Canadian Rockies – Jasper & Banff
We took July off to prepare for our move up to Bozeman. During this time, we set off on an adventure North – starting with Jasper National Park, followed by Banff National Park, and then a slow drive through National Forests in Montana, Idaho and Colorado. Chris’ parents and his sister, Kim, and her family joined for the Canada portion of the trip. Just prior to this expedition, Chris and I welcomed our newest family member: a teardrop trailer named “Big Blue” who was anxious for her maiden voyage.
Jasper National Park
Situated a mere 1300 miles North of Denver – this Canadian National Park requires a certain effort to arrive. But is it ever well worth it! It’s the largest of the Canadian Parks, spanning 11,000 kilometers, and features incredible mountains, glaciers, lakes, and ample wildlife.
We had just 4 days to explore this massive park, but were well situated at the Whistler Campgound just outside of the town of Jasper. Like many national park campgrounds, Whistler is enormous and crowded – with 781 sites this campground boasts a convenient location and modern amenities rather than tranquil relaxation. Nevertheless, Big Blue settled in well next to her trailer friends (Tesa and Ray have a 19’ escape trailer and Kim and Sam rented a “tiny home on wheels” after their beloved Vanogen’s engine bit the dust).
Our daily agenda for the trip was pretty consistent: Chris would set his alarm for 5:45am, snooze until 6:05am, and 50/50 shot he actually went out for sunrise. That being said, with sunset occurring only 7 hours before I don’t blame his lack of motivation! We then would have breakfast and try to set out by 8am for our daily hike in order to beat the crowds. We usually had lunch on the trail, and then came back for an afternoon nap followed by reading or playing games. After dinner we’d sit around the campfire until about 9:30pm, at which time we’d head out for the extremely late sunsets that occur this far north.
Our first day in Jasper was actually Canada’s Independence Day – it was rainy and overcast, so we took the opportunity to explore the nearby Maligne Canyon. This 3-mile hike followed the river and offered incredible (and sometimes daunting) views to the canyon below. The weather cleared that afternoon so we set out for another 3-mile hike, this time featuring views of five bright blue lakes on the appropriately named “Valley of the Five Lakes Trail”. Our dogs took a dip into the 5th lake and we all enjoyed an impressive landscape. We also were treated to a Canadian Air Force fly-over and plenty of patriotic Canadians along the way. The following day we enjoyed our first panoramic views of the Canadian Rockies on the Sulphur Skyline trail. This was a more challenging hike (6 miles and 2300 ft elevation gain) that pushed my pregnant self to the extreme – at one point I sat down on a rock and told Chris to push on without me. But after plenty of snacks and water, my stubbornness prevailed and I was able to push to the top with the rest of the family. We were quite proud of our niece and nephew who pushed outside of their comfort zone and tackled this ascent through loose rock to the panoramic Mountain View! Our last and final day in Jasper we gave our legs a well-deserved break and took a scenic stroll around the majestic Maligne Lake and to nearby Moose Lake. Unfortunately we did not see any moose for which this lake was named – but throughout our time in Jasper we saw 8 black bears!
Banff National Park
Jasper’s better known “sister park” is located just south and connected via the stunning Icefields Parkway. Banff is Canada’s oldest national park and boasts some of the best views I’ve ever seen (second perhaps only to Patagonia).
We stopped for one night at Johnson Canyon Campground during our drive from Denver to Jasper. This was a pleasant campground that offered much-needed R&R after a long drive. We hiked the Johnson Canyon trail to the Ink Pots the following morning, an 8-mile hike along waterfalls and through the forest that ends at mystical cold-spring ponds. Hercules decided to take a dip in one of the ponds – luckily it’s fed by cold springs rather than hot springs, otherwise that would have been a painful surprise!
Our second stint in Banff was for 4 nights at the Lake Louise RV campground. It was definitely not as relaxing as our first Banff campground, as the Canadian Pacific Railway runs just adjacent to the campground. However you can’t beat the location of being nearby to some amazing sites.
We did several hikes in Banff, each with uniquely amazing views that explain the allure of this gorgeous park. Parker Ridge is located along the Icefields Parkway, so we explored this hike on our drive down from Jasper. This quick, but steep, 3 mile hike took us along massive glaciated peaks and waterfalls, ending with a stunning view of the Saskatchewan Glacier and Bridal Veil Falls. Jethro enjoyed his only off-leash time here – terrorizing marmots in the talus fields is definitely his element (don’t worry, he’s never actually caught one!) We also explored Bow Glacier Falls, which is located on the Southern end of the Icefields Parkway. This was a 6-mile peaceful hike along Bow Lake then through glacial moraines, finally ending at a beautiful waterfall coming off Bow Glacier.
Hands-down the most impressive views in all of Banff NP are Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. Appropriately so, these lakes are extremely crowded so don’t even try to arrive after 8am in the summer. Lake Louise is much more developed but still beautiful, so both deserve an extended visit. We hiked from Lake Louise up to the Lake Agnes Teahouse and beyond to the Beehives, an extremely crowded 7 mile hike with 2000ft elevation gain. Lake Agnes Teahouse is one of two teahouses in Banff that were built in the early 1900s as refuges for hikers. The views along the hike and from Lake Agnes were amazing but the crowds a bit obtrusive. While we enjoyed tea and pastries from the teahouse, I can’t say this was a favorite excursion of the trip.
Our hike out of Moraine Lake, on the other hand, was perhaps one of my favorite day hikes I’ve ever enjoyed. This trek through Larch Valley and up to Sentinel Pass was challenging, covering 8 miles and 2400ft elevation gain, but the mountain views were like none other. It is a well-known haven for landscape photographers when the larch trees change color to a bright gold each fall – and needless to say we will return. Most of the family pushed on after Larch Valley to Sentinel Pass, requiring a traverse across snowfields to reach the pass. They discovered a “shortcut” on the way down – sledding through the snow on their packs – and this quickly became the preferred descent for all hikers that day!
We had an incredible time exploring Jasper and Banff National Parks. These parks are far but well deserving of an extended trip. We loved being able to hike with our dogs, a rarity in US National Parks, and are already anxious to return!
Pros: amazing scenery, good wildlife viewing, hiking with dogs, campgrounds with good amenities
Cons: crowds, massive campgrounds don’t offer a lot of relaxation
Tips: plan well in advance, especially if you want to go over the summer. Kim made our campground reservations when they opened in January and it was already challenging to book!