The Ultimate 5-Day Canadian Rockies Road Trip: Banff and Jasper (Day #1)

The Ultimate 5-Day Canadian Rockies Road Trip: Banff and Jasper (Day #1)
Author’s photo of downtown Banff

Checking out Canmore, Banff National Park, and Lake Minnewanka, while running into wildlife, and finding the best pizza in town!

If you are planning a trip to the Canadian Rockies, or just looking for future travel aspirations, you are in the right place.

A month ago, in June 2023, I had one of my best road trip experiences visiting Banff and Jasper in the Canadian Rockies.

In this blog post series, I will go over my full 5-day itinerary, and give you my recommendations of places to visit and food to eat while having a fantastic time! I will also include some photos during the trip to make things more tangible.

To make it an easier read, I will divide this series into 5 parts — one part for each day. I want it to read like a story and also make it memorable and actionable for you all.

Now, let’s get started with day 1.

The Fundamentals

First, let me walk you through the basics of the trip.

This will help you understand where did I go, during what time of the year, how was the weather, and, most importantly, how did I get around.

What are the Canadian Rockies?

The Canadian Rockies are a majestic mountain range located in western Canada. They span across the provinces of British Columbia (think Vancouver) and Alberta (think Calgary).

Every corner you turn, you are greeted with absolutely breathtaking sceneries — from towering snow-capped peaks to glacial lakes to pristine rivers to dense forests — whatever wilderness thing you can think of, most likely you will find it in the Canadian Rockies.

During my 6-day road trip, I visited the Banff and Jasper National Parks. There’s much more to see in the Canadian Rockies, but these are all we had the time for.

When Did I Visit? How Was the Weather?

The landscape and sceneries change every season in the Canadian Rockies. Depending on what you are looking for, you will want to choose your time of visit carefully.

The summer months — June, July, and August — are the most popular times.

I visited around mid-June. That ended up being the sweet spot between cheaper prices, fewer tourists, and good weather. It wasn’t all roses and sunshine though. June weather can be very polarizing. We experienced sunny, rainy, and snowy (!) within the span of 6 days. So, come prepared!

How Did I Get Around?

Covering both Banff and Jasper in 6 days means you have to travel huge distances.

If you don’t drive, there are different tour buses you can take. However, for the ultimate freedom, you will want a car.

We wanted this to be a proper road trip, so we decided to rent a car for 6 days. That ended up being the best decision of the trip!

If you are planning a trip, I would highly recommend renting a car, even if that means you need to save some money elsewhere.

We flew into Calgary from Toronto, picked up our car in Calgary, and then drove to both Banff and Jasper.

Flying to Calgary

Our flight from Toronto to Calgary took off at 6:20 AM EST.

I made the 4 hours journey in a narrow Boeing 737 MAX 8. I couldn’t sleep a wink on the plane. Not sure if that was from excitement or my innate fear of flying.

Braving the flight, I abruptly got out of the aircraft and headed towards the car rental to pick up our rental for the week.

You can pick from multiple different car rental companies. We went with Enterprise.

To my surprise, we were given a fairly new 2021 Toyota Camry Hybrid.

Pro tip: Do a video walkaround of the car when you first get it and point out the tiniest of spots before you drive it off. You will thank me later if the rental company comes after you for past damage.

Getting Ready for the Road Trip

I put the nearest Walmart on Apple Maps, and off we went.

We picked up some snacks, ready-to-go meals, drinks, and a replacement hoodie (turns out I left mine at the Toronto airport RIP).

Afterward, we double-checked the car tires, learned about the different safety features of the car, adjusted the seating position for my short ass, and started our road trip.

Author’s photo of Canmore plaza-

Destination: Canmore

Canmore is a little mountain town nestled halfway between Banff and Calgary. We chose this as a good mid-point to break apart the 1-hour drive to Banff.

It took us 45 minutes to reach Canmore. To our surprise, we were greeted by some friendly Elks as my wipers struggled with the heavy downpour.

We were famished, so we looked up some local cafes on Yelp and chose JK Bakery Cafe.

The staff were super friendly and helped us pick their popular Hot Chocolate and Spinach Pie. Both were delicious!

Next Stop: Banff National Park

From Canmore to Banff, it was another 30 minutes in pouring rain.

Once we entered Banff, we directly went to our hotel: Irwin’s Mountain Inn. It was a cozy hotel, right in the middle of downtown Banff, with tons of restaurants and cafes around. The price was reasonable too.

On the way into Banff National Park, we were given a map by a park ranger.

That brings me to one of the most important points: there’s limited mobile network in both Banff and Jasper. Make sure you come prepared. Download offline maps, print out any document you might need, etc.

Things to See Around Banff

Even though the rain was showing no signs of stopping, we decided to venture out of our hotel room, and not waste a minute.

Looking at our map (and a Notion page we put together), we knew about most of the locations we wanted to check out. Granted, they won’t look half as beautiful in the horrendous rain, but we could always come back the next day when nature was kinder to us.

There are dozens of lakes and mountains in Banff National Park, each deserving at least a few hours. However, with our limited time, we had to either strategically pick, or do a rapid fire of all locations.

We chose the latter.

Author’s photo of Vermilion Lake

Vermilion Lake

Our first stop was Vermilion Lake, which was a 20-minute drive from downtown Banff.

On a bright day, you see the reflection of Mount Rundle, which of course we did not get. Yet, there’s something to be said about going to these locations under pouring rain and surrounded by ominous clouds. I loved it!

Author’s photo of Lake Minnewanka

Lake Minnewanka

From there, we took another short drive to Lake Minnewanka, or as the Stoney Nakoda First Nations people called it — “Lake of the Spirits”.

With the clouds getting more and more ominous by the hour, the lake definitely did not show its pristine blue water. Yet, the vast openness and the towering mountains transported us somewhere else.

Around us, we didn’t have anyone else braving the rain. I felt proud… for only a few minutes though. Then it occurred to us — we are in Bear country, and we left our bear spray in the car.

Lesson learned: always keep a bear spray on you, especially if you are alone in the wilderness.

Forcing the “bear thoughts” out of my head, I walked around a little, and then we started driving what’s known as “The Lake Minnewanka Loop”.

Among all stops in the loop, a few points worth calling out are:

Author’s photo of Hoodoos Viewpoint

Surprise Corner Viewpoint (and our first wildlife encounter!)

By now, we were already 4 hours into the Lake Minnewanka loop drive. The loop is not too long, but we spent quite some time in each of the stops.

So, we decided to make Surprise Corner our final stop of the day.

From this spot, you get a really good view of the famous Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel and a glimpse of the mighty Bow Falls.

Author’s photo taken from Surprise Corner Viewpoint

We soaked the views in, only to be interrupted by the rustling of leaves on the other side of the road. I slowed the car down and put my hazards on.

And BAM… our first wildlife encounter! It was a group of 4 deers just chilling.

We drove around some more expecting to see wildlife, but for now, Lady Luck wasn’t in our favor (it soon will be!).

Banff Downtown and Best Pizza in Town!

We ended the day by walking around downtown Banff.

Even though the towering mountains were blanketed by dark clouds, we found the mountain town beautiful. Small local bakeries, shops, and other stores were nestled together within a few blocks only. One of the smallest downtowns I have ever seen.

Author’s photo of downtown Banff

There was one more highlight before the day ended.

For dinner, we went to Bear Street Tavern, and had our best pizza of the trip! If you visit Banff, you cannot leave without stopping by this awesome restaurant.

Author’s photo taken at Bear Street Tavern — best pizza in town!

They have a special sauce — a mix of honey and chili sauce. I never knew that combo was a thing, but I can never go back. Would highly recommend it!

With this, we wrapped up our first day of the road trip.

Horrible weather? Yes. Exhausted out of our minds? Yes. But it was tons of fun and we didn’t let the rain stop our exploring.

Day 2 Teasers

The next day was going to be the highlight of the trip. We had tickets booked to visit all three of:

Mother Nature decided to be kind to us, and we got one of the best weathers of the whole trip.

I hope this was a fun read! If you enjoyed it, stay tuned for the next one.

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