One of the questions I get asked a lot via email is what’s the better place to visit – Banff or Jasper? So far the question has related to a summer or fall visit only.
The bottom line for an answer – though it’s wishy-washy, is that one town isn’t better than the other UNLESS time is of the essence and you happen to be starting in Calgary. Under these circumstances, Banff would be my recommendation so you’re not spending the entire trip driving. The driving time between Banff and Jasper is about 3.5 hours but that doesn’t allow for stopping a dozen times along the Icefields Parkway to gawk, hike and take in the phenomenal mountain scenery or for the return drive.
But it really comes down to what you want to do. I’m biased towards anything outdoors so you can immerse yourself in the grandeur of the Rockies. Both Banff and Jasper offer incredible outdoors adventures – including thousands of kilometres of hiking and backpacking trails; you can raft, canoe or kayak out of both towns. Banff offers a Via Ferrata experience while Jasper does not. But Jasper has a canyoning experience and Banff does not. What are you looking for in a mountain vacation? Is it dining (more options in Banff), culture (again more options in Banff) or adventure?
Read on to see what you can do in each mountain town.
BANFF and LAKE LOUISE
I love the town of Banff but I rarely venture near it in the height of summer. Still, it makes a great base for a few nights, but I’d be inclined to stay away from the downtown area. Check out the Juniper Hotel just off the road to Mount Norquay. Buffalo Mountain Lodge is another superb choice that gets you away from the hustle and bustle – as does the hotel at the Banff Centre. Of course there is all sorts of great backcountry camping that will get you far away from any crowds and communing with nature. But you do need to reserve well in advance through Banff National Park. There is also the Two Jack Main Campground, 12 kilometres from Banff. It offers 320 first come, first served secluded campsites as well as glamping options. The Tunnel Mountain Village Campground, just five kilometers from Banff offers 188 sites year-round.
Lake Louise, just 40 minutes from Banff needs to be included in any trip to the region, despite the fact it will literally be crawling with tourists at the height of the summer. Get an early start and you can beat the rush of humanity. In Lake Louise if money isn’t an issue, stay at the Post Hotel though you should know it’s a drive away from the lake itself. Overlooking the lake is the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise and just a few hundred metres further away is Deer Lodge. In the village of Lake Louise there are some slightly less expensive options – Baker Creek Mountain Resort and the Lake Louise Inn.
What do you do on a visit to the Banff – Lake Louise corridor? These 10 options will narrow your choices.
- Get an adrenalin rush on the Via Ferrata at Mount Norquay. Finish the experience with a drink or a meal at the restaurant perched on the mountain offering one of the best views of the area. If the Via Ferrata sounds unappealing, just take the chair ride up and have lunch at the restaurant.
- Rent a bike in Banff at Soul Ski and Bike and head out on the Banff Legacy Trail towards Canmore or bike the Figure 8 – a loop that includes the road up to Lake Minnewanka and the Tunnel Mountain road.
- Hike to the Plain of Six Glaciers and the Lake Louise Tea House.
- Take the Lake Louise gondola – and with luck you’ll see a grizzly bear. Or try the Sulphur Mountain gondola in Banff to get a 360 degree view of the Bow Valley. The grand opening of the new upper terminal is scheduled for August 1st.
- Enjoy a soak in the Upper Hot Springs; it’s best done on a coolish day.
- Book a bus ride up to Sunshine Village – and then take off with a camera and a backpack for a few hours or a whole day of hiking. Go at least as far as Rock Isle Lake, ideally during wildflower season.
- Take the boat tour on Lake Minnewanka – or do the easy hike along the lake.
- Do a backpacking trip in Banff National Park. Try the stellar hike to Egypt Lake in wildflower season (the third week of July approximately) or the standout Skoki Loop.
Beautiful wildflowers near Healy Pass
Hike up Johnson Canyon but go early in the morning or late in the day to beat the crowds.
- Be a cowboy for a day. Check out the Spray River Valley and horseback ride along the base of Mount Rundle.
Jasper is harder to access than Banff so it’s never quite as busy. Plan on a four hour drive from Edmonton or a five hour drive from Calgary – without stops.
There’s a great range of places to stay. At the high end there is the beautiful Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. Go for a drink if nothing else. I’ve stayed at the rustic Bear Hill Lodge. It wasn’t fancy but it was clean and a great breakfast was included. Downtown, the Whistler’s Inn doesn’t look like much on the outside but the renovated rooms are very nice. Outside of town, check out Becker’s Chalets.
For the outdoor adventurer, Jasper is a stellar town to use as a base.
Ten things you’ll want to consider doing in and around Jasper include the following.
- Check out Athabasca Falls. It’s worth at least an hour of your time.
- Drive to Maligne Lake. Along the way look out for wildlife – as you’re almost guaranteed a sighting. There are several wonderful things to do near the lake. Nab a campsite at the far end of the lake and spend one to four days exploring the area by kayak and on foot. There is also the option to do the popular boat cruise to Spirit Island .
- Backpack the Skyline Trail. The trailhead is across from Maligne Lake. You need 2 – 4 days – and it’s possible to stay at Shovel Pass Lodge – so you don’t have to carry a tent or cooking gear. A stellar day hike in this area would be the one to Bald Hills.
- Do a 2 – 3 hour hike up the stunning Maligne Canyon.
- Book a half day canoeing trip on Pyramid Lake with Wildcurrent Outfitters.
- Canyoning anyone? Canadian Wilderness Expeditions offers the only experience of its kind in western Canada. Included in a day’s outing are eight rappels, along with pools, drops and waterfalls.
- Take the Jasper Sky Tram and then hike to the top of Whistler’s Mountain for 360° views.
- Go rafting on the Athabasca or Sunwapta Rivers with Maligne Rafting Adventures.
- Check out Tonquin Valley Backcountry Lodge – either on foot or via horseback. Located in the Rampart Mountains, the lodge provides access to some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in Jasper National Park.
Do you have a preference – Banff or Jasper?