If you have the time then it’s ideal to visit both Jasper and Banff National Parks, they both have stunning scenery and their own uniqueness. The Icefields Parkway that connects the two parks is one of the highlights of the Rocky Mountains and one of North America’s most scenic drives.
If you can’t fit both places into your itinerary then understanding what each park has to offer will help you pick the one most suitable to your tastes. There are pros and cons to each place, but what is a negative to one person might be seen as favourable to another.
Differenes In Size, Population And Atmosphere
Banff National park covers 6,641 km2 and Jasper National Park is nearly double the size at 10,878 km2. It’s the opposite when it comes to the actual towns within the parks. Jasper is much smaller in size and has a population of 4,500 compared to the town of Banff at 8,700.
There’s a feeling of remoteness and a rustic charm to Jasper. It’s been said that it’s what the town of Banff was like several decades ago. You can instantly feel that Jasper is more laid back. Although it gets busy in the summer months, it only sees a fraction of the visitors that go to Banff. It doesn’t get the large number of tour buses that go through Banff and create crowds at places such as Lake Louise and Moraine Lake.
If you’re the type of person who likes a place with a feeling of energy you may prefer the liveliness of Banff. Others may be overwhelmed at how busy it can be during holidays and in the summer when the sidewalks of Banff Avenue can be shoulder to shoulder with people.
Banff has the atmosphere of a ski resort town, it’s much more commercialized with high end shops and has franchises such as McDonald’s, Tim Horton’s and Starbucks. In Jasper you will find it to have more of of an authentic mountain town feel, and a lot of the shops and restaurants are locally owned.
The landscape of Jasper is vast, there are many areas of the park where you have a feeling of space looking towards the mountains. Banff is more encircled in the mountains where you are looking up at them. Jasper appears to offer better opportunities over Banff for wildlife viewing. Perhaps it’s due to the ever increasing amount of traffic and human activity in Banff that the park doesn’t have the wildlife numbers that it used to.
One of the reasons Jasper gets overshadowed by it’s neighbour to the south is accessibility, Banff is much easier to get to . The Calgary International Airport is just under 2 hours away and if you are not renting a vehicle there are numerous shuttles that run back and forth. Jasper takes more effort to get to, it’s a 4 hour drive from the nearest airport in Edmonton and a 5.5 hour drive from Calgary. The main Trans Canada Highway runs through Banff National Park making it easy for motorists to come in from neighbouring areas and provinces.
From the town of Banff the quickest route to Jasper is via the Icefields Parkway, it’s approximately 4 hours of driving and can take longer during heavy summer traffic. It’s not a drive that is recommend as a day trip, at least one overnight stay makes for a more pleasurable experience.
Jasper is more accessible by train, it acts as a stop on the Via Rail line. You can arrive from Vancouver in the west or from eastern Canada. The Rocky Mountaineer travels from Vancouver through Banff and onward to Calgary, but you need deep pockets as it’s a high end luxury train.
Banff is likely the easier place to come to as a first time visitor to the Rocky Mountains. Everything you might want to do is accessible by fairly short drives, walking or by using the public transportation infrastructure. The Roam Bus runs frequently to many of the popular attractions. There’s also public transportation between Banff and the neighbouring town of Canmore. Jasper does not have a public transportation system. It would be fair to say that Banff can easily be visited without a vehicle whereas Jasper would be more difficult. The sights and attractions in Jasper take a little longer to get to and most of them are not within walking distance of the town.
Winter Visits And Skiing Options
Being that the Trans Canada Highway runs through Banff it’s much easier to access in the winter. The highway is well maintained and rarely closes unless there is a heavy snowstorm that plowing crews can’t keep up with. The longer four hour drive from Edmonton to Jasper can be more challenging in the winter and the other route via the Icefields Parkway should only be taken by those experienced in winter driving conditions. During heavy snowfall sections of the Icefields Parkway can be shut down for a day or more until conditions improve and plowing crews are sent out.
In the winter Jasper can be a great place to come for solitude as it slows right down, perhaps too quiet for some people. Due to the decreased number of visitors not all the attractions in Jasper remain open. The Jasper Tramway and the Miette hot springs shut down for the winter months. In Banff the gondola to the top of Sulphur mountain stays open year round except for a short maintenance shut down in January. The Banff Upper hot springs operate a winter schedule with reduced hours. Overall there’s more options for winter activities in Banff for non-skiers.
Banff has more skiing options and they are all within close driving distance of each other. A tri-pass gives you access to all three, the Lake Louise ski resort, Mount Norquay and Sunshine Mountain. Jasper has Marmot Basin which is much loved by the locals and never as crowded as the hills in Banff, which means no line ups. Both Marmot Basin and Sunshine Mountain can offer skiing as late as mid-May depending on the conditions.
Accommodation, Restaurants And Amenities
Banff has a lot more choices when it comes to accommodation, there’s a myriad of hotels to choose from ranging from budget to luxury. Keep in mind budget is a relative term in the Rocky Mountains. Banff has several hostels, a few condo style properties as well as resort style cabin rentals. In Banff National Park there are two distinct areas, whether you want to stay in the town of Banff versus Lake Louise will depend on your you activities. Keen hikers may want to stay in Lake Louise, while those wanting more restaurant selections and nightlife will prefer the town of Banff. There’s also the nearby town of Canmore, just 15 minutes east of the park gates which makes it an alternative base to explore the park. There are dozens of condo vacation rentals in Canmore as well as hotels. In comparison to Banff the accommodation can be more reasonably priced.
Jasper has a lot of the same style of accommodation on offer as in Banff, there’s just a limited supply of it. In the summer months the supply can’t meet the demand, it’s important to book early. In an effort to provide more options for visitors the town has approved several private home accommodations where you can rent a guest room for the evening. The hostels in Jasper are more like wilderness retreats, they are not within walking distance to town.
If you have come solely for the natural beauty of the parks then these things don’t really matter, but Banff has many more coffee shops and cafes and over 200 restaurants offering almost any type of food you can think of. There’s also a bowling alley and a movie theater. If you are traveling with a family, especially with younger children the attractions and activities available in Banff might be more suitable. If it’s nightlife you’re seeking you are definitely better off in Banff. Although it doesn’t match what a big city has to offer, there are a couple of night clubs and bars that offer live music and events and more places in general to have an evening drink. A quick drive to Canmore will give you access to more restaurants and amenities as well as Canmore’s new Elevation Place, a recreational facility with an indoor pool and aquatic playground.
Hiking Trails And Walks
There are several hiking and walking trails accessible right from both the town sites of Banff and Jasper. Banff has more options for short hikes that get you to scenic views. You have to work a little harder in Jasper, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort. Jasper is much less developed and the hiking trails in the wilderness are not as busy, which can be seen as a positive or negative. If you are nervous about bears or other wildlife encounters you might feel more comfortable on the popular and busy trails around Banff, although in the summer months Jasper has many well traveled trails too. There’s backcountry hiking opportunities in both parks, Jasper has the beautiful Tonquin Valley and in Banff there’s Paradise Valley or the Skoki high alpine region near Lake Louise.
Mount Edith Cavell Meadows Hike, Jasper
Tunnel Mountain Summit Hike, Banff
Day Trip Options From Banff And Jasper
Due to Jasper’s remoteness there are less options for day trips to other areas, the most notable one would be to nearby Mount Robson Provincial Park in the province of B.C.
From Banff there are numerous places you can drive to. The town of Canmore can be easily reached or you can venture further into Kananaskis Country. Yoho National Park is just 15 minutes west of Lake Louise or you can take Highway 93 South towards Radium Hotsprings and explore other areas of Kootenay National Park.
Highlights Of Banff National Park
- Lake Louise
- Lake Agnes and Plain of Six Glaciers Tea Houses
- Moraine Lake
- Lake Minnewanka and the Minnewanka Scenic Drive
- Vermillion Lakes
- Johnston Canyon
- The Bow Valley Parkway
- Bow Lake
- Peyto Lake
- Sulphur Mountain Gondola
- Historic Banff Springs Hotel and the Chateau Lake Louise
- Cave and Basin Historic site
- Upper Banff Hotsprings
- Lake Louise, Mount Norquay and Sunshine Mountain ski areas
Highlights Of Jasper National Park
- Medicine Lake
- Maligne Lake and the Scenic Maligne Lake Drive
- Maligne Canyon
- Miette Hotsrings
- Jasper Tramway and Whistler’s Mountain
- The Athabasca Glacier and Columbia Icefields
- Athabasca Falls
- The Cavell Ponds, Angel Glacier and Meadows at Mount Edith Cavell
- Marmot Basin ski area
- The TonquinValley
Jasper and Banff National Parks are full of stunning natural scenery, beautiful lakes and kilometers of defined hiking and walking trails. One place might have more or less to offer a visitor depending on their taste, but they are both worth visiting. Spend some time in each one and hopefully you can come back to spend more time in the park you prefer!
The Athabasca River and Mount Edith Cavell, Jasper