oIf to think, there are only a few road trips that I would repeat without any changes a few more times. And this Canada-US Rocky Mountains road trip is one of them.
What I will describe further is our July trip. Except for Glacier, we spent the only day in each region. However, it could be extended. For example, I would love to hike to Lake O’Hara and stay overnight there, or spent at least half a day more around Banff to see several waterfalls or hike in the mountains.
We flew to Calgary and ended our trip there. We had rental 4×4 SUV, but in most places, the regular sedan would be enough.
The itinerary includes several iconic places that would be very busy most time of the year, so you should be able to wake up before sunset or stay late.
Day 1-2: Banff and Banff National Park
We landed in Calgary after lunch, picked our car, and drove to Banff. The sunset was late (after 9 pm), so we had time to visit Lake Louise.
About 45 minutes drive from the town of Banff, Lake Louise is one of the very well known and busy lakes. The huge parking lots fill up entirely and fast during day hours. There is also a lodge on the shore where you could stay overnight.
There are several trails around the lake that you could hike to get a different angle of view, but the most iconic look is right near the lodge from the beach near boat jetty.
We left Banff with warm sunny weather only to get under the rain at Lake Louise. The sunset didn’t fire that day but colored clouds with warm hues. Either weather or time or something else scared the crowds. We’ve not been in solitude, but there was plenty of space and quiet for us to enjoy the majesty of the lake.
My alarm rang super early. Nothing could prepare me for such an early start. But we had no other option. We wanted to see Moraine Lake.
More than an hour drive from Banff, and you will reach the most iconic lake of the Rockies. Impossible color of the lake, the shape of the ridge above it, dark green of pines on the foreground, all these make an ideal image. The kind of picture everyone wants to have. That’s why the small parking lot fills up fast; closes for cars early in the day. If road closes, you should park your car somewhere else and take a shuttle.
We’ve been at the parking 30 mins before the sunrise. Though still not full, the area around the lake had dozens of tourists.
I researched the area in advance, so we hiked Rockpile Trail right from the parking lot without any other stops or detours. As I expected, there were a lot of tripods already at the best spots. We got to the top overlook and stop on the boulder just below it. It wasn’t the ideal place but still very good.
The weather was moody that day. Clouds covered most of the sky and hid the top of the mountains. Sun raised, but we didn’t see it. I still got several beautiful shots with the clouds.
After waiting for a sunrise that never hiked, we hiked down to the lake and walked to the boat garage on the shore to get another iconic shot with the kayaks on the foreground.
If I say it was a cold morning, I mean nothing. It was wet and freezing. If you plan to spend sunrise near the lake, be warmly dressed (read: dress in layers as you would wear for a cold November day). The cold and desire to get a few more hours of sleep forced us to leave this stunning place.
When we drove from the lake, the access road was already closed. And it was before 7 am. So there is no reason even try to drive there on a Summer weekend here if it’s not well before sunrise.
After sleeping for a few more hours, breakfast, and coffee, we left Banff and drive to nearby Vermillion Lakes.
The chain of lakes that could be easily hiked or biked from the town, or you can drive to it and park your car in several small pullouts near the road.
What else to consider
If you have more hours, check out East End of Rundle to get the impressive views of the town and mountains.
After leaving Banff, we turned to Bow Valley Parkway. The scenic drive feels nicer and is slower than the highway, and also here you would be able to meet wildlife. We met a black bear there.
Our next destination was Johnston Canyon, the must-see place in Banff National Park in any season. We were in the area around lunchtime, and it was the busiest time of the day there. We parked our car in a mile after the trailhead, and it was the only available spot.
The trail was busy but not discomfortly. The most crowded part of the trail was before the lower falls.
If you want to see, the lower falls up close and walk into the cave, be prepared to stand in line up to 30-40 mins. While you will wait, you got a chance to check out the falls in all details 🙂
Also, inside the cave was super wet, make sure to have a cover for your phone/camera, and be careful. The cave ceiling is low, and during our visit, the huge puddle covered the floor. I would love to have rainboots at that moment.
From the Lower Falls trail starts the gentle uphill climb. We saw tourists who turned around. But the falls and the trail is worth it!
There is also a Hidden Cave with the waterfall on a small spur from the trail. However, during our visit, there were a lot of signs that forbid off-trail hike down to the canyon. Please respect them.
Upper Falls could be seen from the viewpoint. It has three streams and looks like a huge fork 🙂
Return way was easier and faster, mainly because the trail was less crowded, probably because most tourists rushed to get lunch somewhere else.
Day 2-3: Yoho National Park
From Banff National Park, we drove to our hotel at Golden for lunch and some rest. Closer to the sunset, we returned on the road and drove towards Emerald Lake.
The moody weather changed several times during our ride: from sunny to rainy. But it also brought a rainbow.
Emerald Lake was the first Canadien Rockies lake I’ve seen on Instagram. I could not miss it during that trip. Again we arrived at the parking and trailhead under the drizzle. However, it didn’t stop us to hike a bit around the shore.
Clouds looked heavy, and we knew that there would be no sunset but still decided to explore.
Before leaving the place, we walked past the bridge and checked out the picturesque Emerald Lake with all lights on under the blue hour light. Now, I’m thinking of how I would love to stay there.
There are several well-known waterfalls in Yoho National Park. Takakkaw Falls is the tallest and reminds me Yosemite Falls. But in my plans was Wapta Falls, wide river falls accessible with an easy 2.9 miles out and back trail.
The trail leads to an overlook. However, there is a steep path down to the river, which would eventually lead you to the hill closer to falls. It was way to steep for me.
Another must-see place in Yoho is Natural Bridges. Again, expect crowds there especially, if you see buses on the parking lot. When we visited some parts of the trails were closed. But I believe the place is nice to explore.
Day 3: Kootenay National Park
After Natural Bridges, we turned to Kootenay Hwy. The rest of the day, we explored another national park – Kootenay. Before the visit, I downloaded a Kootenay Guided Tour App, which was a super useful and exciting soundtrack for this drive. The app has recordings of park rangers that tell you about wildlife and nature of the park.
Marble Canyon is easily the first and the most popular place in the park. However, it was closed due to construction. There is a trail to the canyon from Paint Pots parking lot several miles south.
When I learned that Marble Canyon is closed, we checked Paint Pots. It’s a colorful place where natives gathered the ochre once. The easy but muddy trails lead to several ponds with unusually bright water.
When you’re driving through the park, pay close attention to the rock walls on the sides of the road. It could happen that you will see a funny family of mountain goats we’ve met that day.
Radium Hot Springs
The next stop ou must take a Radium Hot Springs. Mineral hot springs pool is a great place to relax form sometime after a long journey.
Native people considered the hot springs a holy place. The land was purchased in 1890, and already in 1914, the construction of the pool and bathhouse began.
Kootenay Valley viewpoint and Sinclair Canyon
Just before the Springs, there is a nice overlook over Kootenay Valley. When we visited, the wild daisies covered the hill.
Before you left the park, there is a final stop you must make. Sinclair Canyon below and the Redwall Fault cliffs above are two signs that will be the last memory of the park. There are trails on both side road that leads towards the falls.
Day 4: Glacier National Park
Though, here I will write only about what to do when you have a day in Glacier National Park, during that trip we spent three days in it. If you have more time available, check my other post
Going To The Sun Road
But if you have just one day, it’s better to spend it driving Going to The Sun Road. The road traverses high through park’s Rocky Mountain and getting you close and personal to some awe-inspiring sites.
Inevitably, after the drive, Glacier National Park became my top favorite US park. However, I don’t suggest to drive the road on the weekends and in the middle of the day. Also, take into account, the road is closed during the winter.
We started from the western entrance, and by those, I mean from Lake McDonald’s section. Though I read a lot that this part is less impressive than Medicine Lake or Many Glacier areas, I believe, lake McDonald is a charming place where you could spend days and days. There are a lot of activities that you could do from there: take a bus, or a boat tour, ranger-guided hike, or hike yourself. Lake McDonald is also home for a historic (and impressive lodge), and restaurant. So, stop and check out.
If you have only a day in the park, then you should hike at least one trail at Logan Pass. For me, it’s the most iconic place in the park. Early in summer, some parts of trails here could still be covered with snow, so be prepared.
Also, a parking lot fills up quite early, so arrive early or right before visitor center closure.
Lunch Creek and Saint Mary Falls
These two places are definite must stop east of Logan Past. Gentle cascades of Lunch Creek are surrounded by wildflowers most of the season, and the creek by itself is a lovely area to explore.
Saint Mary Falls, on the other hand, is a spectacular waterfall that could be reached with a short hike. The parking near the trailhead is small and could fill up quickly.
If you weren’t able to stop at Mary Falls, try to stay at nearby Baring Falls. First of all, it’s nice small falls, and from there a trail lead to Saint Mary Falls 🙂
Wild Goose Island
No Going To The Sun road trip could be done without stopping at that iconic viewpoint. The view over calm and vast Saint Mary Lake on the small Wild Goose Island is very popular with photographers. If you plan to arrive there for sunrise or sunset, come well in advance to get parking. Unfortunately, you cannot hike to the overlook of any other parking.
Day 5: Waterton Lakes National Park
I was well surprised at how only a few know about this fantastic park! Waterton Lakes is the smallest national park in the Canadiens Rockies. It also shares a border with US Glacier National Park forming International Peace Park.
The park suffered raging fire several years ago. Some trails are still closed (at the moment of our visit), but there are a lot of things to explore.
Lower Bertha Falls
Lower and Upper Bertha Falls are the fantastic trail that follows the ridgeline along the lake and stop by two majestic falls. Unfortunately, during our visit, we were met by heavy rain that allowed us to hike only to the Lower section of the falls.
Cameron Falls is stunning. So stunning that it’s almost unbelievable that they’re right in the town. The railings surround the creek and falls but you still able to express the mighty waterfall close enough.
If you would google Waterton Lakes National Park, the first image that will be found will have UNESCO Prince of Wales Hotel on the hillside. And I bet you’ll fell in love with this view. To get the same photo, you will need to (no, no need to hike anywhere) drive to a Driftwood Beach. The rocky beach has a stunning view over the lake, mountains, and an impressive hotel building.
If you still want to hike, there is a trail that starts from the townsite, follows the shoreline (passes the hotel), and leads you to the beach.
Summer brings a range of wildflowers on display as a stunning foreground for this impressive landscape.
Sunset from townsite shore
The town of Waterton Lakes has a lot to offer. Eat, drink, and be merry. We stayed in the hotel with a great sports center with spa and sauna, where we spent most of the evening. However, I ventured to the shore for sunset. You can walk lakeshore along with the town. I found out that the point right on the northern edge of the campground has the best view over the setting sun.
Day 6: from Waterton to Kananaskis Country
On the last day of the trip, we spent driving from Waterton to Calgary. Though it’s not filled with attractions the same way as the high Rockies region, you can find some gems.
The 39 ft tall falls of Crowsnest River are quite an impressive rest stop. Depending on the time you have, you can check out the view from the observation platform, or hike to the base of the falls.
Cat Creek Falls
Though it’s a detour from the road to Calgary, the short and easy trail leads you to the sweet and deep canyon with a beautiful waterfall.
Information and Links
- Canada National Parks requires an entrance fee. Don’t drive past the payment both if you plan to stop in the park. Check this page for info about prices and passes.
- The same applies to Glacier National Park. Consider buying a national park pass if you visit parks frequently throughout the year.
- Please do not approach wildlife and keep a significant distance from it. I’m talking not only about bears, believe me, but goats are also wild and dangerous animals too.
- While I’m talking about general behaving norms, please pack your garbage with you. Don’t spoil someone else experience. If you see trash on the side of the trail, please also peak it. Do a good thing.
- Please check the park sites before the visit to check road and trail conditions. Trails could be closed even in the summer due to the wildlife activities, or for renovation and construction. Please, respect posted signs.
- Wapta Falls on alltrails.com
- If you wish to hike from Paint Pots to Marble Canyon, see this alltrails.com post on details.
- You find more info on Bertha Falls here
- Check the Cat Falls Trail description on alltrails.com