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How to Plan a Canadian Rockies Road Trip | Canada

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The summer was coming to an end, and we still had a little bit of energy left over from our US National Parks road trip. Canada? Hell yeah. So we loaded up the car with the same camping gear and a few heavier layers than we had for the desert and started on our Canadian Rockies road trip.

Our itinerary included the usual suspects (hey, Banff National Park!) but we wanted to make time for some of the parks that are oft skipped over. So we blocked out time for Waterton and Yoho National Park. Stayed in small mountain towns where we could easily get to Kootenay National Park and Glacier National Park of Canada. Left plenty of time to explore Jasper National Park and the surrounding areas. Banff may be the celebrity stop, but it’s certainly not the only park worth visiting.

Wanna plan your own Canadian Rockies road trip? Here’s everything you need to know to make it happen including tips on planning your route, getting your car ready, where to go, and suggested Canadian Rockies itineraries.

BEFORE YOU GO

Choose your Route

There are five National Parks in Alberta (Banff, Elk Island, Jasper, Waterton Lakes, and Wood Buffalo) and seven National Parks and Reserves in British Colombia (Glacier, Gulf Island, Gwaii Haanas, Kootenay, Mount Revelstoke, Pacific Rim, and Yoho). On top of that, there are more than a thousand provincial parks and recreation areas, a handful of cool mountain towns, and a hell of a lot in between. And while you’re in the area, you might as well drop into Montana to explore Glacier National Park.

Icefields Parkway through Jasper National Park

For the sake of brevity, this post focuses only on the parks that lie along the BC/Alberta border. You probably won’t see all the best things to do in the Canadian Rockies on one road trip, but if you can make time for a two to four-week itinerary, you should be able to cover some serious ground without rushing. Grab a guidebook and check out some of our Outlandish National Park Guides to find ideas.

Below are a list of some of the best parks or mountain towns in the Canadian Rockies. The black buttons are the names only, but the beige buttons link to a more detailed article.

BANFF NATIONAL PARK

Recommended time: 3-6 days

Lakes in Yoho - Emerald Lake

YOHO NATIONAL PARK

Recommended time: 3-4 days

View of Spirit Island at Jasper National Park

JASPER NATIONAL PARK

Recommended time: 3-5 days

Photo of Glacier National Park

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK

Recommended time: 3-6 days

Photo of Glacier National Park of Canada

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK OF CANADA

Recommended time: 1-2 days

Photo of Mount Revelstoke Natinoal Park by Jonathan Woods on Unsplash

MOUNT REVELSTOKE NATIONAL PARK

Recommended time: 1-2 days

Photo of Waterton Lakes National Parkby Jim Witkowski on Unsplash

WATERTON LAKES NATIONAL PARK

Recommend time: 1-2 days

Photo of Kootenay National Park by Jackie Burton from Pixabay

KOOTENAY NATIONAL PARK

Recommended time: 1-2 days

Photo of Fernie town

FERNIE

Recommended time: 1-2 days

Photo of Revelstoke // Image by pleen from Pixabay

REVELSTOKE

Recommended time: 3-4 days

Photo of Canmore // Image by ArtTower from Pixabay

CANMORE

Recommended time: 1-2 days

Photo of Vancouver

VANCOUVER

Recommended time: 3-5 days

Photo of Calgary Skyline // Photo by Kyler Nixon on Unsplash

CALGARY

Recommended time: 1-2 days

Focus on one park at a time and look at photos, watch videos, or check out things to do. Narrowing down your list of parks can be easy if you already know where you want to go, and very daunting if you don’t. If you fall into the second camp, ask yourself: how long do you have? What areas are interesting to you? What season are you traveling in? What’s your overall budget for the trip? Then go from there.

SUGGESTED CANADIAN ROCKIES ROAD TRIP ITINERARIES

The best part about a road trip is that you can do whatever you damn please. But below are a few recommended itineraries whether you have 7 days, 10 days, or 2 weeks to spare for your Canadian Rockies road trip.

7 DAY ITINERARY

7 days is just enough time to see the highlights of the Canadian Rockies if you don’t require too much downtime in between activities. These parks are packed closely together, and a 7-day itinerary will be just enough time to explore the lakes of Banff and Yoho, get in some good hikes, take your time on the Icefield Parkway, and have a day to enjoy Jasper at the end.

Suggested Route (from Calgary): Calgary > Banff > Banff > Yoho > Icefield Parkway > Jasper > Calgary

10 DAY ITINERARY

A 10 day itinerary will give you a bit of extra flexibility so you can take a rest day, spend the night in town, or visit some of the lesser-known parks in the Canadian Rockies. Much like the 7-day itinerary, you’ll get to see the highlights, but I’d recommend exploring Kootenay and extending your stay in Jasper with your extra days.

Suggested Route (from Calgary): Calgary > Banff > Banff > Kootenay > Yoho > Yoho > Icefields Parkway > Jasper > Jasper > Calgary

Road sign directing to Jasper and Lake Louise on the Icefields Parkway

2 WEEK ITINERARY

With 2 weeks, you can really take your time. You’ll not just have time for the highlights, but you can spend two days in the lesser-known parks, make time for longer backpacking trips in Jasper or off-the-grid hut trips in Banff, and round your trip out for some city days exploring Vancouver (or Calgary).

Suggested Route: Calgary > Banff > Banff > Banff > Kootenay > Yoho > Yoho > Icefields Parkway > Jasper > Jasper > Jasper > Revelstoke > Vancouver > Vancouver

4 WEEK OR LONGER ITINERARY

The benefit of a Canadian Rockies road trip is that most of the big parks are within hours of each other. You can start your trip in Kalispell and make your way up through Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes before jumping into Banff and Yoho. You can spend some days in mountain towns drinking craft beer and hiking on local trails that aren’t in guidebooks but similarly spectacular. Take it day-by-day and see where opportunities pop up.

This part of the world is SPECTACULAR and as there are towns in many of the parks, you can do this trip without ever wanting for much. If you have time and love hiking, this trip can be extended until the money runs out.

2. MAKE YOUR MAP

Google My Maps is an awesome resource for road trip planning. Go through and add all the parks, mountain towns, and points of interest that you’re hoping to visit. It can help you better understand which spots are near each other and which are way out of the way.

Once you have your points on the map, use the directions function to understand how much drive time you’ll need to build in. And spend some time on this! Figure out how you can take the trip at your own pace while maximizing on everything you want to see.

Tip: Before you go, make sure that all the maps you need are available offline. Service can be spotty at best and you’ll always want to have your driving directions accessible.

3. PLAN YOUR TIME

Another good way to stay organized (especially if you’re collaborating with someone else) is to route things in Google Sheets. Go one park at a time. Look at just how big the park is and how many things to do there are. Look at driving time between Park A and Park B. Then, do this park-by-park with this until you have a decent overview of how much time you’ll need to allow for each park.

Before locking in dates, take a look at all the activities that might require a hard-to-get backcountry permit or that otherwise limit access. Establish your top priorities. Check availability and book these first so that you don’t schedule your whole trip around something that might already be full.

Once that’s out of the way, you can get onto booking the rest.

Best Lakes in Banff & Yoho that Aren't Lake Louise
Photo from Moraine Lake in Banff National Park

WHEN TO START PLANNING

Reservations for the Canadian National Parks open mid-January for the whole summer season. This applies to campgrounds and backcountry sites, and all reservations go through Parks Canada. Like the US National Parks, reservations for the most in-demand campsites and backpacking trails will sell out within seconds or are only available through a limited-time lottery. Be sure to account for that in your trip planning.

As the parks grow in popularity, operations are changing every year. Please check the Parks Canada site at least six months in advance for the latest dates and updates to the booking process.

Already late? Some parks have walk-up campsites and permits available for that very reason. There are also plenty of campgrounds and hotels outside of the park boundaries and hikes that don’t require backcountry permits. You should always be able to find a hike and a campsite, even if they’re not the exact ones you had in mind.

WHEN TO GO

The Canadian Rockies are at their best between mid-June and mid-September. Because of the high latitude and high elevation of these parks, the weather can be a bit unpredictable outside of this range. That said, the summer brings the crowds (so many people!), and it can be worth it to visit on the edge of peak season with extra warm gear and winter sport plans.

If you visit near the end of the season, you’ll notice many towns and establishments closing down for winter. Factor this into your trip planning.

Camping on Maligne Lake at Fisherman's Bay
September at Maligne Lake in Jasper National Park

MAKING RESERVATIONS

Before you hit the road for your Canadian Rockies road trip, you’ll want to have most of your reservations made. This is especially true if you’re traveling during peak summer season! Here are the key reservations you should look into ahead of time.

RESERVING BACKCOUNTRY PERMITS

Backcountry campsites are required to hike and stay overnight in protected areas. If you’re planning to book any of the high-demand backpacking trips, online bookings start from mid-January and lotteries around the same time. Permits are $9.80 a night per person, plus a non-refundable reservation fee of $11.70 (2020)

One of the coolest things about Canadian parks are that there are also a few backcountry hostels (article coming soon!) and ACC huts (like Bow Hut in Banff and Stanley Mitchell Hut in Yoho) where you can hike all day and still sleep indoors in some pretty epic places.

You’ll have a better chance of getting a permit for popular sites you apply during shoulder season or travel during the weekdays. Being flexible with your dates is a huge help here.

Glacial lakes along Iceline Trail
Photos from Iceline Trail in Yoho

Didn’t get your permit? Many parks have walk-up permits available. You’ll also sometimes be able to find alternate routes or get permits for less-known hikes or backcountry sites that are just as awesome.

BOOKING CAMPSITES & LODGING

Once you have your backpacking permits anchored in, the next thing you should do is book your campsites and lodges. You’ll have more flexibility here, simply because there are hundreds more hotels and front-country sites.

The Parks Canada Reservation system, while not completely straightforward, is easy enough to figure out. Start by reading an overview of all the campsites in the park. Look at a map to find out where each of the campsites are located within the park (they can sometimes be hours apart) and choose the best location for your itinerary before you book anything.

Backcountry campsites in Jasper National Park
Scenes from Fisherman's Bay Campgrounds on Maligne Lake

Once your bookings are confirmed, it’s good to print them off and keep them where they’re easy to find (how about that glove compartment?). You won’t always have service in the campgrounds, and knowing your loop and site number will speed up your check-in process.

BUDGETING & COSTS

Wondering how much it costs to do a Canadian Rockies Road Trip? While it’s a lot cheaper than city travel, this road trip probably costs more than you’d expect. The cost of groceries, dining out, and short-term lodging is quite high in North America as a whole. And since many of the Canadian Parks have towns within their bounds, it is a constant temptation go out for burgers and beer or splurge on a hotel night if the weather starts to turn.

Some costs you’ll want to factor in for your own trip are park entrance or your Discovery Pass, vehicle costs, gas, food & drink, entertainment, gear, campsites & accommodation, and permits. For sake of example, our one month Canadian Rockies road trip cost about $2,000 (split between the two of us) with our own vehicle, sleeping mostly in front-country campsites, hostels, or cheap Airbnbs, and cooking our own meals. We traveled at the start of fall, so this could be significantly reduced if you stick to camping or simplify your camp cooking.

BEFORE YOU GO

PREPARING YOUR VEHICLE

Your vehicle is, quite obviously, one of the most important parts of your road trip. Whether you’re renting or using your own vehicle, be sure that it’s been recently serviced and is reliable for the miles of road you’re about to put on it. It’s also a good idea to check road conditions ahead of your trip to make sure you have space for all your gear and you don’t need a car with 4WD or high clearance.

Through the windshield on the Icefields Parkway on our Canadian Rockies road trip

If you own a car…

You have the benefit of traveling with a car that you know and trust. It’s generally cheaper to travel in your own vehicle, too. The main drawback is that you’ll be putting a lot of miles on your car.

Before leaving on your trip, have that baby serviced by getting the tires rotated, the oil changed, the fluids topped, and the break pads tested. You’re guaranteed to be in remote areas on parts of your trip, and you’ll want your car to be in the best possible shape. Just to be on the safe side, you might also want to upgrade your insurance policy, get a AAA membership. and gear up your car with a box or some emergency supplies.

Basics aside, there are lots of things you can get to make your car more comfortable for such a major trip! It’s going to be your home on wheels, after all.

If you’re renting…

You can choose any adventure vehicle you want! And the rental company will generally take care of the maintenance and insurance stuff for you. The big drawback is that this option tends to be more expensive and you might be less comfortable than you would in your own car.

Wanna rent a car? You can do this trip in a standard car. Just be sure to choose a car with enough space for your stuff (and perhaps one with 4WD). And since you’re going to be driving it hard, be sure to check the insurance policy thoroughly to make sure it covers everything you need it to. Hertz has pickup locations across the country and their car rentals are competitively priced (starting from about $50 per day including tax). They also have a program for drivers aged 20-25 who are unable to rent a car from other major agencies. Check prices and availability on hertz.com

Going for a campervan? You’ll get a bit of extra room and plenty of road trip steez. Escape offers fully equipped campervans which can be a really fun way to travel! While they don’t have 4WD or get as good of gas mileage, you might be able to save by having an indoor spot to sleep on the nights you may have splurged on a hotel. Check prices and availability on escapecampervans.com.

And as for the stuff… Make a list of everything you’ll need on your road trip. There are some obvious items (like a tent, sleeping bag, and a cooler), but would you have thought to bring a power outlet adaptor or a pair of chains for your tires? It’s a delicate balance between being prepared and cluttering your car. Try to streamline your gear and have what you need without going overboard. 

Driving the Icefield Parkway en route to Jasper National Park

HITTING THE ROAD

Last but not least, when it’s time to go, trust in the fact you did your best to plan ahead, and then roll with it. A road trip can live up to the fantasy, but along with the good comes erratic changes in weather, flat tires, or reservation snafus. Shit happens. It is wild, unpredictable, and truly something everyone should experience in their lifetime.

Planning a Canadian Rockies road trip? Here's a complete guide to planning! Inside this post, you'll find tips on how to choose your route including suggested road trip itineraries. You'll also find info like how to make reservations for campsites and backcountry permits, the cost of a Canadian Rockies road trip, how to prepare your vehicle, and more.
Planning a Canadian Rockies road trip? Here's a complete guide to planning! Inside this post, you'll find tips on how to choose your route including suggested road trip itineraries. You'll also find info like how to make reservations for campsites and backcountry permits, the cost of a Canadian Rockies road trip, how to prepare your vehicle, and more.

GOT QUESTIONS ABOUT PLANNING A CANADIAN ROCKIES ROAD TRIP? ASK ME IN THE COMMENTS BELOW. AND IF YOU’RE TRAVELING THROUGH CANADA…

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