Do you want to plan a trip to the Canadian Rocky Mountains but have no idea where to start? The hardest decision will be narrowing down what you want to see. It will never seem like you have enough time to take in all the beauty the mountains have to offer. Below are the basics to get you headed in the right direction. With a little research you’ll be all set to make the most of your visit.
When Is The Best Time Of Year To Visit The Rocky Mountains?
There’s no correct answer to “When is the best time to see the scenery?” The Rocky Mountains are a year round destination with spectacular scenery in every season. So how do you decide when to visit? Our post on When is the best time to visit Banff National park and the Rocky Mountains will help you narrow it down to a time of year that suits you by looking at things like weather, temperature, seasonal activities and your budget.
Keep in mind that winter is a long season in the mountains, especially in higher elevation areas like Lake Louise. Spring time is still skiing season, the summer months pass by quickly to lead way to the colours of fall and then it’s all up to mother nature as to how early the snow returns. Seeing the coloured glacier lakes is on the wish list for many. If this is your goal make sure to time your visit accordingly. See our post on When do the Rocky Mountain lakes thaw and get their beautiful turquoise colour?
These additional posts on our site can help to decide when to visit the Canadian Rockies.
- Pros And Cons Of Banff And Jasper National Parks In The Shoulder Season Of April And May
- Misconceptions and Mistakes Made When Visiting The Canadian Rocky Mountains
How To Pack For A Canadian Rocky Mountain Trip
Weather across Canada varies dramatically. While it may be spring like in Vancouver on the west coast, the mountains are still buried in snow. If you’re visiting between November and March it’s a must to have proper winter clothing including boots, an insulated winter jacket, gloves and a warm hat. During the rest of the year there can be wide variances in conditions and temperatures. Be prepared with several clothing options. For more information see our post on What to expect for weather and temperatures in the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
What needs to be in your suitcase depends on the time of year, the length of your stay and the activities you plan to participate in. For information on what to put in your suitcase see our post on How to pack for a visit to the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
What Is An Ideal Length Of Time To Spend In The Rocky Mountains
We recommend a minimum of a week to get a taste of what the mountains have to offer, especially if you are trying to fit in several places such as Banff and Jasper National Park. Visitors often under estimate how vast these areas are and the driving times involved in getting around. A visit limited to just Banff may be suitable to 3 to 4 days. If you plan on doing a lot of sightseeing and adding in activities such as hiking you’ll likely want more time.
Ten days to two weeks is ideal to take in things at a leisurely pace or see attractions in neighbouring Kananaskis Country, Yoho or Kootenay National Parks. When flying make sure you account for the time needed for getting to and from the airport. If your budget and time allows there are places worth visiting like Drumheller and the Badlands or the small but charming Waterton Lakes National Park. There’s several other alternative parks and overlooked areas in the Rocky Mountains.
Driving a circle route that includes the west coast of B.C. warrants at least ten days to two weeks. It’s nearly 850 km’s between Vancouver and Banff and a minimum of 9 hours of driving time each way. It’s best to break up the drive with at least one overnight stay. If you are driving just one way a few days would suffice for the drive, but then you’ll want to add on additional days to spend in the Rocky Mountain National Parks and in Vancouver and perhaps Vancouver Island. For options see our post on driving routes between Vancouver and Banff and Jasper.
Getting To The Canadian Rocky Mountains
The flight options available to international visitors may have them accessing the Rocky Mountains through one of several airports. Calgary is the closest international airport, followed by Edmonton and then Vancouver on the west coast of Canada.
For those coming from other destinations within Canada or North America there are domestic flights as well as train travel, buses, guided coach tours and self driving. More detail is covered in our post on Options For Getting To The Canadian Rocky Mountains.
Navigating The Rocky Mountains Once You Arrive
Self driving in the mountains is the most popular option because it provides the greatest flexibility. The roads are easy to navigate and many people feel comfortable driving themselves around. The exception would be the winter season. Driving at this time is not for everyone and shouldn’t be attempted by those without any experience.
If you’re flying into one of the international airports you can conveniently arrange to pick up your rental vehicle there. Banff, Canmore, Lake Louise and Jasper also have vehicle rental options. Make sure you understand all the details of your contract including the insurance coverage, whether it has unlimited kilometers and the return policy. There may be restrictions that can void your insurance including driving on un-paved roads or taking the vehicle into the U.S.A. Many companies prohibit using chains for winter driving as they can cause damage to the vehicle.
If you’re thinking of driving one way between the west coast of B.C. and the Rocky Mountains or vice versa it can be an expensive option. The one way drop of fee between the two destinations can be as high as a thousand dollars. Do your research to see which companies offer the cheapest rate.
If you do not want to self drive you can consider booking a tour as part of a package with your flight or book tours to attractions with local companies. It is possible to get around some areas of the mountains with public transportation and shuttles. For more information see our post: How to get around the Rocky Mountains without a vehicle.
Canada Driving Road Laws And Safety
Where To Base Yourself In The Rocky Mountains
Whether you base yourself in one spot in the Rocky Mountains or change accommodations depends on what parks you want to see and how much driving you are willing to do. In Banff National Park you can choose between staying in Lake Louise versus the Banff Townsite. There’s usually no need to stay in both places. Day trips to explore the park as well as heading west into Yoho National Park and the southern end of the Icefields Parkway can be done from either location.
There’s an option of using the town of Canmore as a base. It is not in the national parks, but sits just a 15 minute drive east of the Banff town site. One town might appeal to you more than the other depending on your tastes. We’ve covered the differences here in our post on Canmore versus Banff.
If you plan on spending time in Banff and Jasper it’s best to book accommodation in both places. The driving time from the town of Banff to Jasper is approximately 3.5 hours in each direction. It would be a lot of driving to do as a return day trip between the two and it wouldn’t leave you enough time to see all the incredible attractions along the Icefields Parkway. For more information see our post on Tips For Driving The Icefields Parkway and for comparisons between these two parks check out Jasper National Park versus Banff National Park.
The amount of accommodation choices in the Banff and Canmore area can be overwhelming. Jasper is a bit more limited and in Lake Louise the options are sparse in comparison. There’s times of the year where winging it is simply not an option. During times of peak demand the lodging in all of these areas may need to be reserved months in advance. If you leave your booking too late it may be difficult to find a room or you can be stuck paying exorbitant prices.
There’s a wide range of accommodation types from high end resort style properties and lodges to mid-range hotels, condo suites, bed and breakfasts and budget friendly hostels. For more information on selecting accommodation during the various times of the year see our post on How To Visit Banff On A Budget.
Camping is available for tents and RV’s. If you plan to camp be aware that not all campgrounds are able to be reserved. Some sites operate on a first come first served basis. See Parks Canada Camping Reservations for more information. The main season for camping is from late May to early October, outside of that time frame there are very few camping options.
Canadian And Rocky Mountain Cuisine You May Want To Try During Your Visit
Canada is a multi-cultural country and therefore has a variety of different foods to try as well as some cuisine unique to the country. Many of the same foods can be found in the Rockies along with some dishes specific to the mountains. See our post on Foods And Drinks To Try During Your Canadian Rocky Mountain Visit.
Required Passes For Visiting Canada’s National Parks
Park passes are required for entry into any national park in Canada. You can buy a day pass at a park gate or at visitor centers within the parks. If you intend to visit several of Canada’s national parks or spend more than a few days in them consider an annual Parks Canada Discovery Pass. With it, you can visit more than 100 national parks, marine conservation areas and historic sites across Canada. Passes are not required for entering our provincial parks or recreation areas.
Update for 2017. To celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday entry into the National Parks is free. For more information see our post on Understanding the Parks Canada Entry Fees
What’s The Best Way To Pay For Things On Your Canadian Rocky Mountain Vacation.
If you’re visiting from another country it can be a daunting task to try and figure out the best way to pay for things on your trip. No matter what the method you choose you will incur expenses in the form of currency exchange and transaction fees. It’s just an inevitable part of the cost of traveling.
What many people end up doing is using their credit card for their accommodation, vehicle rental and other major costs and accessing local currency to pay for the lesser daily expenses. For more detailed information on using various forms of payment see our post: Tips for currency exchange and using international credit cards in the Canadian Rockies.
Taxes That Tourists Pay In The Rocky Mountains
Whether you are a tourist or a citizen of Canada there are taxes that you will pay on goods you purchase, services used and on our accommodation and other vacation expenses. For detailed tax information see our post taxes you can expect Taxes That Tourists Can Expect To Pay In The Canadian Rocky Mountains.
Throughout the Rocky Mountains and the rest of Canada tipping is practiced. If you’re an international traveling visiting Canada it be confusing knowing who and how much to tip. Our post Canadian Rockies Tipping Etiquette outlines a basic guideline that you can follow.
Required Travel Documents To Visit Canada
Find out what you need to enter Canada long before you book your trip. Most travelers will need a valid entry document such as an Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA) or a visa. It will depend on your citizenship. U.S. citizens are an exception. They still need to present acceptable travel documents and identification at the border. A passport is still highly recommended for U.S. citizens traveling into Canada. It may be required by your airline or other transportation authority.
Check the Canada Customs site to find out what items are not allowed to be brought into the country and anything that may have your entry denied. Everything you need to know about the required documentation and entry into Canada can be found here: http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/visit/tourist.asp
Medical Insurance And Travel Insurance
Travel with adequate insurance to cover the cost of medical emergencies while you are in Canada. If you do not have insurance the cost of emergency medical treatment could be overwhelming. Trip cancellation insurance can give you some peace of mind knowing you are covered if you have a necessary reason to cancel your trip.
Canada Time Zones
Canada is a large country spread across 6 different time zones from east to west. If your visit is focused on Jasper, Banff, Yoho and Kootenay National Parks you will only have the Mountain Time zone to be concerned with. The entire province of Alberta is on Mountain time and it extends into a small portion of the neighbouring province of B.C.
Most of Canada practices Daylight Savings Time. From late Autumn through to early Spring is Mountain Standard Time (MST), it is UTC-7. From early Spring to late Autumn is Mountain Daylight Time (MDT), it is UTC-6.
West of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks it is the Pacific Time zone. It is one hour behind Mountain time. Keep this in mind when traveling. You’ll either lose or gain an hour depending on the direction of travel between the two time zones.
If you’re driving there are signs marking the time change. On the Trans Canada Highway the change occurs at the eastern slope of Rogers Pass. On the Yellowhead Highway the time change is the western boundary of Jasper National Park at the continental divide, signs mark the time zone change in both directions.
Legal Drinking Age And Smoking Laws
The legal drinking age is not the same across Canada, it is set by each province. In Alberta it’s 18, but take note if you cross over into nearby B.C. it’s 19. This is for both consuming alcohol and purchasing alcohol. For smoking laws see http://health.findlaw.ca/article/smoking-laws-by-province/.
Cellphone And Wifi In Canada And The Rocky Mountains
Don’t expect that you will be able to get cell phone reception throughout the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks. It’s not something that can be relied upon outside of the town site areas. For more information on cell phone and WiFi service in the mountains see our post: Cell Phones And WiFi In The Canadian Rockies.
Electrical Plug And Voltage Information For Canada
Depending on the country your electronics are from you may need a socket converter for the plugin and possibly a voltage converter to operate the device in Canada. Many modern digital devices such as laptops and cellphones are now made for world wide voltages, but always check otherwise you could damage the item. For more information on what you may need to operate your electronics see Power And Plugins In Canada.