general hotel websites, and just take bookings directly through the hotel reception.

We were able to find some options through the tourism pages for each location, so the below websites are a great place to start if you’re struggling to find any options:

We organised our trip by staying for a few nights in Banff National Park and then spending a few nights in Jasper National Park. This worked out really well as it gave us a home base in each park, so we didn’t have to pack up all our things and move to a new spot every day.

If you’re struggling to find affordable accommodation in the town of Banff, we highly recommend checking out the options in Canmore. It’s only about 20 minutes from the town of Banff, but there are heaps more options that don’t book out so quickly, and the prices are much more reasonable.

During our stay we checked into Basecamp Resorts in Canmore and it might just have been our favourite stay of the whole trip. Our three bedroom apartment was practically brand new, with a great size kitchen and lounge area so we could all hang out together, and even included our own washing machine and dryer. There was even a roof top hot tub overlooking the mountains to relax in after a long day of exploring.

Find the best deals by booking your Banff hotel in advance HERE

icefields parkway

Purchase your Parks Pass on the freeway

To visit both Banff National Park and Jasper National Park you will need a Parks Pass, a small fee that you pay on your first entry that helps contribute to the upkeep of the parks. There are ticket booths along the highway where you can purchase your pass on the day of your visit, so you don’t have to worry about organising one in advance.

If you’re driving through the Rockies you might need to pay some of the following fees. For entry to Banff National Park or Jasper National Park there is a daily fee of $9.80 CAD per person or $19.60 CAD for a family or group.

For longer visits, you can also choose to purchase a Discovery Pass which gives you unlimited admission for 12 months to over 80 National Parks in Canada. This is the way to go if you’re spending an extended period of time exploring Canada! The Discovery Pass costs $136.40 CAD for a family or group (of up to 7 people in one car) for a whole year, or a single adult ticket is $67.70 CAD.

There can be extra fees associated with camping in the parks as well, so if you’re planning any kind of camping trip make sure you check out the Parks Canada website for more information.

banff national park

Highlights through the Canadian Rockies

The Rockies cover a huge amount of land, across multiple states in Western Canada, covering mountains, rivers, lakes and even gorges. There are heaps of off the beaten track trails, hidden hot spots and beautiful views to explore, but most visitors that come to the Rockies are looking to hit up the main hot spots.

Some of the most popular places to visit around the Rockies include –

Banff National Park

Home to some of the most exquisite lakes you’ll come across anywhere in the world, Banff National Park is often what people are thinking of when they say they want to visit Canada. It’s those bright blue lakes, surrounded by mountains with snowy peaks and stunning views, that leave you speechless even if you see them in a magazine.

The town of Banff itself is super cute, with it’s store fronts that look like little log cabins with speciality stores that sell everything from souvenirs to popcorn to Christmas decorations. If you are looking for accommodation that’s actually in Banff, this is where you’ll be staying.

lake louise

Lake Louise

One of the most iconic spots around Banff National park is Lake Louise. This is where you’ll find the infamous Fairmont Chateau, sitting right along the turquoise water of the lake, with the beautiful mountain ranges standing tall all around.

If you’re looking for one of the most amazing places to stay in the area, check into the Chateau for a night! Of course, with such stunning location can come a pretty hefty price tag though.

In the cooler months Lake Louise is a favourite spot for skiiers and snowboarders, with some of the most picturesque slopes in the world. You can try out all kinds of winter sports at the lodges around Lake Louise, and in the summer months it’s a great place to spot bears and wildlife coming out from hibernation.

Moraine Lake

Just down the road from Lake Louise and a little lesser known, Moraine Lake is another spot you don’t want to miss on your road trip. The smaller lake is overshadowed by the mountains of the Rockies, and the views here are just unreal.

Take a walk away from the crowds and around the lake for views that just keep getting better. Some of the best views of Moraine Lake is when you get away from the car park and a little further around the lake. Visit early in the morning or later in the afternoon to miss the tour buses and most of the traffic.

bear walking along icefields parkway

Icefields Parkway

The 140 mile highway between Banff and Jasper is known as Icefields Parkway and is quite simply one of the most scenic roads we have driven on to date. Winding through mountains, along blue lakes, past thousands and thousands of beautiful Christmas looking trees, the scenery is continuously changing as you drive further down the road.

The highway has unobstructed mountain views along both sides of the road the whole way along, meaning you don’t even have to veer off the main highway for those beautiful views. There are heaps of different rest stops and places to stop along the way to take the time to get out and really appreciate where you are.

Even though the drive from Banff to Jasper is only 4 hours, set a whole day aside to make the trip. That way you can pull into every rest stop, check out the view from every lookout, and stop for a while every time you see a bear!

Icefields Parkway is also a great place for spotting wildlife, with all kinds of animals often wandering around the park land surrounding the road including black bears, grizzly bears, moose and deer. Along this road is actually where we spotted our very first bear! He was literally just wandering along the side of the road, unphased by the passing cars or people stopping to take his photo.

malione lake

Jasper National Park

In the northern part of the Rockies, Jasper National Park is a great place for spotting bears and wildlife, as well as exploring more of the Canadian country side. Some of the drives around Jasper are highlights for wildlife spotting in the Rockies, and are actually pretty quiet to explore, with few other cars sharing the road with you.

In the winter time Jasper is another great spot for winter activities, while in the summer time there are lots of trails open for hiking and mountain bike riding.

icefields parkway alberta

How long should you plan the trip for?

No matter how long you have to explore the Canadian Rockies, there are some great itineraries out there that range from just a few days to a week and even longer.

At a minimum, to make sure you don’t miss out on anything and you don’t have to rush, dedicate at least 4 days to your road trip. This is really such a beautiful part of the world, and you don’t want to rush through it because you haven’t given yourself enough time to explore. Ideally, if you have the time, at least a full week should be dedicated to really get the most out of the region.

To give yourself an idea of how much time you might need write out a list of all the places you want to visit around the Rockies and then figure out how long it will take to travel between them. That way you can at least figure out how long you’ll spend driving on your trip, and then you can decide how long you’d like to spend in each place.

If you’re visiting during the winter months, allow yourself some extra time to deal with any potential road closures or difficult weather conditions that might have an impact on your trip.

renting a car in canada

Renting a car in Canada

In order to explore the Rockies on the road you’ll need to rent a car for your road trip. You can pick up a rental car from Calgary Airport when you fly in, so you can hit the road straight away.

Before you start looking into rental cars it’s a good idea to plan your route – are you going to do a loop, picking up and returning your car in Calgary? Or are you going to keep going with your road trip and maybe drop off your car in another location?

The other thing to consider is what type of car you want to rent. If you’re going to be heading off on a long road trip maybe you want a bigger car that’s a little bit more comfortable. Or if you’re going to be driving up mountains and inclines you might need something with a little more power.

For this kind of longer road trip, sometimes just booking the cheapest rental isn’t always the best option, so it’s a good idea to do some research. We decided to upgrade to an F-truck for our trip, mainly because these kind of huge pick up trucks aren’t so readily available in Australia and Thom really loves them. It was definitely a much nicer ride through, so much more comfortable than the regular sized car we had originally booked. My Mum could even stand up in the back seat!

You can rent a car in Canada from around $500 AUD for a whole week for a small size car, with different rental companies offering different deals and prices. It’s always a good idea to shop around on Rental Cars to find the best deals available on your travel dates.

If you’re looking at dropping the car off in another location you might be up for some pretty steep one way fees. We picked up our car in Calgary and dropped it off in Vancouver, so we were looking at one way fees on our booking! Make sure you shop around for your extra fees too, not just the day rate, because they differed quite a bit between companies. We rented our car through Alamo because they had the cheapest one way rate we could find at $150 CAD, however the majority of other car rental companies had one way fees of $300 – $400 CAD.

Generally anyone over the age of 21 can rent a car in Canada, as long as you are carrying a drivers licence and a credit card in your name. Some SUVs and luxury cars are only rented to drivers over the age of 25, so that’s a good idea to double check before you arrive.

Always make sure that your travel insurance policy covers car rental excess for your trip as well. This way you can avoid being charged with extra insurances at the rental desk and you’re covered in a worse case situation.

We were nervous about the price of fuel on our trip, but we were pleasantly surprised. Fuel was about $1.30 CAD per litre and our F150 only needed to be filled up once on our whole trip. Avoid pre-purchasing a full tank of fuel at the car rental counter – they are way more expensive and you are so unlikely to actually return the car fully empty!

moraine lake

What to pack for your Rockies trip

Even if you’re visiting during the summer months it’s a good idea to pack for every situation in the Rockies. During our trip we had a day that was snowing and 0°C where we needed to rug up in jackets and beanies, and then we had another day that was about 27°C and we were back in our summer clothes!

Just to be safe, pack a few different options for both warmer and cold weather. Make sure to take at least one heavy jacket and a closed pair of shoes for colder days. Beanies literally kept us so warm during our visit, so it’s a good idea to pack one of those as well!

If you’re planning to do a lot of hiking around the parks also make sure you pack a proper pair of runners – many of the trails can be a bit loose, so the more supportive your shoes, the better!

bear in jasper national park

What to do if you see a bear on your road trip

One important thing to remember is that you’re in bear country now. The Rockies are home to all kinds of wildlife, but the most important thing to remember is that it’s home to hundreds of black bears and grizzly bears!

From what we heard from the locals, the bears are generally pretty used to being around people and cars, so they often wander around the outskirts of the towns and can be found walking along the side of the road.

If you do see a bear, make sure you stay in your car at all times. Do not get out or try to get closer to them. They might seem super chill and cuddly, but they can also be aggressive and unpredictable if they feel like they’re being threatened. Keep a safe distance between your car and the bear – you never know which way they’re going to go and you don’t want to hurt them by getting too close.

Carry bear spray on you at all times if you’re hiking just in case. You don’t want to have to use it unless it’s a critical situation, but it’s always better to be prepared.

canada road trip

No matter how long you have to spend in the Rockies, it’s sure to be a highlight of your trip! This place is absolutely incredible and in real life it quite simply takes your breath away. Get out of the big cities, disconnect from your devices and take in the amazing wild nature Canada has to offer.

Explore more of our adventures around Canada

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THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO A CANADIAN ROCKIES ROAD TRIP   THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO A CANADIAN ROCKIES ROAD TRIP

Happy travels,



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Emma Shaw

Emma is a travel photographer and blogger, living in Melbourne, Australia with her husband Thom in between adventures. She started Explore Shaw to share her experiences, travel tips and destination advice, and to inspire others to travel the world and their own backyard whenever they can.

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Just two twenty-something married Aussies, visiting as many places as we can in between normal life, and hoping to inspire and offer advice for your travel planning.

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