Vancouver and Back: 6 Days in the Canadian Rockies
Starting in Vancouver, here's your 6 day itinerary for exploring the canadian rockies
6 days to do the Canadian Rockies is a bit of a stretch but if you don’t mind a couple of long driving days and are happy to hit the highlights, it’s completely doable. We did this trip with my parents, but for younger travellers content to camp and catch some sunrises, you could squeeze even more in!
NB: We drove to the Rockies at the end of April, most roads were open again but lakes were still frozen.
DAY 1: Vancouver to Golden (12 hrs)
We left Vancouver at 8:15am, heading east on Highway 1 via the Bridal Veil Falls: a gorgeous cascading waterfall just over an hour from Vancouver. After a short walk up to the falls, we were back on the road, heading for Merritt.
We quickly left behind the spring weather as we drove up the Coquihalla Pass and suddenly found ourselves driving through an unexpected blizzard!
TIP: It’s best to do this road trip from April to September as the winter conditions can make the road treacherous with frequent closures. You can check the conditions in advance.
Driving into Merritt is like driving back in time. The town centre feels like the Wild West, probably due to its mining and ranching heritage. Quite a contrast from Vancouver! We stopped for a much needed coffee before continuing our journey.
We arrived in Kelowna for lunch time, the biggest city in the Okanagan valley. If you have time, exploring the Okanagan is a must with vineyards and orchards in abundance. The snow had evaporated once more and lovely lakeside views made our pit-stop a little more enjoyable. There are plenty of options and we settled on a little cafe.
Refuelled, we embarked on the longest stretch of the drive from Kelowna to Golden (4 hrs). The terrain was as varied as the seasons we experienced, switching between spring sunshine and winter snowstorms in the blink of an eye. We drove past miles of stunning Okanagan lake, stopped in Sicamous for incredible old fashioned ice creams at a dairy farm before reaching the Rockies. We drove through the spectacular mountains of Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks, getting our first taste of the snow-capped landscape we were set to explore over the next 5 days. We were most surprised to arrive in Golden and lose an hour - at the easternmost edge of British Columbia, you move into the next time zone - who knew? (The people of Golden, probably).
Day 2: Golden to Banff (1hr 40mins)
After our long day on the road, we had a day of exploring (and much needed leg-stretching) ahead. We started the day with a hearty breakfast at a local’s recommendation: Big Bend Cafe. Followed by driving through the jaw-dropping mountains of Yoho National Park to Emerald Lake. Unfortunately not emerald as it was still frozen over but still undeniably beautiful. Some friends had given me the impression the lakes would have thawed by the end of April but unfortunately we found that wasn't the case. We walked through the snowy grounds, for as far as the non-sensible shoe wearers could bear at least! Whilst we didn't get to see the emerald waters, we did get to appreciate the tranquility of exploring outside of peak-season.
We then drove on to Banff, only an hour’s drive from Emerald Lake but took us two as we couldn’t help but stop to admire the tremendous views of the rocky mountains surrounding us.
After a coffee and baked goods revival at Wild Flour, we walked through the post-card worthy Banff, a gorgeous ski town with the snow-capped Cascade mountain looming behind. We passed the stunning architectural gem, the Banff Springs Hotel to the Bow Falls trail with beautiful views of the waterfall and Tunnel Mountain. Whilst we unfortunately weren't staying at the Banff Springs, our accommodation was delightful! We stayed at the Hidden Ridge Resort, moments from the town centre with cute cabins, scenic surroundings and hot tubs! Heaven after our long car journey the day before.
Day 3: Exploring Banff
Our 3rd day was dedicated to exploring Banff and its surroundings so we began with the Fenland Trail, a 35 min woodland walk with the option to go out a bit further to Vermillion Lakes. An easy trail and peaceful break from the bustling town.
We then drove out to Canmore and followed the unbelievable Kananaskis Trail road up to Spray Lakes Reservoir, getting our first glimpse of the classic Canadian turquoise lakes at Rundle Forebay Reservoir on the way. Finally!
We continued driving Highway 742, leaving civilisation behind and getting lost in the mountains. Parts of the road were just gravel and dirt track, others had tight hairpin bends up steep mountain roads which perhaps accounted for the lack of other drivers. With a good vehicle and your wits about you, there's no reason to miss this phenomenal drive! It was exhilarating to continually discover breathtaking views around every bend and feel alone with mother nature.
We carried on to the beautiful mountain-framed Goat Pond (not a pond), before stopping for lunch at Spray Lakes. It was frozen (unsurprisingly) but we got some great views of intrepid snow-shoers and snow-windsurfers - not something you see everyday! The drive itself made the day though, every angle offered an exceptional vista.
Day 4: Banff to Jasper (3hrs, 40mins)
Before we could leave Banff, we had to stop off at Lake Louise - famous for its turquoise waters, framed by the mountains behind. As you can probably guess, the lake was frozen but that didn’t deter the tourists. We ventured out into the middle of the lake and took a few snowy snaps before heading on the road up to Jasper.
Due to the frozen conditions and inaccessible roads, we had to skip Moraine Lake and Peyto Lake but if you’re hitting the Rockies in the summer, I hear these are both well worth a visit! Driving from Banff to Jasper was possibly the most scenic, with phenomenal views of the Rockies in every direction. We twisted and turned our way up to the Columbia Icefield, a 2hr journey from Lake Louise but you’ll need to factor in plenty of photo stops!
At the Columbia Icefield, we joined the Glacier Adventure, $99 per adult (TIP: save 10% if you book more than 48hrs in advance). A specially designed Ice Explorer takes you out to the foot of the Athabasca Glacier, inaccessible on your own. Your driver will also share a good amount of information on the drive down before you get out to explore the most-visited glacier in North America. Whilst it was an enjoyable trip, having previously explored the Franz Josef glacier in New Zealand, I found this to be severely lacking in comparison. However, if you haven’t been up close and personal with a glacier before, it's worth doing!
After the trip out to the glacier, we were able to experience the Glacier Skywalk: a glass-bottomed informative walkway, overlooking the Sunwapta Valley below. The views were stunning and I would recommend doing this for everyone. Tickets are $34 per adult (10% savings also apply if booked 48hrs in advance).
Driving on to Jasper was a 1 hr 20 min journey, with more breathtaking scenery to enjoy.
Day 5: Jasper
Our first stop in Jasper National Park was the Maligne Canyon - 160ft deep, complete with frozen waterfalls (eerily beautiful) and a pretty spectacular circular trail to explore.
From here we drove on to Medicine Lake, sadly passing quite a large area destroyed by forest fires. The shallow lake was not frozen (hurrah!) and created a perfect mirror for the snow-capped mountains behind. Spring/summer is the perfect time to visit as Medicine Lake boasts 17km of underground channels (one of the most extensive in the world) and by autumn, all of the water has drained through the channels, leaving the lake mysteriously empty.
We continued on to Maligne Lake, unfortunately still frozen but still breathtaking with a perfect deep blanket of white snow. We walked through the trails, searching for the perfect picnic spot and sacrificing a few wet feet in the process!
Back in Jasper, we did the Old Fort Point circular walk which was slightly more challenging than we had anticipated. It’s short - 4km, but quite steep in parts and at one of the crucial viewpoints, our path was blocked (quite aggressively I must add) by mountain goats! I thought they'd backdown, they thought I'd make a tasty snack. Still, the views were spectacular and the run from the mountain goats helped us work up an appetite for dinner! Every cloud ...
Day 6: Jasper to Whistler (9 hrs)
We set off at 8am, driving 5hrs south to Kamloops without many stops. It was surreal to leave the snowy rockies behind and suddenly find ourselves surrounded by green fields and flowing rivers again. It was a gorgeous, sunny day in Kamloops so we stopped for a picnic by the Thompson River.
The drive from Kamloops to Lillooet became very flat in parts, with huge open plains and a lot of rural towns. We stopped at Seton Lake, a beautiful turquoise stretch just south of Lillooet and caught a peek of a Canadian freight train snaking around the mountains.
The road twists and turns down to Whistler, passing through the Coast Mountains such as the diamond-like Mount Currie and culminating at Whistler Blackcomb. We spent the night in Whistler village, another beautiful ski town famous for hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics. A popular tourist spot, the gondola up the mountains leave from within the village and there are numerous trails to enjoy. We stayed at the delightful Adara Hotel before driving back to Vancouver (2hrs) the next day.
And there you have it! Vancouver and back: 6 days in the Canadian Rockies. The natural beauty is awe-inspiring and feels never-ending. I would happily repeat this trip a thousand times over and imagine there would still be plenty more to explore. To see the Rocky Mountains in winter, blindingly white with frozen lakes stretching out further than you could grasp was something truly special. I would love to go back and see the change in scenery in the summer. We got a taste of the potential of the turquoise lakes but I imagine canoeing across the likes of Lake Louise would be pretty spectacular. Luckily this itinerary isn't weather dependent so whether you're exploring in summer or winter, prepare to be dazzled from start to finish!