Banff and Jasper: Two of Canada’s Must-See National Parks

With its primitive backcountry, large swaths of uninhabited land and wide range of wildlife and ecosystems, Canada is often considered one of the world’s most beautiful places. From mountains to swamplands, and lush forests to rushing rivers, Canada offers endless opportunities to explore.

This year marks Canada’s 150th anniversary. To celebrate, Canadian national parks are offering free admission throughout 2017, making this the perfect year to visit. With 39 national parks and eight national park reserves, Canada’s seemingly endless wilderness beckons explorers year-round.

Two of those national parks, Banff and Jasper, are perhaps the most celebrated and happen to be located just six hours apart by car — incredible bookends to an adventure for travelers with time to explore both. Whether it’s sun or snow you seek, Banff and Jasper showcase fun seasonal activities and breathtaking scenery.

 

Banff National Park

Getting there: Banff is about 90 miles west of Calgary International Airport.

Banff National Park protects more than 2,500 square miles of land in the Canadian Rockies. It’s also Canada’s first national park, beginning as just a 10-square-mile hot springs preserve in 1885.

Today, the park provides adventures of all kinds from season to season. Visitors can expect ever-evolving landscapes that showcase the best of the Rockies, with towering peaks (the park’s tallest is Mount Forbes, at 11,850 feet), whitewater rivers, deep lakes, giant glaciers and expansive meadows.

Rent a canoe and glide out on the waters of Lake Louise in Banff National Park. Photo by Michael Solomonov.

 

Enjoy Colorful Banff All Year Long

Sulphur Mountain rises a little more than 8,000 feet over the charming village of Banff and offers a wide array of activities for visitors. Don’t let the icy-cold air keep you from taking a relaxing dip in the steamy Banff Upper Hot Springs on the mountain’s slope. Or board the state-of-the-art Banff Gondola for 360-degree views from the summit, high above the town and the trees.

For impressive views of Sulphur Mountain and the Canadian Rockies, go for a ride on the Banff Gondola. Photo by Michael Solomonov.

Lake Louise is a small town, regionally known as a “hamlet,” within Banff, known best for its hiking and skiing. In the summer, rent a canoe or a standup paddleboard and check out your reflection in the lake’s tranquil turquoise water. Nearby hikes range from multiday backpacking trips through the backcountry to an easy, 2-mile tour around the glacier-fed Moraine Lake.

Visiting during the winter or early spring? Strap on some snowshoes and trek around Marsh Loop, an easy, 1.5 mile route that promises families some great birdwatching even when it’s chilly. Keep an eye out for yellowthroats and red-winged blackbirds, plus dragonflies and butterflies during the warmer spring months.

Hit the Road from Banff to Jasper

Arguably one of the world’s most beautiful drives, the roughly 145-mile route between Banff and Jasper along the Icefields Parkway reveals some of Canada’s most iconic vistas. June through September is generally the best time to make the drive, with its expansive Rocky Mountain views in every direction of dense forests, glaciers and fields of summertime wildflowers.

While the drive can be made in roughly six hours, take your time to enjoy the many opportunities to pull off along the open road to enjoy a picnic lunch, a day hike or photo ops at pristine lakes, icy mountain ridges and 1,200-foot-tall waterfalls. (Insider tip: Fuel up before you go. There’s only one gas station along the parkway, and it can be pricey.)

The drive from Banff to Jasper National Park is just as lovely as the parks themselves.

 

Jasper National Park

Getting there: Jasper’s nearest airports are Edmonton International Airport, about 210 miles east, and Edmonton International Airport, about 265 miles southeast.

Jasper National Park is Canada’s largest, boasting 4,200 square miles of primitive wilderness in the northern Rockies. Because Jasper is so remote, visitors can expect to see both wild landscapes and wild animals such as wolves, caribou and grizzlies.

Among Jasper’s unique attributes: the Columbia Icefields — a huge expanse of interconnected glaciers, and one of the few ice fields in the world accessible by road, via the Icefields Parkway. Jasper is also home to some of the tallest mountains in the Canadian Rockies, like The Twins — North Twin Peak climbs to 12,241 feet, while the South Twin measures 11,699.

Get a dose of relaxation by spending a day at Medicine Lake.

 

Take in Jasper’s High-Drama Scenery

Medicine Lake is a high-altitude seasonal “lake,” full only in late spring and summer when the water runoff from the glacier melt is abundant. In the fall, the lake’s water is swallowed up by sinkholes, presenting an entirely different — and entirely dry — landscape, though arguably just as serene. When the water is high, so is the population of fish, making it a great summertime fly-fishing destination.

At 164 feet deep, Maligne Canyon is accessible by an easy, 2.3-mile hike. The route takes you along springs, past towering waterfalls and across several bridges before reaching the limestone canyon, known as the “most interesting canyon in the Rockies” for its seasonal changes — its waterfalls freeze midair in the winter, making for some dramatic ice formations.

Cascading in striking hues of turquoise and white, Maligne Canyon’s waterfalls put on a show in every season. Photo by Michael Solomonov.

South of the canyon, Athabasca Falls are by far the most powerful in Jasper National Park. At just 75 feet tall, the awe-inspiring falls are powered by the force of the Athabasca River channeled through a narrow canyon and back-dropped by the Rockies in every direction, offering visitors a quintessentially Canadian landscape without having to hike into the backcountry. Visit in the early morning or early evening to avoid crowds at this popular spot.

Where to Stay

Visitors can expect every type of accommodation within and between Banff and Jasper national parks, from campsites to five-star resorts. In Banff, the cozy Deer Lodge, a rustic former teahouse, has welcomed guests near Lake Louise since 1925. Just up the evergreen-lined street is the iconic Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, where visitors can take advantage of the amazing lake views by grabbing lunch or dinner at one of the cafes facing the water. For stunning vistas in Jasper, check into Pyramid Lake Resort. No matter where you stay, book your accommodations well in advance, especially if you’re planning to visit during the peak summertime or ski seasons.


About the Author:

 

    Ashley M. Halligan is a copywriter, editor and journalist who specializes in travel and technology. She’s been published by a number of news outlets, including Reuters and Irish Examiner.

She recently founded Pilgrim Magazine, a narrative-focused travel publication. You can follow her travels on Instagram: @contemporarypilgrim and @pilgrimmagazine.