Now that we’ve experienced some of the best that the west coast has to offer in British Columbia, we’re ready to tell you all about our new adventures further inland in Alberta. The snow-capped mountains and blue glacier lakes are calling us! We can’t believe we’re finally seeing the mythical Canadian Rockies up close.
During this coast to coast Cross Canada trip, it is our goal to demonstrate how to discover our beautiful country on a budget. But before we jump into the itinerary, here are a few money-saving tips:
- Share a car: Since gas is relatively cheaper in Alberta, driving around with friends can help reduce costs.
- Sleep in a hostel: To be even closer to the sights, stay at one of HI Canada’s 10 wilderness hostels located in the Rocky Mountains.
- Cook your own meals: As you’ll be out in the wild, take the opportunity to save money by limiting restaurant bills. We used our IceMule Cooler to keep our food fresh while driving from one destination to the next.
- Look for free activities or just DIY: You’re out in nature, so the majority of your activities will be free! Additionally, with a HI Canada membership card, you can get deals from some of their partners for tours and activities.
Alberta: 10-day Itinerary
Our journey in Alberta begins in Jasper as we make our way south to Calgary.
1. Jasper National Park, Alberta (2 nights)
The largest national park in the Canadian Rockies, Jasper is a playground for any outdoor enthusiast. Just the sight of the towering peaks will leave you breathless! You could spend a lifetime in Jasper National Park and still have some trails, lakes, mountain tops, and waterfalls to explore.
Where to Sleep in Jasper?
Check into HI Jasper, a brand-new hostel that opened this year. Only a walking distance from downtown Jasper, it’s the perfect location for all your outdoor adventures.
What to Do in Jasper?
Depending on the time of the year that you visit Jasper, not all activities will be accessible. In the Spring, some of the lakes are still frozen, and a few trails are still snowed-in.
For the best view of Jasper, climb to the top of Whistlers mountain. At 2263 metres above sea level, you can get a panoramic view of the town below. The hike up should take between 3 to 4 hours. The good news is that after this big trek you can ride back down on the Jasper SkyTram for free, saving you almost $50! From the Upper Station, it’s also possible to hike the Summit Trail.
Make your way to Pyramid Lake for sunset. There’s a bridge that goes out to a small island with a very short hike around it. On the way back to town, stop at Patricia Lake, another stunning lake with crystal clear water. The towering mountains will offer a postcard-worthy backdrop.
If you have more time in Jasper, also check out:
- Maligne Lake: Take a 1.5-hour cruise on Maligne Lake to Spirit Island.
- Maligne Canyon: Embark on a 7km trek to explore the deepest canyon in the Rockies.
- Valley of the Five Lakes: Go on a 2-hour trek around the five lakes for a 4.5km loop.
- Path of the Glacier Trail at Mt Edith Cavell: Enjoy a short trek (1.8km loop) for a view of the Angel Glacier.
- Miette Hot Springs: Take a 1-hour drive from Jasper where you can find the hottest natural mineral springs in the Rockies.
- Glacier Lakes: Check out the most popular lakes that include Medicine Lake, Lake Annette, Lake Edith, and Lake Beauvert.
- Horseshoe Lake: This is a popular spot in the summer for cliff jumping.
- Old Fort Point: This is a short but challenging hike that boasts panoramic views of Jasper Valley.
Travel Tip: After a day of enjoying the outdoors, check out Jasper Brewing Company to discover Canada’s first-ever brewery within a national park. We tried their Jasper the Bear Ale and loved it!
2. Icefields Parkway, Alberta (3 nights)
The main draw of the region is undoubtedly the Icefields Parkway. Highway 93 takes you from Jasper National Park all the way to Banff National Park. A whole day is not enough to explore all the sights along this 232 km stretch of the road. If you wish to go trekking, visit glacier lakes, waterfalls, and the glaciers feeding from the Columbia Icefield, you’ll want to spend a few nights in this area. The landscape is beyond anything we’ve ever seen before!
Word of advice: watch out for wildlife (it is not uncommon to see mountain goats, bighorn sheep, and maybe even a moose!) and slow down while you enjoy one of the most scenic drives in the world.
Where to Sleep Along the Icefields Parkway?
For an authentic experience in nature, the best option is to stay in a HI Canada Wilderness Hostel. There are a few to choose from along the Icefields Parkway with a varying degree of wilderness about them! We went back to basics at HI Athabasca Falls Wilderness Hostel, where we disconnected from our devices to bask in the rustic charm of our cabin in the woods.
Just behind the hostel, follow Monica’s Bench Trail, a short and easy trek where you’ll be greeted with panoramic views of the Athabasca River, which originates from the Athabasca Glacier!
What to Do Along the Icefields Parkway?
Since you’re just a few steps from Athabasca Falls, go early in the morning or later in the afternoon before sunset, as the interpretive trail surrounding the canyon can get really crowded during the day. The reflection of the mountains in the pools of water at dusk is definitely Insta-worthy!
A must-stop along the way is the Athabasca Glacier. While it is visible from the road, the only way to get up close and personal is with a guided tour. Trust me, it’s a once in a lifetime experience to jump on board an Ice Explorer, a massive all-terrain vehicle that goes directly on top of the 300-metre-thick glacier. It’s crazy to think that this is a 10,000-year-old glacier.
The ticket for the Columbia Icefield Adventure also gives you access to the Glacier SkyWalk: a glass platform hanging 280 metres above the ground overlooking the Sunwapta Valley.
Lake Louise will be your last stop on the Icefields Parkway as you reach the town of Banff. This picturesque alpine lake is known worldwide for its crystal-clear turquoise water. You can follow the easy Lakeshore Trail (2 km to the creek that feeds the lake) or hike up the Fairview lookout for panoramic views of the lake and the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.
If you have more time to visit the Icefields Parkway, also check out:
- Peyto Lake: Drive to Bow Summit by car then take a 20-minute hike to the viewpoint to best see this bright turquoise glacier lake.
- Sunwapta Falls: Where Jasper National Park and Banff National Park meet, take a short trek to Takakkaw and Wapta Falls.
- Bow Lake: Pack a picnic for the road and enjoy a nice lunch at this scenic location.
- Moraine Lake: This gem of the Rockies is likely the most Instagrammable place in Alberta, but unfortunately for us, it was still frozen during our visit. In summer, you can enjoy the vivid blue glacier lake surrounded by imposing mountains either from a canoe or from the viewpoint that can be reached from Rockpile trail.
3. Banff National Park, Alberta (3 nights)
Canada’s oldest national park welcomes over 3 million visitors every year. Regardless of the season, there is always a place to explore in Banff, each one more spectacular than the last. The city itself, the highest in Canada and UNESCO’s Canadian Rocky Mountain World Heritage site, looks like it is straight out of a National Geographic magazine spread.
Where to Sleep in Banff?
A good base for any Banff adventure is HI Banff Alpine Centre. It is located a little bit outside of town on Tunnel Mountain, steps away from the start of the trail taking you to the top of the mountain.
At the top of Tunnel Mountain, you’ll get an unobstructed view of the Bow Valley and the town of Banff. A short distance from the hostel you’ll also spot the Hoodoos Rock Formation.
What to Do in Banff?
Before sunrise, head to Vermillion Lakes for a quiet stroll on the boardwalk, and be sure to enjoy the scenery on the Fenland Trail. It’s the perfect time to spot wildlife as the lake stands still with perfect reflections of Mount Rundle, one of the region’s most recognizable landmark.
Then, head to Johnston Canyon (preferably before 9 am) as it is a very popular day hike from Banff. The suspended boardwalk winds through the canyon to reach the first set of waterfalls. From there you can go through a small cave for an even better view of the falls. Continue on the trail to view the Upper Falls or traverse even further down to Ink Pots to enjoy more of what Johnston Canyon has to offer.
Ask a local about Green Spot, and they will direct you to Mount Norquay Viewpoint, the best spot to observe the sun setting over Banff. Take the obligatory selfie on Parks Canada’s red chairs and watch the mountain goats quietly grazing on the slope.
For the ultimate views of Banff (and awesome photo opportunities), make your way up Sulphur Mountain. Two options are offered to you: you can pay to take the Banff Gondola which will bring you up 2,281m in 8 minutes or to save money, you can hike to the top of Sulphur Mountain by following a 5.6km trail and take the gondola back down for half the price. It will take you about 2 hours to reach the summit this way.
To reward yourself from the hike, head to Banff Upper Hot Springs, located just at the base of the gondola. For $6.30 you have access to the outdoor pool (heated geothermally from a local spring) to soothe your possibly aching muscles.
If you have more time, you can check out some of the best hikes near Banff that don’t require heavy training such as Sundance Canyon, Boom Lake, and Sunshine Meadows.
4. Calgary, Alberta (2 nights)
Calgary is sometimes called “Cowtown” because it is the capital of Canadian Country music. It is most famous for the Calgary Stampede, a week-long festival where you can embrace your country side and make good use of your cowboy boots. Calgary has a lot to offer for travellers visiting the city at any time during the year. It’s a modern city that’s rapidly growing.
Where to Sleep in Calgary?
With a downtown location offering easy access to most sights, HI Calgary is the place to go. This newly renovated hostel is an oasis in the hip neighbourhood of the East Village. During your stay, make sure to rent bikes to explore the city. Calgary will spoil you with one of the most extensive bikeways in North America.
What to Do in Calgary?
Within walking distance from the hostel is the very modern Central Public Library. Let yourself be amazed by its spectacular architecture while you take a break from the hustle and bustle of downtown in one of the many nooks of the library. While in the area, check out Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre, where you can learn about Canada’s rich music history and how it has evolved.
Cycle along the Bow River to explore Fort Calgary and Prince’s Island Park. From the Bow River Pathway, cross over the river and climb up the stairs of Sunnyside Bank Park for the best view of the skyline. Follow the river until the Peace Bridge and then return to the city by riding through Kensington. Finish your tour by parking your bike and taking a stroll in this “Urban Village.”
If you’re a music geek, search for hidden gems in some of the vintage shops and record stores in the hipster neighbourhood of Inglewood. Also check out Music Mile, which stretches from the trendy East Village to Inglewood. It boasts some of the best locales for live music in the city.
Insider Tip: Go to Bridgeland to check out Lukes Drug Mart for their original soft serve (we tried the curcuma-vanilla one, and it was the absolute best!) and Zipang Sushi bar, a favourite among locals.
Alberta is the type of place that will inspire you to go outside and enjoy nature. Ten days is too short to absorb all the province’s beauty… However, it’s just enough time to spark a love affair worthy of reigniting when you have more time. You won’t regret your visit regardless of the season!
What did we miss? What would you add to our Alberta itinerary?
Check out our other destinations across Canada
- Backpacking Canada: 10 Days in British Columbia
- How to Make the Most of Your Time in Saskatchewan During a Trip Across Canada
- 3 Must-Stop Places to Visit in Manitoba During a Cross-Canada Road Trip
- Ontario: the Ultimate Guide to Crossing “Long-tario” on Your Canadian Road Trip
- Backpacker’s Guide for an Awesome Road Trip in the Province of Québec
- The Ultimate Guide to Discover New Brunswick during a Trip Across Canada
- The Ultimate Itinerary for a Beach Getaway in Prince Edward Island
- Your Road Map for an Epic Trip Across Nova Scotia
- 7-Day Itinerary for the Road Trip of a Lifetime in Newfoundland