The Canadian Rockies Are a Wonderland of Glacial Lakes and Scenic Drives
As expected, Canada continues to be gorgeous.
My parents were professional photographers, and not coincidentally, I grew up in the shadow of the most gorgeous mountains in the Northern Hemisphere: the Canadian Rockies. Come summer each year, work would take them up into the highlands, and as a kid, I’d tag along, hauling gear and loading film. Over time, the scenery made me the world’s most spoiled pack mule.
Spanning some 3,000 miles between Alaska and New Mexico, the Rocky Mountain chain began forming 80 million years ago. Their youth (relative to mountains, of course) shows in their sharper edges and rough faces, which contrast beautifully with the curves of the glacial lakes they hold. These can take on downright surreal colors thanks to “rock flour,” the microscopic bits of ground-up mountain that slide off a glacier when it melts.
The scenery is gob-smacking any time of year, with summer the ideal time for swimming and fishing while winter calls for soaking in hot springs and zipping down the mountainside on a pair of skis. Enticed to plan a trip? Here are the most beautiful views to chase.
The Icefields Parkway, Alberta
Stretching from Banff to Jasper, this 140-mile highway packs the best of the Rockies into one epic road trip. Seriously, driving the parkway might be the most sublime experience you can have in a car with your pants on. Lake Louise (you know, that photo), is on the itinerary. So are more than 100 ancient glaciers, surreal hikes with unobscured mountain views, and wildlife like deer, moose, elk, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats. Be sure to give yourself at least a full day to travel the parkway one way.
Columbia Icefield Skywalk, Alberta
Those afraid of heights should probably skip this one. For the rest of us, the Glacier Skywalk is a horizontal ark that juts out over the edge of the Sunwapta Valley, 918 feet in the air. Built in 2014, the thing has glass floors, so if you can handle looking down, you’ll get unreal views of the valley—and maybe your lunch—down below. Get here by stopping along the Icefields Parkway, an hour south of Jasper or 2.5 hours north of Banff. As a heads up, this one closes for winter and most of spring due to weather.
Horseshoe Lake (near Jasper, Alberta)
This crisp, pristine lake 18 miles south of Jasper is no longer a secret, especially on hot days when it gets packed with brave swimmers (the water is always chilly!), scuba divers, and fishermen who reel in rainbow trout, largemouth bass, and channel catfish. But it’s still totally worth it, especially if you’ve got the cajones to jump off cliffs as high as 80 feet into the deep water. If that’s your kind of thing, for heaven’s sakes, be careful. Parks Canada has to rescue two or three people a year, and a guy recently shattered his pelvis doing it. But, you know, YOLO.
Lake Louise, Alberta
Going to the Rockies and skipping Lake Louise is like going to Manhattan and not visiting Central Park. It’s crowded, but there’s a reason it’s crowded. An extensive network of hiking trails around the lake offers an easy escape from the tour groups. If you have a few hours, a hike to the Lake Agnes Tea House, originally built in 1901, is a great way to savor everything the area has to offer. In the winter, the mountains around the lake become a skiing and snowboarding paradise with over 4,200 trails.
Moraine Lake (near Lake Louise, Alberta)
Just 8.7 miles from the hamlet of Lake Louise along the Moraine Lake road, The Valley of the Ten Peaks provides the backdrop you came to the Rockies to see. Aside from jagged snow-dusted peaks, Moraine Lake itself has water so mind-bogglingly turquoise you’ll think you’re in The Little Mermaid, especially at its peak in late June. There are hikes aplenty around Moraine Lake, and if you want to get out on the water, you can rent a canoe to paddle on the lake.
Mount Robson, British Columbia
You came to the Rockies for some big-ass mountains, and Mount Robson is the biggest, climbing almost 13,000 feet into the sky. The British Columbia provincial park that surrounds the mountain stretches 868 square miles and has plenty of trails for some real alone time with nature—just you and the mountain goats, caribou, and 182 species of birds. An ultra-marathon in the area attracts the truly determined and the outright masochistic, while a gift shop that sells ice cream caters to the rest of us throughout the summer.
Athabasca Falls (near Jasper, Alberta)
The Athabasca River might not sit at a high elevation, but it creates the most powerful waterfall in the Rockies. In the winter, the water turns into majestic ice crystals straight out of Frozen. Do yourself a favor and stay on the right side of the viewing fence. The mist makes the stones slippery and people have drowned trying to get an ideal photo. On a trip in my youth, my dad hopped over the barrier to get a better photo and I about lost my mind. Get here along the Icefields Parkway, about 20 miles from the town of Jasper.
Maligne Lake, Alberta
Maligne is the second-biggest glacial lake in the world. I drove a tour boat here as a summer job in university and left convinced it might be the most beautiful spot on the planet. Maligne has many moods, each and every one of them exquisite. If a tour doesn’t float your boat, you can hike around the lake on a large trail network, hang out in the chalet, or even get hitched. On a scorching summer day, you can also dive in, but be warned that glacial lakes don’t warm up much even in the heart of summer’s heat. Unless you’re hankering for hypothermia, don’t hang out in the water too long.
The so-called Three Sisters are the calling card of Canmore, a cozy town just outside the boundary of Banff National Park. (Its most famous hometown hero? Mike, by a long shot.) The peaks, whose names—Big Sister, Middle Sister, and Little Sister—refer to an ancient Stoney story, are also called “Faith,” “Hope,” and “Charity” by some, though not by anyone who has tried to climb them without adequate preparation. The summit of Big Sister is nearly 10,000 feet and can be reached in a day if you’re experienced enough.
Sunwapta Falls (near Jasper, Alberta)
Sunwapta, named after the Stoney word for “turbulent river,” is Athabasca Falls' main rival and is as dramatic as its name suggests. Actually a pair of waterfalls separated by a short hike, Sunwapta sits 34 miles from the stretch of the Icefields Parkway near Jasper. Its power peaks in the spring, when glacial runoff is at its height. In winter, the road is closed but you can still snowshoe or hike in to see the ice formations in the falls.
Prince of Wales Hotel, Waterton National Park, Alberta
Nestled near the US border, Waterton National Park is contiguous with Montana’s Glacier National Park. It offers all of the beauty of that park, plus its famous cousins Banff and Jasper, but with a fraction of the crowds. Its namesake lake is anchored by the Roaring ‘20s-era Prince of Wales Hotel, which sits not far from the Bear’s Hump, a short hike still steep enough to offer commanding views of the valley and Mount Cleveland.
Banff Springs Hotel, Banff, Alberta
Part of the string of Canadian hotels that includes Ottawa’s Château Laurier and Quebec City’s Château Frontenac, this is easily the most opulent building in the Rockies. Built in 1888 and modeled after a Scottish Baronial castle, Banff Springs Hotel has luxurious rooms, a spa, and its very own golf course. Even if you don’t have the moolah to stay here, it’s worth visiting just for the spectacle.
Lac Beauvert (near Jasper, Alberta)
Located at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge—Jasper’s answer to the Banff Springs—Lac Beauvert produces dazzling emerald colors on a sunny summer day. A 2.4-mile loop encircles the lake and should take just an hour to complete. Otherwise, there’s kayaking, canoeing, and stand-up paddleboarding on the lake itself. Oh, and my dad once saw Patrick Stewart hanging out here. Who are you to disagree with Captain Jean-Luc Picard?
Old Fort Point (near Jasper, Alberta)
Don’t let anyone tell you that awesome views of the Rockies require huge hiking expeditions. Old Fort Point is a five-minute drive from Jasper, and this view of the Athabasca River greets you about a third of the way up. When I lived in Jasper, I used to run up to the summit after work each day, and then flirt with knocking out all my front teeth by tripping on the way down. The face of the summit was always covered in elk droppings, so keep an eye out for those gentle beasts.
Larch Valley (near Lake Louise, Alberta)
Larch trees lurk on every mountainside in the Rockies. They blend in with the evergreens for most of the year, but in the fall, their needles turn a brilliant gold. In Larch Valley, they reach a captivating concentration. The seven-mile hike from Moraine Lake takes about 5-6 hours round trip.
Emerald Lake, Yoho National Park, British Columbia
While it doesn’t get as much publicity as Banff or Jasper, Yoho National Park is just as great. Emerald Lake (yes, it’s as vibrant as it sounds), Yoho’s largest of 61 lakes, has an easy 3-mile trail around the water. The Lake McArthur half-day hike is another good way to get oriented, with serene views of the Rocky Mountains and the sapphire blue lake. It takes between three and five hours round trip to complete, every minute of which is totally worth it.
Roger’s Pass, Glacier National Park, British Columbia
Yes, Canada has its own Glacier National Park, and it’s epic. With over 400 glaciers, 86 miles of trails, and great skiing on Kicking Horse and Revelstoke come winter, you won’t be short on activities nor on vistas. The best views might be from the top of the park’s summit, Rogers Pass, which sits at 4,534 feet. If driving around, get yourself mentally ready for the Revelstoke-Golden Highway, considered to be Canada’s most dangerous road.
Athabasca Glacier, Jasper, Alberta
We always hear about melting glaciers, but have you ever actually seen one up close? Do it while you still can, as the four-mile Athabasca Glacier is steadily thawing; over the last 125 years, it’s lost half its volume and retreated more than a mile. While it’s too dangerous to hike into the glacier on your own, some tours offer excursions through ice caves and crevasses.
Kootenay National Park, British Columbia
Are you a bath person? Yes? Now, imagine getting all relaxed and warm under breathtaking snowy mountains. Yeah, I know. Kootenay National Park in British Columbia has several hot springs, from classy chalets to humble public sites. On the low-cost end, Parks Canada operates Radium Hot Springs, an odorless, sunken pool with soothing minerals like sulfate, calcium, bicarbonate, silica, and magnesium. Entry and a locker cost just a couple bucks. And if a pool warmed with natural springs sounds more like your thing, Ainsworth Hot Springs more than satisfies.