You know I love to pick travel spots that aren’t listed on most people’s Top 10 List of travel destinations. I’ve found that every place I visit is amazing, but I love the priceless experiences you can have in the various corners of the world where many people just wouldn’t think of going. With that being said, I recently road tripped through Alberta, Canada and while this gem of nature and culture has its fair share of tourists and travelers (which are you?), the sheer immensity of the place gives you plenty of space to be completely alone in the vast wilderness or be surrounded by friendly, fun people all day long in one of the small towns tucked into the valleys of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. However you want your experience to go, it’s going to be fun and beautiful. You can’t go wrong with a road trip along the Icefields Parkway of Alberta, Canada.
The most likely way to begin a road trip, or any visit, in Alberta, Canada is to fly into Calgary. This is an eclectic, modern and immensely diverse city that is filled with great energy and fun, lively people. I recommend spending a day or so in Calgary with the understanding that the real treasure of Alberta, Canada is the natural beauty that is found outside of Calgary. Calgary, Alberta, Canada has a ton of awesome restaurants, pubs, running trails, parks and events that are available all year long and I absolutely suggest you consider exploring all of these on your trip to Alberta, Canada.
Here are some of the key spots in Calgary
Without Papers Pizza – a great little hard to find, upper level pizza shop with a wide variety of beers and other food items. The setting of this place is great! It’s clean, friendly, casual and best of all the pizza is incredible.
Prince’s Island Park – a literal island in the Bow River and right on the edge of the Chinese center of Calgary, this is not only a beautiful place to sit and watch the river roll by, but to do just about any type of outdoor physical activity you may have in mind. I ran from my apartment to the park in a matter of minutes and explored the city from here and had a first rate time.
Calgary Stampede – this is why Calgary is still called “Cowtown” by many. This event happens every July and it’s quite simply a world-class and massive rodeo event exhibition and festival. It’s legit!
Calgary Tower – it’s a tower and it’s tall, that’s about what you need to know. From atop the Calgary Tower you can see the entire city and the view is incredible. Calgary has a very pretty skyline so you may want to check it out! I did not personally venture up the tower because I was having too much fun trying to get a photo (right) where the Canadian flag was unfurled which proved to take quite awhile, and because my apartment had an elevated skyline view too.
Analog Coffee – I found this gem late one night after exploring the city for hours. It is located right on one of the main streets and sets a classic, high quality coffee house vibe where locals sit around and talk the night away. There is plenty of room to sit, plenty of quality options to be enjoyed and the overall setting of the place added to my Calgary experience in every way.
Pho Restaurants – they’re everywhere and they’re great! There is a very lively and rich Asian culture in Calgary and whether it be Vietnamese, Japanese, Phillipino, Chinese or any other food origin, it’s available and it’s good.
ScotiaBank Saddledome – a major landmark on the Calgary skyline, this massive venue holds all the big acts that are on tour and visiting the city of Calgary. It’s very close to the city center and easily accessible so seeing a show while you’re in town may be the perfect way to spend an evening.
The road trip to Jasper, Alberta, Canada
I’m going to give you this bit of sage advice and you are going to ignore it. But here it is! When driving westward out of Calgary, do not stop and take photos of the amazing landscapes, just drive right past them and enjoy them through your windshield. I am here to tell you that every moment you head west toward Banff, and then north toward Jasper, the landscapes get more and more amazing! You will waste an entire day if you keep stopping along the way. Get to where you are going as soon as you can so you can get off the road and explore each place you stop on your way back to Calgary. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to get the same photos on the way back I assure you. Get to Jasper as soon as you can! That is my recommendation to you about this particular road trip.
Jasper is a small, quaint town tucked into a valley at the north end of the Icefields Parkway. It’s a great little town and I highly suggest you stay here at least two nights. From here you can do a number of things that make up that classic and epic Alberta, Canada experience.
Lodging – hotels in Jasper are a bit pricey for what you get. Most of them are quite modest and often outdated but they’re a place to stay. Book well in advance or give AirBnB a try and you’ll find something suitable, but don’t show up in Jasper expecting to find a room. Book well in advance!
Food – the restaurants in Jasper are pretty good and that’s about it, with one exception. The one I liked the most and put at the top of the heap is the Olive Bistro & Lounge. I’m sure there are a few other nice restaurants with good menus, but this one was recommended to me by a number of locals and I tried it and it was great so I am recommending it to you.
Night Life – there is a nice little pub scene in Jasper and that’s about it. Some of the restaurants will offer live music and most of the hotels have their own lounges and bars but the place I found to give me the best, most lively and friendly experience was the bar attached to the Astoria Hotel called D’ed Dog. I personally loved the place. After going into just about every other bar and pub in Jasper on two consecutive evenings I ended up at D’ed Dog and thoroughly enjoyed everything about it. The food is awesome (try the poutine), and the variety of beer is great, there is plenty of room to sit and move around, it’s a great pub experience overall. The best thing is that the place is filled mostly with locals which gives it a very cool vibe. I suggest you try it.
Places to Go From Jasper
With Jasper, Alberta, Canada as your base for a couple of days there are a few places you’ll want to go that will blow your mind and give you all the nature you can stand. Here is what I suggest you consider doing:
Lake Maligne – just go, it’s worth it. If you take a boat tour, and I suggest you do, be sure to take the last one of the day if possible. This ensures the boat captain is not in a rush to stay on schedule and that other boats are not crowding you and disrupting your photographs. The reason I mention photography is because one of the world’s most notable photographic landscapes is located at Lake Maligne. Spirit Island (right), made famous many years ago is known world-round as the iconic picture that many people think of when they think of Alberta, Canada. I got there on an beautiful, but overcast day so I did not get the crystal blue waters and bright mountains that are typical from June – October, but the experience is amazing no matter the time you visit.
Maligne Lake Road – this stretch of road lies right beside a number of amazing natural landscapes that you’ll want to see. The road ends at Lake Maligne so I suggest going to the lake first then taking your time heading back toward Jasper. For the entire length of the road, you can literally pull over to the side of the road, get out, and walk into a million different and amazing nature scenes all within the course of an hour.
Key features along Maligne Lake Road:
- Maligne Canyon
- Maligne Falls (see video below)
- Medicine Lake
- Lake Maligne (with Spirit Island)
- Athabasca River
Mt. Robson Provincial Park, British Columbia, Canada – this is a real highlight of the trip although it is just across the border in British Columbia. This border is just about 45 minutes from downtown Jasper so it is a very quick and beautiful drive and one I hope you will consider. If you are staying in Jasper for two days, a day along the Lake Maligne Road and another day in the Mt. Robson Provincial Park would be an incredible experience no matter how you look at it.
Hike on the Berg Trail – this trail is going to be a comfortable hike through the wilderness approaching Mt. Robson. The Berg Trail will take you right up to Kinney Lake (4.5 km one way) at the base of Mt. Robson, the most notable mountain in all of North America’s Rocky Mountains. While the Berg Trail will take you far beyond Kinney Lake all the way to Berg Lake, that would take half a day to complete and would require carrying a lot of water and potentially other supplies like a tent, rain coat, etc. I suggest hiking to Kinney Lake and heading back, it’s amazing! I will admit to meeting a large male black bear on the trail, but I just backed away, gave him some space and went on about my business leaving the area just about 1 km short of Lake Kinney. Just for peace of mind, bring some bear spray as I did. I chose not to use it because nature and the wildlife in Alberta are vastly more important than you or I seeing a lake and getting a photograph. You can buy bear spray in Jasper and it’ll put you at ease however I will say that you’re a world class ass hole if you spray anything with it that isn’t trying to kill you. So there’s that.
Driving the Icefields Parkway
The Icefields Parkway that stretches from Jasper south is a truly magnificent stretch of highway. For hours, your windshield will be filled with one amazing nature scene after the other. Alberta has done a very nice job with signage and with roadside stop points. They know you’re there to take photos and see things and they make it easy so pull on over, park the car, snap some shots and keep on moving south.
Discover Athabasca Falls
The Athabasca River runs all over the place and you’ve seen it before if you stayed in Jasper but as it runs south along the Icefields Parkway you’ll see it over-and-over again and hopefully you’ll stop along the road over-and-over again to capture some of the Athabasca River’s amazing beauty. Athabasca Falls is an impressive natural show of force and is quite literally just a few seconds drive from the main road. You can hike to it within a minute or two and can see the falls very clearly all year long. The canyon below the falls is breathtaking and you’ll really be missing out if you don’t take time to see that as well. It is definitely worth your time to make the stop, get your camera ready and take some quick photos before continuing on with your road trip.
Check out Sunwapta Falls
Sunwapta Falls are some of the most impressive falls along the Icefields Parkway. And, like most of the others, they are right alongside the main highway running from Jasper heading south toward Banff. These falls are long and rapid and very easy to see and photograph. I really enjoyed sitting on the edge of the falls (safely) watching the water rush by in this relatively remote area of Alberta, Canada. Highly recommended stop on your Alberta roadtrip.
I will say that all of the falls in Alberta seem really dangerous and Sunwapta Falls is no exception. The canyon walls are so steep there would be no way out for quite some time if a person were to fall in so please be careful when walking around the ledges surrounding these falls, they can be very slick.
See the Columbia Icefield
This stretch of road from Jasper heading south is unbelievable. I pulled my car over to the shoulder and sat on the bank of a river for hours just watching raw nature right before my eyes. You can do this in a million spots all along the way and I suggest you take your time, take plenty of photos and relax while you take it all in. The Columbia Icefield Discovery Center seemed like a little bit of a stretch for me. I didn’t participate in that because I don’t need to walk on a glacier and learn about them in order to appreciate them. In fact, I want to leave glaciers alone so they aren’t harmed any more than they already are. You can see the glacier from the road and drive right up to it so do what you want, but this particular aspect seemed a bit like a tourist trap and environmentally unnecessary to me. The cool part would be that they take you right up onto the glacier and let you check it out, but I really didn’t feel like dealing with all the lines and people and potentially adding to the glacier’s demise in order to see it that close up.
Check out Tangle Falls
It’s right on the side of the road so it’s hard to miss. There is a pull over spot right across the road from the falls so there is ample opportunity to check them out. They fall right down the face of the mountain and hit multiple levels before falling again. Tangle Falls are really cool and you can check them out and hike up to them if you like. I didn’t hike them because I didn’t want to photobomb anyone’s photos, but the area in general is really cool and I suggest stopping by this spot along your drive.
I will say that Tangle Falls pops into your windshield pretty suddenly. Given this, I did notice that a number of cars instantly slammed on their brakes to try and pull over and were nearly rear ended. I recommend knowing where Tangle Falls is on the map so you can anticipate it and stop in a manner that will ensure your safety. This is the only area along the Icefields Parkway that I found to be unsafe.
Stop by Mistaya Canyon
30 seconds drive time off the Icefields Parkway is Mistaya Canyon. Take another 2 minutes to walk from the parking lot to the canyon and there you are, all kinds of awesomeness right before your eyes! The trail can be a little too steep if a person needs a wheelchair or something like that, but it is otherwise very simple to access the canyon walls and see Mistaya Canyon in all its glory!
See Bright Blue Peyto Lake
Peyto Lake is incredible! It’s one of those lakes that pop up in the photo gallery whenever you search Google images of Alberta, Canada. This bright blue lake is pretty amazing to see and is only a 10 minute walk from the parking lot along the highway. The entire trail is paved with asphalt making it a very easy walk right up to the overlook area high above the lake. Of all the places that you’ll want to see simply for the sheer unique beauty of it, Peyto Lake is the one. There is nothing else quite like it I can assure you so be sure to drop by and enjoy the amazing display of color laying far below you.
Next Stop Lake Louise
An old time resort area, Lake Louise is a modern tourist destination and it is no surprise why once you set eyes on the lake and surrounding mountains. A glacier sits behind the lake feeding the crystal clear blue waters of Lake Louise as steep mountains rise above the lake on either side. There are a number of nice lodges and hotels in the Lake Louise area with the biggest and most prestigious being right on the banks of Lake Louise itself.
Walk, Bike, Drive to Moraine Lake
Moraine Lake, unlike Lake Louise, is about 14 km from the main road. From June until the snows come the road is open to cars, but from winter until late May the only way to access the lake is to walk or ride a bike. I rode the road to Lake Moraine in late May and it is an uphill grade pretty much the entire way to the lake. The lake is most visible and picturesque during the summer and early fall. The day I went, I decided to go very early and the fog was so heavy that many of the surrounding mountains were not very visible but this photo shows what it looked like. A Google search will show you much better photos from the summer months.
Spend Some Time In Banff and Canmore
I tend to think of Banff as overcrowded and overly commercialized but it still retains its beauty and splendor. I really enjoyed spending time in the town of Banff and absolutely loved hiking the surrounding mountains where I saw more wildlife than I did anywhere else during my road trip through Alberta, Canada. The mountains are amazing, the hiking trails are very well kept (as they are in all of Alberta), and the people were warm, friendly and helpful. The downtown area was a lot of fun but I decided not to stay in Banff for many days because I wanted a place with fewer tourists and more locals, so I decided to stay in Canmore. I loved that town, it was great. The microbreweries, the little restaurants and all the little shops, the entire town of Canmore was cool.
Bow Falls is right on the outskirts of Banff and were super-simple to reach! They’re beautiful, as is the entire area, and while they were right in the town you would have thought you were out in some remote area of the forest when hiking some of the trails around Bow Falls. If you go to Banff be sure to drop by Bow Falls, you’ll be glad you did as they are beautiful and impressive.
And Enjoy The Drive Back to Calgary
Banff and Canmore are about an hour west of Calgary so the drive back to the largest city in Alberta, Canada is short and sweet. I hope you’ve enjoyed the photos and I hope my explanations were thorough enough for you to form an opinion on whether or not a road trip in Alberta, Canada along the Icefields Parkway would be something you would enjoy. I know that I loved the experience and I think you would too.
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