Spreading across Alberta and British Columbia provinces, the Canadian Rockies are full of surprises and natural wonders. There are five national parks – Banff, Jasper, Yoho, Kootenay, and Waterton Lakes National Park, many provincial parks and other stunning landscapes. This means you will have a lot of fun and be busy with all the awesome things to do in the Canadian Rockies.
If you’re planning your first trip to the Canadian Rockies, this blog post is just for you. It includes 10 activities to do in the Canadian Rockies with many insider tips and local suggestions. I recommend visiting the Rockies for at least two weeks to explore the beauty of the region.
1 – Wildlife watching
Wildlife watching is often the highlight of all travelers in the Canadian Rockies. Common sightings include black bears, grizzly bears, elk, moose, deer, bison, coyotes, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats. Rarely, but you can also see foxes, wolves, and cougars. Mountains of the Canadian Rockies are their home, and they often wander along the hiking trails or highways.
Can you imagine seeing a mama bear playing with her young cubs on a meadow? It’s truly a once in a lifetime experience and one of the top things to see in the Canadian Rockies. Come during spring, in May or June, for the highest chance to spot them.
Word of caution: These are wild animals, and it’s dangerous (and illegal) to feed or approach them. Parks Canada highly recommends to carry a bear spray while hiking in the mountains, know when and how to use it, and learn about the bear’s behavior before heading out.
2 – Drive the Icefields Parkway
One of the most scenic drives in the world is only 230 km long road, and of course, it’s in the Rockies. It’s leading from Lake Louise in Banff National Park to Jasper in Jasper National Park. As the name suggests, you can expect to see an endless amount of glaciers.
Prepare for scenic hikes with glacier views, bustling waterfalls, insanely blue lakes while surrounded by snow-peaked mountains. It is also a prime spot where you can see wildlife. Whether you like quick road trip lookouts or longer hikes into the wilderness, you can find it along the Icefields Parkway. The most beautiful quick stops are Peyto Lake, Bow Lake, Waterfowl Lakes, Mistaya Canyon, Panther Falls, Columbia Icefield, Sunwapta Falls and Athabasca Falls. If you have more time, consider hiking to Glacier Lake, Parker Ridge, and one of my all-time favorite Wilcox Pass with a view of Athabasca Glacier. These are some of the top hikes and things to do in the Canadian Rockies.
3 – Hike up the Sulphur Mountain
Hiking in the Canadian Rockies is the most popular activity. You can choose from literally hundreds of hikes for different levels. You can hike up the mountain, up the glacier, to an alpine lake or a waterfall.
I’m going to share with you one of my favorite hikes in Banff National Park. While taking a gondola in Banff is very popular and advertised, there is another option on how to reach the top of Sulphur Mountain. You can hike up the mountain through a series of switchbacks on a wide 5.5 km long forest trail.
When you reach the top, you will have a bird’s eye view of Banff and the Bow Valley. You can either continue 1 km further on the boardwalk to Sanson’s Peak, an old weather station, walk around the observation deck for 360 ̊ views or visit the interactive center inside the upper gondola terminal.
If you’re feeling tired after the hike, you can take the gondola down for free in winter and after 7 pm for free in summer.
4 – Wild ice skating
If you travel to the Canadian Rockies in winter, there are plenty of things going on and outdoor activities to try. I’d say the most Canadian thing to do is go ice skating on a frozen lake. Even better to bring sticks, pucks, and friends and enjoy a hockey game.
In November, the lakes are starting to freeze over. Before they are covered with snow, there is usually a very short window when you can skate on a crystal clear lake. Conditions have to align in your favor, though. But when they do, you can experience the Canadian lakes from a very different perspective.
Ice skate rentals are available in every town, and some of them even have maintained indoor rinks. The best place for ice skating is Lake Louise in Banff National Park. The ice is maintained and cleared of snow throughout the winter. And after the winter ice festival, there are ice sculptures and ice castle on the ice. They add a special touch to already breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains and Victoria Glacier.
5 – Admire the tallest waterfall
Takakkaw Falls, the 2nd highest waterfall in Canada, is located in Yoho National Park. It’s neighboring to Banff National Park and very easy to visit. The only thing you need to keep in mind is that the road to Takakkaw Falls is only open mid-June to mid-October every year. It passes through an avalanche zone.
It’s a short walk from the parking lot to the base of the falls. If you’re feeling more adventurous, you can take a hike across the valley called Iceline Trail. You will see the Takakkaw Falls from higher up, see the glacier that is feeding the falls, and walk very close to several glaciers. As I mentioned before, most of the cool things to do in the Canadian Rockies involve hiking.
6 – Walk on the glacier
One of the stops mentioned above along the Icefields Parkway is the Columbia Icefield with Athabasca Glacier below. While you can make this a shortstop and see the icefield from the road, you can also go to see it up close.
Columbia Icefields Discovery Center offers a tour on a giant bus to the Athabasca Glacier, where you can walk around a bit. There’s also an option through a travel agency to book an ice walk across the glacier, wearing crampons and exploring ice caves.
If you’d like to keep your budget down, you can drive to the Toe of Athabasca Glacier and explore a part of it on your own. Either way, you will have the opportunity to see the largest icefield in the Rockies.
7 – Visit Spirit Island
When you visit Jasper National Park, make sure you drive to Maligne Lake. There are several hikes in the area from which you can see the lake from above. Another option to fully enjoy the lake is to rent a kayak and wander around the lake; you can see three glaciers from the lake.
A popular activity is a boat tour across the lake to Spirit Island. It’s one of the most popular photography locations in the Canadian Rockies.
The road from Jasper to Maligne Lake is a treat by itself. If you drive in the morning or late in the evening, you have a very high chance of seeing moose and bears.
8 – Enjoy insanely colored lakes
If you’ve ever seen the Canadian Rockies advertised, I bet you saw Lake Louise or Moraine Lake. Both incredibly beautiful lakes in Banff National Park draw millions of tourists every year. While you can rent a canoe on both of them for a steep price, finding a parking spot might give you an even bigger headache. Both are definitely worth a visit, but you need to plan carefully.
Luckily, many other lakes are easily accessible either by road or an easy hike. I’ll give you one example from each national park in the Canadian Rockies.
You can see five emerald-colored lakes while hiking the Valley of the Five Lakes in Jasper National Park. Johnson Lake in Banff National Park is surrounded by mountains and one of very few that is not cold year-round but good for summer swimming. Waterton Lake in Waterton Lakes National Park spreads from Alberta in Canada to Montana in the US. The most unreal green color of them all has Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park, which also offers the most budget-friendly canoeing. You can reach Floe Lake in Kootenay National Park via a 10 km hiking trail, has light turquoise color and is set beneath a giant rock wall.
There are many more lakes in the Canadian Rockies that you can visit, and the colors will surely leave you speechless.
9 – Go camping in the Canadian Rockies
Accommodation in the Canadian Rockies options and prices tend to climb very high during the summer. Booking in advance is a good way to secure hotel deals and avoid high season price peak.
Another accommodation option is camping in the Rockies. Thanks to the system of campgrounds in both Alberta and British Columbia provinces, there’s is a way of visiting the Canadian Rockies for budget-minded travelers as well. Imagine waking up with a ray of sunshine touching your face, birds chirping away, and fresh air of pine trees.
Outdoor stores offer camping gear rental, or you can rent a small campervan and sleep inside the car. This option gives you so much freedom no hotel can ever provide. You can drive around and stop in a campground for the night after your adventure-filled day.
Another option for accommodation in the Canadian Rockies is to rent a room or an entire house, apartment, or cabin via Airbnb. If you are traveling with friends and family, this might be a good value for money.
10 – Explore small mountain towns
Most of the travelers visit the Canadian Rockies for its national parks. Several small mountain towns outside the national parks are just as stunning and provide less touristy experience.
Canmore near the border of Banff National Park is a small but very charming adventure town. Canmore Nordic Centre has a series of trails for mountain biking and cross-country skiing. The nearby Kananaskis Country is a nature area with high mountain peaks and hidden alpine lakes.
Golden, located near Yoho National Park, has a world-class ski resort and plenty of white water rafting options or all levels. Fernie near the Canada-US border is a mountain biking paradise with caves and a unique local wildlife – painted turtles.
I hope you enjoyed a taste of the best things to do in the Canadian Rockies, and it sparked a curiosity to visit the land of glaciers and alpine lakes. If you have any comments or doubts, drop a message below.