I haven't seen all the mountains, but of the ones I have, the Canadian Rockies are solidly in the top 3 ranges for spectacular-ness (with New Zealand's Southern Alps and Patagonia, if you're wondering). They are so freaking pretty - a seemingly endless sea of hanging glaciers and turquoise lakes and snow capped peaks. To me, the Canadian Rockies look like what I imagined mountains would look like as a kid growing up among the corn fields of Ohio.
They also are no secret. Visit during the relatively short summer and at the most popular spots you'll be joined by tens of thousands of others, to the point that parking and road infrastructure in Banff and Jasper is swamped beyond its ability to cope. An average hotel room in the Banff/Jasper corridor can easily cost $300 per night, and national park camp sites get booked up months in advance. It's an easy place to have your experience destroyed by the crowds and cost of travel.
Thankfully though, those types of crowds and costs are for less savvy travelers than yourselves, and you can absolutely figure out how to hang out in the Rockies during the high season without breaking the bank, and even find some solitude. I know, because we just did.
Finding ourselves without a place to stay for the month of August, this year Angel and I decided to fulfill a long-time ambition by spending a big hunk of summer in the Rockies. Being the people we are, we did almost zero pre-planning, threw our kayaks and tent in the Element, and figured things out as we went. In the end our experience took the form of an extended road trip loop punctuated by multiple kayaking and hiking excursions, with a few town days, some wine tasting, and a few too many brewery stops. We spent a week in Canmore to do some work online, but mostly we slept outside in either provincial or national parks.
For some rough logistics, we started our trip in Tacoma, WA, drove north through Vancouver (to meet up with a friend), then up through Whistler and Pemberton. We drove to Bowron Lakes Provincial Park on the western edge of the Rockies, then drove east to Mt Robson Provincial Park, south through Jasper and Banff, crashed in Canmore, went south to Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, west to Yoho, Glacier, and Mt Revelstoke National Parks, then south through Kelowna and Penticton before heading back through Eastern Washington to home.
I haven't done exact calculations, but I just scrolled back through our accounts and we spent less than $3000 for the month. That's not nothing, but to me it's pretty darn good for two people to have seen all that we saw. It was definitely worth it for a month-long bucket list trip.
Here's what we learned that you should know. This might be a little bit "what I did on my summer vacation"-ish, but I'm writing with the intention of helping you do the same.
First, 9 general rules...
...and now the specifics.
While I can't give you a full Canadian Rockies guidebook, I can give you a decent introduction by talking about the places we went and the stuff we did. After spending a bit of time before the trip looking at the options of awesome places to spend a month, they're the areas we settled on, as well as a couple of surprise gems that we found along the way. These are the things we learned, a few crucial hot tips, and some photos of pretty places.
While it wasn't the most spectacular mountain scenery we saw, paddling a portion of the Bowron Lakes Circuit was maybe my personal favorite part of the whole month - it was relaxing, beautiful, and felt like a real wilderness experience. For a short orientation, the Bowron Lakes are a 116 km (or 72 mile) chain of lakes and streams that, unusually, form a square shaped circuit that hundreds of hearty Canadians visit time and time again to canoe or kayak, usually across about a week, during the nice parts of summer. The circuit is frequently compared to the Boundary Waters in Minnesota, but with mountains. I can confirm that it's SO nice - remote, beautiful, peaceful, the very picture of idyllic wilderness lake paddling despite the fact that it's a popular destination.
You can take trips of theoretically any length in the park, from day trips up to the full circuit, but because of the flow of the lakes and the system of permitting, most people either do the full circuit, or an out and back on the Western side of the circuit. We were worried we couldn't fit the whole thing in, and we were in folding kayaks so not the best tool for the job, so we spent four days doing the Western circuit. In retrospect, it probably would have been possible to fit the whole thing in, but we still loved it.
Key things to know if you want to take a stunning multi-day paddling excursion in the Bowron Lakes surrounded by moose and bear and idyllic scenery, which you might not find on the website.
Mt Robson Provincial Park
Mt Robson Provincial Park is just west of Jasper National Park, and for my money was just as beautiful. We hiked the Berg Lake Trail, and I would rate it as one of the most spectacular short backpacking trips I've ever been on. It's all glaciated peaks shooting out of turquoise lakes - exactly what I picture when I picture the Canadian Rockies. There are a variety of camping options, so there are a lot of possibilities here - you can do some amazing day hikes, or stretch it out into 2 - 4 days. We spent 3 days and 2 nights, and that allowed us to have a good experience of the area - enough to get out on some side trips and away from crowds, and to not feel too stressed that one of the days was interrupted by a bit of rain. Our hot tips for this trip:
Jasper and Banff are two large National Parks that interconnect and protect some of the most spectacular parts of the Canadian Rockies. They're also the belly of the beast when it comes to over-tourism in the area. You should absolutely go there, but also be prepared for what you'll find.
First things first, the core infrastructure of Banff/Jasper looks like two small namesake cities within the National Park with a 232 km busy tourist highway connecting them (the Icefields Parkway) and providing access to other areas of the park. These are all beautiful places, but they are also to some degree places that, if you go during the summer high season, will need to be endured as much as enjoyed. The towns of Banff and Jasper are both pleasant enough, and beautifully situated, but also good luck finding a hotel for less than $200/night or a reasonably priced meal. The Icefields Parkway is punctuated by places that you should totally visit - Bow Lake, the Columbia Icefield, Athabasca Falls, Lake Louise - but when you do be prepared to be surrounded by hoards of tourists pouring out of buses and stopping in inopportune places to take photos. Rest assured that if you hike out more than 5 km you will find relative solitude, but prepare for this crush of humanity and embrace it for what it is rather than allowing bitterness to creep in.
These NPs are highly developed and highly regulated, even more so than in most US NPs, if I can make that anecdotal assessment. Boondocking and free camping aren't really a thing, and hike in or paddle in camp sites will all be in designated spots that require getting permits. This is the only place on the entire trip where we got a little stressed about finding somewhere affordable to sleep without pre-planning, but to calm your worries we did still manage.
We've been to this area at least a half dozen times, usually in the shoulder season, and here are a few thoughts.
Our standard strategy when visiting the area is to stay in Canmore. Canmore is just outside of Banff NP, East towards Calgary, and compared to the town of Banff is just as beautiful, significantly cheaper, and similarly convenient. If I had to pick one mountain town to live in anywhere in the world, it would probably be there. I freaking love it. There's just as much to do as in Banff, and you don't even have to worry about a National Parks Permit. There are also a good number of places on the outskirts where you can park and free camp without hassle (which isn't going to happen in the NPs), and even though it's heavily touristed as well, the tourists here tend to be Canadian ski bums and dirtbags rather than scenic drivers and bus passengers, so you get good breweries and a few relatively affordable groceries and bars.
Peter Lougheed Provincial Park
Peter Lougheed Provincial Park is Southeast of Banff, and like Mt Robson and Bowron Lakes, is just as amazing, and slightly less busy than the adjacent National Parks. It's day-trippable from Canmore or Calgary, and it is also so freaking pretty with lots of options for hiking, climbing or paddling. On this trip, it's hard for me to decide whether the Berg Lake Trail or a hike we did in this park was more beautiful - the Northover Ridge Loop. Like Berg Lake, this loop could be taken on as one big day for a very strong hiker or trail runner, but the ridge is nothing to be trifled with if you have any doubts about your ability to complete 25 miles in a day with a significant amount of climbing, some exposure, and changeable weather. We enjoyed it as a one night overnight.
Yoho National Park is kind of Banff/Jasper's kid brother. It's contiguous with them, and just as pretty, but a bit smaller and less popular.
When you cross into Glacier and Mount Revelstoke National Parks on the Trans-Canada, the mountains start to feel a bit less like the Rockies, and a bit more like the Cascades. They're both smaller, beautiful parks right along the highway where we stopped for just a day hike, and that's pretty appropriate, I think. They're both great, beautiful places, but relatively small and with fewer options for activities than the other, larger parks. They're also significantly less crowded, and free to cheap camping options exist near both. The town of Revelstoke itself is picking up in popularity as an outdoor town for a lot of really solid reasons, but it's still a relatively affordable place to base yourself. The city campground in town is a great, cheap place to post up for a few nights with wifi and laundry, right in the middle of town, and right on the Columbia River.
When we came through Revelstoke we were feeling a bit sad because the geography was definitely reminding us that we were getting closer to home, which meant that our trip was coming to an end. Kelowna and Penticton made for a nice, surprising transition back to "reality", whatever that is. Even if you're familiar with Canada, you could be forgiven for not knowing that the country has a small but fantastic wine region, centered here along the Columbia. It's a surprising place - high, sunny desert that feels about as Mediterranean as Canada possibly could. There are dozens of excellent wineries between Kelowna and Pemberton, as well as a ton of options for hiking, swimming, paddling, climbing or trail running. It definitely feels contiguous with the orchard and wine country regions stretching up from Oregon through Eastern Washington, which makes sense, because it is, and you could easily make a lovely week hanging out in this area enjoying the sun and water, and sampling local food and wine.
Once again, there were some free camping options in this area. Both towns are beautifully situated along Okanogan Lake. Kelowna itself is a relatively large city with all of the associated options for things to do, while Penticton had the feel of a family lake vacation spot. I personally preferred Kelowna, but travelers with kids would probably appreciate some of the possibilities beyond wine tasting in Penticton.
And those were our experiences of the Canadian Rockies! I hope you found this post useful. Also, wait a minute - hey buddy! If you like reading things about how to do more adventures, you'll definitely like our book, "The Dirtbag's Guide to Life: Eternal Truth for Hiker Trash, Ski Bums, and Vagabonds"! You should check that out too.
Tim and Angel
The goat in the picture lives in Silverton, CO, and tried to kill us. We survived to bring you this dirtbag wisdom for the ages.