There are a few reasons why Americans rattle off these two when asked to name a few Canadian national parks: proximity is likely to be one reason, and the other is simply epicness. We’re a bit spoiled in the US, with parks like Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Zion in our backyard. Banff and Jasper, however, will make your jaw drop and your breath catch just like our jewels do. Of course, there are many amazing times and fun ways to do these parks, so I’m just jotting down what this photographer considers to be the best of the bunch. And even though I’m giving you recommendations on how much time to spend in each park, remember that there are plenty of stops to work in as you move from place to place, so give yourself extra time for a little adventure on travel days.
This one is easy for me, and that’s autumn because colors, colors, colors! There’s a sweet spot of about four weeks from late September to early October which definitely draws crowds, but the eye candy is worth it. Believe me, no painting or photograph can duplicate the way these colors hit your eye in person. Summer is also a gorgeous time of year, with wildflowers peaking from mid-July to mid-August. The rest of the year, bring your snow gear and sunglasses.
Since we’re talking scenery as a main consideration for the time of year to travel, you should be aware of the unsightly “bald spots” that are plaguing the park. Actually, it’s more precise to say the mountain pine beetle plagues it. The dying trees that these pests leave behind cover nearly half of Jasper National Park, so you’ll see the colors tainted by stripes and patches of dull clay brown. The parks service is all over the problem. They know what caused the infestation and they’re working to never let this happen again. Just know that it’s an unavoidable blemish on the landscape (not to mention a heartbreak to see all those dead trees, and impacted vegetation and wildlife). Nature plainly has her way of reminding us not to upset the balance, or there will be consequences.
It’s true that there’s a bus service if you’d prefer to not get a rental car or leave your car in town. But why go all that way to such an immensely spectacular area when you can rent a Jeep and be about as unrestricted as possible? The ability to slow down and take in the scenery as well as all the wildlife (moose, bears, deer!) takes any sting out of the rental price. And it makes it much easier to avoid crowds on those super popular hikes which is worth the Jeep’s weight in gold!
Make sure you set your alarm before sunrise. Set the volume to as loud as possible, and make sure the coffee only needs a button pushed. I can’t stress this enough. Aim to be at the trail head or viewpoint just as the dawn light hits the sky (before the sun actually hits the horizon). Other people will have the same idea, but you’ll miss the bigger crowds and afford yourself better “WOW” moments if you do. You can always nap later.
Banff is the southern park and much closer to Calgary, so it’s probably your first of the two. Three days is a great amount of time to spend in Banff (four if you want to spend a lot of time in town). This gives you an excellent feel for the park’s diversity.
Banff Town is the perfectly charming mountain town, and it has just about everything you’re thinking when you read the words “perfectly charming mountain town.” Amazing restaurants, gorgeous boutiques, hot springs, hiking—all nestled up against a towering jagged skyline. Take the gondola to really get a feel for the immense landscape of where you are, and spring for appetizers and a hot cocktail at Sky Bistro which perches at the top. Trust me, you won’t get a view like this without hiking poles and a very big Camelback.
If you want a little more centralized location and a quieter alternative to all the fun in Banff Town, you can find a cozy resort or Airbnb in Lake Louise, which has more of a village vibe. There isn’t as much stuff to do or restaurants to discover, but if you’re not interested in camping and the outdoors is your main focus, start your lodging search here.
Johnston Canyon, 2 hours – What I now regularly refer to as “waterfall paradise.” This is one of the most popular hikes in the parks, so remember what I said about setting your alarm. You’ll hike along iron catwalks suspended over milky creek water, get a little damp at a few viewpoints, and have the option to keep hiking up to the Ink Pots which are cold mineral springs in an open meadow. Most hikers seem to be somewhat disappointed in the extra effort, so we took our time at the falls (didn’t want to leave!) and turned back.
Moraine Lake, 1 hour – One of the signature landscapes of Banff, so be prepared to fight for parking as early as 5 am, so be extra early. Even in heavy snow, this lake is stunning and completely worth the early wake up time. It’s possible to rent a canoe and paddle out into the beauty, but be warned that you might have to endure shouting, angry voices from land, all trying to get “that shot.”
Sunwapta Falls, 2 hours – This one is also incredibly popular, not only because it’s a dazzling, multi-tiered waterfall, but also because it’s close to the main parkway. From the viewpoint parking lot, you can see the upper falls, then hike about 60 feet down to the lower fall where you can watch all that waterpower spill into the Sunwapta River.
Tangle Creek Falls, as much time as you want – It’s a shame to miss this one since it’s on the side of the road on your way up to Jasper. Since it’s so accessible, and the multi-tiered cascade shows off so much water movement, this is an easy and fun one to play around with your photo gear. Prop your phone up on the hood of you car and try to snap a few slow shots.
Lake Agnes Tea House, 1.5 hours – It’s hard to say no to a hike that has tea and cookies. From Lake Louise, you switch-back up for a little over 1300 feet. We saw a ton of wildlife on this hike—mountain goats, grizzlies, moose, and the usual little critters. You might be a little out of breath by the time you reach the tea house at the top, but it’s a signature experience that you’ll definitely remember.
Since you’ve made it all the way to lower Canada, it’s more than worth it to keep trekking into Jasper. There is amazingness here that you don’t experience in Banff. I recommend 5 to 6 days in Jasper since it’s bit more spread out and there’s more variety.
The town of Jasper is small, sleepier, and more residential than either of its southern counterparts, but there are a few places to stay. I recommend Patricia Lake Bungalows which sits right next to the lakeshore. It’s back away from town, so it feels almost like a retreat within your vacation.
Maligne Canyon, 3 hours – This is a pretty easy hike through one of the most dramatic and water fueled canyons in the area. In fact, many say this is the best canyon in either of the two parks. You’ll cross four bridges, each with their own unique views. Allow for extra time on this hike like we did, because there’s astonishing beauty every which way you turn.
Maligne Lake, as much time as you want – The road leads to the northernmost tip of the lake where you can catch a ferry and tour the lake from the water, including a swing by Spirit Island. You can also rent a canoe and paddle out to the island, but don’t think you can show up and grab a boat the day you visit. This area is incredibly popular with families, so you’ll be fighting lines and waiting times. You can also stroll the lakeshore for a more laid-back look at it all.
Athabasca Falls Canyon, 1 hour – This hike feels a little like a maze with twists and turns. This is primarily due to the slot canyon open and closing as the water rushes through and down it. There are tons of viewpoints where you can spend time watching the waterfalls while you’re immersed in the canyon itself.
Valley of the Five Lakes, 2.5 hours – An easy hike that winds around the lakes, you’ll come upon footbridges, piers, overlooks, and clearings that might give you a glimpse of some of the bigger wildlife. The mountains span the skyline around the lakes, so there’s always a good backdrop for the emerald waters.
Cottonwood Creek (Patricia Lake Circuit), 1.5 hours – This is an easy but gorgeous hike that takes you through birch groves and draws tons of wildlife. There’s a bit more open landscape here, so it gives you that feeling of BIG as you work through forest and meadows.
Pyramid Lake, 2 hours – Another easy one that you should not miss. Like others in the parks, this one offers boats and bikes so you can explore in different ways. The lake has that sweeping, expansive feeling that would be amazing to experience by boat. Go at sunrise or sunset to really experience the landscape, it becomes even more magical at these times since the light softens and pops the color.
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