Starting on the fringe of the Great Plains and climbing through the incomparable mountain scenery of Banff and Jasper National Parks, this magnificent drive—one of the crown jewels of western Canada—combines exhilarating vistas of forest, crag, and glacier.
Begin in Edmonton
Our roadtrip started in Edmonton, purely because the flights were way cheaper from Vancouver to Edmonton comparing to the price of a flight from Vancouver to Calgary. However, I came to find out later that the drive going North to South is just a little bit more stunning than driving the opposite way – we were winning!
Jasper, seats along along the Athabasca River within sight of four mountain ranges. Small lakes dot the valley floor, and trails for walking and biking loop throughout.
Southeast of town, Maligne Canyon cuts across the forest floor as a deep, serpentine crack where the Maligne (muh-LEEN) River slips, pools, swerves, and drops among potholes, hollows, and smooth overhanging walls of limestone. Loiter or hike along the brink, then continue beside the river past Medicine Lake to Maligne Lake, the region’s longest – 22 kilometers and deepest -97 meters.
A powerful and picturesque waterfall, Athabasca Falls is known more for its force than its height. The large quantity of water falling into the gorge made me feel small and insignificant – but in a good way… and this is was during Spring time with the waterfall half frozen… I can just imagine in summer time!
Follow the Sunwapta River northwest as it rushes down into the forest and gathers strength from countless creeks and waterfalls spilling from the Winston Churchill Range to the west. Peer over the cliffs at Sunwapta Falls, a great ripping blast of foam, then coast along the Athabasca River to Mounts Fryatt, Brussels, and Christie viewpoints. With a natural mineral lick on both sides of the road, the nearby Goats and Glaciers viewpoint is one of the park’s most dependable sites for spotting mountain goats. Explore the tiny island of trees just before the falls, walk across the foot bridge for a better view, or venture along the trail until you reach the lower falls.
To reach Lake Louise, follow Highway 1A past the Lake Louise townsite, cross the river, and climb through steep subalpine forests. The lake itself stretches off between high, knobby peaks to the abrupt wall of glacier-clad Mount Victoria, which soars 3,464 . Absolutely impressive!
Banff National Park
To the west, Highway 1A weaves through prairie foothills and climbs along the Bow River to Trans-Canada 1 and on into the forest and grand interior mountain valleys of Canada’s first national park, Banff National Park established in 1885. Banff and the adjoining Jasper National Park take in a vast tangle of great strapping peaks, mauled by glaciers and capped by the largest ice fields south of Alaska. It’s a staggering, heart-swelling landscape, rich in wildlife, laced with hiking trails, and traversed by the most spectacular system of roads in the Rockies.
Northeast of Banff, follow the 8Km loop road toward Lake Minnewanka, an immense, fjordlike lake cradled between massive peaks, and explore the remains of Bankhead, an old coal-mining town. Then head north on the Bow Valley Parkway. A slower, quieter route than Trans-Canada 1, still gets you to Lake Louise in about an hour, but with better views of the mountains and a far better chance of seeing elk, deer, coyotes, and bears.
Along the way, hike up Johnston Canyon, a narrow limestone chasm with two thundering waterfalls. Crowded but worth it, the spectacular trail veers out over the rushing water on catwalks bolted to the cliffs. We saw beautiful frozen waterfalls!