My first time visiting Canada left me delighted. Showing up to a country I’ve never been to, to a place I’ve only see time and time again on social media can leave me with worry. Will it really be as great as everyone says it is? What if I’m let down? But Canada? Not an ounce of a letdown. After all the lakes really are that blue, the mountains are that majestic, and the wildlife is that amazing. It turns out that while you will more than likely want to stay awhile, a three-day Canadian Rockies itinerary is just what you need to dip your toes into the beauty that is Canada.
Although I slowed down and spent a week exploring Alberta – Canmore, Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper; if you have limited time it truly is a trip you can take in three days. From exploring the beauty that is Banff and driving further onto Jasper, this Canada trip will only leave you wanting more!
3 Days in Banff National Park + Jasper National Park – A Canadian Rockies Itinerary
Day one overview: Banff National Park + Banff
Day two overview: Banff National Park + Canmore
Day three overview: Banff National Park + Jasper National Park
Renting a Car & Where to Stay in the Rockies
Both Banff and Jasper are located in the province of Alberta, which is found above Montana and Washington. The main airport that services Alberta is Calgary (YCC), located in southern Alberta. A mere two-hour drive west from Calgary airport will bring you to Banff, and a four-hour drive northwest will bring you to Jasper. While you can stay in either Banff or Jasper, prices are high and tourists are everywhere. Instead, I’d opt to stay in Canmore; an hour and a half west of Calgary, and only a 30-minute drive from Banff.
Car Rentals in Calgary
If you choose to fly into Calgary to explore the Canadian Rockies, I’d highly recommend renting a car from the airport. The other option is if you drive into Alberta and have your own car. I found that while there are buses around Alberta, they are limited and get crowded quickly, especially if you’re planning on visiting the tourist hot spots.
If you plan on renting a car from the Calgary airport, the rental car center is found on the departures level across the street from the domestic terminal. I like to rent from Discover Cars so that I can compare prices across multiple different rental companies.
Finding Lodging in or Near Banff National Park
When visiting the Canadian Rockies, specifically Banff, it was important to me to not only explore the tourist hot spots but also get away from it all and explore the lesser-known destinations that make Alberta so special. While there are plenty of lodging options in Banff National Park, instead we chose to stay in Canmore. A town with a population of approximately 14,000 people (since 2016), and only 27 square miles. But don’t be fooled by the small size, there are tons to do in and around Canmore. Plus it’s only a 30-minute drive into the town of Banff yet away from the crowds that occupy the national park.
We chose to stay in a VRBO in Eagle Point while we were in Canmore. Six of us squeezed into a lodge nestled in the Rocky Mountains of Canada and it made the experience feel very authentic, Canadian. With the fireplace crackling after a long day of hiking, and an outdoor hot tub to relieve our muscle aches, our VRBO was exactly what I was looking forward to every night.
Day One – Moraine Lake + Downtown Banff
Spend your first day in Alberta seeing what makes this area so beautiful and unique while experiencing one of the best hikes in Banff. Plan to get started bright and early, the most popular Banff lakes tend to crowd up in the early hours, and buses begin to shuttle people in around 8 am. (For the details on how and why you should be arriving early, read Details of Visiting the Most Popular Banff Lakes). However, before you set off to Banff National Park, you must first purchase a Banff Park Pass.
Once you enter Banff National Park make your way to the serene Moraine Lake, one of the most beautiful lakes in Banff. And it’s no secret why. At Moraine you’ll be in awe at the aqua blue water in front of you and the Canadian Rockies setting the stage for the perfect backdrop. As the sun begins to rise the water only turns bluer and bluer, I could hardly believe my eyes. Here you’ll be able to take photos, rent canoes, or even dine at the Moraine Lake Lodge.
Hiking Moraine Lake
One of the coolest things about visiting Moraine is the many hiking trails that surround the lake. As you get higher and higher you’ll see peeks of the lake between trees. It isn’t until you’ve almost reached the top that the lake disappears and instead you find yourself surrounded by majestic, snow-topped mountain peaks.
We chose to hike Sentinel Pass via Larch Valley Trail, approximately a seven-mile hike in where you gain close to 2,600 feet. There are signs located around Moraine Lake, but you won’t reach the Sentinel Pass trailhead until you’re a couple of miles up the mountain. At this point, the trailhead splits – right for Sentinel Pass; left for Eiffel Lake. Although grueling at points, Sentinel Pass takes your breath away. As you climb higher and higher the trail opens up and you find yourself in the Valley of Ten Peaks. An incredible view motivating you to keep going. Sentinel Pass is a popular trail, so expect to be hiking alongside others.
Once you’ve had a taste of Moraine Lake, head to downtown Banff to get a feel for the small town that occupies Banff National Park. An hour drive down the mountain, southeast, will bring you to the town of Banff. Although busy and touristy, downtown Banff is not to be missed. Nestled in the Rocky Mountains of Canada the town isn’t lacking in the typical Canadian charm you see elsewhere in Canada. Friendly locals eager and willing to give their recommendations, handmade Canadian goods sold in shops lining the streets, and restaurants celebrating Canadian cuisine. If you find yourself in downtown Banff near dinnertime I’d highly recommend a stop at Block Kitchen + Bar. A small and cozy tapas restaurant with an Asian flair.
Day Two – Lake Louise + Downtown Canmore
On day two, head back up the mountain towards Lake Louise. Near Moraine, but not close enough to walk between the two, Lake Louise is wildly popular for the Fairmont Hotel that sits on its grounds. Like Lake Moraine, Louise also crowds up very early so if you want to avoid the crowds I’d recommend getting there early. However, unlike Moraine, Louise has a bigger parking lot and can accommodate more cars.
While I personally felt as though Lake Louise was overrated, including dining at the Fairmont, I would recommend visiting anyways. The hikes around the lake lead up to old tea houses, a unique experience to enjoy.
Hiking Lake Louise
Like Lake Moraine, there are plenty of hikes around Lake Louise. Trailheads are clearly marked but crowd up quickly. Because a number of these trails lead to tea houses I’d recommend leaving the snacks at home and experience what dining at these old tea houses is like! One of the more popular hikes, we chose to hike the Lake Agnes Trail. This nearly five-mile hike allows you to gain approximately 1,400 feet elevation with both lakes and waterfalls seen along the way. At the top, you’ll be greeted by the Lake Agnes Tea House; a tea house that has been standing since 1905! After stopping for drinks and goodies you can head back down the mountain, the same way you came, or continue a few miles further up Little or Big Beehive.
The Lake Agnes Trail is relatively easy and wildly popular. If you want something a bit harder I’d opt for the Plain of the Six Glaciers Trail. This trail is 8.5 miles and allows an elevation gain of nearly 2,000 feet. The Plain of the Six Glaciers will also lead to a tea house, where you can sit back and enjoy the views you’ve worked so hard for.
Once you’re done exploring Lake Louise and the surrounding areas for the day, head into Canmore for a quieter taste of downtown life. In Canmore things are a bit more spread out than downtown Banff, so you may want to consider coming in a car. I’d recommend visiting Canmore Brewing or The Grizzly Paw Pub (skip the food, go for the brews and views).
If you’d like to move a bit faster and squeeze in more each day, I’d recommend combining days one and two. In the morning explore Moraine Lake, and in the afternoon head to Louise, finishing your day in Banff. On day two opt to spend more time in and around Canmore. A popular option for a hike in Canmore includes the Upper Grassi Lakes Trail Loop.
Day Three – Peyto Lake + Jasper
If you’re staying in Canmore, the drive to Jasper National Park is long. It will take you close to three hours, and depending on where in Jasper you’re headed, it may take even longer. However, the drive from Canmore to Jasper is breathtaking. Driving the Icefields Parkway will take your breath away, and make the time fly by. Even if you don’t have the time to get out and explore Jasper, the drive itself is worth it. A drive where wildlife is oftentimes found on the side of the highway; and the highway looking as though it leads straight into the side of the mountain before it suddenly twists a different direction. It’s a drive that anyone would be impressed with.
Aside from the breathtaking drive, if you do have time, there are tons of opportunities along the way to get out, stretch your legs, and enjoy the views in front of you. Peyto Lake is one of those times. About halfway through your drive northwest from Canmore to Jasper, you’ll come upon Peyto. The perfect place to stop for a short walk, long stretch, and a break.
My favorite of the three lakes mentioned, Peyto stands out for its deep aqua-colored water, incredibly serene landscape, and the type of beauty that is close enough to appreciate, yet far enough away so as not to spoil it. At Peyto there is no hiking down to the lake, just admiring from above. Upon arrival, you’ll need to park your car in the small parking lot and walk to the lookout point. An easy, 10-minute walk to the viewpoint until Peyto is laid out in front of your eyes. Peyto also comes with crowds, but if you step away from the viewing platform you may easily find yourself with a spot to yourself.
Hiking Valley of the Five Lakes
There are hundreds of hikes in and around Jasper it was hard to choose just one. From Peyto, on our way up to Jasper, we stopped at a gas station to fill up. It was there the cashier recommended to drive further northwest, approximately two hours, to hike the Valley of the Five Lakes. Not known for being strenuous or intense, instead, the Valley of the Five Lakes offers incredible, unique scenery. At a length close to three miles and an elevation gain of about 500 feet, you can truly enjoy the nature surrounding you. Each lake was more brilliant than the next, and a trail that felt more secluded than the previous trails we had been on. If you do choose to hike the Valley of Five Lakes, begin at lake five and end at lake one, strictly because lake one is the most beautiful.
My time in Alberta exceeded my expectations more than I could have ever imagined. My Canadian Rockies itinerary could simply go on forever. The sheer beauty of such a place astonishes me! A place that while wildly crowded with tourists, certainly isn’t overrated. It’s more than the pretty pictures you see on Instagram. It’s the rawness and the outdoors of such a place that will spark something in you. Witnessing wildlife in their natural habitats. Basking in the greatness of the majestic mountains. And hopefully making you realize that this world is big and precious and something that we need to take care of.
Make sure to take a look at Photos to Inspire You to Visit Alberta in the Summertime
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