The hills in Canada’s west have long been alive with the sound of Aussie accents — everyone from gap year travellers earning their keep in the ski resort towns of Whistler and Sun Peaks, to retirees riding high on once-in-a-lifetime luxury coach tours.
OK, ‘hills’ is an understatement. Try stonking, snow-capped, fir tree-clad mountains, so beautiful that your soul does cartwheels at the sight of them. Stretching almost 5,000 kilometres from northern British Columbia in Canada, down to the state of New Mexico in the USA, the Rocky Mountains have to be seen to be truly appreciated. The Canadian portion crosses the provinces of BC and neighbouring Alberta, and has a particular magic. It’s a region of azure glacial lakes, roaring rivers, extraordinary wildlife, a rich First Nations culture, and fascinating pioneering history.
Flights to and from Canada are likely to restart by the end of 2021, and many of us are daring to dream of doing that long anticipated Rockies road trip. With that in mind, here’s a suggested itinerary and checklist of ten experiences that shouldn’t be missed along the way.
We start this journey in the charming city of Victoria on Vancouver Island, before heading to adventure capital Whistler, Historic Hat Creek, bustling Banff, stunning Lake Louise, wildlife viewing capital Jasper, and on to our final destination of Vancouver on board the famous Rocky Mountaineer.
We recommend starting your journey in the historic city of Victoria on Vancouver Island, before driving to adventure capital Whistler, Rockies gateway Kamloops, bustling Banff, incomparable Lake Louise, and wildlife viewing capital Jasper. From there, it’s worth abandoning the car (figuratively speaking) and taking the famous Rocky Mountaineer rail service back to the south-west corner of the country — ending your trip in cosmopolitan Vancouver.
Here are ten of the best things to do on a Canadian Rockies road trip.
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Situated just a short flight across the Strait of Juan de Fuca from international air hub Vancouver, there are two signature experiences you shouldn’t miss in British Columbia’s charming capital Victoria. The first is a whale watching cruise. It’s possible to spot several species of whale in the straits around Vancouver Island, including humpbacks, greys, and the headline act, orcas. Spring Tide Whale Watching offers a relaxed early afternoon departure and a sighting guarantee (or you get a free return cruise). You’re unlikely to need it.
Second, channel your inner green thumb at the fabulous Butchart Gardens. The grounds are the legacy of Mrs Jennie Butchart’s early 20th century efforts to transform a disused quarry into a verdant Victorian pleasure garden. It now draws horticultural enthusiasts from across the globe.
The ferry crossing from Vancouver Island to the mainland with BC Ferries is part of the epic Trans Canada Highway, which stretches from the Pacific Coast to the Atlantic Coast — a distance of just under 8,000 kilometres. Once you’ve disembarked on the mainland at Horseshoe Bay, hang a left onto Highway 99 and head north towards the famous ski resort town of Whistler. You can break the trip at Shannon Falls, which plunges over a 335-metre-high cliff. It’s a fitting introduction to the natural beauty of Canada’s west.
Whistler is a stunning spot and a year-round adventure lover’s playground. If you’re more artist than adventurer, drop by Gallery Row (part of the Hilton Hotel). Whistler Contemporary Gallery showcases fine art from top Canadian artists, while Black Tusk Gallery displays striking Indigenous works. It’s easy to understand where landscape artists find their inspiration.
Two hours’ drive north-east from Whistler, the tiny town of Lillooet is the first of three stops that will give you an insight into the opening up of the west to European settlement. Home to possibly the world’s smallest jail, Lillooet Museum is packed with relics from the pioneering past and is well worth a visit.
An hour further on will bring you to Historic Hat Creek, which sits on part of the original Caribou Wagon Trail — constructed to service the Caribou gold fields in the 1860s. Historic Hat Creek brings the history of the Gold Rush to life and has plenty to entertain visitors of all ages. The First Nations’ village displays traditional shelters and cooking practices, and there are cultural presentations on ceremonial dress and dance.
From here, you’ll reunite with the Trans Canada and head west through Kamloops. The coming of the Canadian Pacific Railway further fuelled colonisation, and your history lesson continues in the small town of Craigellachie. Here, the final spike of the mighty transnational railway from east to west was hammered into place on November 7, 1885.
It’s time to get better acquainted with the spectacular Rockies. Continuing west, you’ll delve deep into the range — passing through Mount Revelstoke, Glacier, Yoho and Banff National Parks en route to Banff town in Alberta. There are endless scenic highlights to stop and admire along the way. The Natural Bridge over the wonderfully named Kicking Horse River in Yoho National Park is prime selfie territory, as is the vast Emerald Lake.
Banff is one of Canada’s most popular tourist destinations and offers something for every type of traveller. Go gallery hopping, shop up a storm along Banff Avenue, enjoy a soak at the Banff Upper Hot Springs, and take a gondola up to the top of Sulphur Mountain for incredible vistas of the surrounding region. There’s probably only one vantage point that offers a better view than this, and that’s from the sky. Alpine Helicopters operates scenic flights over the Rockies, departing from Canmore — just a short drive from Banff town.
Backtracking an hour up the Trans Canada will bring you to shimmering Lake Louise — named after Queen Victoria’s fourth daughter. If you’ve been keeping your accommodation spend in check so far, splash out on a night at the adjacent Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. The outside of the Chateau isn’t all that inspiring, but the inside is fitting testament to the tradition of Canada’s great railway hotels of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. If you are feeling really flush, push the boat out on a lake view room.
Enjoy a relaxing morning at the hotel, then cruise north along the spectacular Icefields Parkway towards the town of Jasper. You’ll pass through the Columbia Icefield — the largest field of interconnected glaciers in the North American Rockies. The Glacier Discovery Centre offers access to the ancient Athabasca Glacier (estimated to be around 10,000 years old). You can hike to the toe of the glacier or ride in a monster Ice Explorer right onto the vast plain of ice. The Skywalk provides sweeping views of the glacier and surrounding mountains.
Jasper National Park is the largest park in the Rockies and renowned for its wildlife viewing opportunities. Elk, deer, moose, caribou, bighorn sheep, coyotes, wolves, cougars, and of course, bears — both black and grizzlies — call the 11,000 square kilometres home. Statistically, and somewhat surprisingly, the elk is the most dangerous animal in Jasper. Refer to the Parks Canada website for wildlife safety advice before you visit. The Jasper Adventure Centre offers a variety of guided park tours, including a walk to beautiful Maligne (pronounced ‘ma-leen’) Canyon.
For a destination packed with so many incredible experiences, the Rocky Mountaineer is the icing on your Canadian cake. After all that driving, the two-day rail trip from Jasper to Vancouver offers the opportunity to relax and unwind, and enjoy the ever-changing grandeur of the Rockies without having to keep one eye on the road.
There are two classes of service on board. Passengers in Gold Leaf Service travel in the famous bi-level domed carriages, and enjoy chef prepared a la carte meals in the dining room (beneath the main seating deck) and an open bar. Silver Leaf Service features single level carriages and an in-seat meal service. Both classes include overnight accommodation and hotel transfers in Kamloops mid-way through the trip.
We wrap up this roadie/rail holiday in fabulous Vancouver — the West’s biggest city. You could easily fill a week here; highlights include the Vancouver Art Gallery, the hugely popular Granville Island Public Market, and glorious Stanley Park. History lovers should make a beeline for the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park. Interpretive displays share Vancouver’s backstory, and you can take a stroll across the suspension bridge — 70 metres above the swirling Capilano River. The original bridge, erected in 1889, was made of hemp rope. This modern incarnation utilises cables, but still has a definite (and somewhat disconcerting!) sway.
Allowing two days for the Rocky Mountaineer, you’ll need 10 to 12 days in total to do this trip. Driving in the Rockies is a dream — and while there are big distances involved, you never have to travel too far to see something amazing. Here are some general tips to keep in mind:
Do you have any suggestions to add to our list of the best things to do on a Canadian Rockies road trip? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Please note: Travel restrictions may apply. Vaccine requirements, reduced capacity, shorter opening hours, and a mask mandate are likely to be in place for tours and attractions.
Additional images: Bigstock
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.