Two routes run through the Bow Valley connecting Banff and Lake Louise. The fast option is the four lane Trans Canada Highway. The alternative route is the slower traveled, narrow and winding Bow Valley Parkway. It runs parallel to the highway on the opposite side of the Bow River. This route is more interesting offering numerous scenic pullouts and viewpoints with interpretative displays. Several picnic areas offer a place to relax and enjoy a meal in the surrounds of nature and beautiful scenery. Trails offer access to popular hiking areas such as Johnston Canyon. The parkway also offers some of the best opporunties to see wildlife in Banff. It’s possible to see animals right along the roadside because it’s not fenced like the main highway.
The parkway is open year round. In the winter it’s a popular snowshoeing and cross country skiing destination and in summer and early fall it’s enjoyed by cyclists. For something a little different with more of a remote feeling than Lake Louise or Banff consider one of the cabin or chalet style accommodations options along the route. For more sightseeing options see our post scenic drives in Banff National Park.
Don’t overlook taking the Trans Canada Highway between Banff and Lake Louise. It lacks the stops at the points of interest that the parkway offers, but its wide open space allows for spectacular views of the surrounding mountain ranges. If you’re traveling back and forth try a different route each way. Views are best traveling the parkway west from Banff to Lake Louise and the highway east from Lake Louise to Banff.
Highlights Of The Bow Valley Parkway (Traveling Westbound From Banff To Lake Louise)
Backswamp – Overlooks a marshland and the Bow River back dropped by mountains. A good spot to watch for wildlife.
Mule Shoe Picnic Area – Picnic tables to enjoy overlooking Mule Shoe Lake near large stands of Aspen trees. Elk can often be seen in this area in the winter. A small sign marks the start of Mule Shoe Trail at the parking area. An easy 1km that goes through the forest to a view point. Usually snow free by early May.
Prescribed Burn And Sawback – A 5km section of the parkway where controlled fires were set in 1993. They help to rejuvenate important ecosystems that support a variety of animal species.
Hilsdale Meadows – A scenic pullout area with an open meadow of aspen trees and a view of Pilot Mountain. Very colourful in the fall and it’s a good time to see elk in the area.
Johnston Canyon – One of Banff National Parks most popular hiking areas. Trails lead to a set of upper and lower falls deep into the canyon. It’s an easy 1.1km to the lower falls (one way) and 2.7km’s (one way) to the upper falls. Allow for half an hour to several hours depending on how far you want to go. Picnic tables are located near the parking area.
Moose Meadows – A large meadow area offering views of Pilot and Copper Mountain. Moose used to frequent the area decades ago, but these days it’s frequented by elk or deer.
Castle Junction –This is the halfway point between Banff and Lake Louise where a junction connects to the main highway. If you follow the overpass across the highway it becomes the Banff Windermere Highway (Hwy 93S) where it cuts through Kootenay National Park heading south to Radium Hot Springs.
Castle Cliffs – a viewpoint parking area with incredible views of the terraced face of Castle Mountain. A short pathway leads to a lookout platform.
Storm Mountain – Picnic table area with views looking towards Storm Mountain, named for the swirls of wind and clouds that form above its peak.
Internment Camp Memorial – A memorial marks the former site of the Castle Mountain Internment Camp that held thousands of prisoners of Ukrainian, Austrian, Hungarian and German descent during World War I. A sign marks a small pullout area, the memorial statue sits a few meters back towards the forest.
Baker Creek – A pullout area with a view of a creek and Mount Temple.
Morants Curve – Morant’s Curve is a site made famous by photographer Nicholas Morant. It offers panoramic views of the railway lines where they follow a curve in the Bow River. Beautiful mountains create the perfect back drop. There’s a sign that can only be seen when heading eastbound marking a parking area at Outlet Creek on your right.
Corral Creek Picnic Area – A short distance west of Morant’s Curve there’s a road on the right hand side leading to the Corral Creek picnic area.
The last few kilometers of the parkway goes through a spruce forest where it ends at a T-intersection. Heading right takes you to the Lake Louise Ski Hill. Left goes to the village of Lake Louise where you can continue uphill along Lake Louise Drive to Lake Louise.
Directions To Access The Parkway
From Banff or Calgary – Approximately 5km west of the town of Banff heading west on the Trans Canada Hwy take the Bow Valley Parkway/AB 1A exit. You’ll see the large sign on your right hand side.
From Lake Louise –on Lake Louise Drive cross over the Trans Canada Hwy where it turns into Whitehorn Drive, take the first right which is the Bow Valley parkway.
How Much Time Is Needed To Drive The Parkway
Allow 1.5 hours to leisurely drive the parkway taking in a few stops for photographs or sightseeing, or up to half a day if you plan on doing some hiking such as Johnston Canyon.
Mandatory Travel Restriction
The parkway is open year round but a mandatory travel restriction is in place from March 1 to June 25. During the hours of 8pm to 8am no vehicle, bicycle or foot traffic is permitted on the 17 km eastern section of the parkway from the Johnston Canyon Campground to the entrance at the Trans Canada Hwy/Bow Valley Parkway interchange. After the long winter this allows the animals the undisturbed time they need to feed and roam in this important wildlife corridor. Accommodations and other amenities can still be reached through the Trans Canada Hwy #1/Castle Junction access.
Winter Driving Along The Bow Valley Parkway (Hwy 1A)
Use caution when driving on the parkway in the winter months. The plowing priority goes to the main Trans Canada Highway, the parkway is secondary. It’s also not maintained to the same level. It’s merely scraped and left as compacted snow, unlike the highway that gets plowed down to the pavement surface. The conditions can vary from good to fair or poor. Patches of it can be icy and slippery. After a large snowfall it might take a while before the road crews can clear it.
Elk, deer, bighorn sheep, wolves, grizzly bears and moose are some of the wildlife that can be seen along the Bow Valley Parkway. The best chances of seeing wildlife is in the morning and later in the day near dusk. When you see animals give them their space. If you pullover make sure you are fully out of the way of traffic. Take photographs from you vehicle, do not get out. Obey the 60km/hr speed limit, it’s strictly enforced by park wardens.
Bow Valley Parkway Hiking Options
Johnston Canyon – Lower falls – 1.2km’s one way, 30 meters elevtation gain, allow 1 hour round trip. Upper falls – 2.4 km’s one way, 120 meters elevation gain, allow 2 hours round trip. Trailhead: starts from the parking area, located 17.5 km’s west of the eastern interchange with the Trans Canada Hwy.
Silverton falls – a short 1km (one way) trail that follows Silverton Creek to the Silverton Falls viewpoint. 60 meters elevation gain. Trailhead: 200 meteres east of Castle Junction on the parkway at the Rockbound Lake trailhead parking lot. Parkat the Rockbound Lake trail head parking lot, a short istancSE of
Rockbound Lake – a long steady climb to the other side of Castle Mountain with beautiful scenery. To Tower Lake 7.7km and Rockbound Lake 8.4km. 760 meters elevation gain, allow 6 to 7 hours round trip. Trailhead: there’s a parking lot for the trailhead located 200 meters east of Castle Junction.
Castle Lookout Trail – a moderate 3.7km one way to the remains of a fire spotting tower. 520 meters elevation gain. 5km’s west of Castle Junction. A short, steep trail that gets above the tree line to offer views across the Bow Valley to the mountains. Allow 3 to 4 hours round trip.
Bow Valley Parkway Accommodation And Dining Options
Johnston Canyon Resort – cabins set on the banks of Johnston Creek with a seasonal restaurant and café, 24.5km from downtown Banff and 28.5 km from Lake Louise Ski Resort.
Address: Highway 1A, Banff, AB T1L 1A9
Castle Mountain Chalets – 7km’s west of Johnston Canyon. Halfway between Banff and Lake Louise. 1.3 km’s to the Trans Canada Highway, allowing for easy access to explore other areas of the park. Offers views of the mountains, a small grocery store, liquor store and fuel.
Address: Hwy 93 S And 1a, Castle Junction, AB T1L 1B5
Baker Creek Chalets – charming cabins with scenic views and a restaurant, 5km from Lake Louise Ski Resort, 8.2 km’s from the lake.
Address: Bow Valley Pkwy, Lake Louise, AB T0L 1E0
HI-Castle Mountain (hostel)
Hwy 1A & Hwy 93 South.
Phone (778)-328-2220 or toll free 866-762-4122
Bow Valley Parkway Campgrounds
Johnson Canyon Campground – 22km west of Banff town site. Approximately half way between Lake Louise and Banff. 132 sites late May to late Sept, reservable sites. RV and tents, showers and washrooms with hot and cold running water, picnic shelters.
Castle Mountain Campground – close to a small store, gas bar and restaurant, also located half way between Banff and Lake Louise. Situated in a scenic wooded area.
Protection Mountain Campground – 83 sites suitable for small RV’s and tents. 17 km’s from Lake Louise, 48 km from Banff.
More information for these camping sites can be found here: Banff National Park Camping