The Canadian Rockies Are a Wonderland of Glacial Lakes and Scenic Drives

As expected, Canada continues to be gorgeous

I grew up in the shadow of the most gorgeous mountains in the Northern Hemisphere: the Canadian Rockies.

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.

Since more than 1.5 million people travel to the mountain park between June and September, Parks Canada says to “be prepared for crowds and line-ups, remember to pack your patience, and be respectful to the people and wildlife you encounter.”

Don’t come to Banff or Jasper without a hotel or camping reservation (and remember that camping in a non-designated campsite or in the towns of Banff and Jasper is illegal). During most long weekends and summer months, the park is at capacity. If there is no availability in Banff or Jasper, look into accommodations in a neighboring community.

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.

Icefields Parkway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. 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.

Icefields Skywalk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 below. Get here by stopping along the Icefields Parkway 60 miles south of Jasper or 125 miles north of Banff. As a heads up, this one closes for winter and most of spring due to weather.

Athabasca Glacier © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Athabasca Glacier, Alberta

We always hear about melting glaciers but have you ever actually seen one up close? See 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.

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.

Lac Beauvert and Jasper Park Lodge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Pyramid Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pyramid Lake (near Jasper, Alberta)

Pyramid Lake in Jasper National Park is one of the best places to visit in Jasper. This lake is a wonderful kidney-shaped lake right at the foot of the iconic Pyramid Mountain. It’s one of the many small lakes left behind by retreating glaciers in the area. Unlike many of the Banff lakes which can seem like a trek to get to from town, Pyramid Lake is only 3 miles from town down Pyramid Lake Road. So even if you only have a half-hour to spare while visiting Jasper, you can easily make a trip to Pyramid Lake and see its beauty.

Mount Robson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 while a gift shop that sells ice cream caters to the rest of us throughout the summer.

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.

Elk in Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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. You don’t want to skip this one, trust me!

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. 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 the perfect photo. Get here along the Icefields Parkway, about 20 miles south from the town of Jasper.

Banff National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Banff National Park

Banff National Park is famous for its vibrant lakes, majestic mountains, and easy access to outdoor adventures of all kinds. The park spans 2,564 square miles of striking mountainous terrain in the vast wilderness of the Canadian Rockies. Canada’s first national park and the world’s third, it has a rich heritage as one of the world’s most awe-inspiring mountain destinations. The bustling Banff townsite and village of Lake Louise are uniquely located in the national park. In this one of a kind place, there’s something for everyone to discover.

Maligne Lake, Alberta

Maligne is the second-biggest glacial lake in the world. I enjoyed a tour boat here one summer, 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.

Rocky mountain goats in Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canmore, Alberta

The so-called Three Sisters are the calling card of Canmore, a cozy town just outside the boundary of Banff National Park. 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.

Elk in Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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 amazing views.

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.

Bighorn sheep in Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Icefields Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roger’s Pass, Glacier National Park, British Columbia

Yes, Canada has its own Glacier National Park and it is 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.

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.

Big horn sheep in Jasper National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Worth Pondering…

The mountains are calling and I must go.

—John Muir