National Parks of Canada
Welcome to my page of information on the Canadian national parks. This
information has been gathered in a several trips between 1995 and 2009
My biases -- While I am trying to be objective, I may not like to
do the same things you do. So you can accurately evaluate this
report, be aware of my personal biases in recreation and filter the
report appropriately for your own tastes: I like and seek: Lack
of crowds, wildlife, scenerey, strenuous day hiking, tent camping.
I like but rarely do: back country trips, canoeing, swimming,
biking on roads, sailing. I dislike and seek to avoid: Crowds,
RV's, tours, biking on trails, motor boats, night-life, man-made
attractions (helicopters, theaters, tourist traps, etc.)
Canada is another country!!
The first thing to note about Canada is that it is a different
country, not another state. They have different currency
($1Canadian=$0.85 US in July 2009), but more importantly different
customs and laws. Crossing the border is easy and painless for US
and Canadian citizens not carrying alcohol, tobacco, or weapons, though
you need a passport.
Canada is firmly metric, with distances in KM, temparature in
Celcius, and gas priced per litre. (Yes, they also spell many
words differently, like the British.). Gas is much more expensive,
even accounting for all the unit and currency conversions. Food in
general is familiar, but the Canadian parks get a high proportion
of euoropean and asian visitors, and you are likely to find more
continental and Japanese food than simple steaks and burgers.
Canada is bi-lingual, though in the western provinces, you will see
French only on official signs and food labels (though you will hear
a lot more French spoken than anywhere else I visited outside of
France). Most road signs are in international icon language, which
can sometimes be very confusing (gee what does a picture of a
garbage truck running into a giant piece of movie film mean?) Speed
limits in KM/hour sound high but they aren't and Canada has speed
traps and expensive fines (but not nearly as bad for speeding as
Comparison to US Parks:
The Canadian parks have been developed differently. Many include
entire towns with substantial private development, in
contrast with US parks which generally have limited facilities in
the park. The Canadian parks as a result have many more options
for in-park lodging, dining, and enterainment, but the park towns
are circusses in season (like ski resort towns in march or like
Jackson or West Yellowstone Wyoming in the summer). Roads in
Canadian parks seem generally in much better shape, and the parks
tend to have more and better camping facilities. They have also
done considerable trail development. Stream crossings on most
trails are bridged, and boardwalks or catwalks bypass wet areas on
popular trails. Canadian parks do not in general provide maps and
newsletters like the US parks, but instead you can buy guides in
visitor centers and gift shops). Admission to the national parks
require a pass, and there are many options -- day passes for individual
parks, season passes for all parks. Unlike the US, admission is
charged based on the number of people. Most people visiting for a
week or more will want a season pass, good for a whole year. Provincial
parks generally do not
Getting there and Getting around:
You can drive to western Canada, but if you live east of the
Mississippi, you are much better off flying to Calgary, Vancouver,
Seattle, or Spokane, and rent a car. Make sure you get unlimited
mileage if you can, as distances are huge. (Calgary to Vancouver is
about 800 miles.) Our experience has been that Air Canada offers
significantly more room per seat and nicer amenities in coach (free
movies, better food) than the major US carriers at about the same
price. If you visit the coast, you will need to take
ferries to reach Vancouver Island, or cross numerous bays. A
single agency (BC Ferries) operates all of these ferries. The
popular crossings are inexpensive and have frequent schedules (once
every 1-2 hours), and do not take reservations. Instead you arrive
at the ferry terminal, pay, get in the appropriate line, and can
then abandon your vehicle until 10 minutes before scheduled
departure. Many ferry terminal towns have restaurants and shops
within walking distance of the ferry lines. Ferries from Vancouver
are overloaded outgoing on Friday evening and incoming on Sunday
afternoon and evening, but otherwise you should have little trouble
getting on the first available boat.
Mountain roads are generally very good in Canada, though they have
practically no freeways comparable to our interstates, even in
cities. As a consequence driving through urban areas can be
Canadian highways go by both numbers and names in the west. They
have special signs for each indicative of the name. The major ones
you are likely to encounter are:
- 1 -- Transcanada highway -- busiest and best route with most
traffic and hightest speed limits.
- 7 -- Yellowhead highway -- Actually several different segments
running mostly north and south in British Columbia.
- 3 -- Crowsnest highway -- route from Vancouver to south of
along the US border. Very mountainous and scenic, but rarely
- 99 -- Sea to Sky highway -- runs from Vancouver to Whistler (and
past Whistler over the mountains to join 1 at Cache creek. A
spectacular coast road and mountain highway. All but 5 miles of
flat area past Whistler are paved, but the mountain section is very
twisty and slow. Don't try it with a camper or trailer.
Unpredictable is the only word. Generally colder and
wetter than in the US parks. We encountered bright sun, heat,
cold, rain, and snow all on the same day. Always be prepared to
get wet on your hikes.
Elk, Rocky Mountain Sheep, mountain goats, and
Bears are common. Bison and Moose are also supposed to be there
but we never saw any. "tame" elk are common enough in Banff and
Jasper that flower beds need to be encased in chicken wire to
protect them. Sheep will stick their heads in your car if you encourage
all in several locations. Bears are less friendly, but bear
sightings are not uncommon. Bear encounters on trails are also
fairly common, so be alert and aware of what to do.
Getting to attractions
The most popular attractions are VERY busy in peak season, and parking
is always a problem. Canada doesn't seem to enforce parking rules
in these spots so expect to find people parked all over the roads
around these places. Best advice with any popular attractions
(and the maps they give you on entry will point out which ones they
are) is get there early.
Days are very long in northern lattitudes in mid summer, so you can
cram a lot into a day. Sunrise will happen before 5AM and Sunset
not until 9PM or later quite often. It seems though that fewer
people get up and going early here than in the US, and people tend to
eat and stay out later. You can go with that or take advantage of
the opportunity to go early in the morning, see more wildlife, and have
lower crowds, but don't expect the folks around you in the hotel to go
to bed early.
Comments on specific Parks
Banff park (Alberta) (1995,2007)
-- This is the most visited
park and one of the largest. It is also traversed by a major
highway and thus very accessible. Most lodging is in the town of
Banff, which as noted above is a circus. It does have the most
options and most things are in walking distance. There are many
smaller lodges at other areas, but note that the lodges in popular
tourist areas (like Lake Louise) will get thousands of tourbus
visitors. Here are some areas we visited:
- Banff -- aside from the town they have a tramway (scenic
only, doesn't really access any good hiking territory), 2
ski areas, 2 hot springs, and several short nature trails.)
- Cascade falls -- this is the prominent waterfall on the
moutainside as you approach the first Banff exit on the way from
Calgary. There's a "social trail" to the base of the falls from a
parkinglot next to a disused airstrip. It's ruggeder and steeper
than it looks from the road, but rewarding.
- Lake Minnewanka area. This is a lake controlled by a
damn. There are boat rentals, a beach, and other aquatic
amenities. There is also a trail to a canyon that has been
flooded, a deep rocklined crevice with blue water.
- Johnston Canyon -- a great nature walk/trail, with many
segments on catwalks over the water in a narrow canyon,
visiting two waterfalls. The trail beyond the upper falls
to the inkpot springs is unremarkable, but does access
alpine meadows near the springs. This trail is VERY busy,
so hike first thing in the AM.
- Silverton Falls. This lovely fall is just up the road from
Johnston Canyon but far less visited and very nice. The trail
starts on the trail to Rockbound lake but branches off quickly, then
climbs a couple of switchbacks to a viewpoint across from the
fall. It's not a tough hike but the trail crosses a steep muddy
slope and there's no guardrail at the edges of the small viewpoint so
it may be uncomfortable for anyone with a fear of heights.
- Boom Lake -- A wide trail with a modest grade that reaches
a nice alpine lake with high cliffs on the opposite shore.
The trail is almost entirely in the woods with little to
see on the way.
- Bow Glacier Falls -- A very spectacular spot with few
crowds. The trail skirts a beautiful lake, crosses gravel
stream bed, and ends in a large gravel basin below the
falls. A good place to get a sense of the scale of the
- Lake Louise -- one of the most visited and photographed
places on earth. Don't expect to be alone here. It's
pretty but wasn't what we were looking for. There are many trails
that leave the Lake Louise area. We enjoyed the Lake Agnes trail
to a small lake above Louise. This lake and a couple of other
spots have "tea houses", which serve light meals for hikers. If
you go here, go early, and be prepared to encounter parking lot
vultures -- cars circling looking for anyone who might be leaving --
when you return.
- Morraine lake -- Also pretty and less visited than Louise.
There are many trails that leave from here to alpine lakes and
glaciers. While it's less visited than Louise, get there early if
you want a parking space.
In British Columbia, adjoining Banff and Jasper.
Similar scenery to Banff, but less developed and less crowded. Few
lodging options in the park. The eastern edge adjoining the
continental divide is glaciers and high mountains. Some highlights
- Lake Ohara There is
supposed to be a spectacular lodge and limited access area at Lake
Ohara. Visitors must either walk in or take an infrequently
operating shuttle, and can only take the shuttle with
reservations (rumored to sell out months early). We did not get a
chance to visit.
- The spiral
tunnels of the railway (cut to allow the railway to descend at a
reasonable grade) are a much promoted sight but not all that
visible from the roads. If you are really lucky you can see a
train go through and see the engine emerge while the back end is still
going into the tunnel, but that takes luck and good eyesight
- Takakkaw Falls. This is a spectacular waterfall well worth
the 15km drive to see it (it's paved, but has some nasty switchbacks
and won't take long campers or trailers). The water plunges off a
cliff and then hits rocks that send it out again almost like a
hose. You can hike to the foot of the falls (paved walkway most
of the way). There are lots of other trails that leave from
here. Parking is limited but wasn't a problem either time we
- Emerald Lake. A pretty but very busy spot. The water
is a spectacular green and you can hike around the lake on a level and
partially paved trail. You can also hike to Hamilton Falls,
rumored to be nice and only 0.8km with minimal elevation. Don't
believe that. The trail gets rough and climbs and is at least
1KM. There's no real view of the falls from the base without
scampering over a lot of wet tilting rock, and if there's a viewpoint
up the trail it's up several steep muddy switchbacks that we couldn't
face in our street footwear (chosen because this wasn't supposed to be
- Peyto Lake. Another popular tour spot. From the car
parking lot it's a half km hike with some moderate uphill to the
viewpoint, where you see a spectacular blue lake with glaciers
above. The two viewpoints are crowded, but there's a short nature
trail above the bus lot with a spur to another viewpoint that is even
better and no crowds.
- Mistaya Canyon. This is another slot canyon cut through the
rock. It's a short hike mostly downhill to the canyon from a
smallish parking area (can overflow). Unlike most of the other
spots like this there are no guardrails here and people get right up to
the rim and the creek entering the canyon. Be careful.
In British Columbia, adjoining Yoho and Banff.
This is probably the least visited and crowded and has few
facilities in the park. The town of Radium adjoins the west end of
the park and has extensive facilities and access to the park's hot
- Marble Canyon. This is a deep slot canyon with nice blue
water running through it. The paved trails go on both sides and
there are several bridges over the canyon. (There are a fair
number of steps to get up to the canyon rim). Because the area
was burned in 2002 or 2003 visibility is good and there are
wildflowers. Make sure you go all the way to the top of the
canyon where the creek first plunges into the gorge.
In British Columbia, west of Yoho. Canada's Glacier
park is not connected with or near the US Glacier park. It is a
smallish park enclosing a high mountain group with glaciers and
waterfalls. Again it is mostly hiking territory with not that much to
see from the roads. There is a museum there on Rogers Pass and
the history of putting the railroad through it.
In British Columbia, West of Glacier park along route 1 you come to
Revelstoke. This is mostly a wildnerness preserve but has some
interesting accessible features.
- Trail of the Cedars. This is a boardwalk (really a long
staircase) into an old growth Cedar forest. Once in there you
will definitely feel like you are going to see Ewoks. A very
eerie forest with waterfalls and lots of interesting plants as well as
the trees. There's another trail like this in a swamp area we
- Meadows in the Sky. This is a paved road from the town of
Revelstoke to the summit. Most of the drive is in forest, though
the cleared sides of the road erupt in a spectacular array of
wildflowers in the summer, with different kinds as you get higher
up. At the top (2KM below the end of the road) you can hike to
several destinations, including hiking the last 2KM of road to several
short and reasonable level trails that explore the summit area. A
very worthwhile experience, and different flowers and scenery than we
Jasper Park -- In Alberta, north of Banff.
The second most visited
park, and destination of many tours. Other than spectacular
hiking, the unique features here are easy access to Athabasca
Glacier and the Columbia Icefield, and boat tours of Maligne Lake,
a very long and narrow alpine lake. The town of Jasper is where
most lodging and food are, and like Banff is busy. Jasper is more
residential and less resorty than Banff. There are also more
lodges near Jasper but not in it, either on the river or on the
small lakes in the area. We found these delightful. Here are some
places we visited:
- Pyramid lake (near Jasper) -- a nice small lake with one lodge
rental boats and canoes as well as public picnic areas and beaches.
- Athabasca Glacier -- A zoo. A tour company will take you onto the
ice in special busses, and has a huge base operation. If you
prefer walking, you can park near the glacier (difficult, it's a
small lot), and walk up to it, though you can no longer go on the
glacier. (In 1995 they did and It was amazing to us
that they allow people to wander over the glacier which has some
deep crevasses and snow bridges. It is quite an experience.) If
you want to walk on the glacier another route is to take a guided walk,
where they give you crampons and safety equipment and take people on
varying length tours. (Not sure what this costs, but few people
were doing it then).
- Sunwapta and Athabasca falls. Both interesting stops on the
road. Neither is spectacular, but both are nice. At
Sunwapta there is a small lodge that was very nice. Also at
Sunwapta you can hike to a lower set of falls (about 1KM, take the
trail on the same side of the bridge as the parking lot -- don't cross
the bridge as the trail on the other side doesn't go to the
falls). The lower falls are better and much less crowded.
- Angel glacier -- This requires a significant drive from the main
highway and while lots of people come here it is less busy than
the areas above. Trails go up to the base of the glacier (the main
glacier hangs on a rock wall above a small lake, and a smaller
glacier sits at the bottom. Another trail climbs the moraines
opposite the glacier to fantastic views and wildflowers. (The
opening scene from the sound of music could have been shot here).
Again this gets busier the later in the day you wait.
- Maligne Canyon -- This is a slot canyon, very narrow and deep.
main tourist area is at the top, but you can hike from two other
parking lots below the main area for more solitude on most of your
hike. (Note -- we saw bear cubs here).
- Medicine Lake -- an interesting lake that dissappears late in the
season due to underground drainage.
- Maligne lake -- this is a long narrow lake with a lodge and boat
tours at the head. Many trails branch off from the end of the road
here. The Opal Hills trail we took is VERY steep, but the top has
good views and meadows of flowers. The long road to Maligne lake
is a hotspot for wildlife especially bears, so not a bad thing just to
go looking on a rainy day.
(Alberta, adjacent to the US border and Glacier
park). Waterton and the US Glacier Park are together an
international peace park, though they are separately developed and
administered. Wateron is developed like other Canadian parks, with
a town at the head of Waterton lake with lots of facilities. Many
backcountry trails cross the border between the parks, and the boat
trips on Waterton lake access some of the more remote country in
Glacier park. Scenery and wildlife are similar to Glacier park in
the US. In addition to the town of Waterton, roads access a high
glacial lake beyond (with limited boat rentals for the hearty
paddler), and a deep canyon cut through the mountains. The road
between Glacier and Watertown is good but long, and the border
crossing has more limited hours than some, so be sure you allow
enough time if visiting one of the parks as a day trip from the