Good Sam RV Travel Guide & Campground Directory

Canada’s Banff and Jasper National Parks

By Charles Shugart, Jr.

Drive to the north entrance of the park, even though you'll have to turn around and return the same way; good wildlife–spotting opportunities are possible along the highway. Take the Jasper Tram up Whistler's Mountain for a stunning view of the valley and town. Go to Pyramid and Patricia Lakes; skip rocks; have a picnic lunch.

Best of all is the drive to Maligne Lake. Along the way, stop and walk to the edge of Maligne Canyon. The small river plunges through an extremely narrow gap, smoothing and shaping the rock better than any sculptor could imagine.

Throughout the park, you'll have chances to see bears, elk, and Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep. Sometimes the sheep loiter on the road. They are unafraid of people; unfortunately, they are also unafraid of moving cars, so please drive carefully.

The end of the road is at Maligne Lake, which has boat rentals, cafeteria, and one of those inescapably ubiquitous gift shops. Walk along the edge of the lake, the view is gorgeous.

I strongly recommend taking the boat excursion to Spirit Island and the end of Maligne Lake. The surrounding mountains, glacially–carved valley and the lake provide exquisite sightseeing, and the boat trip gives you many different perspectives of it all.

Done right, the drive to Maligne Lake will take several hours, so enjoy it to the fullest. The rugged beauty of your surroundings is unsurpassed. Back in the main valley, there is hiking, boating, fishing, horseback riding, and rafting down the river to add to the scenery and wildlife spotting.

Scenic Drive To Banff

From the town of Jasper, the Icefields Parkway heads south—143 miles to Banff. Jagged mountains, glacially–carved valleys, evergreen forests and wild rivers make this is one of the most dazzlingly beautiful drives in the world.

Make sure you pull over at Athabasca Falls. Walk to the railings where you're close to the waterfall. It's not high, but there is a tremendous amount of water crashing through the rocks. Continuing south, the highway brings you to Columbia Icefield. Stop at the Visitor Center. Take the "bus" ride on the glacier, and then walk on it. The icefield is the only place in North America from which melted ice flows into three different oceans. The Athabasca River goes north to the Arctic Ocean. The Saskatchewan River heads east to Hudson Bay. And the Columbia River flows west to the Pacific.

Then on to Sunwapta Pass, Bow Summit, Bow Lake, Peyto Lake, and even more. Peyto Lake and its aquamarine color appear on numerous calendars. Many of those photographs were taken from the viewing platform. As you meander along the Icefields Parkway, stop at every pullout, it's worth it. Eventually you'll join Trans–Canada Highway 1 near the Lake Louise turnoff.

Once in Banff National Park, as in Jasper, you'll find the park campgrounds provide basic facilities only. You have to leave the national park to find a full–service RV park, but it's not worth the effort. Camping in Banff National Park is where you want to be, whether it's at the Lake Louise junction or near the town of Banff.

Banff Site Seeing

Lake Louise and its Chateau sit on a superb and unrivaled site. Find a space in the monstrously huge parking lot and walk to the lake. See the grand hotel, the gardens, and Lake Louise, with Victoria Glacier and the mountains as a backdrop. Chateau Lake Louise is one of those marvelous Canadian Pacific Railroad hotels. Walk into the main room for a world–class view out the front windows.

After saturating yourself with the visual wonders of Lake Louise, drive back down the narrow, winding road. Take the turnoff to Moraine Lake. There is no Chateau here, but there is an opportunity to buy a few postcards. And rent a canoe. You'll probably recognize the view of the lake and jagged–topped mountains; it is almost as famous as the one of Lake Louise.

Once back in town, drive to the Banff Springs Hotel. One glance will tell you the Canadian Pacific Railroad built it, too. The hotel is splendid, and from the veranda the sweeping sight of Bow Valley is incredible.

Leaving the hotel, drive down to Bow Falls for more excellent sightseeing. Other worthwhile things to do in Banff National Park are a visit to the Hot Springs near the hotel. Get soaked. Ride the gondola to the top of Sulfur Mountain for a fantastic vantage point. Drive up Norquay Road. Take the chairlift for yet another look at the surrounding country. Take Tunnel Mountain Drive. Go to Lake Minnewanka, hop on the tour boat and buzz around the lake.

In the quiet hours of early evening, take a drive to nearby Vermillion Lakes for the sunset. With Sulfur Mountain in the background and crimson–tinged clouds reflecting off the lake, it approaches scenic nirvana. Remember to bring a sweater and your camera!

As with Jasper, I suggest you drive every road in Banff National Park. Serendipity is a wonderful thing. And the whole Banff–Jasper experience offers tons of it.

When To Go

Summer and autumn are best, but that also means crowds are at the maximum. There are ways to diminish the feelings of being crowded, however. Start your daily sightseeing early, especially to places like Lake Louise. If you're standing at the edge of the lake at sunrise, you may not be alone, but you'll be joined by those few others who appreciate the quietness of nature. Besides, you can always return to camp at mid–day and take a nap.

Special Note For RVers

Although campgrounds in Jasper and Banff National Parks do not offer the full–service hookups that many of us like, please don't let that deter you. This section of the northern Rockies offers truly awe–inspiring sightseeing. A little dry camping is indeed a small price to pay for that.