One of the most frequently-asked questions on the forums for various spots within the Canadian Rockies is "What are the must-sees for my visit?" Here is a list of the most popular and most beautiful road-accessible places to see, arranged geographically.
Banff National Park
- Lake Louise: This beautiful turquoise lake rimmed with mountains is a Canadian icon. Accessible year-round, but the lake may be frozen from late October to early June; the classic turquoise colour may not develop until around July. A paved pathway (wheelchair, stroller/pushchair accessible) follows the lakeshore for a considerable distance.
- Moraine Lake: This magnificent glacial lake and its Valley of the Ten Peaks graced Canada's $20 bill from 1969 to 1979. Many visitors feel it is more beautiful than its famous neighbour, Lake Louise, a 20-minute drive away. An easy walk (0.5km / 0.3 mi, 15-20 minutes of walking) leads to the Rockpile viewpoint. The Moraine Lake road is closed to vehicles from early October to late May; exact dates are weather-dependent. Also, water levels in Moraine Lake can be quite low until mid-June.
- Johnston Canyon: Johnston Creek rushes over two waterfalls in this narrow stone canyon. The Lower Falls is accessed through a dramatic natural tunnel; the Upper Falls has a dramatic high viewpoint. The paved trail to the Lower Falls is wheelchair and stroller/pushchair accessible trail (1.1 km one way); the trail is unpaved for the additional 1.6 km from the Lower Falls to the Upper Falls. From the Upper Falls, it is 3 km further to the Ink Pots, several cold bubbling mineral springs. See this excerpt from the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide by Brian Patton & Bart Robinson for details. Located on the Bow Valley Trail (Hwy 1A), midway between Banff and Lake Louise. Can also be accessed from the Trans-Canada Hwy (Hwy 1) via the Castle Junction with Hwy 93 South.
- Lake Minnewanka, Lake Minnewanka boat cruise, Lake Minnewanka driving loop: Lake Minnewanka is a glacial lake surrounded by mountains. Small herds of Bighorn Sheep can usually be found in the Lake Minnewanka area. You can choose to take a cruise on the lake (wheelchair accessible), walk along the lakeshore to Stewart Canyon (level paved trail, 1.4 km), splash your toes in the freezing water on a hot day, do an overnight hike to Devil's Gap (25 km), have a picnic (picnic tables & picnic shelters provided), or check out the many stops on the Lake Minnewanka driving loop, such as the site of the long-abandoned Bankhead mine and town, Johnson Lake, Two Jack Lake, and the Cascade Ponds (a favorite swimming area). For details on the Lake Minnewanka trail, see this excerpt from the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide by Brian Patton & Bart Robinson. Lake Minnewanka is a 10-minute drive from the town of Banff. Lake Minnewanka is accessible year-round, but the lake itself is frozen from around mid-November to late May. Some sections of the Lake Minnewanka loop road may have seasonal closures in the winter months.
- Banff gondola (year-round): An enclosed 4-passenger gondola car whisks you to the crest of Sulphur Mountain, with great views in all directions. The main level of the summit terminal complex and the observation deck are handicap accessible. A short (1 km) walk takes you from the top of the gondola along the ridgetop to a historic weather station and cosmic ray research station. For the best views, take the gondola when the weather is clear. Closed for two weeks in January for annual maintenance; check hours & rates for further details.
- Sulphur Mountain: If you're energetic, instead of taking the Banff gondola to the crest of Sulphur Mountain, you can go up theSulphur Mountain hiking trail.This 5.5 km (3.5 mile) hiking trail switchbacks up the side of Sulphur Mountain. Once you make it to the top, you can buy a gondola ticket to go down for half price. (However, you won't be allowed to pay half price for a gondola ticket up, even if you plan to take the hiking trail to go down.) If you choose to take the hiking trail down, be aware that you need to take the trail that goes under the gondola. There is a restricted-access (gated) road down the "wrong" side of Sulphur Mountain that visitors sometimes mistake for the hiking trail. It is much longer than the hiking trail and when visitors finally reach the bottom, they find that they are still some distance from the Banff townsite.
- Bow Falls (year-round): This waterfall is not particularly high, but the sheer volume of water roaring over it at some times of year makes it an impressive sight. Most spectacular in June and July, but still beautiful at other times of year, especially in winter, when it is a mass of jagged ice blocks. Very accessible - visible from the parking lot, or from a flat walkway near the parking lot, or from a steeper trail. Stay on the trail and behind any barricades -- it's not worth losing your life to try to get a better camera angle..
- "Surprise Corner" view of Banff Springs Hotel: follow Buffalo Street in Banff up the hill to come to the parking lot for this roadside viewpoint. You have to walk back about 200 metres once you've parked your car, but the amazing view of the Banff Springs, with the river below and the slopes of Sulphur Mountain above, is definitely worth it. Morning is the best time for photos.
- Castle Mountain from the "Kodak Rock" viewpoint
- Sunrise or sunset drive along Vermilion Lakes: Located just west of the town of Banff, this series of three marshy lakes have the spectacular wedge shape of Mount Rundle as a backdrop. This view has been a favorite subject of photographers and painters for decades. Waterfowl, beavers, muskrat, and the occasional canoeist can be spotted on the lake in the warmer months.
- Stroll through the Banff Springs Hotel: Nicknamed the "Castle in the Rockies", the original Banff Springs was built in 1888 by the Canadian Pacific Railway. In the words of CPR president William Van Horne, ""If we can't export the scenery, we'll import the tourists." The hotel is open to the public. You can see Van Horne's "million dollar view" from the Rundle Lounge, look for fossils in the limestone staircases, and admire the Scottish baronial-themed "Great Hall".
Yoho National Park
Yoho is known as a beautiful area for hiking. Lake O'Hara is the best-known hiking area, but the area of the many waterfalls is also magnificent. There are a few options but, for example, the Iceline or the Whaleback are fabulous. Anyone visiting the Rockies should see this. Please see here an excerpt from Iceline hike in The Best Day Hikes in the Canadian Rockies by Tim Jensen, presented on the website of Rent-a-Tent Canada (scroll down to "the top ten day hikes in the Canadian Rockies")
- Takakkaw Falls (late June-early October)
- Emerald Lake (year round) - Beautiful short hike. Perfect for families and an easy stroll.
- Lake O'Hara: So beautiful! You should reserve if you wish to take the shuttle bus to visit this area. Reserve 3 months before your visit to be guaranteed a place. Please see http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/bc/yoho...
- Spiral Tunnel viewpoint (May-October)
Icefields Parkway (Highway 93N)
The Icefields Parkway is the spectacularly scenic route that connects Lake Louise and Jasper. Here are some spots along the way that you shouldn't miss:
- Bow Lake
- The view of Peyto Lake from the viewpoint at Bow Summit
- Viewpoint at the top of the hill at the big bend
- Columbia Icefield, with or without Brewster Sno-coach ride
- Tangle Falls
- Athabasca Falls
The TripAdvisor Traveller Article Icefields Parkway has more details and tips.
Jasper National Park
- Mt Edith Cavell
- Jasper Tramway
- Maligne Canyon
- Medicine Lake (viewpoint at north end of lake)
- Maligne Lake/Maligne Lake boat cruise
Mount Robson Provincial Park
This is British Columbia's second-oldest provincial park and the site of Mount Robson (12972 ft), the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. The provincial park starts at the west boundary of Jasper National Park, on the Yellowhead Highway. The Mount Robson viewpoint is about an hour's drive from Jasper.