Driving through Canada’s Banff National Park is some kind of spectacular. The white-tipped peaks of the Rockies that dominate the province of Alberta are overwhelming in scale and good looks. The tree-ringed turquoise lakes shimmer so brightly they will make you blink. But it isn’t all about what you see. In Banff and the city of Calgary you’ll taste mountain flavours at critically acclaimed restaurants before you feel the powder shift under your feet on a snowshoe tour or sink into silence in a hot-spring-fed natural spa.
Here are just some of the highlights:
It’s not Alberta’s official capital city (that’s Edmonton, 300 kilometres north) but lively Calgary has the landmark Calgary Tower and, given it stands in front of the Rockies, an enviable location. It also knows how to do an event. The annual Calgary Stampede is a rodeo and festival of epic proportions that runs for 10 days each July. Throughout the year you’ll find good vibes all along the stretch of 9th Avenue SE known as Music Mile, where live music venues are jammed between galleries and buzzing eateries. This avenue also connects two of Calgary’s coolest neighbourhoods: the East Village, a walkable precinct where modern art meets historic buildings (that in turn house culinary entrepreneurs), and Inglewood, Calgary’s quirky gem, packed with independent boutiques, cafes and more music venues.
In Inglewood, go to Moonstone Creation for art, clothing, jewellery and books from more than 60 Indigenous makers. Then reserve a table at Deane House, a multi-award-winning restaurant beloved for both its seafood-slanting menu (Alberta’s rainbow trout and Saltspring Island mussels are a revelation) and its setting inside a heritage house on the banks where the Bow and Elbow rivers meet.
Immersive Indigenous Culture
Before you follow the Bow River all the way to Banff, drive an hour north of Calgary to visit Painted Warriors, an Indigenous ranch in a forest at the foothills of the mountains. Ride horses or snowshoe down tree-lined backcountry trails as you hear Indigenous stories and learn archery and wilderness survival skills. Spend a night (or 10) in comfy canvas tents warmed by wood-burning stoves.
The enormous marbled face of Cascade Mountain towers over a huddle of historic streets. Charming shopfronts and locals make you feel welcome in that easygoing Canadian way. Welcome to the Rocky Mountains town of Banff.
To get your bearings, take a stroll up and down Banff Avenue (the main strip) and Bear Street (the newly revitalised street that runs parallel) before brunching at The Maple Leaf or tasting some locally distilled gin and "campfire cuisine" at Park Distillery (try the bison burgers and gourmet s’mores). Ride the chairlift at Mount Norquay to the retro-chic Cliffhouse Bistro for a hot chocolate with an incredible view of the town and mountain ranges. In winter, Norquay is a white-covered hotspot for skiing and tubing while in summer it switches to a green haven for hiking. Throughout the year, Discover Banff Tours look for bighorn sheep, deer and elk around Banff – outside of winter, spot rare black and grizzly bears.
Banff is also the gateway to adrenaline-pumping experiences across Banff National Park. There’s a challenge to take on in all seasons: raft, bike, hike, climb or ride dramatic mountain trails on horseback in summer. Chase powder highs all winter.
A holiday in Banff isn’t complete without a stay in the castle-like Fairmont Banff Springs, where, as the name suggests, you can immerse yourself in luxuriously appointed, heated pools surrounded by trees and mountains. It’s particularly magical in winter when the view is coated in shimmering snow.
Postcard-Perfect Lake Louise
The hamlet of Lake Louise lies 40-ish minutes northwest of Banff in an even more idyllic scene. Two mighty mountains slope dramatically into each other, framing a still, ice-blue lake and presided over by another castle of a hotel, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. The hotel’s interior is lavish – plush patterned carpets, winding staircases and glittering chandeliers – but the way its giant windows take in the view is what a stay here is all about.
Summer days around Lake Louise can be spent kayaking the quiet turquoise waters or trekking scenic trails by foot or horseback. In winter, this flawless lake freezes solid – you can ice skate its winking surface or ride a horse-drawn carriage around its shore to see a frozen waterfall. To put the finishing touch on a White Christmas fantasy, snowshoe by starlight to an igloo where a mug of hot chocolate awaits.
Lake Louise is only a short drive away from Banff National Park’s must-dos. Go to Lake Louise Ski Resort for monumental views matched with world-class skiing in winter. In summer, surreally beautiful Moraine Lake changes shades of electric blue and turquoise as the glaciers that feed it melt.
Jasper, Canada’s Cabin Capital
The 232-kilometre stretch of road between Banff and the town of Jasper known as the Icefields Parkway rewards road-trippers with gigantic Rocky Mountain vistas and valleys packed so densely with snow that they have become permanent traps of ice. This journey is rated one of the top drives in the world.
Jasper National Park has the second-largest dark sky preserve in the world (spanning more than 11,200 square kilometres): skies don’t get blacker or the stars more brilliant. Maligne Lake is the second-largest glacial-fed lake in the world at 19.7 square kilometres. Jasper town itself recently made Time's list of World’s Greatest Places thanks in part to its cabin culture: there are more than 400 cosy alpine stays to choose from. You’ll want to set up digs and stay a while – there are more than 1000 kilometres of hilly trails to cover and when you’ve ticked off enough hiking there’s a glass-floor skywalk that soars 280 metres above a glacier-rimmed valley.
A Lake of Icy Bubbles
On the drive from Jasper to Banff along the Icefields Parkway, make a side trip to Abraham Lake, an artificial reservoir that does an enchanting party trick. The decay of vegetation on the lake bed causes methane bubbles to form and in winter they freeze, looking like giant pearls under the ice. When the conditions are right – for you to see the phenomenon, the lake needs to be frozen but without snow – the sight is something spectacular. Take a scenic flight with Rockies Heli Canada to get a big-picture sense of the surreal and an incredible view of surrounding waterfalls and glaciers, too.
Drive about 340 kilometres east of Banff and it’s a complete gear-change as the world transforms from grey, blue and monumental into an arid landscape of surprises. You’re now in Dinosaur Provincial Park, a craggy expanse punctuated by sandy-coloured, flat-topped mountains and protruding hoodoo rock formations that look like chimneys pushing up from the earth. It’s more Cappadocia than Calgary, more Star Wars than Sound of Music.
And, yes, dinosaurs once roamed the region. In fact, this park is one of the richest fossil sites in the world: more than 150 full dinosaur skeletons have been excavated and paleontologists are still digging. You can see and even dig for fossils in the wild on a guided tour and take a trophy photo of the almost-complete skeleton of a "duck-billed" dinosaur at one of the park’s outdoor displays.