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Arriving into Calgary airport, you may be surprised at the flat landscape surrounding you. You may worry that you have had a home-alone-2 moment and ended up the wrong flight. However, one glance at the horizon and you will spot the Rocky Mountains in the distance.
These vast parks are home to bears, moose, beavers, elk, and many more incredible animals. Not to mention, throughout your whole holiday you will have a continuous backdrop of the spectacular Rocky Mountain range. In fact, the only things missing from this quintessential Canadian image are some hockey players – perhaps the bears scared them away.
Driving towards your destination, these mountains continue to grow until you are suddenly in their shadows. While these mountains appear unmoving – wise old giants frozen in time – they were slowly shaped by the glaciers that once ruled these regions, and remain at mercy of the elements.
One local told us that she still isn’t used to this backdrop, even after decades of residency in Banff – the snow, sunlight, and clouds transform the mountains into unique panoramas each day.
So, here are the top things to do in the incredible Banff and Jasper National Parks.
Banff National Park
Where to stay
I recommend staying outside of Banff itself – in high summer, this small town is overrun by tourists and prices spike accordingly.
Reside in Canmore instead – a village which maintains the charm and appearance of Banff minus the crowds. This village has an incredible selection of restaurants, cafés and shops which will keep you entertained in the evenings, and there are walks and activities for the day-time.
What to do
Head to the Grizzly Paw Brewery. This small facility brews a selection of incredible beers – tried and tested by yours truly (I highly recommend the Sou’Wester IPA). Take a tour around the brewery and enjoy one on their sampler boards while the guides talk you through the flavours.
Cycle to Banff
Rent some bikes and go to Banff for the day. The scenic Legacy Trail keeps you off the road most of the way so you can relax and enjoy the views. Before you reach Banff, veer off to visit the Cascade Ponds – a set of tranquil lakes around which many gophers reside. These adorable little guys pop up at a nearly constant rate around you.
Once you get to Banff make sure to check out the Bow falls which is walking distance from the town centre.
You can hike up and hike down, or gondola up then gondola down, or mix up the two – it’s up to you. My family and I hiked up which I highly recommend – the sense of superiority over gondola-goers at the top is well worth it. This hill provides a 360 panorama of the landscape so enjoy a coffee or a perhaps a celebratory beer at the top before heading down again.
Follow the river along this trail to see some incredible waterfalls. If you are lucky enough to go with someone who understands a bit of the geology – namely my brother and father – you will be able to read the stories of these rocks through their form and patterns.
Lake Louise and Moraine Lake
These two lakes are the most famous, and the most popular, among tourists. Both are unlikely to disappoint, with waters of an ethereal blue sparkling in the sunshine. Do try to time your trip on a sunny day for the full effect. Peyto Lake is another site along Icefields Parkway which is not to be missed – in the two weeks I spent here, this lake was the most spectacular.
Check out this glacier for a sneak peek into the history of these national parks. The mountains surrounding you have been shaped by glacial power so go see it in action. Unfortunately, this glacier is retreating quickly so catch it soon – marvel at the power and beauty but also take the time to appreciate the rapid climate change which this retreating glacier represents.
Jasper National Park
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Where to stay
The town of Jasper feels more remote than Banff and most accommodation is grouped close to town so it should be relatively easy to plan. Just make sure you are within walking distance so you can have dinner and drinks in town without worrying about designating a driver.
Make sure to stay prepared on these walks – keep your bear spray in close proximity!
What to do
Take a trip with Joe and Patti (Jasper Tour Company) for the ultimate wildlife viewing experience. This pair knows exactly where the animals are likely to be hanging out and provide a wonderful commentary along the way. You can get up close to incredible animals with the knowledge that you are being respectful and under the protection of the experts. Make sure to ask Joe about his own First Nations ancestry and vast knowledge of the area as a result of his own research.
Catch the gondola up to the top, then hike a little further for a truly breath-taking view. This is another panorama but unlike
Catch the ferry across Maligne Lake to see the iconic Spirit Island – a piece of land "named by the Stoney Nation indigenous people for the experiences their ancestors had at this place centuries ago".
Wander past the six bridges which criss-cross the river on a casual afternoon stroll. Each turn of the path offers new and exciting views of this river, from its tiny stream origins to its form as a gushing river.