Jasper and Banff National Parks in Alberta, Canada have always been on my dream list. When I saw I had a window of time to travel this July, I went for it. I knew traveling in high (peak) season would pose some challenges, but sometimes you just have to go for it :)
As your travel advisor, I would highly recommend not planning a trip like this at the last minute. I started planning one month out and the trip revolved around the 2 nights that Jasper had availability. I looked at the entire months of July and August and found ONE option for a 2-night stay! (Henry, my dog, was on this journey with me and I needed a pet friendly place, so that narrowed my options)
I took my time driving from Oregon to Alberta and with each passing mile the scenery became more and more spectacular.
Traveling in peak season has its perks and for this trip is was beautiful weather. Jasper had had measurable snow one evening about a week before I arrived (which would have been fine with me), but the weather was 80 and sunny when I arrived.
Driving into Jasper village was a bit of let down. It was RV's parked as far as the eye could see. Little stores and restaurants lined the streets and at 6pm or so there were no shortage of people out and about. The hotel I stayed at was about 2 minutes outside of town which made it a little quieter (although a railroad runs right through town). The photo below is looking back into town from my hotel....certainly not a bad view!
I had heard that although crowds were bad (especially at Lake Louise and Banff), if you went out early or late in the day or walked a few minutes away from the main photo spots, the crowds thinned out. So, Henry and I got up early and headed to the Pyramid Lake area (about 10-15 minutes from town). I drove just a few minutes and came around a corner to see elk in the road....and 5 or 6 cars with people hanging out of them taking photos trying to get as close as possible. There are signs everywhere saying NOT to do the things these visitors were doing (the animals are not safe and the more used to humans they get, the harder it is for them to survive). I slowly drove around the mess and continued on my way. I parked and headed out to explore. The parking lot was full, but within 10 minutes, Henry and I had the trail to ourselves. That is until we came across elk...but after stopping a moment to let them continue on their way, Henry and I did the same. This path took us from Pyramid Like to Patricia Lake and beyond (it actually went back into town).
Henry and I found a quiet spot and sat undisturbed for quite awhile. People were walking across the bridge to Pyramid Island (the trees in the middle of the water), but we had a nice moment of tranquility. More people were starting to appear around 11:30am, so we headed back to the hotel for nap and lunch. We headed back out around 6pm and visited Maligne Canyon (pretty, but still very crowded!) and Lakes Edith and Annette---all about 15 minutes from Jasper. As the evening went on, we had more and more space to ourselves and Henry and I could just appreciate the beauty.
The next morning, it was time to eat breakfast and hit the road on the famous Icefields Parkway. It is a scenic 233km journey from Jasper to Lake Louise. There are lots of places to stop along the way and I was looking forward to a leisurely drive. I knew some stops would be busy, but little did I know how busy! I stopped at Athabasca Falls and while the parking lot was nearly full, I found a spot and got out to explore. The sounds of people were louder than the rushing water of the falls. People were everywhere! I think there must have been a hundred buses parked somewhere to have this many people. Henry was freaked and I can't blame him---we caught a small glimpse of the falls and left. Back on the highway, there wasn't much traffic and the scenery was beautiful. A few minutes later there was a similar sight as the day before with cars parked all over the road looking at something....this something happened to be a bear....and people were getting out to get a better picture. I just don't understand how people think this is a good idea. To my knowledge, no one was eaten or injured that day, but it is only a matter of time. Once I could get around the cars, we continued on our way and went to stop a couple of other times at what I thought were less popular places (more like picnic stops).....well each time I turned off I realized why there weren't that many cars on the road....they were all parked or trying to park somewhere! These parking lots aren't small mind you---some were as big as a football field and it still wasn't big enough to contain everyone. I knew the Icefield Center would be busy (most say this is the highlight of the drive---you can take a special vehicle onto a glacier, there is a museum and glass overhang view point), so we stopped at the Stutfield Glacier lookout about 10km kilometers before the Center.
This lookout was busy enough and the theme of my trip seemed to be to think crowds were big...until I went to the next place and I thought now, these are big crowds.....only to have notion toppled the next hour. The Icefield Center was crowded by anyone's standard. The view of the glaciers were gorgeous (I saw them out of the corner of my eye while driving) but the dominant view was not of the glaciers....it was of the hordes of people and all sorts of vehicles. The parking lots went on forever and there were still people finding no place to park. I am not a big advocate of limiting access, but if there was a case, I think Banff is one place where it may be needed. The environment can not handle all of these people.
Speaking of crowds, Lake Louise certainly has them. I had seen photos of Fairmont Château Lake Louise (a very nice hotel right on the lake) for 20+ years and always wanted to stay there and so Henry and I booked one night. I thought one of the main perks would be to see the lake after the day visitors left....well, that wasn't really true. I asked at reception when things quieted down and she said between midnight and 3am is pretty quiet. What?!? That is crazy! To put this in perspective, there are several remote parking lots that shuttle visitors to Lake Louse and nearby Lake Moraine....in addition to parking lots closer to the lakes. After seeing the traffic, I decided the best perk of staying at the hotel was being able to give my name and drive right into the hotel parking garage :)
Lake Louise didn't disappoint and it was true that if you walked for 10 or 15 minutes, the crowds did thin out. I don't think you will ever be alone at Lake Louise, but with some effort, it isn't overwhelming like it is right at the start (where the shuttles drop off people and the main parking lot is located).
The Fairmont didn't disappoint either...it is a beautiful hotel in an even more beautiful location. The next morning was the first time we had rain on this trip, so I didn't get any morning photos from Lake Louise, but even clouded in, it is gorgeous. I understand why so many people want to see it.
We headed out for the short 50 minute or so drive to Banff. If you can't tell by now, I don't love crowds....so I booked a hotel about 2 miles from town and that was a great decision for me. There were hiking trails I could walk to from the hotel and I chose a package with half board (breakfast and dinner) so I didn't have go into Banff at all the 2 nights I was there. The drive though Banff to get to the hotel can hardly be described as a drive---I think I maxed out about 15 mph as it was all essentially a slow moving traffic jam from entrance to exit. Banff is great if you want nightlife and plenty of shopping and things to do (Gap is right on one corner...who doesn't need a new shirt when visiting a national park?).
The same advice worked in Banff---head out early or late and you lose the crowds even a bit outside of the city. There are lots of multi-purpose trails (mountain biking/hiking) and plenty of wonderful views. We saw maybe 5 people in an hour and a half hike on Tunnel Mountain. I consider that a huge success! What was really a success is that Henry and I sat in peace and quiet in the meadow for nearly 20 minutes before a few bikers passed through. Even in one of the busiest places, I'm always amazed when I find a hidden spot (although this wasn't very hidden--it was 5 minutes from my hotel).
After 2 nights in Banff, we were on our way. I would have loved to stay longer and explore more in the quieter areas, but the main lesson in traveling in peak season and booking only a month out is that accommodation is expensive. These areas are expensive even when you plan a year in advance (the recommended amount of time). Expect to pay between $300 and $400 per night for a pretty average hotel room (and $500+ for a luxury property). If it grew legs and walked 100 miles away, the room would likely go for more like $100 or $150, but that is old adage of location, location, location.
There are exciting ways like the Rocky Mountaineer train to visit these areas if you aren't into driving. You can also choose a home base and do day tours...or join a full tour so you don't have to think about anything other there where to take the best photos. For my travel style and for traveling with dog, I highly recommend having your own car (either driving there or getting a rental at the airport). These national parks are huge and the ability to get off the beaten path made all the difference in my trip.
I look forward to helping you plan your next adventure.
Tracey is the owner of Unraveled Travel and has traveled to every continent except Antarctica.