The drive between from Calgary all the way through to Jasper, Alberta is a treat. Once you’re about 20 minutes west of Calgary you get into big sky country and from there it just gets better and better. Highlights include the area around Canmore, Banff, Lake Louise, Bow Lake and the Columbia Icefields. I think the drive between Banff and Jasper is the most scenic drive in Canada – though there is some close competition – the Cabot Trailin Nova Scotia for instance and the the Trans-Canada Highway between Revelstoke and Golden in British Columbia.
Experience 289 gorgeous km (175 miles) of awe-inspiring Canadian Rockies scenery between Banff and Jasper. There are loads of jaw-dropping mountain scenes packed in that distance and so many worthy stops that I’d suggest taking your time. As in take several days to do the most scenic drive in Canada between Banff and Jasper.
Plan on a minimum of a four hour drive between Banff and Jasper if it’s your first time driving the Icefields Parkway. There are lots of pull-offs along the way, usually at the most scenic points. In summer patience is an asset as there are long stretches where passing isn’t possible.
The most scenic drive in Canada doesn’t require any route finding. You won’t get lost. Just be sure to turn north, not west, onto the Icefields Parkway shortly after Lake Louise. In winter the road can be treacherous – and with almost no cell service, so it’s one you don’t want to do in a storm.
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Banff to Jasper Drive – 11 Stops you Shouldn’t Miss
1. Visit Lake Minnewanka
Lake Minnewanka, just a shirt drive away from the Banff townsite is beautiful – but it’s also a drive where you almost always see bighorn sheep. Stopping in at Two Jack Lake for a Parks Canada red chair moment is also worthwhile.
2. Take the Banff gondola or Jasper SkyTram up for the views
Take the gondola up in Banff, or the Sky Tram in Jasperor both. You get superlative views at both locations. Dining at the top of the Banff Gondola is a magical experience. At the top of the Jasper SkyTram there are many kilometres of hiking trails offering grand views of Jasper and the Athabasca River.
3. Visit the Vermilion Lakes near Banff
Check out Vermilion Lakes especially at sunrise or sunset for prime views of Mount Rundle. There’s easy access to the area via the Banff townsite. You’ll also cycle by it if you park in Banff at the trail station and cycle Highway 1A.
4. Hike up Johnston Canyon
Take Highway 1A out of Banff and plan to spend at least an hour hiking Johnston Canyon. Walk the cantilevered catwalk up to two sets of falls – no matter what time of the year it is. This is a perennial favourite of visitors to Banff, so try to go early or late in the day to beat the crowds.
5. Visit a mountain tea house in Banff National Park.
Bow Lake is the perfect spot to get out of the car and find a picnic table down by the lake. You can’t beat the colour of the water or the magnificent setting. You’re also almost at the trailhead for the Helen Lake hike – so if you’re keen for a stunner of a hike with wildflowers and great views, make the stop but allow about five hours.
7. Stop in at Bow Summit and Peyto Lake
Visit the Bow Summit and enjoy one of the best views of the incredible turquoise-coloured Peyto Lake. Plan to spend at least an hour exploring the trails up and around Peyto Lake on foot.
8. Hike to Mistaya Canyon
Do the easy 1.o km one way hike on an old road to Mistaya Canyon and marvel at the waterfalls from a safe place. Count on a return trip to take upwards of 45 minutes. Mistaya Falls are one must stops on Canada’s most scenic drive. Photographers will love the place.
When you get to the bridge look down and gape at the power of the Mistaya River and check out the smooth limestone, eroded over time. Many visitors go down to the rocks – us included – but the area around the canyon isn’t fenced so be SUPER careful.
9. Visit Sunwapta Falls
Sunwapta Falls are 179 km north of Lake Louise and 56 km southeast of Jasper. The Athabasca Glacier feeds Sunwapta Falls – which is made up of an upper set of falls that everyone visits who stops, and a lower set of waterfalls that few people bother hiking to.
The upper falls are very easy to access from the parking lot and tend to be very busy. They have a drop of 18 metres – and they are one impressive sight from the bridge when you’re looking over the narrow cleft the water is forced through.
The hike to Lower Sunwapta Falls is well worth the effort – and it is only 4 km return. Hike through lodgepole pine forest to reach them. The peak season to visit Sunwapta Falls is in late spring and early summer during the snow melt runoff.
10. Explore the Columbia Icefield
One of the most popular spots on the most scenic drive in Canada is the Columbia Icefield. You can see the Athabasca Glacier from the highway (and you get an incredible view if you hike up Wilcox Pass) but you can also hike up to the toe of the glacier. In summer you can also take a snow coach tour onto the glacier.
It’s an easy hike starting from the parking lot across from the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre. Follow a trail through the moraine left by the retreating Athabasca Glacier. Go as far as is safe and use common sense.
There are places to eat in Banff, Castle Mountain (just off the highway), Lake Louise, Saskatchewan Crossing, the hotel at Columbia Icefields, Sunwapta Falls Resort and then of course in Jasper.
For great coffees and treats for the car, I recommend the Wild Flour Bakery Cafe in Banff, Laggan’s Mountain Bakery and Deli in the Samson Mall in Lake Louise and the Bear’s Paw Bakery in Jasper.
Scenes from the scenic Banff to Jasper drive
The following photos will give you some idea of what to expect on the incredible Icefields Parkway part of the most scenic drive in Canada.
What to take on the drive between Banff and Jasper
Bring some warm clothes for this drive. I’ve left Calgary when the temperature has been in the mid-20’s ºC and three hours later it was just above freezing at the Columbia Icefield. If you plan to explore the Columbia Icefield then include a hat and mittens too. And don’t forget the rain gear.
Where to stay on the Banff to Jasper drive
There is plenty of camping you can do along the parkway but not everyone wants to rough it. Here are ideas of where to stay – many personally tested. Hotels and motels fill quickly in summer so reservations are recommended. I’m including Banff too since most visitors end up at least visiting the townsite.