How to Make the Most of the Canadian Rockies

How to make the most of Alberta’s two most popular national parks — Banff and Jasper By: Deanna Ting
Banff National Park’s Lake Louise offers beautiful scenery year-round. // © 2011 justchuckfl
Banff National Park’s Lake Louise offers beautiful scenery year-round. // © 2011 justchuckfl

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The Details

Brewster Inc.

Buffalo Mountain Lodge

Discover Banff Tours

Fairmont Hotels & Resorts

Jasper Adventure Centre

Parks Canada

Ski Banff-Lake Louise-Banff

Sawridge Inn and Conference Centre

Sun Dog Tours

Travel Alberta
Driving down the Icefields Parkway, the 142-mile stretch of road between Banff National Park and Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada, I'd never felt smaller. For miles on end, I was surrounded by the towering mountains of the Canadian Rockies, and I was awestruck by the way the mountain faces changed colors in the morning light, from stark white to soft, glowing pink. I was fascinated by the sight of ice climbers scaling the Weeping Wall -- a sheet of ice that hangs off the ledge of a mountain. Further down the road, as I looked westward out onto the horizon, I couldn't even distinguish where the Columbia Icefield began or ended. All of it was, in a word, unforgettable. 

If clients come to Alberta for just one objective, experiencing the Canadian Rockies will most likely be at the top of their lists. The majestic mountain range, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is not to be missed.

While there are many ways to navigate your way through the Canadian Rockies, I found that one of the best -- and most scenic -- ways to do so involves a weeklong, self-drive tour of Banff and Jasper national parks.

Calgary makes a logical gateway to the Rockies; from there, itís only a 1.5-hour drive to Banff National Park. Having your clients arrive in Calgary and giving them a day or two to explore the city and gather their bearings is an ideal way to start their Rocky Mountain route.

Bound for Banff
The drive from Calgary to Banff is easily accomplished along route 1A. As you enter the national park, you immediately notice a difference in your surroundings: gone are massive billboards or any signs of development for that matter. As a national park, Banff is thoroughly protected from overdevelopment and, thankfully, it shows.

No matter the season, Banff is a playground for sports enthusiasts of all types. From December to May, clients can go skiing or snowboarding at any one of Banff's main ski areas: family-friendly and easily accessible Mt. Norquay; all-purpose Sunshine Village; and world-famous Lake Louise. Or, clients can do as I did, and take part in snowshoeing or an icewalk with a tour operator, such as Discover Banff Tours, or through the guided services of the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. In summertime, popular activities include biking on countless trails, hiking near Lake Louise and canoeing on the Bow River. Other year-round activities include shopping along Banff Avenue; taking a dip in the Upper Hot Springs; and taking a ride on the Banff Gondola, which is operated by tour operator Brewster.

Accommodations in Banff and Lake Louise range from cozy, culinary-driven lodges, such as Buffalo Mountain Lodge, to the historic and palatial, including the world-famous Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel.

On the Icefields Parkway
After spending a few days in Banff and Lake Louise, clients can make their way up the Icefields Parkway to Jasper. The journey itself is a highlight of any stay in Alberta's Rockies -- how often can you drive through a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site surrounded entirely by majestic mountains and endless glaciers?

The drive, depending on traffic, takes approximately four hours. Advise clients to pack a picnic lunch and get on the road well before 9 a.m. in order to avoid the onslaught of tour buses that will eventually make the same commute.
Favorite highlights along the parkway as you head northward to Jasper include glaciers such as Crowfoot Glacier, Bow Glacier Falls and the Athabasca Falls; Peyto Lake, one of the Rockiesí most-photographed lakes; the Weeping Wall, a favorite among ice climbers; and Parker Ridge, a starting point for an easy hike. One of the most breathtaking sights, however, is the Columbia Icefield. The frozen water that makes up the icefield ó which is equivalent in size to Germany -- flows out to the Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

Clients can also book coach tours with an operator, such as Brewster, to see it up close and in person.

While there are a few accommodations to be found along the Icefield Parkway, most of these are only open in the summertime and consist of small lodges or hostel-like properties.     

Jonesing for Jasper
In comparison to Banff, Jasper is much quieter and because of that, some might even argue, it offers a more authentic Rockies experience. Unlike Banff, which has always been a site for tourism, Jasper got its start as a railway hub: Railcars pass through the heart of its township at all hours of the day, and downtown Jasper consists mostly of two main streets.

That small-town feel, however, is all part of the charm that surrounds Jasper. This is a town where the wilderness reigns supreme; clients might spot wandering elk perusing through the neighborhood. Jasperís wide, sweeping valleys possess truly scenic vistas and offer some of the best hiking and mountain biking trails in the Rockies. In winter, skiers will want to head toward Marmot Basin, the regionís major ski area, which has seen an investment of $20 million in recent years to improve its runs and chair lifts. During my winter trip, I took in a Sun Dog Tours wildlife tour where I spotted roaming elk, sheep and deer, as well as a guided icewalk through the Maligne Canyon with the Jasper Adventure Centre. In summer, Jasperís lakes, Pyramid Lake and Lake Edith Cavell among them, transform themselves into beach-like landscapes where clients can go kayaking, canoeing and boating. 

Even for such a comparatively small township, Jasper offers a wide variety of quality lodging,  including the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge and the traveler-friendly Sawridge Inn and Conference Centre Jasper.

Edmonton: The Festival City
After spending time in Jasper, clients can head to Edmonton along the Trans-Canada Highway.

Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, is known as the Festival City and for good reason ó you can join in on any festival or event here at just about any time of year. Like Calgary, Edmonton offers a diverse mix of attractions, including a cutting-edge art museum (the new Art Gallery of Alberta, which opened in  January 2010) and charming neighborhoods, such as Old Strathcona. Clients can also pay a visit to the West Edmonton Mall, the largest mall in North America, to engage in some retail therapy before they board their flights back home.
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