Planning a holiday is never easy. Especially to a country as big as Canada. After living in the Canadian Rockies for 14 months I can positively say I've learnt a lot about this place. After all, I came here to research and create my Outdoor and Photography Guide to Canada.
Since its release I receive emails on daily basis from keen explorers such as yourself. Many questions repeat themselves, so to make things easier not only for you, but also for myself, I decided to answer all the common questions in one blog post that links to all my resources.
For many tourists who come here, it's the first time they've been in true wilderness. It'll be the first time they'll be hiking in the mountains and the first time they'll be so close to potentially dangerous wildlife. This article will put your mind at ease and familiarize you with the do's and don'ts of roadtripping around Canada.
Remember there's no such thing as a stupid question so if you have any that you don't see on this list, feel free to post them in the comments and I'll answer as fully as I can.
Everything you need to know About Travel in the Canadian Rockies
1. Am I going to get eaten by a bear in Banff National Park?
Yes, unfortunately it's true, all bears crave human flesh. It's their favourite meal in fact, no exceptions. Ha, just kidding. Bears are shy creatures and are more scared of humans than we are of them! Bear encounters are common in the Canadian Rockies, I have met quite a few black and grizzly bears myself.
The general rule is, as long as you act correctly, you'll be fine. If you're hiking outside of the more popular areas, always carry bear spray and know how to use it.
To avoid confrontations with bears whilst hiking always make noise, talk or sing loudly to alert them of your presence. You do not want to surprise a bear, especially a mother with cubs. If you do encounter a bear, never run, make yourself large and calmly talk to it whilst avoiding direct eye contact. Always contact the parks authority of your encounter afterward.
Bear jams (traffic jams caused by bears and other wildlife) are common in the summer and can potentially be very dangerous. You should only pull over if it is safe to do so. Please do not block the road and NEVER exit your vehicle. The fines for disturbing wildlife are very hefty and can reach up to 25,000 dollars!
2. Where can I witness the Aurora Borealis in Canada?
The elusive Northern Lights are unfortunately not spotted as easily as you might think. Much like meteorologists chaotic predictions for the regular weather, the forecasts for the aurora are only really reliable a few days (at most a week) in advance.
Generally speaking, you need 3 attributes for a successful show: it needs to be dark, there can't be any clouds and the auroral activity (KP rating, solar wind and density) have to be high enough for your latitude. Places like Banff in Canada are quite far south so the chances of seeing an aurora display here are much lower than say in somewhere further north like Yellowknife in Northwest Territories.Yellowknife is in fact one of the best places in the World to see the Northern lights.
I drove over 4000km from Canmore to Yellowknife and back again just to view a geomagnetic storm that had been predicted. I've captured the photo above on one of the nights. As you can see the trip was a total success!
TOP TIP: Winter is much better for viewing than summer as it's much drier (less clouds) and it's darker more of the time. Keep your eyes on the KP levels (you can download an aurora app for that) and keep your fingers crossed!
3. What are the best spots to photograph in the Canadian Rockies?
If you didn't already know, photography is my passion and I came to the Canadian Rockies with the sole intention of capturing the landscapes during all seasons and all weather conditions. For the 14 months I braved the elements, did more than my fair share of exploring and came away with really special shots, which you can see across the whole blog.
You can find some of my favorite locations in the article about the best photography spots in the Canadian Rockies.
But wait, There's more!!! If you're looking for photography locations in the specific areas such as Banff or Jasper National Park or the lesser known Kananaskis Country I've compiled them all in separate articles. All the buttons below link to them.
4. What are the best months to do a road trip in the Canadian Rockies?
I road tripped through the Canadian Rockies in my self-converted van for 6 months during the Spring/Summer and Autumn seasons. It was a constant road trip, full of condensation, mosquitos, road closures, snow, and wildlife encounters. And that was summer!!! If you are planning a road trip in Canada, the ideal time is between mid May until mid October.
Canada's Spring, Summer and Fall are very short and many businesses only run within this time frame. If you decide to follow one of my Canadian Road Trip Itineraries earlier or later than this, you may run into difficulties with finding operating campsites. In that case I suggest renting a compact car and staying in hotels, most of which stay open throughout the year.
Don't get me wrong, you should still visit in the winter but think twice about renting a camper van and road tripping. Staying in one town (or maybe two) and basing yourself there for your entire holiday is a better idea.
5. Why are the glacial lakes in the Canadian Rockies so turquoise/green?
Many lakes in the Canadian Rockies get their water from glaciers. Apparently there's over 3,000 glaciers here. Unfortunately it's predicted that by 2100 they will have shrunk to 5% of their current size.
There's nothing particularly that special about glacial water, it's just ancient rain water that froze and formed glacial ice, a semi solid substance that slowly flows down mountain valleys. It contains loads of archaic information about climate change though, which is pretty cool. Pun intended.
The slow moving glaciers, grind away at the bedrock below. Due to their mass, they apply so much pressure to the rocks that the substance they grind away is called Rock Flour. Named because it has the consistency of normal cooking flour.
The rock flour eventually gets washed from the glaciers into the lakes. The flour, being so fine, doesn't immediately drop to the bottom of the lake, it just levitates close to the surface. It's what gives the cloudy effect and it's also known as glacial milk.
When the sun rays hit the lake, instead of penetrating deep down, the rays bounce off the rock flour, which absorbs a lot of the blue light in the visible spectrum leaving the lake to appear to us to be anything from a vivid green to a milky blue. Yeahhhh Science!!!!
6. Is it expensive to travel in the Canadian Rockies? How much should I budget per day?
Canada is a westernised country with western prices. If you're a trillionaire then Canada is cheap but if you're searching for bus change in between sofa cushions then Canada can be quite expensive.
In the summer when I lived in my van I spent around 1200$CAD a month. I think that would be the bare minimum here in the Rockies. For tourists coming on a budget with food, campsites, excursions and a small rental vehicle I would recommend 100$ per person/day (based on two people). Obviously, if you live more lavishly then that number can easily go up. For example suites in the Banff Springs Hotel can be 1400$ a night.
I think an upper midrange budget, with a decent camper van rental, gas, insurance, staying in both campsites and hotels, eating healthy local food, going on paid excursions and tours and the occasional glass of wine I would suggest around 200 - 250$ per person/day (based on two people).
Hiring a canoe in Jasper can be CAD100$ for a day. Hiring a canoe on Moraine Lake can be CAD100$ for an hour. What I am trying to say is don't fall into tourist traps. Travelling doesn't have to be expensive if you do your research properly! That's what My Canada Travel Guide is for!
7. What's your favourite multi-day hike in the Canadian Rockies?
I don't have to give it a second thought. Hands down it's the hike into Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park. it's like no other place I've ever been to. I think it's popularity stems from it's accessibility and flexibility. You can hike, horseback ride or helicopter in and you have 3 different options for accommodation. You aren't often spoilt for choice in the Canadian backcountry.
If you already know about Mount Assiniboine or have already been there then consider checking out more of my favourite multi-day hikes in the Canadian Rockies. I have personally completed all of them and couldn't recommend them enough.
8. Is it easy to drive in Canada?
Yes, Canada's roads are foolproof. With wide lanes and plenty of signs, it's easy to navigate even in the most hectic of cities. That's why it's such a good country for a road trip. However I do think some things can be improved. North Americans need to learn the benefits of traffic islands, they are a much more efficient version of a 4 way stop. A 4 way stop is an intersection where whoever arrives first has the right of way, but must come to a complete stop first. The only annoying thing I find about driving in North America.
A nice welcome when driving in Canada was the ability of turning right even when facing a red light, providing that you still yield to all other traffic.
When driving at night stay vigilant for wildlife especially on smaller, quieter side roads. A collision with a moose can be fatal for everyone involved.
Most rental vehicles in Canada will be automatic, easy to drive but not very economical compared to the European equivalents.
9. What are the best day hikes in the Canadian Rockies?
There's so many to choose from it would be irresponsible of me to say that one particular trail is my favourite and will stay my favourite for the rest of time. With over 1000km of trails behind me I've narrowed it down into a list of day hikes in the Canadian Rockies that I consider to be the best. Try and do as many of them as you can and let me know what you think. If you're looking for a more specific areas, consider checking out my following posts:
10. Bears in Banff? Cougars in Kananaskis? Where are the best spots for wildlife viewing in the Canadian Rockies?
Well, it's Canada so pretty much everywhere you'll look you'll see wildlife. Most people though, myself included, aren't after squirrels, chipmunks and sheep. The majority of wildlife photographers come here in search of the Big 4: Black Bears, Grizzly Bears, Moose and Elk.
These 4 majestic animals are surprisingly common, and relatively easy to find, in comparison to say cougars, lynxes or wolves . For a complete list of wildlife, and more importantly places that you can regularly spot them, I've written a separate article solely on wildlife 'chasing' in the Canadian Rockies.
Again, I've had my fair share of wildlife encounters from being followed by a grizzly sow with two cubs on the Tonquin Valley Trail to being lucky enough to spot moose swimming across alpine lakes. The biggest piece of advice I can give you is to try and get out as early as possible. As soon as roads/hikes/viewpoints become busy, the wildlife around them quickly vacate the area.
11. What's the best self-drive travel itinerary if I'm coming to the Canadian Rockies from Calgary or Vancouver?
If you're an international visitor arriving by air then chances are you'll be flying into either Calgary or Vancouver. If you have the choice of the two, Calgary is much closer.
To make your life easier, I've made several sample self drive travel itineraries with everything you need to know about traveling in the Canadian Rockies.
They encompass all of the best spots and the must do activities and they are optimised so you make the most out of your time here. Just pick a route. They took me over a year to create and they are the best free resource you'll find on the internet.
12. What's the weather like in the Canadian Rockies?
Tempestuous, they're mountains after all! The winters here are cold, but sunny and extremely arid. The winter can last from November until April. If you're coming for a skiing holiday then it's perfect. However planning a winter road trip around the Rockies is not ideal. Most campsites do not operate and the area is subject to several planned, and unplanned, road closures.
Skiers and snowboarders can enjoy waist-deep off piste powder for several months in numerous resorts. Temperatures can vary from +10 Celsius (50F) down to -40 Celsius (-40F). It's much quieter here in the winter but still super scenic for those who aren't into winter spots, here are some photos that prove that Alberta is beautiful in the winter.
The Spring melt generally happens around May. The majority of the snow in the towns will have disappeared at ground level but will certainly still be present at higher altitudes and on mountain peaks. Road closures will hopefully be a thing of the past and many of the campsites that were closed for winter will start to reopen.
June, July and August are brilliant months to visit, long days mean you can make the most of your time here and the wildlife is out in full force. Summer time temperatures are hot and it can be very humid here, especially in the June monsoon. During the summer, day time temperatures can be above 40C (+100F) but night may still be below freezing. The average day time temperature will be in the mid 20's (~75F)
If you're an avid hiker then September and October are your most promising months, it's when there's the least amount of snow on the trails and when the autumn colours bring everything to life. Temperatures are a complete mixed bag but except days to flutter close to 20 Celsius (68F) and nights will probably be below freezing. Personally, I find these two months the most beautiful as they provide the highest amount of colour contrast in the scenery and all different kinds of weather phenomenon.
As the Canadian saying goes "If you don't like the weather where you are, wait 5 minutes".
13. Should I book a motorhome / campervan or should I stay in hotels whilst travelling in the Canadian Rockies?
Both ideas have their pros and cons and it really depends on what kind of holiday you're after. I personally, prefer motorhome travel, it gives you the freedom of being in the right place at the right time without having to pay hefty hotel bills, only small campsite fees.
Hotels also book out many months in advance, where many campsites in the Canadian Rockies are first come first served.
Hotels naturally have their perks too. Real flushing toilets, a real bed, guaranteed warmth and in-house restaurants certainly make your stay more homely and luxurious. If you're coming to the Canadian Rockies for an extended period of time maybe try staying mainly in campsites with the occasional night in a hotel to recharge your batteries, literally and figuratively speaking.
If camping is not something that tickles your fancy, then make sure you book your hotels well ahead. Popular hotels can book out more than 6 months in advance. Some even years!!
14. Are Canadians really as friendly as everybody says?
Yes, yes, yes. A million times yes. I don't know why but I'm not complaining. Everything seems to be so much better when people are nice to each other. I've made so many close Canadian friends here that the 'friendliest nation in the world' hypothesis keeps getting renewed over and over again.
15. What's the tipping culture like in Canada? And is tax included in the prices?
Tipping is expected in Canada much like the USA but generally it's a little less than the US 20% norm. Restaurants, taxi's, tour guides, hotel staff, food delivery agents and hair dressers are the main services you'll be using on your vacation and should be tipped around 15% if they'd provided a good service. If the service was exceptional then tipping more is fine. If the service was not up to the industry standard then tipping less, or even nothing, is also an option. As a rule though 15% is the norm in Canada.
Many restaurants in Canada will also include a 15 - 18% tip with the bill for groups larger than 6 people.
Sales tax is not included in prices. Bare this in mind when purchasing anything. GST varies from province to province. The border between Alberta, where the total tax is 5%, and British Columbia, where total tax is 12%, runs through the Canadian Rockies. This makes everything slightly cheaper in Alberta, so stock up on petrol, plus other sundry items, whilst you are east of the border.
Do you have any more questions about travelling in Canada and the Canadian Rockies? Post them in the comments below!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
I am Marta Kulesza - the photographer and creator of www.inafarawayland.com. I come from Poland, but I've been living, travelling and working around the globe since I turned 18. A few years ago, during one of my trips to Scotland, I bought my first DSLR and my adventure with photography began. When I am not stuck to my computer editing photos, you can find me hiking somewhere in the mountains.