Canadian Rockies And Beyond Road Trip, Hiking And Photography Guide
I spent more than a year travelling around Canada. I experienced all 4 seasons, learnt the meaning of frostbite during the Canadian winter and melted during the intense summer.
I’ve run into bears on hikes and have been bitten by countless mosquitos when camping in the backcountry. I have walked hundreds of kilometres along the trails and spent many hours doing on hand research.
As a result, I have brought to you this personal, highly visual and independent guide to the Canadian Rockies and beyond. It has been divided into four sections: road trip itineraries, day hikes, backpacking trips and photography in order to make it as transparent and easy to follow as possible.
Scroll down and you will also find answers to the most frequently asked questions I receive from you either in the comments or personal emails. If you can’t find an answer you are looking for then write to me in the comments under any article and I will definitely write back! Happy planning!
15 Frequently asked questions about travel in the Canadian Rockies (and Western Canada)
I road tripped through the Canadian Rockies in my self-converted van for 6 months during the Spring, Summer and Autumn seasons. It was a constant ride, full of condensation, mosquitos, road closures, snow, and wildlife encounters. And some of that was during summer!!!
If you are planning a road trip through Alberta and British Columbia a good time is between mid May until mid October, but…
Yes there is a but. If your main aim is to hike hold your horses! The official hiking season doesn’t start until the end of June. Anytime before that and you run a risk of limiting your trip to road side stops and easy valley walks.
Canada’s Spring, Summer and Fall are very short and many businesses only run within this time frame. If you decide to follow one of my Canadian Road Trip Itineraries earlier or later than this, you may face difficulties such as finding operating campsites. In that case I suggest renting a compact car and staying in hotels, most of which stay open throughout the year.
Don’t get me wrong, you can still visit in the winter but think twice about renting a camper van and road tripping. Staying in one town (or maybe two) and basing yourself there for your entire holiday is a better idea.
If you’re an international visitor arriving by air then chances are you’ll be flying into either Calgary or Vancouver. If you have the choice of the two, Calgary is much closer.
To make your life easier, I’ve made several sample self drive travel itineraries. They encompass all of the best spots and the must do activities. They are optimised so you make the most out of your time here.
Just pick a route. They took me over a year to create and they are the best free resource you’ll find on the internet.
Both ideas have their pros and cons and it really depends on what kind of holiday you’re after. I personally prefer motorhome travel. It gives me the freedom of being in the right place at the right time without having to pay hefty hotel bills, only small campsite fees.
Hotels also book out many months in advance, whereas many campsites in the Canadian Rockies are first come first served.
Hotels naturally have their perks: real flushing toilets, a real bed, guaranteed warmth and in-house restaurants certainly make your stay more homely and luxurious.
If camping is not something that tickles your fancy, then make sure you book your hotels well ahead. Popular hotels can book out more than 6 months in advance. As for campervans try to book at least 3-4 months in advance to avoid disappointment!
If you want to travel by campervan I would recommend travelling only during the months of June, July, August. By September the nights become bitterly cold and getting up in a cold camper in the morning might be a struggle. I’ve met people who made that choice unknowingly and were miserable because of it. Motorhome Republic is a great site comparison for campervan rentals.
Yes, Canada’s roads are foolproof. With wide lanes and plenty of signs, it’s easy to navigate even in the most hectic of cities. That’s why it’s such a good country for a road trip.
However I do think some things can be improved. North Americans need to learn the benefits of traffic islands. They are a much more efficient version of a 4 way stop. A 4 way stop is an intersection where whoever arrives first has the right of way, but must come to a complete stop first. The only annoying thing I find about driving in North America.
A nice welcome when driving in Canada was the ability of turning right even when facing a red light, providing that you still yield to all other traffic.
When driving at night stay vigilant for wildlife especially on smaller, quieter side roads. A collision with a moose can be fatal for everyone involved.
Most rental vehicles in Canada are automatic, easy to drive but not very economical compared to the European equivalents. If you are after booking one try Discover Cars. I use them personally and am always happy about their great customer service.
Tempestuous, they’re mountains after all! The winters here are cold, but sunny and extremely arid. The winter can last from November until April. If you’re coming for a skiing holiday then it’s perfect.
However planning a winter road trip around the Rockies is not ideal. Most campsites do not operate and the area is subject to several planned, and unplanned, road closures.
Temperatures can vary from +10 Celsius (50F) down to -40 Celsius (-40F). It’s much quieter here in the winter but still super scenic for those who aren’t into winter spots, here are some photos that prove Alberta is a winter wonderland.
The Spring melt generally happens around May. The majority of the snow in the towns will have disappeared at ground level but will certainly still be present at higher altitudes and on mountain peaks. Road closures will hopefully be a thing of the past and many of the campsites will start to reopen.
June, July and August are brilliant months to visit, long days mean you can make the most of your time here and the wildlife is out in full force. Summer time temperatures are hot and it can be quite rainy, especially in the June monsoon. The average day time temperature will be in the mid 20’s (~75F)
However there is a dark side to travelling in July and August which nobody talks about – the wildfires! They happen often and the smoke from the wildfires often covers the sky and makes everything look bleak. They affected my travel plans a lot. I had to move my backpacking trips and cancel many day hikes because of the wildfire danger.
If you’re an avid hiker then August & September are your most promising months, it’s when there’s the least amount of snow on the trails and when the autumn colours bring everything to life. Temperatures are a complete mixed bag but expect days to flutter close to 20 Celsius (68F) and nights will probably be below freezing. Personally, I find September the most beautiful. It provides the highest amount of colour contrast in the scenery and all different kinds of weather phenomenon.
As the Canadian saying goes “If you don’t like the weather where you are, wait 5 minutes”.
If you didn’t already know, photography is my passion and I came to the Canadian Rockies with the sole intention of capturing the landscapes during all seasons and all weather conditions.
For 14 months I braved the elements, did more than my fair share of exploring and came away with really special shots, which you can see across the whole blog.
You can find some of my favorite locations in the article about the best photography spots in the Canadian Rockies.
But wait, there’s more!!!
If you’re looking for photography locations in the specific areas such as Banff or Jasper National Park or the lesser known Kananaskis Country, I’ve compiled them all in separate articles.
Many lakes in the Canadian Rockies get their water from glaciers. Apparently there’s over 3,000 glaciers here. Unfortunately it’s predicted that by 2100 they will have shrunk to 5% of their current size.
There’s nothing particularly that special about glacial water, it’s just ancient rain water that froze and formed glacial ice, a semi solid substance that slowly flows down mountain valleys. It contains loads of archaic information about climate change though, which is pretty cool. Pun intended.
The slow moving glaciers, grind away at the bedrock below. Due to their mass, they apply so much pressure to the rocks that the substance they grind away is called Rock Flour. Named because it has the consistency of normal cooking flour.
The rock flour eventually gets washed from the glaciers into the lakes. The flour, being so fine, doesn’t immediately drop to the bottom of the lake, it just levitates close to the surface. It’s what gives the cloudy effect and it’s also known as glacial milk.
When the sun rays hit the lake, instead of penetrating deep down, the rays bounce off the rock flour, which absorbs a lot of the blue light in the visible spectrum leaving the lake to appear to us to be anything from a vivid green to a milky blue. Yeahhhh Science!!!!
Canada is a westernised country with western prices. If you’re a millionaire then it is cheap but if you’re searching for bus change in between sofa cushions then it can be quite expensive.
In the summer when I lived in my van I spent around 1200$CAD a month. I think that would be the bare minimum here in the Rockies. For tourists coming on a budget with food, campsites, excursions and a small rental vehicle I would recommend 100$ per person/day (based on two people).
Obviously, if you live more lavishly then that number can easily go up. For example suites in the Banff Springs Hotel can be 1400$ a night.
I think an upper midrange budget, with a decent camper van rental, gas, insurance, staying in both campsites and hotels, eating healthy local food, going on paid excursions and tours and the occasional glass of wine I would suggest around 200 – 250$ per person/day (based on two people).
Hiring a canoe in Jasper can be CAD100$ for a day. Hiring a canoe on Moraine Lake can be CAD100$ for an hour. What I am trying to say is don’t fall into tourist traps. Travelling doesn’t have to be expensive if you do your research properly! That’s what My Canada Travel Guide is for!
I don’t have to give it a second thought. Hands down it’s the hike into Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park. it’s like no other place I’ve ever been to.
I think its popularity stems from its accessibility and flexibility. You can hike, horseback ride or helicopter in and you have 3 different options for accommodation. You aren’t often spoilt for choice in the Canadian backcountry.
If you already know about Mount Assiniboine or have already been there then consider checking out more of my favourite multi-day hikes in the Canadian Rockies. I have personally completed all of them and couldn’t recommend them enough.
There’s so many to choose from it would be irresponsible of me to say that one particular trail is my favourite and will stay my favourite for the rest of time.
With over 1000 km of trails behind me I’ve narrowed it down into a list of my favourite day hikes in the Canadian Rockies.
Try and do as many of them as you can and let me know what you think. If you’re looking for a more specific areas, consider checking out my following posts:
Well, it’s Canada so pretty much everywhere you’ll look you’ll see wildlife. Most people though, myself included, aren’t after squirrels, chipmunks and sheep. The majority of wildlife photographers come here in search of the Big 4: Black Bears, Grizzly Bears, Moose and Elk.
These 4 majestic animals are surprisingly common, and relatively easy to find, in comparison to say cougars, lynxes or wolves. For a complete list of wildlife, and places where you can regularly spot them go to my article on wildlife ‘chasing’ in the Canadian Rockies and beyond.
Again, I’ve had my fair share of wildlife encounters from being followed by a grizzly sow with two cubs on the Tonquin Valley Trail to being lucky enough to spot moose swimming across alpine lakes.
The best advice I can give you is to try and get out as early as possible. As soon as roads/hikes/viewpoints become busy, the wildlife around them quickly vacate the area.
Yes, unfortunately it’s true, all bears crave human flesh. It’s their favourite meal in fact, no exceptions. Ha, just kidding. Bears are shy creatures and are more scared of humans than we are of them! Bear encounters are common in the Canadian Rockies, I have met quite a few black and grizzly bears myself.
The general rule is, as long as you act correctly, you’ll be fine. If you’re hiking outside of the more popular areas, always carry bear spray and know how to use it.
To avoid confrontations with bears whilst hiking always make noise, talk or sing loudly to alert them of your presence. You do not want to surprise a bear, especially a mother with cubs, something that happened to me personally when hiking on the Tonquin Valley trail.
If you do encounter a bear, never run, make yourself large and calmly talk to it whilst avoiding direct eye contact. Always contact the parks authority of your encounter afterward.
Bear jams (traffic jams caused by bears and other wildlife) are common in the summer and can potentially be very dangerous. You should only pull over if it is safe to do so. Please do not block the road and NEVER exit your vehicle. The fines for disturbing or feeding wildlife are very hefty and can reach up to 25,000 dollars!
The elusive northern lights are unfortunately not spotted as easily as you might think. Much like meteorologists chaotic predictions for the regular weather, the forecasts for the aurora are only really reliable a few days (at most a week) in advance.
Generally speaking, you need 3 attributes for a successful show: it needs to be dark, there can’t be any clouds and the auroral activity (KP rating, solar wind and density) have to be high enough for your latitude.
Places like Banff in Canada are quite far south so the chances of seeing an aurora display here are much lower than say in somewhere further north like Yellowknife in Northwest Territories. Yellowknife is in fact one of the best places in the world to see the Northern lights.
I drove over 4000km from Canmore to Yellowknife and back again, just to view a geomagnetic storm that had been predicted. I’ve captured the photo above on one of the nights. As you can see the trip was a total success!
TOP TIP: Winter is much better for viewing than summer as it’s much drier (less clouds) and it’s darker more of the time. Keep your eyes on the KP levels (you can download an aurora app for that) and keep your fingers crossed!
Yes, yes, yes. A million times yes. I don’t know why but I’m not complaining. Everything seems to be so much better when people are nice to each other.
I think with all the space they have over there they appreciate human interaction more, as opposed to us Europeans who are often piled on top of each other in small flats in big cities and annoyed by each other’s presence.
One of my first experiences of the local’s friendliness was standing at a train station with my partner and trying to figure out our connection.
We were approached by a guy who not only pointed us in the right direction but also accompanied us all the way downtown and then insisted on showing us our destination.
Tipping is expected in Canada much like the USA but generally it’s a little less than the US 20% norm. Restaurants, taxis, tour guides, hotel staff are the main services you’ll be using on your vacation and should be tipped around 15% if they’d provided a good service.
If the service was exceptional then tipping more is fine. If the service was not up to the industry standard then tipping less, or even nothing, is also an option. As a rule though 15% is the norm in Canada.
Many restaurants in Canada will also include a 15 – 18% tip with the bill for groups larger than 6 people.
Sales tax is not included in prices. Bare this in mind when purchasing anything. GST varies from province to province. The border between Alberta, where the total tax is 5%, and British Columbia, where total tax is 12%, runs through the Canadian Rockies. This makes everything slightly cheaper in Alberta, so stock up on petrol, plus other sundry items, whilst you are east of the border.
I have tried to cover as much as possible but I understand you still may have some questions when planning your trip. If you do have questions post them in the comment section under any of my articles about Canada. I answer each comment personally!