Road tripping Canada’s mountain country – Self-drive British Columbia & Alberta’s highlights
Read time: 7 mins
From the majestic city of Vancouver through British Columbia’s and Alberta’s soaring wildlife-filled mountain ranges to lush Vancouver Island and the glorious capital of Victoria with its colourful gardens and British feel, our Self-Drive Rocky Mountain Journey is a road trip you won’t soon forget.
Your amazing journey begins upon your arrival into British Columbia’s largest city, Vancouver. One of the world’s most beautiful destinations, it’s filled with world-class museums, galleries, a wide range of fantastic restaurants and upscale shopping venues, along with gorgeous nature that can be found on beaches, in lush parks and in the dramatic surrounding mountains. Ideally, spend a few days here before embarking on your road trip – there’s so much to see and do you could easily spend weeks here and not experience it all.
One of the not-to-be-missed spots is Stanley Park, located just minutes from the downtown core. It’s not only a wonderful place to stretch your legs and enjoy the fresh air, with a 9-kilometre-long seawall that winds along the waterfront providing fabulous views of downtown, the North Shore Mountains and Lions Gate Bridge, but it’s home to a number of attractions like the Vancouver Aquarium. The aquarium features a wide range of animals that come from the tropics to the Arctic, as well as entertaining shows like dolphin training, otter feedings and shark talks. For more lush scenery, visit the Capilano Suspension Bridge just a short drive across Lions Gate Bridge into the mountains. It hangs high above the Capilano River for a unique and thrilling look at the surrounding nature.
If you want to do some shopping, hit Robson Street, Vancouver’s premier shopping street that hosts independent shops along with the flagship stores of international brands. Granville Island, one of the city’s most popular neighbourhoods, hosts the Granville Island Public Market, considered one of the best open-air markets in North America. Enjoy an alfresco meal on a sunny afternoon as you watch the boats glide back and forth in English Bay. Or, you can buy your own ingredients for a picnic on one of the beaches. Bakers, chefs, fishmongers, butchers and gardeners sell everything from the fresh catch of the day to artisanal cheeses and rare mushrooms. The Vancouver Art Gallery is a must for art lovers with an impressive collection of over 10,000 works, and you can take in a bird’s-eye view over it all from the Vancouver Lookout at Harbour Centre. The ‘Top of Vancouver’ revolving restaurant is located there providing tasty meals paired with constantly changing views as it slowly rotates.
Manning Provincial Park and Penticton
Travelling east towards Penticton, the drive is especially scenic. Just minutes after leaving Highway 1 from Vancouver, you’ll encounter stunning Manning Provincial Park, known for its outstanding hiking and paddling opportunities. You might want to take the 8.5-kilometre return Lightning Lake Loop, with minimal elevation gain it’s a relatively easy trek and an ideal way to experience the striking beauty of the area. It loops around the lake featuring a number of picturesque viewpoints like Rainbow Bridge.
The town of Penticton is at the lower end of popular Okanagan Lake, surrounded by the vineyards and orchards in Okanagan Valley. If you’re here on a hot day, you might want to join Coyote Cruises, which provides rental tubes and a bus ride to float down the Penticton Channel, running from Skaha Lake to Okanagan Lake, a favourite summer activity.
Revelstoke and Glacier National Park
From Penticton make your way north to the historic town of Revelstoke, a gateway to Glacier National Park that offers plenty to do of its own. It’s ringed by roaring rivers, wildflower-dotted meadows and dramatic mountain peaks. The downtown area is filled with cool cafes, craft breweries, eclectic shops and riverside parks. If you’re looking for a heart-pounding thrill, you might want to ride The Pipe at Revelstoke Mountain Resort. One of the most popular attractions here, it begins from the gondola mid-station, whizzing down a 1.4-kilometre track while reaching speeds as fast as 42 kilometres per hour. Meadows in the Sky is another one of the top attractions with its maze of hiking trails, panoramic viewpoints and summertime wildflowers. By taking the short stroll to the historic fire tower lookout on the summit via the Firetower Trail you can enjoy a dazzling view of the spectacular landscape below.
Just a half-hour’s drive northeast along the Trans-Canada Highway is Glacier National Park. There are more than 700 miles of hiking trails here, with something for hikers of all skill levels, bringing the opportunity to marvel at massive glaciers, towering jagged peaks and one of Canada’s most extensive cave systems. It also has abundant wildlife, with just some of the animals you might glimpse including grizzly and black bears, mountain goats, moose, mountain caribou, and much more. While there are many challenging treks here with the Columbia Mountains particularly rugged, there are some short, sweet hikes on well-marked trails that will bring you to breath-taking viewpoints. The Great Glacier Trail leaves from the Illecillewaet Campground following a 3.2-kilometre route, one way. The round-trip journey can be completed within three to four hours, which makes it one of the shortest trails in the area – and it provides a fantastic panorama of the Vaux Glacier and Mount Sir Donald.
Banff National Park
Continuing east you’ll reach one of Canada’s most stunning national parks: Banff. Alberta’s most visited area, it’s renowned for its jewel-like lakes, including Lake Louise, a must visit guaranteed to provide postcard-perfect photographs. Outdoor adventure abounds, in fact, you might want to take the short, 3.2-kilometre trek from the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise to the Lake Agnes Tea House. Set deep within the wilderness, it’s one of the most scenic spots for afternoon tea. If a longer hike it’s what your after, you can continue the experience by hiking about 2.4 kilometres more to the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House. For a view over it all, hop on the Banff Gondola where you’ll soar above Lake Louise and its surreal turquoise waters. The glass-enclosed gondola provides an unbeatable view of Banff, the Bow Valley and a 360-degree vista of six mountain ranges.
The town of Banff itself is located inside the park. This is Canada’s highest town at an elevation of nearly 1400 metres. It’s enveloped by dramatic mountains and filled with wildlife, with herds of deer commonly seen right on main street alongside visitors who are taking advantage of the many restaurants, museums, galleries and shops. If you want to learn more about the area, pop into the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies. It’s also an outstanding resource for tips, maps and other information as it houses a visitor centre too.
Icefields Parkway to Jasper National Park
A ‘Drive of a Lifetime’ awaits today, with the 228-kilometre Icefields Parkway linking Banff to Jasper National Park, your next destination, via the Continental Divide. Along the way are gorgeous alpine lakes, glaciers, all sorts of wildlife and mountains. The highlight may be the Athabasca Glacier which is the biggest of the six ‘toes’ that make up the Columbia Icefield. You can do more than just marvel at it – stop at the vibrant blue glacier-fed Peyto Lake which is right off the roadway where you can take a guided walk onto the icefield, or even better, an unforgettable adventure in a six-wheeled all-terrain vehicle that will bring you out onto the accessible tongue of ice. During the ride you’ll also learn more about glaciers and their impact on the environment.
Jasper National Park
Enjoy a day in tranquil Jasper National Park where you’ll find even more jaw-dropping scenery. You might want to walk the Maligne Canyon trails which lead past waterfalls and unique rock formations while offering interesting information on the geology of the area through interpretive displays. With all that hiking, your feet are bound to need a break, and a boat cruise is an ideal way to give them a rest. Hop aboard what’s been called one of the best boat excursions in the country, gliding across the bright blue glacial waters of Maligne Lake. You’ll see a few glaciers along with towering mountain peaks, and make a stop at Spirit Island, home to some fascinating myths and legends. If you want a bird’s-eye view, ride the Jasper SkyTram, and be sure to stop at Miette Hot Springs for a soak while surrounded by picturesque views of the Fiddle River Valley before continuing your travels.
Mount Robson and Wells Gray Provincial Park
Make your way to Wells Gray Provincial Park via the scenic Yellowhead Highway, where the south face of Mount Robson will come into view. The most prominent mountain in the Rockies, be sure to stop and capture a photo along the way. Once in the park, you’ll discover a waterfall enthusiasts’ dream. There are 39 named falls here in the vast alpine wilderness, including the country’s fourth largest waterfall, Helmeken Falls, which spills more than 140 metres to the canyon below. While it can easily be seen from the road, or the viewing platform nearby, if you want to hike, the Helmeken Rim Trail will bring you right to the edge of the falls. In the summer, look for wildflowers along the way. Other activities can be enjoyed in the park too, including horseback riding, canoeing and river rafting.
The Cariboo Region, Barkersville and Prince George
Continue toward the town of 100 Mile House, driving through the cattle ranching Cariboo Region. The town was built in the 19th century during the Cariboo Gold Rush and is the site of one of the earliest roadhouses along the Cariboo Wagon Road. Today it’s a welcoming stop for travellers who enjoy picnics along Bridge Creek in Centennial Park. As you make your way to Prince George, be sure to stop at the Barkersville Historic Town & Park where you can learn more about the gold rush days by taking an entertaining town tour led by historical interpreters. Once in Prince George, the biggest city in northern British Columbia, you can explore museums, take a tour and enjoy beer tastings at CrossRoads Brewing and delve into history at the Huble Homestead Historic Site which features multiple heritage buildings like the Huble House, the General Store, Salmon Valley Post Office and First Nations Fish Camp.
Ksan Native Village and Prince Rupert
Make your way to Prince Rupert from Prince George, travelling through spectacular scenery among rugged wilderness and the interior mountain ranges, taking time to stop, explore and capture photos. The town of Smithers is a good place to break up the journey as the halfway point along the drive, with its main street following an alpine theme. From here, take the scenic route through the Skeena River Valley to the port city of Prince Rupert, stopping at the Ksan Native Village along the way. This living museum and historical village of the Gitxsan Indigenous people features over 600 artefacts, a carving area, totem poles, a series of traditional First Nation houses, guided cultural tours, traditional songs and dancing.
Prince Rupert is located on Kaien Island and offers lots of interesting shops, restaurants, breweries and history to explore, including that of the Haida and Tsimshian nations, who called the island home for 5,000 years. If you want to spend some time here before heading to Vancouver Island, Khutzeymateen Provincial Park and the Grizzly Bear Sanctuary provide one of the world’s best views of grizzlies in their natural habitat.
Port Hardy and Campbell River
From Prince Rupert, hop aboard B.C. ferries for a cruise through the Inside Passage. It’s a full day cruising along the British Columbia coast to Port Hardy, enjoying awe-inspiring scenery, and possibly whales along with other wildlife throughout the journey. Spend the night in Port Hardy before travelling the eastern shoreline of Vancouver Island to Campbell River, famous as the salmon capital of the world. It’s not only a great place for fishing, with five different species found here, but the fish attract bald eagles and kingfishers, which makes it ideal for bird watchers too. The town is also worth exploring with its art galleries, boutiques and farmers markets.
The final destination before returning to Vancouver by ferry is the capital of British Columbia, Victoria. One of the most beautiful cities in all of Canada, it makes for a wonderful grand finale to any road trip. Enjoy strolling the streets with its grand architecture and British ancestry that can be seen sprinkled throughout, with double-decker busses, horse-carriages and tearooms – the Fairmont Empress Hotel is famous for its Afternoon Tea that began well over 100 years ago when the hotel first opened its doors. The Avenue Art Gallery is worth a look, featuring top up-and-coming and established artists, and you won’t want to miss visiting Butchart Gardens, the reason Victoria is often called the “City of Gardens,” showcasing 700 varieties of plants in bloom from March and October.