Complete Guide to Banff’s Bow Valley Parkway

The Bow Valley Parkway sign at Castle Junction

The Bow Valley Parkway is a 48-kilometre stretch of road between Banff and Lake Louise that parallels the Trans-Canada Highway. It’s been called the alternate scenic route between Banff National Park’s most beloved towns.

On the drive you are treated to first rate views of Castle Mountain and Morant’s Curve – a gorgeous section of highway near Lake Louise that is perfect for train spotting. There are many more scenic viewpoints, pull-offs and picnic areas in addition to two campgrounds.

For anyone looking for unique accommodation, you’ll find a collection of historic cabins that harken back to the era of 1920’s and 30’s motor bungalow camps along with a wealth of natural attractions. 

Check out my Instagram reel for a look at what it’s like to drive the Bow Valley Parkway. This is a road I have driven countless times in all seasons. I absolutely love it – but only on those days I’m not in a hurry.

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The Bow Valley Parkway near Castle Mountain
The Bow Valley Parkway near Castle Mountain in winter

Highlights of the Bow Valley Parkway

  • A quieter, slower and scenic alternative to driving the Trans-Canada Highway.
  • The parkway travels through a wildlife corridor, so chances are much higher on this road of seeing bears and even wolves.
  • There are unique things to do from the parkway. My faves are trainspotting, the Johnston Canyon hike or icewalk, and the Cory Pass hike.
  • Biking is a special way to experience the Bow Valley Parkway – especially during car-free times.
  • There are lots of unique family-run accommodation options.
Our super cozy cabin at Baker Creek
Our super cozy cabin at Baker Creek

Where is the Bow Valley Parkway (also called Highway 1A)?

The Bow Valley Parkway travels parallel to the Trans-Canada Highway between Banff and Lake Louise. Speed limits are 60 kph versus 90 kph on the highway. You will need a Parks Canada pass to drive it. 

How do you access Highway 1A?

There are three places to access Highway 1A – at either end of the Bow Valley Parkway and in the middle.

Fireside entrance: This entrance, about 14 km west of Banff, is closest to the Banff townsite. The turnoff is well signed along the Trans-Canada Highway.

Castle Junction entrance: It’s a further 25 km to reach the Castle Junction turnoff. Go right if you’ve been driving west, cross the railroad tracks, pass Castle Mountain Chalet (where you can buy snacks and gas) and you’ll be on Highway 1A. Johnston Canyon – the highlight of the parkway is just 6.5 km east of Castle Junction.

Lake Louise entrance: You’ll find the entrance to the Bow Valley Parkway on your right, on the way up to the Lake Louise Ski Resort, less than a minute after getting off the Trans-Canada Highway.

Stopping to read interpretive signs along the Bow Valley Parkway in winter
Stopping to read interpretive signs along the Bow Valley Parkway in winter

Seasonal closure on Highway 1A

Part of Highway 1A travels through a wildlife corridor, so every year Parks Canada closes the Bow Valley Parkway to everybody (walkers, bikers, cars, motorcycles) between the Firestone entrance and the Johnston Canyon campground between March 1st and June 25th.

It’s only closed between 8 PM and 8 AM, so it doesn’t affect that many people. This helps to protect important habitat for the bears, wolves and cougars. (I have seen cougar prints on a trail beside the Bow River, so they are very much around.)

The Parkway Cabin Collection on the Bow Valley Parkway

There are three unique roofed accommodation options, the Parkway Cabin Collection, along the Bow Valley Parkway: Johnston Canyon Lodge and Bungalows, Castle Mountain Chalets, and Baker Creek By Basecamp. They all offer the traveler a quaint and charming cabin experience in the natural mountain environment of Banff National Park.

Cabins are outfitted with kitchens, wood-burning stone fireplaces, private porches with chairs and sometimes picnic tables, along with a host of activities that are literally right outside the front door. All are dog friendly. You can look forward to a more personal, rejuvenating vacation thanks to their off the beaten track locations.

Johnston Canyon Lodge and Bungalows offers premiere access to Johnston Canyon along with a fantastic view of Pilot Mountain. You’re treated to amazing Castle Mountain views at Castle Mountain Chalets, located at the corner of the Bow Valley Parkway and the Banff Windermere Highway (Hwy 93). Baker Creek By Basecamp is closer to Lake Louise and as such offers views of stunning Mount Temple. 

Booking lodging on the Bow Valley Parkway

The three resorts described in more detail below can all be booked via Booking.com through the following links – Baker Creek by Basecamp (open year round), Johnston Canyon Lodge and Bungalows (May till October only), and Castle Mountain Chalets (year-round).

What a stunning backdrop for the Castle Mountain Chalet property on the Bow Valley Parkway
What a stunning backdrop for the Castle Mountain Chalet property on the Bow Valley Parkway

Johnston Canyon Lodge and Bungalows

If you’re driving west, Johnston Canyon Lodge and Bungalows are the first of the Parkway Cabin Collection you reach. They’re located adjacent to the popular Johnston Canyon trail on five acres of mixed pine and spruce forest with mountain views. Note that they are open seasonally from mid-May until mid-October. 

Johnston Canyon Lodge and Bungalows has been family owned and operated since 1926. They are the oldest of the Parkway cabins. The original purchase was a teahouse (for $3000) and from those beginnings, a bungalow motor camp with established with small cabins.

Today you can choose from 42 cabins in various configurations including bungalows, studio cabins, and cottages.

On the property there are three places where you can purchase food. The BlackSwift Bistro (named for the endangered Black Swift that nests in the creekside walls of Johnston Canyon) offers an outdoor patio that overlooks the creek.

Their Market Cafe is the place to pick up a delicious latte and baked good before you head out for a hike. And if you’re just finishing the hike up Johnston Canyon, you can get a coffee or ice cream right beside the trail at The Shack.

You can't miss the Johnston Canyon Resort sign on the Bow Valley Parkway
You can’t miss the Johnston Canyon Resort sign on the Bow Valley Parkway
Old style pump at Johnston Canyon Resort
Old style pump at Johnston Canyon Resort
The Johnston Canyon Market Cafe is immediately beside the trail to the falls in Johnston Canyon
The Johnston Canyon Market Cafe is immediately beside the trail leading to the falls in Johnston Canyon
Loads of cabin types to choose from - and some of wonderful views
Loads of cabin types to choose from – and some of wonderful views
Super cute cabins at Johnston Canyon Lodge
Super cute cabins at Johnston Canyon Lodge
Love this cabin with the deck built around the tree
Love this cabin with the deck built around the tree

Castle Mountain Chalets

You’ll find Castle Mountain Chalets at the corner of the Banff Windermere Highway and the Bow Valley Parkway.

You might have passed the property numerous times – perhaps stopping to get gas or to pick up some snacks, wine, or food, but perhaps you, like me, didn’t appreciate that there were 18 cabins, and a handful of lodge rooms behind the office building in the shadow of stunning Castle Mountain. 

John and I were fortunate to spend a night in a deluxe one-bedroom chalet. To say it was roomy would be an understatement. We enjoyed an open concept living area with a kitted-out kitchen, a wood-burning fireplace and lots of comfortable seating.

In addition, we had a massive bathroom with both a shower and soaker tub plus my favourite Rocky Mountain Soap Company soaps. Our bedroom featured a queen bed along with bedside tables. It was all very comfortable.

Outside our cabin was a gazebo with BBQ’s and seating – along with a fire pit and firewood. In the Osprey Lounge you’ll find foosball, and table tennis in addition to a guest laundry and a gym – though why you’d use that is beyond me when there is so much available right out your front door.

We even had snowshoes waiting for us – since there are trails within metres of the cabin. The start of the cross-country ski trail is also literally out the front door and across the highway, a one-minute walk away at most.

One of their nice touches was a dog bed, a couple of dog bowls along with treats and poop bags. They really do think of everything. The store at Castle Mountain Chalets is also well-stocked. If you’ve forgotten any basics like milk, eggs and cheese, wine and even some camping gear, you’ll find it here.

Look for the Castle Mountain Chalets sign on the Banff Windermere Highway
Look for the Castle Mountain Chalets sign on the Banff Windermere Highway
In warmer weather you could enjoy a drink outside
In warmer weather you could enjoy a drink outside
The deluxe one bedroom is a generous sized cabin
The deluxe one bedroom was lovely and roomy
Looking into our bedroom at Castle Mountain Chalets
Looking into our bedroom; notice the thoughtful touches – the dog bed with treats, bowls and poop bags
Our cabin at Castle Mountain Chalets looks inviting from the outside
Our cabin at Castle Mountain Chalets looks inviting from the outside

Baker Creek By Basecamp

Baker Creek, named for an 1880’s vintage prospector searching for gold abuts the forested property, located just 15 minutes away from Lake Louise.

A collection of 16 cabins scattered in the woods and a building with numerous lodge suites are all just a short walk away from Baker Creek and the iconic red chairs and fire pits that the resort is known for. 

Baker Creek is the youngest of the three resorts making up the Parkway Cabin Collection. It dates back to 1949 when cabins were offered as an overnight stop on what was the original Trans-Canada Highway but is now the Bow Valley Parkway. The resort changed hands in 2011, when then owners Mike and Jan, retired after 25 years of rebuilding the original bungalow style camp into a noteworthy mountain resort. 

Today Baker Creek By Basecamp is a prime destination for both couples and families. It exudes a romance and charm which we enjoyed in a newly renovated two-bedroom loft cabin with a ladder. A 20-foot vaulted ceiling gave an airiness to the cabin and the river rock wood burning stove a coziness.

Other notable features were a library wall with board games and some well-chosen books like “When Trains Ruled the Rockies: My Life at the Banff Railway Station” by Terry Gainer. There was also a portable record player and a stash of vinyl albums to listen to. A luxury wet bar rounded out the kitchen area.

If we were visiting at a warmer time, we would have availed ourselves of the private deck with outdoor chairs. In our case, we kept the fire stoked and the wine poured. We could have skated on a small rink that kids will love. We did cross-country ski on the track-set trails that are located just a one-minute drive away. Snowshoes and fat bikes are available free of charge to guests so they can explore the property.

For meals, you can pick up food and snack items in the office, along with wine and alcohol, but I would suggest bringing a selection of food with you. Dining in Lake Louise is another option – though by sometime in 2023, a new restaurant on the property should be open.

Baker Creek Mountain Resort is less than a 15-minute drive from Lake Louise
Baker Creek By Basecamp is less than a 15-minute drive from Lake Louise
You're met with beautiful ice sculptures at check in at Baker Creek
You’re met with beautiful ice sculptures at check in at Baker Creek
Our cozy cabin had a queen bed downstairs and two twin beds in the loft
Our cozy cabin had a queen bed downstairs and two twin beds in the loft
Love the plaid and the old photos on the wall in our bedroom
Love the plaid and the old photos on the wall in our bedroom
Looking out through the icicles to more lodging at Baker Creek
Looking out through the icicles to more lodging at Baker Creek
There are five firepits on the property - and lots of red Adirondack chairs
There are five firepits on the property – and lots of red Adirondack chairs

Camping on the Bow Valley Parkway

There are two campgrounds – Johnston Canyon and Protection Mountain. Castle Mountain campground is closed indefinitely. 

Johnston Canyon

Look for 132 campsites, just 25 km from the Banff townsite. There are sites for tents and RV’s up to 8.2 metres. You’ll find services like flush toilets, showers, cooking shelters, a dumping station and even a Roam transit stop.

Protection Campground

Protection Campground is just 15 km east of Lake Louise. It features superb views of Castle and Protection Mountains and is a good place for star gazing. There is a ROAM transit stop here, so you can leave your car. There are 72 campsites and drinking water, flush toilets, and fire pits. Cell service is spotty.

Make a reservation online though you’ll have to check and see when reservations open.

What wildlife are you likely to see along the Bow Valley Parkway?

Situated in a wildlife corridor and as such, the Bow Valley Parkway is one of the best places to see animals in Banff National Park, particularly early in the morning.

That’s part of the reason for a 60 kph speed limit. Elk, mule and white-tailed deer, coyotes along with both black and grizzly bears are sighted regularly – at least in season. Buy a lottery ticket if you see a wolf or moose. 

What you can do along the Bow Valley Parkway year-round

Look for trains at Morant’s Curve

Morant’s Curve is named for CP Railway staff photographer, Nicholas Morant who took photographs for CP to use to promote the railway. You typically get the best shots in the morning when the red CP trains are set off to perfection, particularly in winter against a snowy-white backdrop.

Morant’s Curve is easy to find but there isn’t much parking. It’s seven kilometres west of Baker Creek Mountain Resort. There’s a small parking lot on the right. Walk across the highway to the viewpoint. There’s a good chance you’ll see people waiting….and waiting some more.

Most of the trains you see are freight trains – and there is no rhyme nor reason to their schedule. We waited about 40 minutes but people beside us were at the two-hour mark by the time we left. You’ll need patience or a bit of luck to get the best shots with trains in them.

You need both luck and patience to see a train at Morant's Curve
You need both luck and patience to see a train at Morant’s Curve
Fortunately the wait is beautiful - and on a January day it was about 1C for us
Fortunately the wait is beautiful – and on a January day it was about 1C for us

Visit some of the exhibits along the Bow Valley Parkway

Along the length of the Bow Valley Parkway are 14 exhibits, marked by a big “E” before you get to them.

They cover everything from some of the animals you might meet on the Parkway to the Era of the Automobile to a monument to the Castle Mountain Internment Camp, a place where thousands of immigrants, most of Ukrainian origin, were imprisoned as enemy aliens between 1914-1920. All are worth a stop.

Informative exhibits along the Bow Valley Parkway - and parking to access them
Informative exhibits along the Bow Valley Parkway – and parking to access them
Castle Camp exhibit
Castle Camp exhibit
At the Storm Mountain exhibit there is a good place to spot trains
At the Storm Mountain exhibit there is a good place to spot trains

Hike or do the ice walk up Johnston Canyon

Johnston Canyon needs no introduction. Hiking up Johnstone Canyon in any month of the year is one of the most popular activities in Banff National Park.

It’s fun for every age group and exciting on the airy catwalks. Scenery along its length is exceptional. In winter, you may be treated to ice climbers on the upper frozen waterfall. It makes my list of best day hikes in Banff and is also tops in my list of Banff winter hikes.

If you’re visiting in winter, I would recommend wearing microspikes. Sometimes the trail is incredibly slippery while at other times it’s just packed snow. In summer and winter there is the option to extend the hike and continue to the Ink Pots, something I’d encourage you to do if you have the time.

The Johnston Canyon Ice Walk on a snowy day
The Johnston Canyon Ice Walk on a snowy day
Admire the ice climbers above the Upper Falls
Admire the ice climbers above the Upper Falls
I love the airy cantilevered catwalk section
I love the airy cantilevered catwalk section

Summer only activities on the Bow Valley Parkway

Cycle the Bow Valley Parkway

Once the snow has melted, the Bow Valley Parkway is a popular spot for road cyclists with e-biking becoming increasingly popular because of available bike rentals in Banff.

Part of the Bow Valley Parkway is closed to vehicle traffic for periods of time every year (usually in May, June and September), so cyclists can get a wonderful taste of car-free biking. Shoulders are wide and vehicle speeds are low, so even when open to cars it’s a great option.

I have cycled the Bow Valley Parkway on my road bike and e-bike. I had a blast on the e-bike even though I didn’t feel like I got much exercise. You can rent bikes at the train station in Banff from Banff Cycle and then cycle on a multi-use pathway to meet up with the Bow Valley Parkway.

We rode to Johnston Canyon and back over a leisurely few hours with photo stops. If you’re on a human-powered bike, double the time. Don’t forget that you can buy snacks at the Market Cafe at Johnston Canyon Lodge.

What a treat to be cycling car-free along the Bow Valley Parkway
What a treat to be cycling the Bow Valley Parkway when there weren’t any cars

Go for a hike starting from the Bow Valley Parkway

There are several excellent day hikes that are accessed from the Bow Valley Parkway. They are in order from east to west as follows: 

Cory Pass Loop

The Cory Pass hike is a 13 km loop if you go around Mt. Edith with 1,000 metres of elevation gain. It’s a steep one and not for those who have a fear of scree. The views from Cory Pass are otherworldly. Absolutely love the hike – but wait for all snow to leave. Allow 4 – 6 hours for the circuit.  

Starting down the austere backside of Cory Pass
Starting down the austere backside of Cory Pass

Johnston Canyon and the Ink Pots

The Johnston Canyon hike combined with the Ink Pots is 11.8 km return with 215 m elevation gain. It’s a busy one, but an absolute winner. Allow 2.5 – 4 hours. It’s also start of the multi-day Sawback Trail to Baker Lake.

The Ink Pots hike in Banff National Park
The Ink Pots hike in Banff National Park

Rockbound Lake

The Rockbound Lake hike should only be done when there isn’t any avalanche danger. It makes for a quieter larch hike in the fall. You’ll get a workout as its 16.8 km round trip with 760 m of elevation gain. Allow 4.5 – 6 hours.

Rockbound Lake in early November
Rockbound Lake in early November

Castle Mountain Lookout hike

I have done the Castle Mountain Lookout hike in spring and winter. You’ll hardly see a soul in winter but you need to know what you’re doing. It’s just 7.4 km round-trip but it’s got 520 m of elevation gain. Allow 3 – 4 hours.

Our lunch stop on the Castle Mountain Lookout hike is a fire lookout - abandoned in the 70's
Our lunch stop is a fire lookout – abandoned in the 70’s
The trail to Castle Mountain Lookout is a little narrower in winter
The trail to Castle Mountain Lookout is a little narrower in winter

Enjoy a picnic at the Fireside Day Use Area

At the start of the Cory Pass trail is the Fireside Day Use Area. It’s further up from the Bow Valley Parkway than expected.

There are picnic tables around, but if you’re fleet of foot you can cross the river to an old stone fireplace. On a hot sunny day, you won’t mind getting your feet wet. Don’t forget to leave nor trace and  pack out everything you packed in.

Cross this small stream to reach an old fireplace and a shaded place for a picnic
Cross this small stream to reach an old fireplace and a quiet place for a picnic

Winter only activities on the Bow Valley Parkway

Fat bike at Baker Creek

You can rent fat bikes at Baker Creek By Basecamp and cycle a loose network of trails on their property or head out onto the Parkway. The Parkway is probably a good weekday option, but I’d avoid it on the weekend because of traffic and icy roads.

My friend Dave from Travel Tales of Life fat biking at Baker Creek
My friend Dave from Travel Tales of Life fat biking at Baker Creek

Snowshoe or hike to the Ink Pots

You can snowshoe to the Ink Pots from the Moose Meadows trailhead, a few kilometres west of Johnston Canyon. I’d recommend doing that on the weekend as it isn’t as busy as Johnston Canyon. 

The trail, rated moderate, gains 335 metres over 5.9 kilometres one way. To do the return outing with time at the Ink Pots allow 4 – 5 hours. The scenery once you reach the Ink Pots is absolutely glorious.

We had a glorious day to do the snowshoe to the Ink Pots
We had a glorious day to do the snowshoe to the Ink Pots – an easy trip off the Bow Valley Parkway
The Ink Pots maintain a temperature of 4C year round
The Ink Pots maintain a temperature of 4C year round

Hike up to Silverton Falls

John and I walked up to Silverton Falls, a two-tiered waterfall from the Rockbound Lake trailhead.

The trail to the falls was well-trodden but there is some avalanche danger on the steep slope right before you reach the falls. You should know what you’re doing and have the right gear to continue or turn around when you reach the steep slope. It would be an excellent choice in the summer.

Snowshoe or do a winter walk on the trails at the Rockbound Lake Trailhead
Snowshoe or do a winter walk on the trails at the Rockbound Lake Trailhead
The steep slope in question that could run
The steep slope in question that could run
Its slippery with a steep dropoff once you reach the falls
Its slippery with a steep drop-off once you reach the falls
Silverton Falls in winter
Silverton Falls in winter

Cross-country ski on track-set trails parallel to the Bow Valley Parkway

My eyes were opened this year when I learned about track-set cross-country ski trails in the woods parallel to the Bow Valley Parkway. They run from Baker Creek Mountain Resort to the Castle Mountain Chalets so an up and back would have you skiing 30 kilometres. Fortunately, there isn’t a lot of elevation gain.

Baker Creek Mountain Resort takes responsibility for the section from their resort to Castle Mountain Lookout. Castle Mountain Chalets looks after the section from Castle Mountain Lookout east to the junction with the Banff Windermere Highway.

You can count on the trails being track-set after a snowstorm, and periodically in between, depending on staffing. I did see trails all the way to Johnston Canyon but they didn’t look to be track-set.

Baker Creek track sets the trails from their location down to at least Castle Mountain Resorts
Track set trails from Baker Creek down to Castle Mountain Resort paralleling the Bow Valley Parkway
Reportedly you can even ski as far as Johnston Canyon
Reportedly you can even ski as far as Johnston Canyon

Thoughts on the Bow Valley Parkway experience

I’ve driven the Bow Valley Parkway on numerous occasions but I hadn’t spent the time to explore it in-depth.

What a wide variety of year-round activities there are with the added benefit of the unique Parkway cabin collection to provide an unforgettable Canadian Rockies experience. A big thank you to the Parkway Cabin Collection for hosting me, but you should know that all thoughts and opinions are mine alone. Enjoy!

Location map of things to do and places to stay on the Bow Valley Parkway

                                                             

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

A year round guide to Banff's Bow Valley Parkway

 

 

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