Canada’s first National Park is as picturesque and grandiose as it gets. Part of the Rocky Mountain, you’ll be wowed by mystical mountains stretching up towards the sky, jewel-toned lakes sparkling at their feet. With 6,641 km2 of beautiful nature to discover, there is no shortage of trails to hike, peaks to climb, and scenic spots to pitch a tent. Don’t forget to keep an eye out for deer, caribou wolves and grizzly bears — just don’t get too close.
Take the cable car up to the peak of Sulphur Mountain, a natural hot springs and the place where it all began — the national park was once a hot springs natural spa resort. From the top, feast your eyes on a panoramic view of six Rocky mountain ranges, Bow Valley, and the charming town of Banff, before treating yourself to the time-honoured custom of “taking to the waters”. Feel their curative energies bubble in this natural hot tub.
Where there are peaks, there are also valleys, and Johnston Canyon is the most impressive. Waterfalls cascade down the limestone cliffs, roaring into the creek below. In the winter, the chutes freeze to create a mystical winter wonderland trail.
Fitting to its name, Emerald Lake is a sparkling dark green beauty, and the jewel in Yoho National Park’s crown. Peer down at the sparkling water from atop the Natural Bridge — a lookout spot and crossing point that is exactly as the name advertises, a natural bridge made from centuries of eroded limestone. But that’s far from the only highlight Mother Nature has given this spot; history buffs and paleontology enthusiasts will recognize Emerald Lake as the site of the famous Burgess Shale fossil beds. If you’re more into flowers than fossils, you can try to scope out the three species of rare, wild orchids that grow here (Yellow Lady Slipper, Spotted Orchid, and the Calypso Orchid).
Lake Louise is one of those sights that you’ll instantly recognize from postcards, desktop wallpapers, and friends’ travel photos, but none of that will prepare you for the beauty of the real thing. Sunlight twinkles off the cool turquoise water, glaciers jutting up like a crown. Despite being a bucket list tourist destination, the air here is peaceful and serene, the only sound is the gentle rippling of the water and rustling of the trees. In winter, feel the rush of dog sledding or skiing through the snow-capped mountainscape. In summer, paddle a canoe on the lake, or hike through one of many dedicated trails. A good day of outdoors-ing done, sit back and relax, and enjoy at the regal Fairmont Lake Louise hotel, a landmark in and of itself with interiors as resplendent as the scenery outside its windows.
Shrouded in mist and nestled in Wells Gray Provincial Park, Helmcken Falls are a lesser-known but no less impressive sight. Canada’s 4th largest waterfall is magical not because of its size (though it’s plenty tall), but because of the way the water rushes from just one point, a steady, minimalist stream into the pond below.
Linking Banff National Park to Jasper, the Icefield Parkway along Highway 93 is as scenic of a drive as you can get. With frosty peaks flanking the horizon and glimpses of lakes in shocking shades of greens and blues popping out along the way, getting from point A to point B has never looked so good — or merited so many photo stops.
Once you come back down from the mountains, here are a few other great experiences in Western Canada.