11 Awesome Places To Visit on a Western Canada Road Trip

Milly is sat on a wall in front of forest and mountains on a Western Canada road trip

If you’re planning a West Canada road trip, here are ten (ten!) spots that truly show off the beauty and atmosphere of the Alberta and British Columbia provinces…

Back in June 2017, I got to live out one of the ambitions I’ve had since I began travelling – a road trip in Western Canada. Having seen the pictures and heard the stories of this incredible place, it was something I just had to do for myself. And, as a stupidly awesome perk of my job at the time, I got to be part of the TrekAmerica annual #iTrekHere trip, taking the route of the Mountie tour [update – TrekAmerica are no longer in operation, however G Adventures offer a similar itinerary, which also includes time on Vancouver Island].

The road trip took us through the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, through wilderness and forest, past lakes and waterfalls, and among the daily highlights of mountain-gazing, laze gawping and bear spotting, these are ten of the highlights that anyone travelling in West Canada should add to their itinerary.

Banff, Alberta

After leaving Calgary early in the morning, our first stop was the town of Banff, set in Banff National Park. It’s a really pretty town, with the kind of backstreets you’d imagine in a cult classic coming-of-age Netflix show. All the roads are named after animals you’re likely to find in the Canadian wilderness. Hello, Grizzly Street!

Banff town is the gateway to the incredible national park of the same name, with over 1600km of hiking trails to choose from. Maps from the visitor centre in hand, our first hike of this Canadian road trip was up Tunnel Mountain. It was a bit steeper than I’d hoped, being quite out of practice with my hiking – but the views from the top (and middle…and everywhere…) were beyond worth the effort. Also, I bumped into LOTS of friendly Canadian dogs *heart eye emoji* and even saw some elk mooching around on the mountainsides.

For dinner, you have to head to Park Distillery – one of the best restaurants I visited on my trip. Campfire-style food, topped off with a Smoking Smore Bar dessert. Yep. They’re as amazing as they look.

Where to stay in Banff

Tunnel Mountain Village II Campground ($), Samesun Backpackers Hostel ($$), HI Banff ($$), Banff Aspen Lodge ($$-$$$), High Country Inn ($$-$$$), Banff Boutique Inn (adults only) ($$$), The Rundlestone Lodge ($$$), Royal Canadian Lodge ($$$).

Lake Louise, Alberta

One of Western Canada’s best-known lakes, and for good reason.

Lake Louise was actually originally named Emerald Lake due to it’s bright green-blue waters, but the name was changed when guide Tom Wilson discovered another lake he decided was more deserving of the name (see below). The new name came from Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, daughter of Queen Victoria.

The first views of the lake from the dock are striking enough as it is, but a walk around the lakeside hiking path shows off the amazing colours of the water against a striking mountain backdrop.

I’d also recommend a nosy around the Fairmont Chateau, perhaps one of the most photographed hotels in the world, that dates back to 1890. The decor is as classy as you’d expect, and there are some shops where you can browse and pick up a Lake Louise souvenir or two.

Canada National Park Admission Fees

Lake Louise is part of Banff National Park, and you’ll need to buy a National Park Pass, which costs $10.50 per day, to access the park. If you’re visiting lots of places on a Western Canada road trip, it’s worth picking up the Discovery Pass, which costs $72, and is valid for 12 months at over 80 Parks Canada destinations including national parks and provincial parks.

Peyto Lake, Alberta

View of Peyto Lake from above

If you’re a fan of beautiful lakes, a road trip through Canada’s west is the gift that keeps on giving!

Peyto Lake is a glacier-fed lake in Banff National Park, in the valley of the Waputik mountain range. During the summer, glacial flour (tiny, fine-grained rock) flows into the lake, giving it a bright turquoise colour. There are no public transport routes, and it’s just over an hour’s drive from Banff. Believe me, it’s absolutely worth the trip.

Peyto Lake can get pretty busy with tourists – but we headed to Bow Summit early in the morning, and actually had the whole viewpoint to ourselves. This is one amazing view. Our tour leaders blindfolded the group, led us down the path to the viewpoint, and did a dramatic unveiling of the lake before us – and the reactions were incredible. 

Emerald Lake, British Columbia

Another day, another awesome lake. That’s Canada for you.

This one, Emerald Lake, is in British Columbia’s Yoho National Park. It’s the perfect place to try a bit of canoeing – I partnered up with our tour leader, Heather and we paddled out into the lake for ridiculous views. We got there as soon as the hire shop opened, which meant there was no one else on the lake other than our group.

When I visited, there were actually still traces of snow around the lake edges – in June!-, so we landed our canoe and built a snowman. He’s pretty cute, right? 

Other spots in Yoho National Park to check out

Takakkaw Falls – the second highest waterfall in Canada, at 373m
Kicking Horse River – for the best white water rafting in the Canadian Rockies
The Natural Bridge – a rock bridge carved by the Kicking Horse River
Lake O’Hara – a stunning natural spot, preserved by restrictions on visiting. You can also hike the quiet McArthur Pass trail from here.
Field – the only town in Yoho National Park, with a handful of cafes and shops in the summer months

Jasper, Alberta

If you want another cute little mountain town to follow Banff, Jasper delivers. Just imagine strolling along appreciating the cute, quaint streets, then looking up and BAM. Hello mountains. I think I could live here for the rest of my life and have that never get old. It’s also part of Jasper National Park, the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies, also home to the stunning Maligne Lake.

If you want to see the town from a whole different perspective, the Jasper SkyTram. Taking you to near the summit of Whistlers Mountain, 2,277m above sea level, the town of Jasper (in the shape of a J!) and surrounding area stretches out as far as the eye can see. From the viewpoint, you can even take a small (and maybe snowy) hike up to the summit of the mountain.

For lunch, I can recommend Jasper Brewing Company for some amazing poutine that I basically INHALED. If you’re keen to get a taste of the local ales, there’s a tasting flight where you can try six of them – and you can even get yourself a tour of the brewery itself at certain times. The Blueberry Vanilla Ale was a particular highlight!

Where to stay in Jasper

Whistler’s Campground ($), Wapiti Campground ($), HI Jasper ($$), Tonquin Inn ($$), Mount Robson Inn ($$$)

Athabasca Glacier

How does walking on an ACTUAL GLACIER sound for an unmissable experience? Donning sexy yellow jackets and waterproof trousers, we strapped on our crampons and made our way out across the ice. If you’re worried about slipping over, the crampons really help. I mean…I STILL fell over, but that’s just my standard, really.

It’s not something you can do by yourself, but IceWalks provide a guide to show you the safe places to walk as well as giving loads of info about the glacier itself. Athabasca Glacier is part of the Columbia Icefield – the largest icefield in the Canadian Rockies. On our walk, we filled our water bottles with refreshing glacier water, and held ice in our hands that could be hundreds of years old. If you don’t like hiking/can’t hike, there IS a bus tour available, but the walk was something special that I’d highly recommend if you CAN manage it.

Looking back at how far onto the glacier we’d come was impressive; but more impressive was how much further the icy landscape reached. But it might not be around for long. The glacier is shrinking by more than 5 metres per year, which means it could be completely gone within our generation. Learning this was one of those moments that really puts into perspective what humankind are doing to their earth – and made me think personally about how I treat the world we live in. It’s a true natural wonder – one everyone should see, and everyone should do their best to protect.

Booking your Athabasca Glacier Tour

A half day Athabasca Glacier tour with IceWalks costs CA$126.99, with departure times at 9.45 and 2pm daily from May – October. The hike takes 3 hours and you cover 5km, and although it’s a relatively easy walk there are a couple of steeper sections at the start to reach the glacier.

Mount Robson Provincial Park

And sorry, guys. I’m not quite done with lakes yet…because Kinney Lake is a beauty. In Mount Robson Park, there are some amazing hiking trails – one of which leads you to this epic lake. There are stone ‘beaches’ around the lake, which make for perfect lunch spots. Tucking in to a classic TrekAmerica wrap, I couldn’t think of many better places to bring your picnic.

Wells Gray Provincial Park

While Banff, Jasper and Whistler may be popular spots to visit on any West Canada road trip, Wells Gray Provincial Park is a slightly lesser-visited destination. But believe me, there’s plenty to be seen.

Wells Gray is known for its waterfalls, with over 40 named falls in the park, Our first stop was the biggest name amongst them, Helmcken Falls – a 141m high spout of water crashing down to the river below. As a contrast, Dawson Falls is only 20m high, but a completely different style of falls, stretching across the whole width of the river. Apparently Dawson has the same proportions as Niagara Falls – but on a much smaller scale, of course!

Many of Wells Gray’s waterfalls are easily visited by car, but for Moul Falls, you’ll need to take a bit of a hike through forest and meadows. It’s worth the effort of the switchbacks that lead to the viewpoint because, when it’s safe to do so, you can actually walk behind Moul Falls itself.

Whistler

I’ve actually never been skiing – so had no idea what a ski resort was actually like. Turns out, they’re pretty awesome. The town of Whistler is a mecca for adventurous travellers, all about working hard and playing harder. There’s such a fun, laid back vibe here and it’s a great way to unwind after days on the road. If you fancy some food, Sushi Village does a good ‘treat yo’self’ sushi menu, and Zog’s Dogs is perfect for a quick bite to eat.

During the daytime, a few of us decided to take the Peak2Peak mountain gondola. It’s a record-breaking gondola (cable car) that stretches unsupported 1.8 miles from Whistler Mountain to Blackcomb Mountain. The views (something I’ve talked about plenty in this post…) are truly something wonderful, with Whistler itself a cluster of pinpricks amongst the trees and the mountains from the top of Blackcomb. It costs CAD$108 for a scenic ride to Blackcomb and back.

Peak2Peak Tip: There are a handful of ‘glass bottomed’ pods that you can wait for – we found the queue to be much smaller on the journey back, although actually, it wasn’t THAT impressive and the normal pods are just as cool. 

Where to stay in Whistler

Whistler RV Park and Campground ($), Pangea Pod Hostel ($$), Pinnacle Hotel ($$$), Marketplace Lodge ($$$)

Squamish

On my original Canadian road trip, we only scratched the surface of Squamish, stopping briefly to check out Shannon Falls. On my recent trip to Vancouver, though, we jumped aboard the Skylynx bus and visited Squamish without a car. Safe to say, after the experience we had there, I just had to update this itinerary to share how wonderful this small Canadian Rockies town is!

We pitched up at Mamquam Campground, a back-to-basics site with no showers or running water (campsites with more amenities are available!), just a short walk from the gorgeous Mamquam River. Squamish is the ideal base for getting out into some of the stunning surrounding trails – although hiking in 36 degree heat was quickly abandoned in favour of sampling the delights of a local brewery.

If you want to find out more about what to do in Squamish, check out my in-depth blog post here!

The best things to do in Squamish

Go hiking – with plenty of trails for all abilities, Squamish is a hikers’ paradise.
Ride the Sea To Sky Gondola – for panoramic views of the surrounding area
Hire a mountain bike, kayak or SUP – active adventurers will find plenty to do, and the Squamish Adventure Centre is your perfect starting point for booking in your activities.
Craft Beer Trail – British Columbia has a thriving craft beer scene, and there are plenty of delicious brews in Squamish to sample.

Where to stay in Squamish

Klahanie Campground ($), Squamish Adventure Inn & Hostel ($), Crash Hotel Squamish ($$), August Jack Motor Inn ($$), Sea To Sky Hotel ($$$)

Vancouver, British Columbia

Our Canadian road trip came to an end in the city of Vancouver – and sadly, we didn’t have much time to explore. But even from our walk around Granville Island, it really feels like the kind of city I want to explore more. Stopping by the Public Market, packed with street food and market stalls, I grabbed a Mexican burrito bowl and took a seat by the bridge, reflecting on an amazing adventure with newfound friends. Blissful.

Luckily, I was able to head back to Vancouver a few years later with my partner, and spent a lot more time getting to know this wonderful city a little better. It’s now one of my favourite cities in the world – particularly for the proximity to the outdoors, and just a really lovely general vibe. The food scene is wonderful, and I’ve shared my recommendations for the best cheap places to eat in Vancouver if you’re visiting on a budget.

The best things to do in Vancouver

Go Whale Watching – we splashed out on a whale watching trip in Vancouver and honestly, it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.
Wander the market at Granville Island – full of delicious places to eat and boutique shops, as well as Granville Island Brewing, which offers tasting flights of their local craft beers.
Take in Stanley Park – a really lovely city park, transporting you from the metropolitan hum of Vancouver to 400 hectares of West Coast forest.
Visit Gastown – a trendy, indie district that’s home to the famous Gastown Steam Clock.
Hike (or get the gondola) up Grouse Mountain – a peak with amazing views over Vancouver, accessed by a 1.8-mile trail featuring 2,830 stairs, or the much less tiring gondola.
Capilano Suspension Bridge – 230m above the River Capilano, brave visitors can walk 405m through the temperate rainforest in the northern reaches of Vancouver.

Where to stay in Vancouver

Vancouver isn’t the cheap place to find accommodation, however if you book in plenty of advance, you can often find deals on smaller guesthouses, or spots a little outside the main metropolitan centres.

Capilano River RV Park and Campground ($), Samesun Hostel ($$) [temporarily closed], Cambie Hostel ($$), Century Plaza Hotel ($$$), Sonder at Revival ($$$), Hyatt Regency ($$$$)

Extending your Western Canada Road Trip: Vancouver Island

Still not done with all that magical nature? Vancouver Island is a true outdoor-lovers paradise, its 31,285 square kilometres brimming with intriguing forests, secluded beaches, and fascinating wildlife.

To get from Vancouver to Vancouver Island, there’s a car ferry that takes 1hr 40mins, departing from Horseshoe Bay ferry port to Nanaimo. A return trip for a vehicle and two passengers costs around CA$120. From there, your adventure begins!

What to do on Vancouver Island

A Vancouver Island road trip could be a whole blog post on it’s own, but here are just a handful of highlights:

Visit Victoria – In BC’s capital city Victorian architecture, plenty of parks and gardens and delicious food.
Bear watching trips – Head to Tofino to join a boat tour around the island’s beaches, looking out for black bears along the coast. Or, if you prefer grizzlies, you can join a tour from Telegraph Cove.
Pacific Rim National Park – A beachside natural reserve with 75km of hiking trails and over 100 islands and islets.
Strathcona Provincial Park – Hike, bike and canoe the valleys and peaks of this mountainous park.

Planning your Western Canada Road Trip

The most popular route for a West Canada road trip is from Calgary to Vancouver – or the reverse. The direct drive time from Calgary to Vancouver along the Trans-Canada Highway is around 10.5hrs – but obviously, this doesn’t take into account all the must-visit stops along the way. I’d say for the ultimate Rockies road trip, you need at least 2 weeks to pack in all of the above locations – but if you have more time to travel even more slowly, even better!

Hiring a car in Canada

The most budget-friendly way to hire a car in Canada for a Rockies road trip is to fly to Calgary – rental prices are cheaper here than in Vancouver. I’ve just found two weeks Calgary-Calgary in May priced from just £215, whereas for the same dates, a one way trip from Calgary to Vancouver coming in at around £600-700.

If you’re not quite up for camping, but want a bit more of that authentic Canadian adventure experience, you could also look at RV/campervan hire – it’s a lot more expensive, but a great way to combine your method of transport with built-in accommodation. Indie Campers have a base in Calgary too.

Finding accommodation in the Rockies

In my opinion, camping is the absolute BEST way to do a road trip in the Rockies – there’s no better feeling than opening your tent and immediately being met by the amazing natural surroundings. It’s also a really cost-effective way to travel – campground pitch costs are as low as $10 per night, and there are plenty of campsites with great facilities for washing and cooking.

If you’re really against the idea of spending your road trip under canvas, then it’s worth booking your accomodation as far in advance as you can – the popular spots tend to book up quickly, especially for the cheaper accommodation options.

Summary

If you love nature, outdoorsy activities and more incredible views than you could even dream of, a road trip in Western Canada will be your absolute dream. It’s doable on a budget, if you travel out of the peak summer season and choose camping options for accommodation. Genuinlely, this will forever remain one of the best trips I’ve taken, and would absolutely recommend driving the Canadian Rockies to anyone!

More Canada travel: A Helicopter Ride Over The Canadian Rockies

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10 Places to Visit on a West Canada Road Trip, featuring Banff, Jasper, Whistler, Athabasca Glacier and more! | Canada travel guide

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