Looking for a family vacation north of the border? When most people think “Canada Vacation”, they think Niagara Falls. While this spot’s still on my list to visit some day, there’sendless adventure and beauty just directly north of us that live in the western states… in Alberta and British Columbia!
Atop the summit of Fairview Peak
These are the Canadian Rockies. A rugged, world-class alpine range that attracts mountaineers and climbers far and wide. There may not be a range in the continental United States as expansive or as visually impressive as these. Rising to a height of nearly 13,000 ft. at the highest point, these mountains straddle the border between Alberta and British Columbia, and are home to 4 national parks between the two provinces, the most visited of them all being Banff National Park in Alberta.
In terms of north american national parks, Banff is a “classic”, like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. It’s visited by over 3 million people a year for a reason. I’ve never seen anything like it.
I like road trips, and for various considerations, we (my buddy Matt and I) decided to travel by car. This may be a daunting drive for some, and if time is a consideration for you perhaps flying into Calgary wouldn’t be the worst choice, but if you’re in for it, the long haul up I-15 was worth it for us. We took off from American Fork, UT, about 30 minutes south of Salt Lake City and our drive took us through northern Utah, southeastern Idaho, and western Montana. Once you pass through the metro areas of the Wasatch Front in Utah, cities are sparse the entire way, and you don’t pass through any MAJOR population centers until Calgary, 16 hours of driving from where we started. Basically the only places you have to get out and get a bite are Pocatello, Idaho Falls, Butte, or Great Falls.
Butte is cool, by the way. If you’ve never been, it’s definitely worth getting off the road and pulling into downtown for gas, lunch, or just a drive. It’s an old almost-abandoned mining town with a unique red-brick look and a lot of early 20th-century character. Feels like walking back in time. It’s rougher around the edges, and a little dirty, but maybe that’s why it has its rough-and-tumble cowboy feel. Ordering shots before noon is normal. We got out and grabbed lunch at “Sparky’s Garage”, a bar-and-grill kind of place. I say check it out! It’s friendly for the whole family.
At least…. there’s SUPPOSED to be a polish kielbasa under all that…
Oh, and Montana is HUGE. This is what they call “Big Sky Country”, and it goes on, and on, and on. The slice that the interstate sees is pleasant to look at… rocky, hilly, some rivers and lakes, etc.
Make sure you have passports at the border!
Once in Alberta, spend some time in Lethbridge (maybe an hour and a half into Alberta) to admire… well, the BRIDGE of Lethbridge. Spanning a mile-wide river valley, this 107-year-old rail bridge is the largest and tallest of it’s kind in North America. We watched trains move from one side to another of this thing and it was about like they were floating suspended over 300 ft above ground.
we stopped by Costco for some good old Canadian Poutine. 3 words: fries, gravy, cheese curds. OK, that’s four. If you’ve never had Poutine before, do not leave the country before trying it.
Finally, you’ll pass through Calgary, (a surprisingly big city all on it’s own at the foot of the mountains) and then you’re only an hour or so away from the mighty Canadian Rockies. When we did the trip back we did it all in one day with only necessary stopping and it took us 17 hours. I would plan on a solid 18-20 hours of driving time to get up there (to Banff) from SLC. Doing it in one day really gave me a feel for just how big the continent is…
After some teaser views of peaks soaring over dense evergreen forests you’ll pull into the town of Banff. There’s all kinds of restaurants and shops here, so if you have the cash to spend and there’s a bad weather day on the trails, you could spend some time here.
We didn’t camp anywhere near the town, or hang out very long, and if you want my advice, I would spend the most of your time around Lake Louise, about 40 minutes down the road into the interior of the park. Where you can find camp spots may depend on the time of year and how far in advance you secure lodging. Keep in mind this is a very popular park and you will want to get that in advance. Banff is RV-friendly, but like anywhere, find out ahead of time the details of what a campsite will permit and what it won’t, and remember, parking spots are not always assured!
Lake louise here after a rainstorm
This is not a place you want to see by scenic viewpoint from your car. This is a place you want to really explore. With dozens of trails ranging from short nature walks to daytrip-length mountain ascents, it doesn’t matter what your “speed” is, there’s something for everybody. We did several trails, but I’ll mention a few that we did that we really enjoyed that will bound to be outings you’ll consider on your own trip.
There are lots of bears in Banff. Like, a lot. While in the States we’ve mostly eradicated grizzlies from their ancestral habitats (that once stretched as far south as Arizona and maybe even Mexico only as recent as the last 200 years), in Canada plan and prepare for the case of coming across them. For those of you that have visited Glacier National Park in Montana during the bears’ active seasons and been down to the riversides where they feed on the berries, you’ll know that they for the most part keep to themselves and aren’t interested in your human business, but bear attacks do happen. Don’t be anxious, though, there are just 2 simple things to do that will make the most difference in keeping them away and keeping safe: travel in groups and carry bear spray. Don’t go anywhere alone, in this case, the more the merrier! Have fun while you’re out there… keep a conversation going, it never hurts to make a little noise like clapping every so often, bear attacks happen not because a bear is hunting for you, but because you startle it when it’s not expecting you to come around the corner. If it hears you coming, it will move and chances are you’ll never even see it. Bear Spray is the best thing money can buy for convincing an aggressive bear that he doesn’t want anything to do with you. Yep, better than a handgun. Besides the fact that it would be a major headache(http://www.thetruthaboutguns.com/2015/07/daniel-zimmerman/how-to-bring-your-gun-into-canada-assuming-you-really-want-to/) to get your firearms across the border legally, bullets don’t change a bear’s mind like bear spray does; it renders it’s senses of sight and smell more or less useless instead of just making it mad.