Top Wow Spots of Banff & Jasper National Parks
Dazzling lakes, sheer canyons, expansive icefields, tumultuous waterfalls, and a pair of vibrant towns—prepared to be bowled over
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Surrounded by a cathedral of massifs in the rugged Valley of the Ten Peaks, Banff National Park’s Moraine Lake is truly breathtaking. Its otherworldly azure waters grow increasingly vibrant as the glaciers that feed it melt through summer and fall. Rent a canoe between June and September to take in its beauty or stroll its long, rock-strewn shore to find a perfect place to perch. Several excellent hiking trails also lead from the lake. In the summer, trek to Consolation Lakes (two hours round-trip) or Eiffel Lake (4.5 hours round-trip) for more alpine lakes and stunning views. From about mid-September through the first week of October, the Larch Valley trail is a must: a 2.7-mile climb through the forest, peering out at summits and sparkling glaciers until you reach groves of larch trees, their needles aflame with autumn foliage. If you’re up for more, keep hiking above the tree line to the moonscape that surrounds the tiny Minnestimma Lakes. Round-trip, the trail takes about four hours. If a day’s visit here just won’t do, book a stay at the Moraine Lake Lodge, which has a gourmet restaurant as well as rooms and cabins overlooking the mountains and water.
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With its precipitous rock walls and plunging waterfalls, Johnston Canyon is home to one of Banff’s most celebrated and accessible hikes. Divided into three legs of increasing difficulty, it starts with a 0.75-mile metal catwalk that hugs a towering limestone rockface, deep in the canyon. With blue water rushing below you and rocky outcrops looming above, you eventually emerge at the Lower Falls. Keep climbing up forested switchbacks, passing rapids and tiny cascades for another 0.75 miles, to the misty amphitheater of rock at the base of the 100-foot Upper Falls. From here, another 1.9-mile trail climbs over a ridge to a broad, open meadow ringed by jagged peaks. Dotted with warm, bubbling green-hued pools that emerge from deep within the earth, the area’s known as the Ink Pots. The full hike takes roughly four hours round-trip, while journeys to the Lower and Upper Falls alone take one hour and 1.5 hours respectively. When the falls freeze over from December through April, Johnston Canyon draws a steady stream of ice climbers and crampon-wearing hikers. You can also go on a guided ice walk. If you find yourself wanting to stay nearby, the Johnston Canyon Resort rents simple and cozy fireplace-equipped cabins and also has a restaurant.
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The Town of Banff
World-class dining, wild nightlife, one of Canada’s most important arts incubators, and trails that lead right from town into the mountains—Banff has it all. Soon after a group of railway workers connecting Canada’s coasts stumbled upon natural hot springs here in 1883, tourism became Banff’s business. By 1885, Banff was promoting itself as a resort town, and that year, the surrounding wilderness became Canada’s first national park. Today, ringed by forested slopes and majestic peaks, it is still the biggest tourist hub in the Canadian Rockies. In town, you can soak in the waters of the Banff Upper Hot Springs take a gondola above it to the top of Sulphur Mountain, stroll along the Bow River to the tumultuous Bow Falls, or take a 2.7-mile roundtrip hike atop Tunnel Mountain for sweeping views. To experience Banff in its late 19th-century glory, stop at the grandiose Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, which dubs itself Canada’s “Castle in the Rockies,” for fondue or a dip in its decadent indoor mineral pool. In Banff’s bustling downtown, you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to restaurants, bars, cafes, and shops. From hostels to luxury lodges, there’s everything in terms of accommodation too. While in Banff, be sure to check the calendar of the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, an important arts incubator that hosts concerts, readings, gallery events, and artist residencies. The quirky Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies is also worth popping into for art and history, while you can get your taxidermy fill at the Banff Park Museum. In the winter, the town becomes a hub for its pair of ski resorts.
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Nestled amidst snowy summits in Banff National Park, the 13-mile-long, emerald-hued Lake Minnewanka is the largest lake in the park. Just three miles from the Banff townsite, it is also one of the most popular recreational areas in the Rockies. Plenty of relaxed shoreline trails draw hikers and cyclists here, while picturesque picnic areas and pebbly beaches make great places to while away an afternoon. At the only lake in the park that allows motorboats, you can take an hour-long scenic cruise as well as rent canoes, pedal boats, or outboard-equipped boats directly from its shores. Minnewanka is also one of the best places to go fishing in the Rockies, especially for trophy-sized trout and whitefish. Scuba divers also flock here to explore a townsite that was submerged when part of the lake was dammed. In the winter, strap on a pair of ice skates, snowshoes, or cross-country skis.
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There's a reason that Lake Louise is the Canadian Rockies’ most iconic site: simply put, it’s beautiful. Here, mountains and glaciers frame milky emerald water set at the foot of a grandiose turn-of-the-century hotel. Rent a canoe to explore the lake or ride the Lake Louise Gondola for a chance at spotting a grizzly bear. Numerous hiking trails also lead from Lake Louise, including the 45-minute Fairview Lookout and the four-hour Plain of Six Glaciers, which takes you to a lovely backcountry teahouse. In the winter, Lake Louise transforms into a ski resort and you can also rent skates to visit an ice castle that’s erected annually on the lake. The lavish Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is also worth a visit to pair a drink, meal, or afternoon tea with phenomenal alpine views. During July and August, arrive early to beat the crowds. When the area gets particularly crowded, Parks Canada provides free shuttle service from off-site parking lots to the lake.
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Cutting through Banff and Jasper National Parks, and running parallel to the Continental Divide, the Icefields Parkway is one of Canada’s most spectacular drives. Starting north of Lake Louise, this two-lane highway stretches for 144 miles to the town of Jasper alongside the Columbia Icefield—the largest swath of glaciers in the Rocky Mountains. Between alpine lakes, sawtooth ridges, tumbling waterfalls, and expanses of ancient ice, travelling along the Icefields Parkways is truly mesmerizing, especially when it bursts above the tree line. Numerous turnouts and trailheads dot the road for photo-ops and hikes, including electric blue Peyto Lake, the towering Wilcox Pass, and the churning Sunwapta Falls. Perhaps the most popular stop along the road is the Icefield Centre, where you can grab a meal, spend a night, take a short hike to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier (perhaps the most easily-accessible glacier in the country), or embark on a “Glacier Adventure” aboard a jacked-up six-wheeled bus.
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From near-vertical gorges to sparkling lakes to soaring summits, all the best of what Jasper National Park has to offer can be experienced in Maligne Valley. Accessible from the town via the 30-mile Maligne Lake Road, you can spot bears, bighorn sheep, and moose while you drive through the gorgeous valley. Stop to peer into Maligne Canyon, take in disappearing Medicine Lake, or embark on one of a handful of other worthwhile hikes, like the Mary Schäffer Loop. Once you reach Maligne Lake, be prepared to be dazzled by the massifs reflected in its clear, blue waters. 14 miles long and 318 feet deep, it is the second largest glacier-fed lake in the world. In the summer, stroll alongside the lake, rent a canoe, or take a boat tour to tiny Spirit Island, which is one the park’s most photographed sights. You can also go fishing here, dine at the Maligne Lake Day Lodge, or paddle out to one of the lake’s three backcountry campsites. In the winter, come armed with snowshoes or cross-country skis, or take in frozen waterfalls and ice caves on the Maligne Canyon Icewalk.
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Miette Hot Springs
Steaming geothermal pools encircled by nature–it doesn’t get more relaxing than Jasper National Park’s Miette Hot Springs. Used by indigenous people for millennia, these remote hot springs began to be developed in the early 20th century. Today, piping hot 104-degree water rich in sulfate, calcium, bicarbonate, and magnesium flows into Miette’s pair of voluminous pools, which are walled by mountain slopes frequented by bighorn sheep. Open from the beginning of May until mid-October, you could easily spend a day here, soaking, eating in Miette’s café, and hiking on either the short Source of the Springs trail to see steaming water emerging from rock and the ruins of Miette’s first bathhouse, or trekking for four to six hours along the Sulphur Skyline trail to summit a mountain and see the landscape splayed below. 38 miles east of the town of Jasper, the winding road that leads to the springs also offers excellent wildlife-spotting opportunities.
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The mighty Athabasca River originates high in the Columbia Icefields and flows alongside the Icefields Parkway into the town of Jasper before heading east into Alberta’s heartland. Once indigenous fishing and hunting grounds, the river became a fur trading route after the arrival of Europeans. Today, dotted with islets along its rock-strewn, forested shores, its chalky green waters draw wildlife-spotters, picnickers, and white-water rafters, with trips being arranged via several companies in the town of Jasper. 19 miles south of town, the Athabasca Falls day-use area makes an excellent river stop, with short, well-maintained trails leading to a narrow canyon, a tumultuous cascade, and violent rapids. Another great way to take in views of the Athabasca is via a two- to three-hour hike on the Red Squirrel trail from the Jasper townsite, which eventually leads to Old Fort Point, a prominent bedrock hill crowned with red Adirondack chairs overlooking the river and town.
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The Town of Jasper
Built near a bend in the Athabasca River and bounded by lofty peaks, the tranquil town of Jasper can feel like a welcome respite from the other visitor-thronged settlements in the parks. Established in the early 19th century as a fur trading post, today it is a charming little municipality filled with shops, restaurants, and lodgings. It is the main place to launch your adventure into the heart of Jasper National Park. Several great hikes start directly in town, with highlights including the vistas of the Red Squirrel/Old Fort Point trail as well as the numerous routes that lead to Pyramid Bench, a lake-dotted mountain terrace that looms above the townsite. For a relaxing day by the water, drive to Pyramid Lake or the neighboring Lake Annette and Lake Edith, all of which have tiny beaches; or for something else low-impact, the Jasper Skytram gondola offers excellent views from high up Whistlers Mountain, whose summit you can then reach via a short hike. Named as the world’s second largest Dark Sky Preserve, Jasper’s environs are also a great place to see the stars, particularly during the annual Jasper Dark Sky Festival in October, when speakers talk about space and you can take in the stars by telescope. Outside of the festival, you can also peer at the planets on an organized telescope tour. In the spring and autumn, be sure to keep an eye out for elk meandering through town.