Always wanted to see the mountain peaks, stunning lakes and wildlife of the Rocky Mountains in Canada? We’ve got you covered. Our detailed guide to the Canadian Rockies will help you plan your trip.
We cover all the questions you might have:
- What to do in the Canadian Rockies?
- When is the best time to visit the Canadian Rockies?
- Where to stay in the Rockies?
- What budget do I need for my trip?
Visiting Canadian Rockies? Read also these posts:
Where are the Rocky Mountains in Canada?
The Canadian Rockies is the easternmost range of the mountains between Vancouver and Calgary. It is often falsely mistaken that all mountains between Vancouver and Calgary are the Rockies. The Canadian portion of the range starts on the borders with the United States and continues North West towards Yukon Territory.
They are split between two provinces Alberta and British Columbia. The provincial border runs along Continental Divide and splits the Rockies into almost two equal pieces. On the west, the border of the Rockies is Columbia Trench along Highway 95 and Kinbasket Lake and Highway 16. On the East, Rockies flattens in the Prairies.
What airport is closest to Rocky Mountain National Parks?
International tourists and travelers use two main airports to get to the Rocky Mountains in Canada. Calgary is the closest airport to get in, which is only about 60 km away. It is also located close to the popular national parks – Banff, Jasper, Yoho and Kootenay.
The 2nd airport close to the Rockies is Edmonton but not many travelers use it. Flights are usually cheaper to Calgary. American tourists also drive through borders on the south.
Another option is Vancouver. The area around Vancouver is mountainous and beautiful but it still takes about 7 hours driving (700 km) to the Rockies.
National parks and protected areas in the Canadian Rockies
The Rocky Mountains in Canada have 5 National Parks.
- Waterton Lakes National Park which is part of the cross border Waterton Lakes and Glacier National Park in the US state of Montana.
The other 4 National Parks belong to Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site.
Along with National Parks, there are more than 20 provincial parks and protected areas. The most visited are Kananaskis Country (60km from Calgary) containing more than 10 protected areas, Mount Robson Provincial Park and Assiniboine Provincial Park.
Provincial Parks are mostly visited by locals while international tourists visit mainly National Parks.
Weather in the Rockies
Similar to other mountains in the world, the weather in the Rockies changes fast.
Winter in Banff starts in November and ends at the end of April. Temperatures vary from -30°C to 15°C. Throughout the winter, mountains receive between 2 to 3 meters of snow.
Spring starts in April/May with temperatures around 15 °C and some morning frost. Snow in the valleys is mostly gone by end of the May.
June weather in the Canadian Rockies is mostly rainy as it is the wettest month.
July and August weather is the best for any summer activities with the longest daylight. Temperatures hit even 30 °C mark. This is the best time for hiking, trekking, biking, kayaking, and even swimming in the lakes.
September in the Rockies is the last month for summer activities. Temperatures still surpass 20 °C but some peaks already receive snow cover.
In October most lakes in higher elevation start to freeze. Nights are already cold and most of the seasonal campsites close in October. You can find out when is the best time to visit the Canadian Rockies in our detailed post.
How are the roads in the Rocky Mountains in Canada?
Roads through National Parks in the Canadian Rockies are paved. Main roads are open year round unless big snow storm or avalanche hits the area. It can take 2-3 days to reopen main roads. Although roads leading to some places are open only during summer months.
As an example, you can drive to Moraine Lake or Takakkaw Falls only from June to the beginning of October. In addition, in summer months some roads can be under construction and closed for public use. See Parks Canada road closures information.
However, many roads leading through provincial parks are not paved. Gravel surface is maintained from time to time and to have a comfortable ride you shouldn’t drive faster than 50 km/h. Many gravel roads are plowed in winter as well. Places that are worth a visit and are accessible by dirt road are Lussier Hot Springs in British Columbia, Spray Lakes in Kananaskis or Snake Indian Falls in Jasper National Park.
Is there any public transportation in the Canadian Rockies?
There is no regular public transport similar to the East Coast of Canada or Europe. Very limited buses and almost no trains will get you around Canadian Rockies. Western Canada is not densely populated and the government didn’t build a network of public buses.
So how you can get around the Rockies?
There are few private companies that have tour buses but only in Banff and Jasper area. It is possible to get a bus from Calgary to Canmore (CAD 67), Banff (CAD 72), Lake Louise (CAD 70) and Jasper (CAD 130); from Edmonton to Jasper you can take a bus (CAD 90) or train (twice a week CAD 60); and from Vancouver to Banff (CAD 135) you can take bus.
A few private companies can get you from Calgary airport/downtown to Banff and one weekend only service with on-it from Calgary to Banff (return CAD 10). See our post How to get from Calgary to Banff for more options.
Buses in Banff National Park
Parks Canada and Town of Banff have a public bus, which can get you between Canmore (CAD 6) and Banff and also within Town of Banff and Lake Louise. The prices are cheap compared to private companies.
Daily shuttle buses in Banff National Park run from (prices as of 2019):
- Banff to Lake Louise, May 18 – October 8 (10$ roundtrip)
- Banff to Johnston Canyon, May 18 – October 8 (5$ roundtrip)
- Banff to Moraine Lake, September 10 – October 8 (10$ roundtrip)
- Banff to Canmore, daily year-round, public bus route #3 (6$ one-way)
- Banff to Lake Minnewanka, May 18 – September 1, public bus route #6 (2$ one-way)
- Lake Louise to Moraine Lake, June – September 8 (25$ roundtrip)
- Lake Louise to Moraine Lake, September 10 – October 8 (free)
- Lake Louise Gondola to Lake Louise, June 30 – October 8 (free)
Trains in the Canadian Rockies
Many people heard about the Rocky Mountain train and would like to see the Rockies from the train window. You can choose between two routes Vancouver – Banff, and Vancouver – Jasper. It is not public transport but rather a luxury tour company where a ride on the train starts at CAD 3,000 to 10,000 per person.
If you want to ride a train through the Canadian Rockies, you can choose only one budget option that goes between Edmonton and Vancouver. It takes about 34 hours and prices start at CAD 163 one-way.
Renting a car or campervan
To access most of the places in the Canadian Rockies, you will need to rent a car. Car rental starts at CAD 45/day (+insurance and GST) for a small vehicle. Use Rentalcars to compare different car rental companies to find the best deal.
If you like adventurous trips, book a Smile Campervan from us. It’s a budget friendly option to see the Canadian Rockies.
Summer in the Canadian Rockies is best suited for traveling in a campervan. Abundant camping spots close to the most visited places are used by many travelers. If you have a tight budget, you will pay a fraction for accommodation in comparison to hotels or hostels if you travel by campervan. You can travel at your own pace and have the comfort of home right in your car.
Accommodation in the Rocky Mountains in Canada
National Parks in the Rocky Mountains are extremely popular in summer; most visitors arrive in July and August and some accommodations are booked months in advance. As any other well-known mountain resorts, prices for accommodation are quite high. Also with so many visitors, you have a wide range of options. You can get hotel rooms, cabins at the lake shores, hostels, apartments or camping spots.
Prices in summer and during Christmas and Easter are the highest. For this reason, we suggest you book a hotel in colder months and during summer get adventurous and stay in the campgrounds.
Prices in National Parks are higher than in Provincial Parks. Main areas where you can find accommodation are Town of Banff (cheaper option is Canmore), Lake Louise, Jasper (cheaper option is nearby Hinton), Radium, and Invermere. Hotel prices range from CAD 100/night up to CAD 400/night. Most of the hotels you will find in towns although there is plenty of secluded stand-alone huts on lake shores sometimes only accessible by foot or horse.
Camping in the Rockies
While visiting National Parks, all campsites are owned by the government and have reasonable prices. From CAD 20 per campsite, you can book your site online through Parks Canada booking system.
Read our tips, detailed breakdown of each campground and where to go when official campgrounds are full:
It is not allowed to wild camp or sleep in the car on parking lots in any National Park, only in designated camping areas.
Provincial Parks have their own campsites and usually, you pay to honesty box or warden once you check in. Outside protected areas, you can camp for free almost anywhere on the Crown Land (most forests unless private or native land).
Things you can do in the Canadian Rocky Mountains
Most people visiting the Canadian Rockies end up mostly in between Banff and Jasper. The lesser known mountain town of Canmore has also beautiful hikes, lakes and mountain views, see our post Fun outdoor things to do in Canmore. This area of 4 National Parks is strictly protected. We have a list of 100 things you can do in Banff National Park some of which include cross country skiing, snowshoeing, skating on frozen lakes or skiing in winter. We have also published a very comprehensive list of 65 adventurous things to do in Jasper National Park.
In summer you can do plenty of canoeing, hiking, trekking, mountain biking, wildlife watching, and road tripping. Rent a kayak or stand up paddle board and enjoy a day on the lake, good options are Lake Minnewanka, Johnson Lake, Moraine Lake, Lake Louise, Bow Lake, and Maligne Lake.
Many trails are closed for other use than hiking, so you can’t wild camp or ride a mountain bike on many of the trails. This regulation is strict to National Parks.
Hiking in the Canadian Rockies
Hiking is the best activity that can be done at any time of the year. Most of the busiest trails are in Jasper National Park and Yoho National Park. Many popular trails in Banff are well-trodden even in winter. During summer some places can be really crowded. Read our posts about Ha Ling Peak Hike vs. Mount Lawrence Grassi for the best views of Canmore. One of the most popular hikes all year round is Johnston Canyon during summer and during winter for frozen waterfalls and ice climbing.
Read our recommendation: Hiking packing list for summer in the mountains
Mountain biking in the Rockies
A lot of trails in the Rockies are quite long. For example, a return trip to Snake Indian Falls is 55 km long. On a bike, you can do it in a day. Most towns have designated bike trails. Great places for biking are Canmore Nordic Centre, Fernie, Jasper, Golden, and Waterton National Park. Read more about biking in Banff or riding the highest paved road in Canada.
A very popular bike trip is between Canmore and Banff on Legacy Trail. Our preferred place for mountain biking is Jasper with many trails around town for all levels.
Canadian Rockies wildlife
One of the reasons why people visit the Rockies is the wildlife. You can see wild animals such as elk, moose, bear, fox, wolf, cougar, mountain goat, sheep, squirrels, and other small mammals and especially unicorns 🙂
While hiking you should always carry a bear spray, even in popular and crowded places. There’s a confusion that if there’s a lot of people around, you do not need to have a bear spray. Both Alberta Parks and Parks Canada are strongly encouraging to carry one with you at all times. You should never approach and feed wildlife. Fines are up to CAD 20,000. Read about bear safety to know what to do in a bear encounter.
Skiing in the Rockies
Downhill skiing season in the Canadian Rockies is from November all the way to mid-May. That is almost seven months of skiing. Most developed with the longest runs are Lake Louise, Sunshine Village, Whistlers in Jasper, Fernie, and Kicking Horse in Golden.
Cross country skiing season is shorter depending on the snow cover in the valleys, usually from December to April. Well maintained trails are in Canmore Nordic Centre. Read through easy and popular cross country trails in Banff National Park.
Canadian Rocky Mountains Road Trips
The Canadian Rockies cover a vast area with beautiful spots spread over long distances. If you want to see most of them, you will definitely do some road trips.
If you start in Calgary, you can follow Old Cowboy trail south to Waterton National Park. Then you can head north to Banff, from there you can take Icefields Parkway to Jasper, where you can see one the most famous lake in Canada, Peyto Lake.
Or you can take a road trip through western Canada. Vancouver is surrounded by mountains with plenty of outdoor options. For whale watching and amazing beach walks, see our post about Vancouver Island road trip.
Things you can do outside the National Parks
If you love to be outdoors there’s so much you can do in the Rockies. Outside of National Parks you can rent a quad and do some off-roading along Highway 95. You can go white water rafting down the Kicking Horse River. You can fly over the Rockies.
Or set up a tent or park your campervan in the middle of nowhere. Wild camping is allowed on crown land, which is most of the land outside protected areas and National Parks.
Highlights of the Rockies
Don’t pay for overpriced attractions
Government-owned attractions and historical sites such as hot springs, Cave and Basin or museums are cheap or even free. Although privately owned gondolas, boat cruises and tours in National Parks are quite pricey.
If you want to visit some of the paid attractions, there is a lesser known free option. As an example, you can take a paid gondola to Sulphur Mountain or hike up for free, take a bus on the glacier or walk on the edge of the glacier for free (proper equipment and skills required).
The Canadian Rockies on a budget
Do you want to get the most out of your trip for as little as possible? Travel across Canada the cheapest way possible. In recent years the value of Canadian Dollar went down so tourist attractions went up by the same ratio (about 30%).
One thing good to know for European travelers, Canada doesn’t include taxes in posted prices. For Alberta, you have to add 5% to shown price and for British Columbia, you have to add 12%. Prices are seasonal and as you would expect low season prices are cheaper.
We have a detailed post when is the best time to visit the Canadian Rockies which includes a lot of info about this. Hotels start at CAD 100/night, restaurant meals from CAD 20/person. Private attractions CAD 50/person and tours from CAD 100/day.
Couples cans expect to spend in the Rockies between CAD 2500 to 4000 a week and families of four between CAD 3500 to 6000 a week (accommodation, food, car rental, some attractions). Read our post Banff on a budget which details how spend a week in Banff for only 100 USD(140 CAD)/day.
Every visitor of the National Park has to pay a fee CAD 19.60/day for family or CAD 136.40 for the whole year. If you are visiting for more than 7 days, get a yearly Discovery Pass which gives you free admission to historical sites (such as Cave and Basin in Banff).
If you want to move to Banff for a season or a year, read our post about moving to Banff and living in the Rockies.
*In the spirit of full disclosure: Some links in this post are affiliate links, which means that if you purchase through them, we receive a small commission at no extra costs to you. We appreciate your support!
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