A trip to Canada isn’t complete unless you brave the vastness of the Alberta National Parks, and that’s exactly what we did. As soon as we touched down in Calgary, we immediately rented a mid-size car with enough room for three (myself, Raina and her friend Ciara) and set out to drive towards the Canadian Rockies!
The early morning drive took about 1.5 hours and was it ever astoundingly…plain. No seriously, it was fields upon fields of farm land, open spaces, bales, and the occasional livestock roaming around as far as the eye can see.
It wasn’t too long though until we could see the start of the mountain range peeking through horizon, the sudden drop in temperature, and scattered wildlife crossing bridges when realized that we were now driving between Alberta’s colossal mountain system which preserve Canada’s alpine lakes and diverse wildlife. It was bit over cast that day but there was still sunlight enough to reveal the jaw-dropping jagged, ice-capped peaks which towered over everything as we rolled in to our first destination: the town of Banff.
Renting a car straight from the airport was pretty easy. If and when you do decide to rent a car straight from the airport, make sure you reserve online as it will save you the time and trouble of booking from the gate (the queue for service can be pretty long, especially during peak seasons). We dispatched our vehicle via kiosk which asked for our reservation number and valid driver’s licence. Make sure your licence is valid in Canada before you reserve a vehicle. For a mid-size car, we were charged around $16 CAD/day for 5 whole days.
I know road trips can be very exciting but before you jump behind the wheel, make sure you take pictures of your rented vehicle first. Snap pictures of your current mileage, gas level, and spot any current damages to save you the trouble of having to incur suspicious charges when you return the vehicle.
To gain entrance to the national parks ahead, we paid a park fee $19.60/per car for 2 days because natural beauty must be maintained at the tourists’ expense. And yes, even though you have a reservation at your favourite resort town in the area, you still have to fork over your cash for this literal highway robbery:
Daily Admission Prices as of January 2018
- Adult $ 9.80
- Senior $ 8.30
- Youth FREE
- Family/Group $ 19.60
- Commercial Group, per person $ 8.30
*Check out https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/ab/banff/visit/tarifs-fees for more information
The plan was simple, yet daunting. Explore 3 Alberta National Parks in 3 days: Banff National Park, Yoho National Park, and Jasper National Park.
Day One consisted of driving to two national parks, five lakes, and our humble hotel all the way up in Hinton for a total of 5.44 butt-clenching hours. Before you dread the thought, just imagine the snowy peaks and gorgeous scenery that will distract you during your long drive–the journey from Banff to Jasper is absolutely stunning.
Day Two was a bit more chill (pun intended) as we head back down from Hinton to take a walk on the Athabasca Glacier and then thaw, relax, and unwind at the Miette Hot Springs.
Finally, we used up Day Three to check out the hidden Medicine and Maligne Lakes, then head back to Calgary to return the car rental. Note that we had less places of interest for Day Two and Three, but the driving time was about the same (5.48 hours) as the winding roads between the mountain system covered more distance than the long stretched out main highways. So, be careful when you plan your trip and head out early. The last thing that you want is to be stuck driving in darkness as the national parks like to keep their light pollution low with almost minimal to zero road/highway lights.
Banff National Park
Surrounded by 6,500 square kilometres of parkland (which is home to various Canadian wildlife) Banff is a resort/tourist town in the province of Alberta, located within Banff National Park that is nestled between the titanic peaks of Mt. Rundle, Mt. Cascade, and part of the Rocky Mountains. After our one and a half hour drive from Calgary, we made our first stop at the main thoroughfare of Banff Avenue, where we enjoyed an hour of shopping at boutiques, souvenir shops, basking in the warm sunlight with the smell of local cuisine in the air amongst the château-style hotels and buildings.
As soon as we had our fill of shopping for souvenirs, we set our course to our first iconic (not to mention most crowded) destination: Lake Louise. Known for its turquoise, glacier-fed lake ringed by high peaks, Lake Louise is a popular and scenic hamlet where almost everyone can be found trying to capture their perfect Instagram worthy moment. There are hiking trails that wind up to the Lake Agnes Tea House for bird’s-eye views and a canoe dock in summer where you can jump off into the icy lake.
Given that this is probably the most popular destination in Banff, try to reach this beautiful lake as early as possible as hundreds of cars will fill up the parking lots very quickly. Trying to find parking during the peak season was so bad that we saw people parking 20 minutes away and hoofing it to the lake. Pro Tip: pack your most comfortable hiking shoes and a light jacket as you will be expected to walk to reach the symmetrically scenic lake. If you’re planning to fly your drone in these parts, keep in mind the rules and regulations they have in place as penalties for ignoring said rules could lead fines up to $1000 CAD.
For more information, check out this website: https://www.tc.gc.ca/en/services/aviation/drone-safety/flying-drone-safely-legally.html.
The second most popular lake in Banff was equally gorgeous as it was jam-packed with tourists. About a 20-minute drive and 14 kilometres outside the Village of Lake Louise is the glacially fed Moraine Lake. Situated in the Valley of the Ten Peaks, Moraine Lake boasts a dramatic view with a sweet blue-green colour worthy of placing in one of the top most photographed places in Canada. If you’re feeling adventurous, want to test your balance, and or capture insane shots for your feed, hop the short wooden fence and walk on the fallen trees at the shore line. Just be careful as the logs are unstable and the stones underneath could seriously injure you! If you want to play it safe, take the long route and hike the hill nearby for 10 minutes for that awesome shot.
Yoho National Park
Located an hour and a half drive away from Moraine Lake is Yoho National Park. Situated in eastern British Columbia, Yoho National Park is one of the best places to hike in Canada as you can revel in its alpine majesty, take a break from social media and spend time with family and friends at one of four campgrounds, challenge yourself with an all day hike to a half-billion-year-old fossil bed, or immerse yourself in Canadian history by travelling through the mountain pass that linked the West to the rest of Canada.
Enclosed by mountains of the President Range, Mount Burgess and Wapta Mountain, Emerald Lake shines green like the gem stone it’s named after even under overcast sky conditions. It’s the largest of Yoho’s 61 lakes and ponds, as well as one of the park’s premier tourist attractions.
We took a hike around the lake, took some embarrassing touristy photos with the Canadian flag, aided an injured small bird to safety, and explored a few vistas by the lodge before we left for our next destination: Peyto Lake. Also known as the “Wolf’s Head Lake”, Peyto has got to be one of my favourite lakes during our trip. An hour drive from Emerald Lake, the iconic Wolf’s Head can be viewed after a short 10 minute hike from the base.
Revel in its magnificent tranquility as you take in the fresh alpine breeze with the warm sunlight illuminating its distinct turquoise colour. You can channel your inner Disney princess and break into song while standing on the ledge over looking the spectacular view.
Probably one of the clearest lakes I’ve ever seen, Bow Lake is just 5 minutes away (by car) from Peyto Lake. Fairly quiet compared to the previous lakes mentioned in this blog, Bow Lake is the kind of place where you can have a picnic lunch or a mid-day stroll as you wallow in the sunny blue skies with snowy peaks in the horizon. The glacially fed water here by the Bow Glacier in the Wapta Icefield is so clear it almost creates an mirror image of the mountains that ring around it.
It was almost dark, we were hungry, and the road to our hotel was long, so we packed our bags and set our course north west to the sleepy town of Hinton where we spent our first night after a long day of driving and trekking. We were accommodated by the cozy Super 8 Wyndham Hotel, booked for 3 days and 2 nights (continental breakfast included) at $339.98 CAD.
Columbia Ice Field Parkway, Athabasca Glacier (Ice Explorer, Skywalk)
We woke up at 8AM to prepare for the day, eat breakfast, and make our glacier adventure tour at 11AM. Two hours and 15 minutes away from Hinton is the Athabasca Glacier, it’s one of the six principal ‘toes’ of the Columbia Icefield and the most visited in North America. Our glacier adventure began with a ride onto the Athabasca Glacier in a massive vehicle specially designed for glacier travel: the all-terrain Ice Explorer paired with an experienced (often hilarious) driver-guide of whom shared insightful information about glaciers and their impact on the environment.
As soon as we got to the top, we stepped onto the glacier and took a moment to breath in the cold glacial air and behold its almost blindingly white immensity. Of course, it was the perfect time to take photos in this breathtaking setting.
*Pro Tip: Weather conditions can change rapidly. Thankfully, when we went up, the sun was out and skies were clear. Albeit, I recommend to dress accordingly (closed toe shoes /boots with a good grip; jacket/ sweater) as you will be walking on a monstrous block of ice after all.
Finally, we ended our glacial experience on a informational stroll (complete with interactive headsets to guide you) on the Glacier Skywalk: a cliff-edged glass walkway where giant glaciers perch above you and the spectacular Sunwapta Valley which featured waterfalls, wildlife, and more. Our Glacier adventure cost about $93 CAD/person. Check out https://www.banffjaspercollection.com/attractions/glacier-adventure/ for booking online (which saves you %10 off) and more information.
Jasper National Park
After our thrilling glacier adventure, we went back up to towards Jasper to kick back, relax, and thaw at the hot springs. Located in Alberta’s Jasper National Park, Miette Hot Springs features the hottest mineral springs in the Canadian Rockies. Water flows from the mountain at 54°C (129°F) and cooled to a comfortable 40°C (104°F). Among one of Jasper’s top ten attractions, Miette Hot Springs is a perfect destination for a day of sightseeing, wildlife watching, hiking and relaxing. Entrance fee costs $7.05 CAD/person and includes a locker to stash away your clothes.
*Pro Tip: if you think walking around barefoot at the public change room/showers is a bad idea, remember to bring flip flops so that you don’t share the same foot germs with everyone else.
For our third and final day, we went to check out two more lakes in Jasper National Park before heading back to Calgary. About an hour away from Hinton, the first lake we check out that day turned out to be a mysterious one. During summer months, Medicine Lake is glacially fed floods the area but come fall/winter time the water disappears and leaves a mudflat with scattered puddles and a stream. Researchers back in the 1970’s figured out that the glacial water drains into a sinkhole like pulling a plug right under it. Good thing we weren’t there during winter, otherwise out trip would have been mucky.
About a half hour drive away from Medicine Lake is Maligne Lake. Famed for the colour of its water, the surrounding peaks, the three glaciers visible from the lake and Spirit Island, a frequently photographed islet. Unfortunately, it was rainy when we got there so the boat rides were closed. Although, our adventurous spirits were not completely dampened as we still trekked around the area to explore and take in the scenery.
By the end of the day, we said goodbye to the Alberta National Parks and drove back down to Calgary. The journey was long and arduous but definitely worth it. Until now, I can still imagine the astonishing view of the mountain range, snowy peaks, and mesmerizing turquoise lakes. Truly, an experience I will never forget.