When you enter one of the Rocky Mountain national parks, you'll have to pay an entry fee.  For the purposes of fees, Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, and Yoho National Parks can be considered one large park--your entrance purchased at one is valid at all the others.

You can purchase your pass for the number of days you need (or get an annual pass) when you first arrive at a park gate. You will be given a receipt that you attach to your windshield for subsequent pass checks.

Banff park gates

Whether it would be more cost effective to buy daily passes for the number of days you intend to spend in the national parks or buy an annual pass depends on the duration of your visit and your plans for the next year. 

An annual Discovery Pass is valid in 27 of Canada's national parks and 77 of Canada's national historic sites  until the end of the 13th month after it was purchased (eg. if you purchase it on August 4th, it is valid until August 31st of the next year). It becomes more cost effective to buy an annual pass if you are going to spend seven (7) or more days in the national parks. The annual pass can also make a nice souvenir, once your trip is over; they are made of heavy plastic, similar to a phone card, and the attractive image on the front of the pass (usually of a Canadian national park or historic site) is changed each year. The  Discovery Pass ($136.40 for family/group, $67.70 for one adult) not only allows access to the national parks, but also to many national historic sites, such as the Banff Museum, Cave and Basin, and Bar U Ranch. Check Parks Canada's website for a list of participating national parks and participating national historic sites.

A group of between two and seven people travelling in a single vehicle pays C$19.60 for a day's pass and C$136.40 for an annual park pass. A day is defined as the day of entry, regardless of time of entry, until 4.00 p.m. the following day.

Additonal notes:

  • You can buy an annual pass online when you're planning your trip. 

  • At the most popular entry points to the mountain national parks, for example, the east entrances of Banff National Park and Jasper National Park, the entrance gates are very prominent, in fact inescapable.  They consist of several kiosks that look like toll booths.  The entry gates are less obvious at entry points that receive fewer visitors.  For example, the little hut at the west entrance of Yoho National Park a few kilometres outside of Golden, British Columbia is off to one side.  

  • You will not have to pay again, or even show your pass, when you cross the border from one national park to another, e.g., when you cross from Banff National Park to Yoho National Park, or Banff National Park to Jasper National Park. 

  • You can use cash or a major credit card to pay the national park entry fee.
  • The money raised from the entry fees stays in the national parks to pay for maintenance and upgrades of aging infrastructure (roads, picnic areas, outhouses, parking lots, signage, etc.), as well as park staff and programs.
  • Here is a tip if you'll be visiting Banff National Park for only a day during the busy months of July and August.  You can bypass the line ups at Banff National Park's east gate if you purchase your national park pass from the Husky gasoline station at Dead Man's Flats.  If you are driving westwards from Calgary, you reach Dead Man's Flats just before Canmore.  The limitation with the Husky gas station is that it only sells single day passes to the national parks. 
  • You can also buy passes for one or more days online at the Banff Lake Louise tourism website.  You must print off the pass and display it in your vehicle for the duration of the trip.
  • You can order your national parks pass over the phone before you depart for your vacation.  Parks Canada will mail it to your home address.  Call (403) 760-1343 between 8.00 a.m. and 4.00 p.m. (North American Mountain Time Zone) from Monday to Friday.

  • Annual passes for the national parks are available throughout Alberta from:

    Mountain Equipment Co-op  (MEC)

    Alberta Motor Association (AMA)

    Note : If you are a member of the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) or the American Automobile Association (AAA), you qualify for the discount that applies to AAA members.  

  • The entrance to Banff National Park has a drive-through lane for folks who already have a national park pass or who do not intend to stop in the national parks.  This means that if you use the town of Canmore as your base for visiting the mountains, once you have purchased your park pass, you will not need to stop at the east gate to Banff National Park every time you drive into the park.

  • Banff Park Gates - Drive-through lane on far right
  • View of Banff East Gate from drive-through lane (on far right)

  • You do not have to pay a national park entry fee if you will not be stopping in the national parks.  Not stopping in the national parks is defined as keeping all four wheels of your vehicle on the paved part of the TransCanada Highway (Hwy #1) if you are going via Banff and Lake Louise or the paved part of the Yellowhead Highway (Hwy #16) if you are going via Jasper.  If you pull off the highway to look at the view, to take a photo, to fill up with gas, to have a meal, that is defined as stopping. 

  • Although you may travel for free on Hwy #1 or Hwy #16 (provided you don't stop), you do have to have a national park pass to travel on the Icefields Parkway (Hwy #93) between Lake Louise and Jasper, regardless of whether or not you stop on the Icefields Parkway.   

You can consult Parks Canada - List of Fees to find out more details, e.g., rates for seniors and youth, campground fees, fishing licence fees, etc. Also, this page on park passes for Kootenay National Park has general information relating to all the mountain parks.

Detailed explanation of Parks Canada fees

The Parks Canada - List of Fees page includes some fees that travellers find confusing. 

Campsite Day Use Permit: This is a permit to use a campsite during the daytime only, for example as a picnic spot. If you're camping overnight, you don't have to pay this fee as well. 

Fire Permit, per day: If you wish to have a campfire at your site (and the site you're camped at allows this), you will have to purchase this permit. Probably best done close to the time you want to start your fire, so that you don't end up buying a fire permit for a day which isn't suitable for a campfire (rainy, windy, etc.)

Backcountry camping permits:  A backcountry campground is not accessible by vehicle; you can only get there by foot or (in some cases) on horseback, on a trail that's several kilometers long. If you are planning on using a backcountry campground, you are required to make a reservation.   

 

Too Expensive?

Sometimes visitors are surprised by the entry fees to Canada's national parks. Remember, these fees go directly to Parks Canada, not into general government revenues, and help to pay for everything from picnic areas and trail maintenance to wildlife protection and search & rescue services. For just $19.60, you get admission for your car and up to seven occupants from the time of admission up until 4 pm the following day. Compare that to the prices for some of Alberta's other top attractions. National park admission for just one adult travelling alone is $9.80. (All prices are as of November 2014):

Calgary Zoo: $23/adult 

Telus Spark (science centre), Calgary: $19.95/adult 

Heritage Park, Calgary: $24.99/adult (summer), $10.25/adult (winter, Gasoline Alley Museum only)

Fort Edmonton Park, Edmonton: $18.15/adult 

Glenbow Museum, Calgary: $15/adult 

Canada's Sports Hall of Fame, Calgary: $12/adult

Royal Tyrrell Museum, Drumheller: $13/adult

Royal Alberta Museum, Edmonton: $11/adult

Valley Zoo, Edmonton: $13.25/adult (summer), $9.50/adult (winter)