If you haven’t heard already, admission to national parks in Canada is free to everyone in 2017 to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday. As much as I love Banff National Park I know that the town of Banff and many of the campsites are going to be crazy busy this summer.
Fortunately there are excellent alternatives to Banff National Park. Try some of the following.
Kootenay National Park
If you’re driving to Kootenay National Park from Calgary you’ll still end up going through the gates of Banff National Park. If you don’t have a pass already you can get one in person at the gate. But if it’s a weekend you can expect seriously long line-ups so get there early. (You can also order your pass from Parks Canada ahead of time.)
It’s about a 40 minute drive to the boundary of Kootenay National Park from the Banff gates. Kootenay National Park doesn’t see nearly the number of visitors that Banff does – in large part because it’s not nearly as developed. But it’s equally beautiful.
To plan your visit to Kootenay National Park click here.
Where to stay in and around Kootenay National Park
You have the option of both front-country and back-country camping. Check out the Kootenay National Park website for information and reservations. In the Village of Radium Hot Springs in British Columbia there are loads of affordable accommodation options. Just outside of Kootenay National Park is Storm Mountain Lodge. It’s a great place but a pricier option than camping. You can read about my stay here. Nipika Mountain Resort is another option.
What to do in Kootenay National Park
In Kootenay National Park I highly recommend backpacking the Rockwall Trail. It’s a tough 4 – 5 day adventure that delivers big time on mountain scenery. There are also day hikes up to many of the campsites used on the Rockwall Trail. Consider the 17.7 kilometre Kindersley-Sinclair Col loop hike and the guided hike to Stanley Glacier to look for fossils. You must reserve that one in advance.
Yoho National Park
Yoho National Park is a fraction of the size of Banff National Park but offers some of the best mountain scenery in the country, especially in the Lake O’Hara area (like this hike) – but it will probably be very busy this summer. Don’t despair. Head to one of four campgrounds in the park, including a walk-in campground near Takkakaw Falls where there’s a very high probability of scoring a beautiful campsite. Then spend several days hiking in the area. The Iceline Trail is fantastic. If you stay overnight at the Stanley Mitchell Hut (run by the Alpine Club of Canada) or camp nearby then you have access to phenomenal mountain hiking in the President Range. Don’t miss your chance to do the hike to see the Burgess Shale fossils when you’re in the park by making a reservation here.
To plan your visit to Yoho National Park click here.
You can also stay overnight in Field at one of the many B&B’s and Golden, British Columbia is only about a 50 minute drive away. The lovely Emerald Lake Lodge is another option.
Access to Yoho National Park is via the Trans-Canada either heading west about an hour from the gates in Banff National Park or east from Golden.
Waterton Lakes National Park
Waterton Lakes National Park is a three hour drive from Calgary. The park borders Glacier National Park in Montana. You can expect gorgeous mountains and glacial lakes. Although it will be busy, it won’t be anything like Banff.
Where do you stay in Waterton?
If you want a hotel check out this website. I highly recommend a drink or a meal at the Prince of Wales Hotel for the view alone. One weekend I stayed in the Waterton Glacier Suites and would suggest booking with them. There are also camping options; choose from nine wilderness campsites and three campgrounds that are vehicle accessible. For more information visit this website. Book EARLY! The Alpine Club of Canada also operates a backcountry hut called Cameron Cabin. You can book that here – even if you’re not a member.
What can you do in Waterton?
Enjoy fantastic hiking, biking, cycling, horseback riding and a boat ride down the length of Waterton Lake.
I’ve done three hikes in the park and all were phenomenal. The Crypt Lake hike is one of the more unusual ones you’ll ever do in Canada as it includes a ladder, tunnel and chains. The Lineham Ridge hike takes you into gorgeous red rock country. Take the shuttle and do the Carthew-Alderson Trail as a one way hike. Expect very diverse scenery – from mountain to prairie views.
Waterton Lakes National Park is home to over 250 species of birds and 60 species of mammals including a healthy grizzly and black bear population. It’s also considered to be one of the wettest and windiest places in Alberta – something to keep in mind if you’re planning to camp.
The Crowsnest Pass area
The Crowsnest Pass area is not on the radar of many people and yet it’s got top-notch scenery including mountains and waterfalls, Canada’s second largest landslide, a host of cute towns and lots of accommodation options. Also, it’s just a 2.5 hour drive from Calgary. You could easily visit this area, cross into British Columbia, check out Fernie and Cranbrook and return to Calgary via a stop in Kootenay National Park. You’d lose the crowds completely.
Where can you stay in the Crowsnest Pass area?
I’ve tried out two places so far – Country Encounters in Coleman (they run a cooking school too) and The Kanata Inn in Blairmore. There are loads of other options including camping beside the pretty Lundbreck Falls.
What can you do in the Crowsnest Pass area?
There is a surprising amount of excellent hiking. One in particular – the hike to the top of Turtle Mountain – may cause a bit of an adrenalin rush as it takes you to the point where Turtle Mountain broke away and caused the Frank Slide. This post showcases three of the best hikes in the Crowsnest Pass area. Don’t miss a stop at the Frank Slide Interpretive Centre. And consider bringing your bikes as you can cycle the 23 km Crowsnest Community Trail. It’s a scenic way to visit all the communities.
Canmore and Kananskis Country
Canmore is both the gateway to Banff National Park and one of the points of entrance to Kananaskis Country. With a population of about 14,000, Canmore has all the amenities you need along with great access to hiking and biking trails.
Where can you stay in Canmore?
Canmore offers the whole range of accommodation options from B&B’s (check out Grandview Chalet run by a couple of friends) to the intimate Paintbox Lodge run by Olympian Sara Renner and her husband. Nearby there are campsites at Bow River and Lac des Arcs.
What can you do around Canmore?
There is so much to do around Canmore that you don’t need to venture into Banff National Park. But you could on a bike by cycling the fabulous Legacy Trail – and it’s easy to rent bikes in Canmore. There are also some lovely family-friendly bike paths around the town, especially along the river.
There’s enough hiking to keep you busy for a week. The Grassi Lakes are always a popular choice. Do the steep hike to the top of Ha Ling Peak for stellar views. Try Mount Lady McDonald, EEOR Peak or nearby Mt. Yamnuska. The new High Rockies Trail, the westernmost section of the Trans Canada Trail in Alberta, offers superlative scenery and caters to both hikers, trail runners and mountain bikers. The starting point is near the trailhead for Ha Ling Peak.
You can also go caving in Canmore. See what you think of the laundry chute.
Kananaskis Country via Highway 40
You don’t have to go to Canmore to get into Kananaskis Country. Just drive from Calgary to Highway 40 and turn left -southwest. It’s only about an hour’s drive to get into Kananaskis Country – always an uncrowded alternative to Banff National Park.
There are lots of overnight options from front and backcountry camping (click here for more info), to a stay in a tipi stay at Sundance Lodges, to the newly renovated Delta Hotels by Marriot Kananaskis Lodge and the wonderful Mt. Engadine Lodge.
Once you’re in K-country as it’s often called, you can road or mountain bike and hike to your heart’s content. I often check in at the Visitor’s Centre to get their latest recommendations and to pick up a map.
For biking I recommend the ride up Highwood Pass – the highest paved road in Canada. There’s also some lovely hiking at the top including the fantastic Pocaterra Ridge hike and the easier Arethusa Cirque hike.
There are mountain biking trails everywhere in K-country. I’ve only done a couple – one to Troll Falls and another behind the Delta Hotel so check in with Kananaskis Outfitters to get some local knowledge. They rent bikes too.
Closer to Mt. Engadine Lodge (where you’ll often see moose) there are some excellent hikes. I’ve never done Tent Ridge but it’s one everyone I talk to raves about. The hike to Buller Pass is a beauty as is Guinn Pass.
You could literally spend weeks exploring Kananskis Country. There are no fees for entrance into the park.
As you can see, even if Banff National Park is very busy there are enough choices near the park that a summer visit is still extremely worthwhile. And if you avoid the town of Banff, and head for the backcountry, you can almost always enjoy a peaceful, wilderness experience. Just book backcountry campsites now.