Last update - January 10th, 2020
It is safe to say that the journey from Vancouver to Calgary is one of the most popular road trips in this gigantic country. It will take you through the temperate rainforest near Vancouver to the snow-capped peaks in Jasper and Banff National Park eventually leading you out into the flatlands toward Calgary.
You will get the best of all the worlds, a true “Sea to Summit” experience.
My advice would be to spend at least 2 weeks in Canada to get a proper taste of its majestic landscapes. If you're looking for ways to extend it consider visiting Vancouver Island for a few days or doing one of my favourite multi-day hikes in the Rockies.
This itinerary is completely free and it's the best one you'll find on the internet! If you find it useful, it would mean the world to me if you use the affiliate links provided in the text when you book hotels, rental cars, camper vans or activities.
If you do, I will get paid a small commission, at no extra cost to you!
Vancouver to Calgary road trip overview
This road trip is designed for a two week Motorhome experience but can easily be shortened or lengthened depending on how much time you’ve got. For those looking for a bit more comfort I have also included hotels recommendations in each spot.
The itinerary starts in Vancouver, one of the biggest transport hubs in Canada. It then heads north on the "Sea to Sky Highway", up towards Wells Grey Provincial park, Jasper National Park, down the Icefields Parkway to Lake Louise, around Banff National Park, into Kananaskis Country and finally out east toward Calgary - the cowboy city in the Canadian prairies.
It will be busy two weeks and you better be prepared for a lot of jaw dropping scenery. I did this road trip myself over the course of a few months and picked my absolute favourite spots, activities and places to stay to make your planning super easy.
Did you know that 95% of visitors to Canada don't venture further than 1km away from their vehicle? Don't miss out; explore more!
What are the best months to do a road trip in Canada
If you are planning on traveling 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 this plan earlier or later you will 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.
Vancouver to Calgary road trip map
Below you can find the map of the whole itinerary. If you click in the top left of the map you will find separate layers marking the route, photography spots, hikes, points of interest and campsites.
To hide/show layers just click on the check box next to layer's name in the top left corner. You can also click on the icons on the map to see names of the places I have marked. I will be talking about them as I break the itinerary down day by day.
The best way to travel from Vancouver to Calgary
Rent a Campervan
Indisputably the best way to travel around Canada is in a Motorhome. Thankfully rental companies allow you to rent their vehicles with a different drop off location, in this case, Calgary.
The downside is that you will be charged a "one way fee". If you want to cut those expenses consider following my other itinerary starting and ending in Calgary and focused solely on the Rockies, or a road trip that starts and finishes in Vancouver.
On the bright side, with a camper, you’re never left with hotel bills and you’ll have the opportunity to be in the right place at the right time only having to pay small campsite fees. When planning your road trip you can search through all the biggest campervan rental companies using Motorhome Republic booking search engine. A real time saver.
The travelling distance of this itinerary is approximately 2000km. You are required to know this information when booking your campervan as you have to prepay for kilometres.
Rent a Compact Car
If you decide to rent a smaller compact car and bring your own camping gear (or stay in hotels) use Discover Cars.
Purchase Parks Pass
If your rental vehicle doesn’t already include it, make sure you buy a compulsory Parks Pass. They cost 136$ per vehicle, including up to 7 people. The toll gate, where you can pick one up is on the border of Mount Robson Provincial Park and Jasper National Park, which you will be crossing when following this itinerary. If you're doing this trip in reverse then Banff National Park East Gate is where you can get one.
All the provincial parks on this itinerary are free to enter, you'll only need the Parks Pass to enter into National Parks.
Information about staying at campgrounds in Canada
When it comes down to campsites in Canada, you're spoilt for choice, especially near all the spots enlisted in this plan. The majority of them are equipped with toilets and shower facilities as well as electric sites for those traveling in bigger motorhomes which require electrical hookups.
I personally recommend campsites operated by Canada's Parks Authorities. Most of the campsites in the province of British Columbia are around 40$ per site per night. In Alberta they are slightly cheaper and you can expect to pay around $30 CAD/per site per night. One site can fit up to 6 people so travelling in a group can be advantageous.
In the peak summer months (July and August) you will find it very handy to book your campsites as far in advance as possible!
Especially on the weekends in the more popular areas like Banff, Lake Louise or Jasper. There’s nothing worse than turning up and finding out there’s no more spots available. As for hotels. We found that some dates in the summer can book out as early as in January so make sure you stay on top of it!
All bookings in British Columbia can be made on the BC Parks Reservation Website
All bookings in the National Parks can be made on the Parks Canada Reservation Website
For campsite reservations in Alberta (outside of national parks boundaries) refer to the Alberta Parks Reservation Website
My suggested two week road trip itinerary from Vancouver to Calgary. Part 1. Vancouver to Jasper and the Icefields Parkway
Day 1-3: Vancouver to Whistler on the Sea to Sky Highway
Vancouver has been described as “Manhattan with mountains” and a “tomorrow city”. It’s a very convenient spot to land in, but chances are you already live in, or near to, a “tomorrow city” (whatever that is) and you didn’t come on holiday to spend all your time in a 'same same but different' concrete jungle. Sure, it has some cool underground spots but, in my eyes, it’s just an international airport so do yourself a favour and don't waste your time there.
Once you’ve picked up your rental and stocked up on food try to hit the road as soon as possible.
For the first leg of the journey head north from Vancouver on Route 99 and start your journey on one of the most scenic roads in the entire country, the famous Sea to Sky Highway. This road will be your gateway to Squamish and Garibaldi Provincial Park, eventually ending in the resort town of Whistler. I have gone into much more detail on things to do on the Sea to Sky Highway in a separate post.
Accomodation in Squamish (Night 1)
Alice lake campground
Accomodation in Whistler (Night 2)
Whistler RV Park and Campground
Days 3-4: Whistler to Jasper via Joffre Lakes, Wells Grey and Mount Robson Provincial Parks
From Whistler to Jasper it's a 750 km trip so to spare you from a continuous and tiring drive I decided to split the distance between 2 days. There are plenty of dramatic mountain vistas along the way and it would be simply impossible to cover them all in such short amount of time. Below I have enlisted some of my favourite spots for nature enthusiasts.
Things to see along the way
Pemberton and Nairn Falls
Pemberton is only 30 minutes away from Whistler and it ss a cheaper alternative for those on a tighter budget or those who prefer quieter atmosphere. Nairn Falls - a stop between the two towns is a ferocious set of several cascades, especially spectacular when seen from the lower viewing platform at the end of the trail.
Joffre Lakes Provincial Park
A short drive one hour north east from Whistler along the highway 99 and you will find yourself in heaven. The first Joffre Lake, framed spectacularly below the hanging Matier Glacier, is only a 5 minute walk from the trailhead car park. The next two lakes are a bit harder to get to, but worth every effort.
The 10km return (6.5mile) hike to the Upper Joffre Lakes should take you around 3.5 hours to complete (even though at the trailhead it says it's 4 hours one way!). It’s not only one of the best hikes around Whistler but one of the top hikes in British Columbia so make sure you don’t miss out.
Wells Gray Provincial Park
Clearwater is the gateway town into Wells Gray Provincial Park - host to some spectacular waterfalls. The first, Spahat Falls can be reached after around 10 minutes heading north on the Clearwater Valley Road. It's a short 5 minute walk to the observation deck.
The second, 25 minutes from Clearwater, is Maul Falls, this is the smallest of the falls and the longest to get to (5km/3 miles, 2 hours) but in my opinion, it is the most unique as you can walk behind it. Remember to wear waterproofs if you want to get close.
The last, Helmcken Falls is 55 minutes from Clearwater. Make Clearwater your stop for the 3rd night. Moreover the Clearwater road is one of the best spots to get a glimpse of some Canadian wildlife, especially early in the morning when black and grizzly bears are grazing at the roadside.
Mount Robson Provincial Park
From Clearwater continue north along Highway 5. After around 220km you will turn onto Highway 16 toward Jasper. Soon after the turn off you will be greeted by the view of the tallest mountain in the Canadian Rockies - Mount Robson. The Mount Robson visitor centre will be a perfect lunch stop before you continue to Jasper.
I took the photo below right next to it! If the weather is good you can also attempt to hike along the Robson River to Kinney Lake. It’s a 14km return, mostly flat hike that shouldn't take longer than 4 hours (including lunch). Or if you’re lucky enough to have an extra few days to spend in Canada, consider doing the complete Berg Lake Trail - one of my favourite multi-day hikes in the Rockies.
From Mount Robson it’s an hour drive (90km) to Jasper heading east on Highway 16.
Accommodation in Clearwater (Night 3)
Clearwater Lake Campground
Day 4-6: Jasper National Park
Welcome to Alberta - Canada's most beautiful province, at least in my eyes. Jasper and the national park which surrounds it are home to some colossal scenery. With sharp jagged mountains and crystal turquoise lakes it's best to call this great place home for a couple of nights.
Things to do in Jasper National Park
Explore Maligne Lake area
A boat cruise on Maligne Lake is one of the most popular activities in Jasper National Park. Owned and operated by a company called Brewster their classic cruise lasts 90 minutes with a short break at Spirit Island with opportunity to snap a photograph.
If you have an extra day to spare and are feeling adventurous, consider booking a night at Fisherman's Bay Campground, it'll be an exhilarating paddle and will give you the chance to be at Spirit Island at either sunrise or sunset. An experience that no commercial company can offer. You can als just rent a canoe and paddle around the lake for an hour or two.
Go for a hike
Jasper National Park is huge compared to all other national or provincial park in the Canadian Rockies. Naturally, with all those mountains, comes a lot of hiking trails. Some can take several hours and some several days. You could even head into the backcountry for a few months without running into another soul. But let's not get carries away! For more realistically achievable hikes take a look at my hiking recommendations in Jasper National Park.
Soak in the Hot Springs
The Miette Hot Springs cost 6.05$. They consist of 2 hot pools and 2 cold pools. I dare you to jump into the cold one after you've been soaking in the hot tub for too long. It's an awesome feeling!
The hot springs are right next to the Sulphur Skyline trailhead so if you've done the hike this will be the perfect way to relax afterwards. If you haven't done the hike you don't deserve to go in. Just kidding, go ahead and relax, you're on holiday after all.
Take the Skytram up to Whistler's Summit
As well as Squamish or Whistler, Jasper has its own gondola too. It costs CAD 45$ and offers spectacular panoramic views from the top. You can hike to the top but it’s 1000m elevation difference from the town. I haven’t yet attempted it.
Once at the top you can continue by foot another 200m in elevation gain to the summit of Whistlers Mountain or try the Indian Ridge hike. A 14km return hike to a spectacular ridgeline offering even more extensive views. On a clear day you can even see Mount Robson!
Look for perfect photo opportunity
If hiking isn't your thing, maybe photography is. I've compiled a list of the most beautiful spots to photograph in Jasper to help you see the most jaw dropping vistas.
Accommodation in Jasper (Night 4&5)
Day 6-7: The Icefields Parkway
If you've heard anything about the roads in the Canadian Rockies, you've probably heard that the Icefields Parkway is one of the most scenic. It's not long but you can easily spend an entire holiday just driving up and down! Well at least I could.
Jasper lies at the northern point of the Icefields Parkway (93N). Lake Louise marks the southern point. During your drive down, just past the Columbia Icefields Discovery Centre, you'll be in entering Banff National Park.
The 232 km stretch of road encompasses, what I consider to be, the heart of the Canadian Rockies. . There's so many spots that I have broken it down in a separate post of all the things to do and see on the Icefields Parkway in order from Lake Louise. If you follow this itinerary you will be doing it in reverse. In that case just read the list from bottom to the top!
The majority of travellers spend only one day on the Icefields Parkway, but in my opinion you should spend at least two days (1 night) exploring it. Take your time! You are on a holiday of a lifetime!
Accommodation on the Icefields Parkway (Night 6)
Continue to Part 2
This itinerary is so comprehensive that it had to be broken up into two parts. This page covers the first section from Vancouver to the Icefields Parkway. Part 2 covers the journey from Lake Louise to Calgary.
Plan your Canadian road trip with these websites
Below are some links that will be useful for planning your road trip around the Rockies. By using them you support my website and what I do.
- Motorhome Republic - A great search engine for renting a camper van.
- Discover Cars - if you are after renting a smaller car.
- Booking.com - for booking hotels
- Get Your Guide - perfect site for booking activities and keeping it all in one place!
- World Nomads - one thing you should not travel without - an insurance! Make sure it covers outdoor activities like World Nomads do.
- Wildlife Guide - Tips on when and where to spot wildlife in the Canadian Rockies
- Parks Canada - up to date information about campsites, trails & any wildlife warnings.
- Wikicamps app - it will help to navigate you to your campsite, popular visitor spots, public washrooms etc.
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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.