The Canadian Rockies are Canada’s greatest tourist attraction and subject to quite a bit of hype. So it’s a relief to find that its landscapes really are sublime: the iridescent emerald lakes are every bit as vivid as they are on postcards, while the craggy glaciated mountains do appear to soar overhead. The opportunities to explore this great outdoors are extraordinary, too. Whether you want to hike, mountain bike, raft, climb, scramble, paddle, ski, board or snowshoe you’re sure to find something truly world-class. This is so irresistible that tourism has boomed in these mountains for more than a century, which has led to the destination’s only real drawback: its popularity. But with a bit of planning – and some expert Bindu itineraries – it’s easy to avoid real crowds.
Banff – the name of the National Park and its main town – is the key draw in the Canadian Rockies so the area has its own destination information and itineraries. Typically it’s the first place visitors head after landing in Calgary, the region’s main international gateway, some 90 minutes’ drive away. Yet first impressions of the Rockies are usually formed by Kananaskis Country, a collection of provincial parks adjacent to the likable town of Canmore which lies en-route to Banff.
Bustling Banff lies just 30 minutes beyond Cranmore and another 30 minutes from Lake Louise. Beyond this things get much wilder as you head north along the Icefields Parkway, one of the world’s greatest drives, to Jasper National Park where the town of Jasper provides a great base for side trips into surrounding valleys, lakes and mountains.
Both Banff and Jasper lie in Alberta, but the territory on the other side of the range, in British Columbia, is no less impressive. Here smaller parks like Yoho National Park and Kootenay National Park are also dotted with pretty attractions. Their gateway towns – Golden and Radium respectively – are just outside the Parks which allows greater opportunities for activities restricted in National Parks, particularly mountain biking. Much of the region’s best wild water rafting is here too. Both Golden and Radium lie in the Rocky Mountain Trench, a giant valley which runs north-south to mark the western edge of the Rockies and separates them from other ranges to the west. The very scenic drive along its length is dotted with resort towns, including the likeable Bavarian-styled town of Kimberley.
East of here roads lead along the Elk Valley at the southern end of BC’s Rockies. The energetic ski town of Fernie is fast becoming a bonafide summer destination, with arguably the finest mountain biking in the region. Beyond it the arterial Hwy-3 passes back into Alberta via intriguingly straggly old mining communities at Crowsnest Pass. A brief drive across the prairies brings you to Waterton Lakes National Park, a geographic extension of the US Glacier National Park, as fine a Canadian Rockies Park as any.
In general the Rockies are at their busiest in July and August, when crowds can become problems at key sights and accommodation becomes expensive and hard to find.
A better bet, if you can, is visiting in June or September or even October,though be prepared for snow at higher elevations in June and for evening temperatures to be chilly in September and October.
The other great peak in activity is at the ski resorts during the winter. Their season runs from mid-December to March with the busiest periods around Christmas and New Year and during the March Spring Break.
November is a pretty unpredictable time for a visit and snow will certainly be building up in the mountains; Spring in April and May can produce some nice weather – as well as lengthy rainy periods which together with all the snowmelt means that this is the “mud-season” on trails, making hiking and biking unpleasant.
You’ll need about two weeks for a leisurely loop of all the prime destinations in the Canadian Rocky Mountains and still have time for a few days of outdoor activities along the way. A week-long highlights tour is also possible, but with less time; try just try to zero in on one area: you can get a good feel for Banff and its most accessible attractions in just a weekend.
Mountain weather is anything but predictable, but the pleasant 20ºCs (approx. 70–85ºF) reign between June to mid-September, while the altitude and terrain prevent the build up of heat common on neighboring plains.
At the other extreme you’ll find a good covering of snow everywhere from mid-December to mid-March, when temperatures consistently stay below freezing and when northerly winds can make temperatures drop below -30ºC (-22ºF) for days on end.
Spring (April, May) and Autumn (mid-Sept to Nov) can be more variable and unpredictable but temperatures generally don’t stray too far away from the 10ºC–20ºC band (approx. 50º–70ºF) in the valleys for too long.
The Rockies are on Mountain Time, irrespective of their location in Alberta or British Columbia – the only exception to this BC’s Mount Robson Provincial Park near Jasper, which is on Pacific Time, an hour earlier.
Versatility and layering are names of the game here. Even summer evenings in the mountains can require a thick sweater, while in winter the more prepared you are for really cold temperatures, the greater the chances that you’ll have a good time. Lightweight neck-warmers (such as Buffs) are particularly useful to ensure no skin is unnecessarily exposed without adding too much bulk.
If you own binoculars, be sure to bring them for wildlife viewing.
Recent falls in commodity prices (which underpin Canada’s economy) have put the Canadian Dollar back at a more usual rate against most other currencies. These rates mean travelers from Britain and Europe will find Canada quite reasonably priced while travelers from the US, Australia and New Zealand will find overall costs similar to back home.
No matter where you’re from, the single most significant way of saving money is to avoid travel in the July and August peak season when all accommodation costs are at a premium. This will still be your main cost at other times though, and things can get very pricey if you want luxury, or are traveling alone (since single rooms are barely cheaper than doubles). But in general modest motels tend to be priced keenly and there’s a good network of hostels throughout the Rockies.
The price of eating out tends to be very reasonable, though supermarket food can be expensive particularly in British Columbia. It’s certainly best to stock up on food and fuel before you head into the mountains.
Many variables can throw these figures out but here are some typical costs depending on your style of travel.
Budget: If you’re travelling on a tight budget you could get by on around C$70/US$55/£35 a day. You’d be buying food to picnic, staying in hostels or similar and stick to the least expensive bars and restaurants.
Standard: More standard would be a moderate budget of around twice that – C$140/US$110/£70. This would allow you to stay in a motel or a simple bed and breakfast, eat out in medium-range restaurants and enjoy some nightlife most nights; the main variable would be the cost of your room.
Luxury: Double the standard budget again to arrive at a more typical cost of a luxury holiday: C$280/US$220/£140. Of course the sky’s the limit really and if you’re want to stay in the very best hotels and make every night a big night out, you’ll need more.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in C$.
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $5 per person
$$ => Tickets $6-15 per person
$$$ => Tickets $16 per person
$ => Rooms less than $100 for a double
$$ => Rooms $101-200 for a double
$$$ => Rooms $201 for a double
$ => $1-20 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$ => $21-40 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
$$$ => $41 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
$ => Tickets less than $10 per person
$$ => Tickets $11-30 per person
One other cost to bear in mind is that of travel insurance, particularly medical insurance. Check any existing policy you may have and if there’s no cover in Canada it’s best to buy a policy. Annual policies can be good value if you plan to travel elsewhere in the same year, but be sure you have cover for any outdoor activities you may plan, particularly skiing, though activities like mountain biking may need special cover.
Canada’s dollar ($), is made up of 100 cents (¢) that come as 5¢ (nickel), 10¢ (dime), 25¢ (quarter), $1 and $2 coins. The $1 coin’s nicknamed a “loonie”, after the bird on one side; leading to the $2 coin earning the nickname “twoonie”. There are notes of $5, $10, $20, $50 and the rarely-seen $100.
Current approximate exchange rates for the Canadian Dollar are: US$1=C$1.30; £1=C$2, , €=C$1.35, A$1=C$0.93, NZ$1=C$0.83. The most up-to-date rates are here.
US dollars are frequently accepted in Canada, but only on a one-for-one basis. And since the US dollar is generally worth more than the Canadian, it makes sense to change US currency if you can.
The easiest way to get hold of Canadian money is through ubiquitous ATMs. Machines accepting Visa and Mastercard are both commonplace, though you should check with your home bank that your card will work in Canada. Before you leave home also look into getting a currency card that provides preferential rates on foreign transactions and avoids the around 3% charge your home bank likely charges for foreign currency transactions.
Once in Canada steer away from convenience store ATMs (unless they have bank logos), which usually add an extra charge, and towards those attached to banks.
If given the choice always withdraw money or pay for things in the local currency (not your home currency), rates are more favorable this way.
Two things many overseas visitors to Canada find hard to get used to, is the amount of tipping that goes on and the hidden nature of sales tax.
Tipping at restaurants is customarily a hefty 20%. For less-than-stellar service, 10-15% is customary, as an imperfect experience is often not solely the responsibility of the server. Often servers work for below minimum wage and live mostly on tips, so consider the ramifications of your tipping decisions. In hotels bell staff typically receive $1-$2 per bag they assist with; if someone carts all of your bags up to your room, expect to tip $10. At properties with concierge services, consider tipping staff who assist you in planning activities, making reservations or acquiring tickets, or simply orienting you with driving directions or public transportation info. Current etiquette calls for $10-$20 per person, per day for concierge help. Car valet staff expect $1-$2 for delivering you your car. Spa employees (massage therapists, aestheticians, etc.) usually see 20% tips on their services.
Despite being mandatory, almost no prices anywhere include sales tax (fuel at gas stations being a notable exception). Sales tax (called GST, PST or HST) is added when you pay and is not standard on all goods or even between provinces. All our prices are quoted without sales tax; which is 5% in Alberta and 12% in British Columbia. Where tax is included in a rate this has been mentioned.
To get wherever you want and to set
your own pace the easiest way to explore the Rockies is by car. But if you’re
happy to stay on the beaten track you’ll find the combination of the public
transport, shuttles and private tours will get you to most places fairly
cheaply and hassle free.
Hubs and Gateways
Calgary airport is really the place to
fly into if you’re headed for the Canadian Rockies. Edmonton is a more distant
second option. While if you’re arriving by train, you want to get off in
Jasper. One little used alternative is to fly into the US Glacier Park
International Airport between Whitefish and Kalispell, Montana, pick up a
rental car and drive the hour or so north to get into the Canadian Rockies near
Fernie and Kimberley.
Shuttles from Calgary
Shuttle buses from Calgary airport will get you to Banff in under two hours.
Services include Banff
Airporter (10 daily; $53 to
Banff; 1-403/762-3330); Brewster (2–3 daily to Banff; 2–7 to Lake Louise, 1 daily to Jasper;
$55 to Banff, $71 to Lake Louise, $133 to Jasper; 1-403/760-6934). Tickets are
available in Arrivals.
Greyhound buses run east-west through the region from Calgary to Golden
via Canmore, Banff, Lake Louise and Field. A second east-west route runs
further south through Fernie and connects with a route north to Golden.
Brewster also runs a north-south bus service along the scenic Icefields
Parkway between Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper.
The Via-Rail passenger train between Vancouver and Toronto stops at Jasper. And a private service is operated for those on packages into Banff with Rocky Mountain Railtours.
Picking up a rental at Calgary airport is usually the best way to go you’re not
already driving to the region. You can also rent at the major regional towns,
including Banff and Jasper, but prices tend to be higher.
Many visitors to the region like to go one better – in terms of independence –
and hire a motorhome. These start at around $100 per day and make most sense
for groups of four or more. Bear in mind campground fees of around $20/night
and greater fuel costs; but the sense of freedom can be rewarding. Companies in
Calgary include Cruise
Canada ; Canada Dream and Go
Greyhound buses (see above) form the backbone of the public transit service and Banff is the only town in the region with a proper transit system: two bus lines around town and a link to Canmore.