Rising with overwhelming majesty from Alberta’s rippling plains, the Canadian Rockies are one of the main reasons people come to Canada, and few North American landscapes come as loaded with such high expectations. So it’s a relief to find the superlatives scarcely exaggerate the splendour or immensity of the region’s forests, lakes, rivers and snow-capped mountains. Many of the best bits have been hived off into several impressive national parks, but be warned that planning an itinerary that neatly fits them all in is just about impossible. It’s also unnecessary: the parks are equally sensational so it’s best to put as much effort getting deep into the backcountry in one or two spots as it is to tour the most accessible highlights and main hubs.
Joined to their smaller US cousins, the Canadian Rockies extend north of the US border almost 1500km to Canada’s far north, where they merge with ranges in the Yukon and Alaska, forming the Continental Divide in the process – a vast watershed which separates rivers flowing to the Pacific and Arctic oceans from those flowing into the Atlantic. But the range is best known for its virtually unbroken north–south chain of national and provincial parks, and for its world-class ski resorts.
Almost immediately west of Calgary, the region’s main gateway city, lies Kananaskis Country. This series of less restrictively managed provincial parks exists in part to take the pressure off the adjacent Banff National Park, the region’s best known and busiest park. Just north the range is protected by the less visited Jasper National Park, by far the largest park in the region. The western boundary of both Banff and Jasper parks is also the provincial border, so adjacent areas are protected in a separate set of BC parks: Mount Robson Provincial Park, just west of Jasper – which protects Mount Robson, the highest and most dramatic peak in the Canadian Rockies – while Yoho and Kootenay national parks lie just west of Banff National Park. At the southern end of Canada’s Rockies, and coupled with Glacier National Park in the US, is small but impressive Waterton Lakes National Park.
To see as many of the highlights as possible in a couple of weeks, start with Banff National Park, then head north along the otherworldly Icefields Parkway to Jasper and Mount Robson before doubling back – no hardship, given the scenery – to take in as much of the Yoho–Golden–Radium–Kootenay loop as your time allows. With another week to play with, you might try to miss some of Kootenay in favour of a bigger loop south through Kimberley, Fernie and Waterton Lakes – the latter particularly tempting if you are on your way to or from the US.
You can get to all the parks except Waterton by bus, but travelling by car is the obvious way to get the most out of the region. Once here, you’d be foolish not to tackle some of the 3000km of hiking and biking trails that crisscross the mountains, the vast majority of which are well worn and well signed. We’ve highlighted the best short walks and day-hikes in each area, and you can get more details from the excellent park visitor centres, which sell 1:50,000 topographical maps and usually offer reference libraries of trail books. Other activities – fishing, skiing, canoeing, whitewater rafting, cycling, riding, rock climbing and so on – are comprehensively dealt with in visitor centres, and you can easily rent equipment or sign up for organized tours in the bigger towns.
Finally, don’t underestimate the Rockies. Despite the impression created by the summer throngs in centres like Banff and Lake Louise, with their excellent roads and sleek park facilities, the vast proportion of parkland is wilderness and should be respected and treated as such.