For an easy, adventurous and outdoorsy international jaunt, consider a plane ticket to Calgary. Calgary is the gateway to Banff and Jasper: two of Canada’s most awe-inspiring National Parks. From SFO you can hop on a non-stop flight to Calgary, which is surprisingly only 2 hours and 45 minutes away! Enjoy a night or two in the city then get the show on the road and see some of the most beautiful natural sights you’ve ever laid eyes on.
These parks are great for everyone, whether you are an experienced outdoors person or prefer the comforts of a luxury hotel. There are plenty of multi-day backpacking trips, and just as many easier trails and viewpoints which are great for families with all ability levels!
We stayed two nights in Calgary, one at the beginning and one at the end of our trip. In Banff and Jasper, you can either opt to go camping, rent a motor home, or find hotels, inns, or cottages of all levels to stay in. During the summer months lodging in Banff and Jasper will fill up quickly, so be sure to make reservations as early as possible.
Le Germain Hotel Calgary – This hotel is located near Calgary’s bustling 8th Avenue, which is filled with shops and restaurants. The hotel itself is modern and glamorous with rooms that are so spacious and comfortable, you may just want to hang out and spend all your time there! Our Prestige room came with a corner view, seating area, closet, double vanity, soaking tub and an amazing rain shower. We stayed here at the tail end of our trip before heading back to the bay and it was just the luxury that we needed after spending many days outdoors. This hotel is that there is no checkout time, meaning you can sleep in as long as you like!
Hotel Elan – Located in the trendy 17 Ave Retail and Entertainment District of Calgary, staying at Hotel Elan was a great way to see another part of town. This modern boutique hotel offers spacious rooms as well as one and two bedroom suites. The suites come with a small eating area and a private balcony which is the perfect place to end your day. While we were here, we also enjoyed on-site massages. I can’t think of a better way to kick off or wrap up your Canadian vacation!
The city of Banff is a 1.5 hour drive from Calgary. Lake Louise is a 45 minute drive north of Banff. We spent a couple of nights in Lake Louise, then drove further up north to Jasper to spend a few more nights before returning to Banff for one night. There are plenty of stops along the drive to break up your trip. The drive itself is also scenic and you may even spot some wildlife. Below are the sights that we enjoyed from south to north.
Vermillion Lakes – These lakes are located in the town of Banff, about an hour and a half drive from Calgary. After exploring the downtown area, we headed to the Banff Canoe Club to try out a popular Canadian pastime: canoeing. A leisurely 1 hour round-trip paddle brought us up the river to Vermillion Lakes. From here you can take in the marsh wildlife , as well as the majestic mountain backdrop.
Cave and Basin – This National Historic sight is full of history and is considered the birthplace of Canada’s national parks. The cave is filled with natural thermal waters and there is even a hot springs nearby so you can relax after a day of hiking. Be prepared for the stinky sulfuric smells… Visiting Cave and Basin is free and won’t take much time out of your day. I’d plan to spend 30-45 minutes there.
Banff Gondola – This gondola will take you to the top of Sulfur Mountain for a view of Banff and the surrounding rockies. Once you reach the top of the gondola, you will find a gorgeous sky deck, restaurants, and an interpretive center for a hands on learning experience. If you feel like taking a little walk, head outside and hike the boardwalk to the summit. When we visited, there was some smoke in the air from nearby wildfires, but it was beautiful nonetheless. It is quite a pricey experience though: $56CAD per adult. I would recommend it if you aren’t planning on doing any mountain hikes that will allow you to get mountaintop views.
Two Jack Lake & Lake Minnewanka – These lakes are located on the same scenic loop drive, not far from the city of Banff. Lake Minnewanka is the larger of the two lakes and offers ferry rides. Two Jack Lake is, in my opinion, the more quaint and beautiful of the two. There are hikes nearby, but we were short on time and just stopped for some photo ops. This is also a great area to view wildlife. We spotted some Bighorn sheep right off the road.
Johnston Canyon – This canyon is located between the city of Banff and Lake Louise. It’s a great halfway stop. It does get pretty busy here, but we arrived late afternoon and it seems that many people had already left. The hike to the lower falls(1.1km one way) is mostly paved and an easy incline. The hike to upper falls(2.7km one way) is a little further, and the hike is steeper but it is worthwhile if you have the time and energy. To go to both of the falls I’d allow a couple of hours on your itinerary. At the base of the hike there are restrooms, a restaurant, and coffee/ice cream shack to rehydrate and refuel! There aren’t any hikes like this that I know of in the Bay Area, so I’d definitely recommend it.
Lake Louise – This is the lake that you’ve all seen in photographs and it does not disappoint. The water is a lovely turquoise and just watching the canoes go by is quite peaceful. Being a main attraction, it gets quite busy during the daytime. We visited in July, when the days there are very long. However, around 8pm there were virtually no crowds and we could still enjoy it’s beauty until around 10pm. The famous Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is located on the northeast end of the lake, where you will access the lake from. For a luxury experience make reservations at one of the Fairmont’s restaurants that overlook the lake and enjoy dining with a view like no other. If you really want to live it up, book a room!
Lake Agnes Tea House – This is a classic Lake Louise hike. Where else can you be rewarded with tea and biscuits at a mountaintop lake? The hike starts at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and heads uphill to Lake Agnes. It’s an uphill 3.6km climb, but if you take your time, you’ll find it rewarding. The tea house is situated lakeside and has amazing views and the snacks are delicious. Employees of the tea house make the hike everyday, and even carry up all of the fresh food themselves, so remember to bring extra cash to tip! My recommendation would be to start this hike first thing in the morning before the trails get crowded.
Moraine Lake – This lake is much smaller in comparison to Lake Louise, but is just as pretty. The turquoise waters are vibrant and can be enjoyed with little to no walking effort if desired. There is a easy, flat trail that winds around one side of the lake that you should definitely check out as well. There are quite a few more extensive hiking options that also begin at Moraine Lake. We chose to check out Consolation Lakes, which was a total of 6km(there and back). There were hardly any other people once we reached the lake which was really nice. We enjoyed a little picnic lunch after some rock scrambling by the lake. Parking at Moraine Lake can be tough, so check this spot out bright and early, or plan to visit late afternoon once the crowds have dwindled.
Lake Louise Ski Resort – Although this is a famous ski resort, the mountain is open during the summer months as well. It’s a great place for hiking and is a popular place to spot bears. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any during our visit, but they say bears are spotted almost daily, so it’s worth testing your luck. At the chairlift summit there is a restaurant with awesome views. Sit back, and enjoy lunch and/or a drink.
Peyto Lake – This is a definite must see while in Banff National Park. You’ll park at the Peyto Lake Parking Lot and head up the paved path to Bow Summit, where you can get amazing views of Peyto Lake. The hike is 2.9km one way, and they have a closer parking lot reserved for handicapped as well.
Mistaya Canyon – This very unique canyon is located off Icefields Parkway. You’ll park at a pullout on the west side of the road and it’s an easy 0.5km hike to reach the canyon. It’s pretty amazing to see the deep walls the water has created. Be safe and mindful, the water is powerful and rushes quickly, so stay back from the edges of the cliffs.
Athabasca Glacier & Glacier Skywalk – If you’ve never seen a glacier before, make sure to stop at the Athabasca glacier, located on Icefields Parkway. The Glacier Center offers information and sells tickets for their Glacier Adventure, which includes riding atop a glacier on a special vehicle, walking on, and touching an actual glacier, as well as entrance to the scenic, glass floored glacier skywalk. If you are interested in this, I would go towards the end of the day when it is less crowded. The skywalk is pretty cool, but is not on top of the actual glacier, it is more like a view of the valley.
Sunwapta Falls – These falls are right off Icefields Parkway and the upper falls are just a short walk from the parking lot, making it easily accessible. In the summertime water rushes turbulently down the falls due to the volume of glacier melt.
Athabasca Falls – These falls are Jasper’s most famous. It’s quite a sight to see so much water rushing rapidly into the gorge. You can also walk through a gorge that water no longer rushes through, which is pretty cool. The falls have many viewing platforms which are located close to the parking lot, but there are other short walks you can take around the area if you wish to explore a little further up the river.
Mt. Edith Cavell – This is a popular place to visit to see glaciers. Once you reach the parking lot there are a couple of hiking options. We opted for the shorter 1.6km (there and back trail) hike which leads you to the north face of Mt. Edith Cavell which is covered with glacial ice. If you’d like to visit, make note that permits are required due to limited parking. Head to Jasper National Park Information Centre between 8 am and 10 am daily to pick up a permit up to two days ahead of time. They are issued on a first come, first served basis at no cost. We showed up at 7:45, waited in line for a bit and were able to get a permit time for later that same afternoon.
Maligne Canyon – This is another one of Jasper’s impressive canyons that is worth a visit. From the trailhead you can get a nice view of the canyon and falls. If you’d like you can hike further down the canyon, across the many bridges to see even more.
Medicine Lake – Past Maligne Canyon is Medicine Lake. This gorgeous lake is a great place to stop for a break and take in the views. It’s also a great place to spot some wildlife.
Maligne Lake – This lake is one of Jasper National Park’s finest. You can spend the afternoon here wandering trails, renting a canoe, or lunching on the patio. The cruises do fill up, so make sure to reserve ahead of time if you want to ensure a spot. When we went the canoes were also all rented out, so we opted for a lakeside stroll instead.
Pyramid Lake – This lake is one of Jaspers lesser known attractions, making it a great choice on crowded weekends. We visited on a quiet morning and decided to take a paddle boat out for a spin on the lake. There are also has a couple of beaches where you can relax, picnic, and maybe spot some wildlife. Make sure to visit Pyramid Island for an easy and scenic walk. During our visit we saw plenty of moose grazing there.