Last year my husband (then fiancé) and I flew to Calgary, Alberta and embarked on a six-day road trip through the Canadian Rockies, stopping in Lake Louise to elope before continuing on to Vancouver, British Columbia. In celebration of our first anniversary, I thought it was time to tackle my Canadian Rockies Road Trip Travel Guide.
This was my third trip out to Banff and Lake Louise, Alberta and I honestly can’t recommend it enough. When I’m surrounded by the mountains and those beautiful glacial fed waters, I feel so insignificant. It’s a feeling you can’t even imagine until you go there yourself. So here are some things to know before you visit my absolute favourite place in the world.
Know Before You Go
- Time Zone: Mountain Standard Time (GMT/UTC-7)
- Language: English. Our other national language is French but I didn’t encounter anyone that spoke it.
- Currency: Canadian Dollar ($). ATMs are everywhere and credit cards are accepted in most hotels and restaurants.
- Gratuity: Tipping is a standard practice. Expect to tip restaurant servers 15-20% and bartenders $1 per drink.
- Getting Around: I’ve been to Banff and Lake Louise three times and we’ve always rented a car at the Calgary airport. We drove it everywhere until we got to Vancouver when we unfortunately had to drop it off right away because we arrived late! There is no Uber in Vancouver so we chose to walk from our hotel to the restaurant for dinner which wasn’t a big deal because we got to explore Gastown better. Obviously in the morning we had to take a cab from our hotel to the airport before flying home.
- Park Pass: You will need a Park Pass to stop and visit the sites in Banff, Yoho, Mount Revelstoke and Glacier National Parks (among others). The pass is associated with your vehicle (you leave it on your dash), but the cost is per person in the vehicle multiplied by the number of days you will be in the parks. You can buy day passes at the Banff National Park gates or online. We payed about $60 CAD for a four-day pass.
- When to Go: We went from July 22-27. The average high was 24°C, the average low was 9.5°C and it was consistently sunny.
Day 1: Banff, Alberta
Our road trip began at the Calgary International Airport where we picked up our rental car. The mountains were calling us so we set our GPS and headed west toward Banff. Not long after leaving Calgary, the cityscape gave way to flat, grassy prairies and we started to see the foothills on the horizon. The more we drove, the bigger those mountains got and then all of a sudden we were IN the mountains and I was hit by that feeling of insignificance.
After a 1.5 hour drive from Calgary we finally arrived in Banff. The first thing we did was take a walk along the Bow River, where C. got to dip his hands in to the chilly, blue/green waters of the Bow. Seriously, the colour of the water is one of my favourite things about being in the Rockies! Call me a nerd but I even have a glass charm that I picked up at the Pandora shop on Banff avenue that’s the colour of the water (more on that later).
After our stroll along the Bow we made our way to Eddie Burger Bar ($$ – $$$). It’s known for its casual atmosphere, serving up creative burgers, poutine, craft beer and milkshakes for lunch and dinner. I have celiac disease so I opted for a burger on a gluten free bun. Seriously one of the best burgers I’ve ever had!
After lunch our first stop was the Cave and Basin National Historic Site, the old hot springs and birthplace of Canada’s first national park. We took our time looking at the interpretive displays, replica of the bathhouse and the heated swimming pool that closed in 1994 (it’s since been filled in and paved over). The cave is definitely the coolest part about this attraction because the waters are the ONLY habitat for the endangered Banff Springs snail! Just don’t put your hand in the water or you will face a hefty fine!
I wanted to take C. to the Surprise Corner to get that classic shot of the Fairmont Banff Springs so we headed up Tunnel Mountain Road. For this trip we used a cool app called GyPSy Guide which provides a professional tour guide commentary. All we had to do was drive, listen and soak in the scenery. I’ve been to the Canadian Rockies three times now and this app taught me things about the history and geology that I never knew before!
Without the GyPSy Guide we never would have stumbled across these red chairs where we took a second to relax and reflect on the beautiful scenery. The app also finally took me to see the hoodoos which I’d only seen from the top of Sulphur Mountain. After learning about how the hoodoos formed we jumped in our car and headed to the Bow Falls, the first of the many waterfalls we’d see on our trip.
Next we took a trip up the Banff Gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain. It costs $64 to get on the Gondola but trust me, the breathtaking view of Banff nestled in the Bow Valley is totally worth it. After exploring the interpretive displays we then walked along the boardwalk to another National Historic Site of Canada, the Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station.
Hungry and tired after a long day of travel and exploring, we got in our car and headed out of Banff toward our hotel. When our GyPSy tour guide popped on to tell us about the “Green Spot ” on Mount Norquay we agreed that we should check it out. It’s not as high up as Sulphur Mountain but the view of Banff and the Bow Valley did not disappoint. If you don’t want to spend $64 on the Gondola ride, a visit to the Green Spot would be a great budget-friendly alternative.
While it’s no Fairmont Banff Springs, C. and I were really pleased with our stay at the The Juniper Hotel, an incredibly stylish, mid-century modern boutique hotel with 180-degree mountain views on the outskirts of Banff. After enjoying a delicious gluten-free dinner on the The Juniper Bistro‘s patio ($$ – $$$), C. and I tucked in for the night to rest up for Day 2 of our Canadian Rockies Road Trip.
Day 2: Lake Louise, Alberta
We knew we wanted to start Day 2 by soaking in the steamy hot mineral waters of Banff Upper Hot Springs, the highest hot springs in Canada. This place gets super busy so C. and I decided to go when it opened at 9 am. This was a good decision because we got to enjoy the water and the view in relative peace and quiet. We even snagged two of the red chairs so we could take a break every so often. The water is really hot!
After the hot springs we headed to the Cascades of Time Garden, which I’d never been to on any of my previous trips. I’m not a flower person (my photos from my recent trip to South Carolina would suggest otherwise haha). What I really wanted was that classic photo of Banff Avenue dwarfed by Cascade Mountain in the background.
I spent a lot of time researching where I could find good and safe gluten free food on our trip. My number one choice for breakfast was Tooloulou’s but unfortunately there was a line right out the door so we chose Coyote’s Southwestern Grill ($$ – $$$) just next door instead . My gluten free huevos rancheros were absolutely delicious, a recipe I’ve tried to replicate in my kitchen ever since.
The last thing I wanted to do in Banff was purchase a charm to commemorate our visit. On my last visit I purchased a blue green glass charm (similar picture below) that reminds me of the water. This time I chose a charm that pays homage to the wild rose, Alberta’s provincial flower. If you love shopping, Banff Avenue is the place to be. Some of my favourite shops include Banff Indian Trading Post, Hudson’s Bay Company, Patagonia Banff, Rocky Mountain Soap Company, Roots, and The North Face Banff.
With our shopping done, we jumped into our rental car and continued on to Lake Louise. Make sure to take the Bow Valley Parkway (not Highway 1) so or you will miss out on Johnston Canyon. We took the short hike to the Lower Falls and waited to go into the cave for an up-close view of the thundering falls. 100% worth the long wait in line.
Next stop was our hotel, the beautiful and luxurious Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. After checking in, we walked along the Lake Louise Shoreline Trail to the back of the lake where we took in the beautiful view of the Chateau surrounded by the mountains. When it began to rain, we hoofed it back to the Chateau to warm up and get ready for dinner. Our wedding meal was going to be at one of the Chateau’s restaurants, so to keep costs down we went to the Timberwolf Pasta and Pizza Cafe ($$ – $$$) at the nearby Lake Louise Inn. With a belly full of gluten free pizza, we returned to the Chateau to rest up for our wedding the next day!
Day 3: Our Wedding Day
Just because we were getting married that afternoon, didn’t mean we weren’t going to explore the Lake Louise area in the morning. So after a quick and delicious gluten free breakfast at the Chateau’s Poppy Brasserie ($$ – $$$), we jumped in our rental car and headed to Peyto Lake.
The short drive up the Icefields Parkway to see Peyto Lake was non-negotiable. After a 650m hike we arrived at the viewpoint and while it was crowded with tourists, the view did not disappoint. You guys, this is the most photographed glacial-fed lake in the world! I’m not sure if it’s allowed, but I hopped off the wooden platform so I could get some tourist-free pictures!
At this point we needed to head back to the Chateau to get ready for our wedding! With the help of makeup artist and hairstylist Michelle of The Pretty Haus and Day-of-Coordinator Kirsty of Something New Banff, I got ready in the hotel room. We were married by Robin White on the shore of Lake Louise and were photographed by not one but two amazing photographers, Beth of ENV Photography and Megan of Sage & Heart Photography.
After getting pictures at Lake Louise, Beth drove us to Moraine Lake where we climbed up the rock pile for more pictures. I feel so bad for C. because we were so into getting pictures that I don’t feel he could truly appreciate just how incredible Moraine Lake is. I guess that means that we will have to go back right?!
Our wedding planner, Danielle of Something New Banff, made a reservation for us at the Chateau’s Fairview Dining Room ($$$$) so that was our next stop. I don’t think I’ve ever had a more delicious meal – making the experience that more memorable! After dinner we relaxed in the Health Club‘s steam room and cooled off in the pool before taking a moonlit stroll on the Chateau grounds.
Day 4: Salmon Arm, British Columbia
The next morning we enjoyed ordered room service and enjoyed a yummy gluten free breakfast in bed before continuing west into British Columbia on the Trans-Canada Highway (#1). First stop was Yoho National Park which offers numerous sites including the Kicking Horse Pass National Historic Site (the highest point of the Trans-Canada Highway), the Spiral Tunnels (a railroad engineering marvel), and Takakkaw Falls. These thundering falls are so tall we were getting sprayed even though we were standing pretty far away.
Yoho National Park is also home to the gorgeous Emerald Lake (the largest lake in British Columbia) and the natural bridge, an interesting natural rock formation that crosses the Kicking Horse River. I really valued this part of the trip because C. and I were experiencing it for the first time together. We agree that we’d stay at Emerald Lake Lodge the next time we venture out west so that we can explore this area more thoroughly.
Next we headed to the Northern Lights Wildlife Wolf Center in Golden. It’s a wildlife sanctuary of sorts, home to wolves who worked in the film industry and can’t be released into the wild because they were born in captivity and they’d never survive. The centre is dedicated to educating the public about the importance of wolves in our environment. After seeing the wolves up close, we drove to Revelstoke and navigated the Meadows in the Sky Parkway. The 26 km road uses a series of tight switchbacks to take you 1365 metres up to sub-alpine wildflower meadows of Mount Revelstoke National Park. The switchbacks are sickening but the view is something to behold.
We then ventured to Three Valley Gap to visit the Heritage Ghost Town, the weirdest and funniest experience of our trip. I hate mannequins and this ghost town is full of them! I made C. go into every building and room before and let me know if there were mannequins so that I could mentally prepare myself LOL! My favourite part of the Ghost Town was definitely the Railway Roundhouse, home to the railcar from which Pierre Elliot Trudeau gave western Canada what became known as the “Salmon Arm Salute.” There is even a cardboard cutout of Trudeau which you can pose beside and give your friends a salute of your own!
After leaving the mannequins behind, we continued on to Craigellachie to visit the site of The Last Spike, the final and ceremonial railway spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway. After some quick photos we hopped back into the car and headed for Salmon Arm, our final destination of Day 4. We enjoyed a delicious meal at the Barley Station Brew Pub ($$ – $$$). Don’t let the name deceive you, this place had a dedicated gluten free menu and gluten free beer!
After a moonlight stroll along the Salmon Arm wharf, we settled into our room at the Prestige Harbourfront Resort. Although it is the highest rated hotel in Salmon Arm, it was my least favourite hotel of our trip. The view from our room was quite breathtaking but the hotel sort of smelled like manure… I’m not really sure why. If we were to do this trip again, I’d definitely persuade C. into staying at an Airbnb.
Day 5: Vancouver, British Columbia
Day 5 began with a trip to the BC Wildlife Park in Kamloops which both C. and I really enjoyed. The Park’s mission is to “encourage the appreciation of and respect for BC’s wildlife, and to assist in preserving biodiversity.” While some captive breeding takes place there (the reason why I try to avoid zoos), a lot of the animals are injured or orphaned and can’t be released back in the wild because they wouldn’t survive. Our favourite part was seeing Knute and Dawson, orphaned sibling grizzly bears from the Yukon.
Our next stop was the Othello Tunnels in Coquihalla Canyon Provincial Park, a series of railway tunnels that cut through the Coquihalla Gorge. I found it interesting that our trip included so many railway-related landmarks – something that normally wouldn’t interest me. Obviously I had learned and read about it in school but when you actually go out West and see it for yourself, you realize just how important the railway was in expanding and settling the West.
Our final stop before Vancouver was Bridal Veil Falls Provincial Park, just east of Chilliwack. The falls aren’t particularly spectacular (falls with the “bridal veil” moniker are a dime and dozen out here) but we thought a visit was fitting for our honeymoon don’t you think?
After a sluggish drive into Vancouver (it was rush hour), we finally arrived in Gastown, Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood founded more than 152 years ago. What began with a single a tavern is now a super-trendy neighbourhood that offers a mix of hip and heritage. I convinced C. that we should stay at the Victorian Hotel, a stunning boutique hotel that was built during the great Gold Rush in 1898.
There are a few things you need to know if you plan on staying here. 1. There is no elevator and 2. some rooms (like ours) have shared bathrooms, which wasn’t a big deal for us because we didn’t see any other guests and therefore didn’t have to fight with them over the bathroom. C. was not mad about my choice of hotel, rather he said it was an “interesting choice.” In my book, the history and charm of this hotel make up for the shared bathroom and lack of elevator and I’d definitely stay here again.
I have developed an almost foolproof method of finding the best gluten free food using Trip Advisor and my next restaurant find did not disappoint. I chose MeeT in Gas Town ($$ – $$$) which was delicious except that I forgot to tell C. that they only serve plant-based food! He was in the mood for a big hearty burger but instead he got a plant based burger… We laughed so hard when we realized it wasn’t meat. I was really tired from our trip and I forgot to tell him okay?
After dinner, we chose to forgoe exploring Vancouver (I’m still sad about this) and opted to tuck in early given our early flight the next morning. Since we returned the rental car the day before, we took a taxi to the airport before returning to our home province of Ontario.
Overall, our Canadian Rockies Road Trip was unforgettable. Following in my parents’ footsteps, we got married, went on our honeymoon and explored and learned about a beautiful part of our country. I 100% recommend visiting the Canadian Rockies for yourself and I hope this travel diary inspires you. If you find this post helpful, please pin the image below (or any image that’s mine in this post) to your Pinterest board to share it with others!