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.
Bears and other wild animals
Two types of bear roam the Rockies – black bear and grizzly – and you don’t want to meet either. They’re not hugely common and risks are pretty low on heavily tramped trails, but if you’re camping or walking it’s still essential to be vigilant, obey basic rules, know the difference between a black bear and a grizzly (the latter are bigger and have a humped neck) and how to avoid dangerous encounters, and understand what to do if confronted or attacked. Popular misconceptions about bears abound – that they can’t climb trees, for example (they can, and very quickly) – so it’s worth picking up the park service’s pamphlet You are in Bear Country, which cuts through the confusion and advises on how to behave to avoid attacks. Cardinal rules include storing food and rubbish properly, making sure bears know you’re there, not approaching or feeding them, and, if you meet one, not screaming or running away.
Other wild animals can also be dangerous, and while you would be unlucky to encounter cougars, which are relatively rare, the chances of meeting elk are much higher. Generally, these are benign creatures, often seen grazing at roadsides, but can become aggressive if approached or if they are with young; don’t clamber out of your car, or cross the highway, to poke a camera in their faces.
The creation of the Canadian Rockies
About four hundred million years ago, eroded debris from the mountains of the Canadian Shield (which covered North America from Greenland to Guatemala) was washed west by rivers and deposited as mud, shale and limestone on a “continental slope”. Then, about two hundred million years ago, two strings of volcanic Pacific islands began to move eastward on the Pacific Continental Plate towards the North American coast. When the first string arrived off the coast, the heavier Pacific Plate slid beneath the edge of the North American Plate. The lighter rock of the islands stayed above, detaching itself from the plate as they crashed into the continent. The orderly deposits on the continental slope were crumpled and uplifted, their layers riding over each other to produce the coast’s present-day interior and Columbia Mountains. Over the next 75 million years, the aftershock of the collision moved inland, bulldozing the ancient sedimentary layers still further to create the Rockies’ Western Main Ranges (in Yoho and Kootenay national parks), and then moving east, where 4km of uplift created the Eastern Main Ranges (the mountains on a line with Lake Louise).
Following the first islands, the second archipelago also crashed into the continent, striking the debris of the earlier collision and creating more folding, rupturing and uplifting of the earlier ranges. About sixty million years ago, the aftershock from this encounter created the Rockies’ easternmost Front Ranges (the line of mountains that rears up from the prairies). Three ice ages over the last 240,000 years applied the final touches, carving sharp profiles and dumping further debris.
Rafting in the Rockies
Rafting in the Canadian Rockies has become very popular, with a range of experiences on offer, from mellow, relaxing float trips to whitewater odysseys that require you to be a strong swimmer. Either way, no previous experience is generally required, but it’s handy to know how rivers are graded: Class 1 water is gentle, Class 6 basically a waterfall. The season runs from May to mid-September, with the “biggest” water generally in June when snowmelt swells rivers. Operators should supply you with everything you need, and will probably also provide a shuttle from the main regional towns. On any trip it’s a good idea to have a change of clothes, wear shoes you don’t mind getting wet, bring a towel and have a bag for valuables.
In the Banff region, the main whitewater river is the Kicking Horse, on the edge of Yoho National Park, an hour from Banff. Its Class 4 sections (including one called “Man Eater Hole”) in the upper sections and stretches of the Lower Kicking Horse Canyon give even seasoned rafters pause for thought. More tranquil is the Kootenay River, in Kootenay National Park, two hours from Banff, a Class 2–3 river; meanwhile, Banff’s stretch of the Bow River is a haven for mellow float trips through pretty scenery.
Jasper National Park
In Jasper National Park, the Class 2 Athabasca River (from Athabasca Falls, 35km south of the town) is scenic and provides gentle rafting, with one or two harmless whitewater sections, from May to October. The Class 3 Sunwapta River, 55km south of Jasper, offers some thrilling stretches of water, magnificent landscapes and good chances to spot wildlife. The Class 2–3+ Maligne River, 45km from town, includes a lively 1.6km stretch of rapids and is used for a variety of trips from July to September. The Fraser River, an hour west of Jasper in Mount Robson Provincial Park, is Class 4 in places but also has some gentle sections where the chance to watch salmon spawning at close quarters from mid-August to September provides an added attraction.
Operators can be found in Banff, Lake Louise, Canmore, Golden, Radium and Jasper.
Winter sports in the Rockies
With terrific terrain, reliable snow cover, uncrowded slopes and relatively low prices, the Rockies are perfect for a ski or snowboard holiday. The region is also ideal for a host of other winter sports like cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, dogsledding and snowmobiling (though the latter is not allowed in national parks). The season at most resorts runs from mid-December until the end of May, with the best conditions usually in March, when the days are getting warmer and longer and the snow is deepest.
The best known, busiest and most expensive resorts are in Banff National Park and within easy reach of the town of Banff. These include the small and steep Mount Norquay; the well-rounded, intermediate-friendly Sunshine Village; and the vast, varied and challenging Lake Louise. The three have a joint lift-ticket system. Locals make up a sizeable chunk of the business, and weekends and holidays are peak times, leaving working weekdays particularly quiet. A glorious three-hour drive north of Banff through craggy montane scenery along the Icefields Parkway lies Marmot Basin. Though far more modest than the Banff resorts, it is quieter and less expensive and has a truly vast system of cross-country ski trails on its doorstep.
In BC’s Rockies, several less accessible resorts are often blessed with even better snow and milder temperatures. And with much of the land here outside strictly regulated national park boundaries, there’s plenty of heli-skiing nearby too. The closest to Banff is Kicking Horse, which bristles with high-alpine expert terrain and awesome views. The grand vistas have provided the name of the next major resort south: mellow Panorama is ideal for cruising around a quiet resort village. Another couple of hours’ drive south is the cheerful, family-oriented ski hill Kimberley. Its multi-day tickets are valid at Fernie, where bountiful mountain bowls and ridges can take weeks to fully explore. With each of these BC resorts no more than a couple of hours’ drive from the next, they make for an ideal multi-resort trip tackled that includes Banff and can be tackled as a loop from Calgary.
Top image: Elk in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada © Weekend Warrior Photos/Shutterstock