Wondering how to plan your trip to the Canadian Rockies? Feeling a bit overwhelmed and don't know where to start from? Planning a low budget backpacking trip, camping, road tripping, or are you looking for a bit more luxurious and comfortable way of travelling through the Canadian Rockies?
My fellow travellers, I hope this guide will help you plan the trip through the Canadian Rockies you have always dreamed about.
It's been more than two years since I moved to Canada and ... Oh Canada! If I would only know how beautiful you were! I would have probably moved into your mountains long time ago.
I was supposed to stay here for just one year thanks to my International Experience Canada visa (which - when approved - allows you to travel and work in Canada for one year or more - depends what's your country of origin).
But here in the Canadian Rockies my love for the mountains was getting stronger and deeper. So I stayed and calling Canada my second home.
Maybe, when you'll see those incredible snow peaks, turquoise glacier lakes, deep canyons and magical waterfalls everywhere you go, then maybe.... maybe you will fall in love with the Canadian Rockies as well...
Your complete guide to travelling in the Canadian Rockies
When is the best time to visit the Canadian Rockies?
If you coming to Canada mostly for exploring the scenery and for hiking the best time to visit is from mid June to mid September.
That's correct, the hiking season in the Canadian Rockies is very very short.
If you come sooner than in June, the most beautiful trails won't be still open. Therefore it is definitely something you may consider when planning your trip and expecting on hiking and camping in the mountains.
Some places in the Canadian Rockies might be very crowded in summer season and if you plan to stay in hostels or hotels, lots of accommodation options can be easily booked out.
I STRONGLY recommend booking accommodation at least six months before your trip (maybe even one year to make sure you have a place to sleep).
My personal favourite time in the Canadian Rockies is during a shoulder season from mid September to mid October.
The air can be already quite chilly and you can expect pretty intense snow falls.
On the other hand, most of the trails are still open, crowds are smaller and golden larch trees are amazing addition to already breathtaking scenery.
How long should I plan the trip for?
How long you plan for the trip is entirely up to you, and even though it depends on what you plan to do on your vacations in the Canadian Rockies, I would recommend at least two weeks.
This way you will have plenty of time to explore many beautiful places with no rush and to soak all that beauty in.
If you are planning multi-day backpacking trips in the Rockies, in two weeks you will have time for those as well. Although if you are planning couple of backpacking trips, I would recommend to extend your stay for at least three weeks.
Where should I start?
The best way to explore the Canadian Rockies will be to fly to Calgary.
From Calgary it's only a bit more than one hour driving to the mountains and it's also a good place where you can rent a car or a motorhome. Food and gas is cheaper here than in the mountains, so you can stock for the trip.
Another options can be flying to Edmonton, Kelowna or Vancouver. But to me, Calgary is the best place where to start your trip from.
How much should I budget?
Now, that's a hard one!
Of course, it all depends whether you plan to hitchhike or rent a camper van, whether you gonna be camping or sleeping in five star hotels, dine out in restaurant or eat Chinese noodles every day.
Myself, I am low budget traveller and can live quite frugally (with lots of noodles to fill my stomach), I sleep in tent or in my car, if I am not in the national parks (make sure you always stay in designed camping areas). That way I can definitely squeeze my budget under 1000 CAD.
Still I want you to have some idea about prices in Canada:
- 2 weeks car rental (Economy version, including car insurance) - 720 CAD
- 1 liter of gas - 1.28 CAD (just heads up, in generally cars in Canada are less economy than what we are used to in Europe)
- Public bus from Calgary to Banff - 18 CAD vs. Shuttle bus from Calgary airport to Banff - 65 CAD
- 1 night at campground - 15 - 38 CAD per site (depends on location and facilities available)
- 1 night at hostel in Banff (high season) - 55 CAD (how crazy is that??)
- 1 night at 3* hotel in Banff - 200 CAD+ per room (2ppl)
- for detailed restaurant, food and other prices in Canada check this handy website: Numbeo
How to get around
I did travel in the Rockies by bus and train.
Couple of times I also hitchhiked.
But quite soon I figured out that it all this costs me so much energy and that I will rather pay money, buy a car and gain my freedom back.
Travelling by public transport in the Canadian Rockies is not impossible, but keep in mind that is still very very limited. Public transport is not very frequent, it will only get you to main spots and it will be way cheaper to pay gas in your car then a bus ticket.
Hitchhiking is possible as well but if you plan to do lots of hiking, you should know that many trailheads start on gravel roads in the middle of nowhere with very low or zero traffic. So chances to get a ride to some less known trails are almost zero to none.
What are your options to travel around the Canadian Rockies?
If you really want enjoy your vacation, get your own vehicle. You have a few options how to do that:
- Buy a car
- I bought a 7-seat car for only 500 CAD (I was very lucky with the price and it's not that common price) and converted it into a camper van with a bed and stocked with all the things I needed for living on the road.
- This will work for you if if you planning to stay in Canada for at least a couple of months and you are time flexible. You can sell the car before you leave.
- Before buying, make sure you can get insurance in Canada, most of the time you should be OK
- Obviously if you are coming to Canada just for a few weeks, you won't have any time to look for a car to buy, so you will still want to rent one.
- If you buy one you will have to pay car insurance which is around 150 CAD per month
- Where to search for used cars online:
- Rent a car
- I love to use a search engine Rentalcars.com to find the cheapest rentals
- To secure yourself the lowest price, book the car a few months before your trip!
- Make sure you get the car insurance (it's usually not included in price you'll see first, you have to check the box when you're finishing your booking, or you can get it later in the car rental company)
- Rent a camper van
- It is a great solution if you want to sleep in the car on a real bed, but you don't feel like driving big RV. Camper vans are also usually provided with cooking and basic camping gear.
- For some of the best deals, I really recommend to check Outdoorsy, which is like AirBnB in car rental industry - people who own campervans or RVs can rent them out here, often for a very reasonable price. Do you want to receive 25 USD towards your first rental on Outdoorsy? Then sign up via this link and during checkout enter the code "dreamingandwandering".
- On the same concept like Outdoorsy works fairly new website RVezy (again, if you sign up via this link, you will receive credit of 25 CAD towards your first rental)
- In Calgary and Vancouver you can rent beautifully painted Wicked Campers
- Rent a motorhome
- RV is a great compromise between backpacking and the comfort of living in hotels which are very expensive in the Rockies, especially during high season.
- It will give you amazing freedom! :)
- RV rental including insurance starts somewhere around 1500 CAD per week.
- Guys from Motorhome Republic guarantee you the lowest rental prices, check their deals here:
- As I already mentioned, you won't really get that far by public bus in the Canadian Rockies. If you want to be flexible and/or do lots of hiking, I really don't recommend this option.
- Sundog Tours provides connection between Calgary and Jasper
- Brewster runs shuttle bus between Calgary airport and Canmore/Banff/Lake Louise and once a day also to Jasper.
- Discover Banff Tours will shuttle you between Calgary airport, Canmore, Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper
- I did hitchhike in the Canadian Rockies couple of times but frankly, I wouldn't choose this way of transport if I only had a few days or weeks to spend in the mountains. One of the biggest reasons would be that trailheads are often off the main road and you will have troubles to get a ride to them.
- If you need to get from A to B, let's say you hitchhike from Banff to Jasper, then yes, it is possible. Depends on your hitchhiking skills and luck, you won't have to wait too long for a ride.
TAKE TOURS FROM YOUR BASE
- If you can't rent a car for any reason and you don't want to hitchhike or use a public transport, you can choose to make either Banff, Canmore or Jasper your base (and stay either in a hotel/hostel or a campground). From these two places you can explore a few of those famous places by feet and also take tours which are offered by many agents in town.
- Discover Banff Tours offer many summer or winter trips, lake cruises, bear watching, rafting, horseback riding and more
- Brewster offers trips to the Icefields Parkway, Jasper, boat cruise at Lake Minnewanka and more.
Where to stay
If you traveling on low budget:
- Your options will be quite limited because even one night in the hostel in the dorm room can cost you 55 CAD or even more.
- ?? Couchsurfing / Airbnb ?? - you can give these options a go but from my own and my friends' experience it is not working very well in the Canadian Rockies. There are only small mountain towns and villages in the mountains, so you will find only handful of options for Couchsurfing (+ I never got any response to my requests) and Airbnb can get quite expensive here. UPDATE: AirBnB is now mostly illegal in national parks, there are a few exception and most of them are really pricey)
- Camping - it seems to be the only reasonable option for low budget travellers in the Rockies. It definitely helps if you are a bigger group or it's at least two of you (at the campground you pay for a site and it can hold up to six people)
If you don't care much about the budget then Booking.com might will be your resource #1 - here you will find all types of accommodation from hostels to luxurious lodges with outdoor hot tubs and stunning views.
Camping in the Canadian Rockies
There are dozens of campgrounds around the Canadian Rockies and I below I will list links to all of the NP where you find all the information you need to plan your road trip.
Most of the campgrounds are available on first come, first serve basis, so try to arrive early, especially on weekends. Though reservations can be made for some of the most desired one (you'll see those in the list).
Prices for night vary from 15 to 38 CAD per night per site depends on the location and facilities of the campground (some are with electricity and hot showers, others hold only basic dry toilets).
One site can be share by up to 6 people and two cars.
At some camps if you pay extra 8.80 CAD you can use a fire pit (firewood included). Don't try to collect your own wood in the forest even with the best intension to clean if from fallen branches. It is not allowed and you can get a fine (I wish I would have known that before :) )
Maps and lists of campgrounds in the Canadian Rockies:
New in 2018 and continuing in 2019:
FREE admission to all parks for youth 17 and under!
What is Discovery Pass?
Discovery Pass provide an unlimited admission to all national parks, historic sites and marine conservation areas operated by Parks Canada (over 80 places).
Please note that even with this pass you will still need to pay regular camp fees.
When will you need a park pass?
- When you are entering any of the parks with the car (no matter if it's rented or your own) and when you're planning to do hiking along the way or just stopping at a view point or having a picnic
- When you plan to do camping or hiking (even without a vehicle)
- When you drive the Icefields Parkway or Bow Valley Parkway (even without stopping)
Do I need to buy separate pass for each park?
Good news! You will be fine with just one pass for all the Rocky Mountain Parks (Banff, Yoho, Kootenay, Jasper, Waterton Lakes, Mount Revelstone, Glacier and Elk Island National Parks)
How to get your pass?
The fees for the pass can be confusing, yet it is simple. You can purchase two kinds of passes:
- Daily Pass
- worth to buy if you staying/visiting parks for 6 days or less
- valid till 4pm of the last day of validity (no matter what time did you purchased
- pass fees:
- Adult (17-64 yrs) - 9.80 CAD
- Senior (>65 yrs) - 8.30 CAD
- Youth (6-16 yrs) - FREE
- Family/Group (up to 7 people in one vehicle) - 19.60 CAD
- Annual Pass
- worth to buy if you staying/visiting parks for 7 days or more
- valid for a full year till the end of the calendar month from the date purchased
- pass fees:
- Adult (17-64 yrs) - 67.70 CAD
- Senior (>65 yrs) - 57.90 CAD
- Youth (6-16 yrs) - FREE
- Family/Group (up to 7 people in one vehicle) - 136.40 CAD
If you want to know more information about park passes, check the official website of Parks Canada.
Backcountry permits and campground reservations
If you are planning on backcountry camping in the Canadian Rockies, make sure you have paid your permits and booked a campground. Although, there are a few exception in less visited parts of Banff and Yoho National Parks, chances are that you will need a backcountry permit.
Backcountry permit of Wilderness Pass means that you will have to pay for each night spent in the backcountry in one of the Canadian Rockies national parks (Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, Yoho, Mount Revelstoke, Glacier, and Waterton Lakes).
As of 2017, a Wilderness Pass costs $8.90 per person/per night. A non-refundable reservation fee applies to all bookings ($11.70).
If you are planning to stay 7 or more nights in the backcountry this year, you will save money if you puchase an annual for $68.70. Booking campsites and shelters is still required with an Annual A non-refundable reservation fee applies to all bookings ($11.70).
UPDATE! As of 2018, annual Wilderness Pass is not available for purchase anymore, means that you will always have to be buy the Pass for the certain amount of nights you are planning to spend in backcountry.
How to make a campground reservation and pay backcountry permit?
- To make a reservation, visit reservation.pc.gc.ca or call 1-877-737-3783.
- Reservations or same day permits will also be available at a Parks Canada Visitor Centre if preferred.
Although I am always trying to save money on my travels by living frugally and spending less for the accommodation and food, I NEVER travel without a travel insurance.
I mean never. Not even one day.
When I travel I usually want to try lots of new things, I do solo hiking in the mountains and jungles and jumping from one adventure to another.
There are many reasons why I recommend guys over at World Nomads. They are really amazing and lots of my friends are travelling with their plans. They are one of the only companies covering the extensive list of adventure activities (200+). Also they are available to people from 140 countries.
What to pack for your Canadian adventure
Don't let Canada to fool you.
Summer can have many faces and you should be ready for any kind of weather.
My tips on what you should bring along - especially if you're planning backcountry adventures (+ links to some of my favourite gear):
- Long underwear - as the night can get really cold
- Warm sweater
- Raingear - rainproof jacket (or poncho) & pants
- Hat and gloves - seriously, it can snow in mid August
- Sturdy boots + second pair of shoes - sandals are great choice for crossing streams and camping
- Sleeping gear
- Other essentials
- Bear spray - that's right, you are in a bear country and shouldn't underestimate it
- Waterproof bag to store food at campgrounds
- Rope (about 8 m) for hanging bag with food on trees
- Water filter or purification tablets
- Compass & Topographic map (sometimes I wished I haven't forgot these two)
- First Aid Kit
- Extra matches and lighter
- Toilet paper
- Food for one extra day (when you like it somewhere too much and want to stay or if some unexpected situation occurs - flooded trail, injury, etc.)
- Insect Repellent
Beautiful places/trips in the Canadian Rockies
I always say that if I could live 500 years I still wouldn't be able to explore all that beauty in the Canadian Rockies. There are so many amazing places and there always surprises behind the next corner (sometimes even bear?).
Here is the list of some of my favourite places but be sure there is much much more and you can always do your own research. Or you can buy Canadian Rockies Trail Guide because it's a real gem (I don't have a data plan in my phone so this book is my Google)
No hiking or easy-ish short hiking from parking lot required
- Lake Minnewanka (you can take a cruise here)
- Banff Upper Hot Springs (if you want to relax your muscles after hikes, adult admission fee 7.30 CAD)
- Two Jack Lake
- Johnston Canyon
- Marble Canyon
- Moraine Lake
- Lake Louise
- Emerald Lake + Natural Bridge
- Takakkaw Falls
- Bow Lake
- Peyto Lake
- Sunwapta Falls
- Mistaya Canyon
- Athabasca Canyon
- Cavell Lake
- Maligne Canyon
- Medicine Lake
- Maligne Lake (you can take a cruise boat to famous Spirit Island)
- Pyramid Lake
Half day hikes / Day trips
- Grassi Lakes (half day)
- Ha Ling Peak (half day)
- Chester Lake (half day)
- Sulphur Mountain (half day) - stunning 360°views at Banff and mountains around, starts nearby Banff Upper Hot Springs and you can take a gondola ride to get to the top
- Aylmer Lookout (day trip) - trail head at Lake Minnewanka
- Johnston Canyon and Ink Pots (day trip)
- Sunshine Meadows (half day/day trip) - beautiful alpine meadows, you can use a shuttle bus to ride up
- Stanley Glacier (half day)
- Floe Lake (day trip)
- Rockbound Lake Trail (day trip)
- Eiffel Lake (half day) - trail head at Moraine Lake
- Plain of Six Glaciers (day trip) - trail head at Lake Louise
- Cavell Meadows (half day)
- Opal Hills (half day)
- Sulphur Skyline (half day)
- Berg Lake Trail - 22 km one way, this is so far my most favourite trail with stunning views at Mt. Robson, the highest peak of the Canadian Rockies) and fantastic glaciers
- Mt. Assiniboine (from Sunshine Meadows) - 56 km, 3-5 days, not that tough hike and one of the most incredible sceneries I've ever seen
- Floe Lake Trail - 55 km, 3-5 days, after first two days it gets easier. That Rockwall is worth of effort.
- Lake O'Hara - can be a day trip as well, but recommended to stay at least one night. So many time it has been mentioned as one of the most beautiful places in the Canadian Rockies. You have to book a shuttle bus to get there and it is booked out really fast, so hurry up.
- Skoki Loop - 34 km, 1-3 days
- Tonquin Valley - 70 km, 2-7 days (I can totally spend here the whole weak to soak all that beauty in)
- Skyline Trail - Jasper NP, 44 km , 2-3 days (but the someone's record is 6 hours, haha), be aware that snow here stays up till the en of July and is back at the end of September, hence you only have two month to hike this beautiful trail
Wanna join me in September 2019 on my photography workshop in the Canadian Rockies?
**Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links, which means I receive a small commission if you make a booking using the link. It won't cost you a penny but it will help me to maintain this website and write more helpful articles in future.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Oh hello! Welcome to my page where we all are allowed to Dream Big and we all are encouraged to Wander Far. My name is Marti and here you can read more about me. I am originally from Czech Republic and my story doesn't differ from many similar travellers - in 2011 I quit my well-paid job in film industry to travel the world which was always my dream. I visited 70+ countries and you can find me exploring deserted islands in South Pacific or diving with whale sharks in Philippines, prospecting for gold in New Zealand or building igloos above the Polar Circle. Let's join me on my journey around the globe!