After our weekend in Seattle we were back in the car for another road trip – this time we were off to Calgary. I had a hard time putting together the bones of this part of the trip, because there is just SO MUCH to see in this part of Canada and I only had four days to do it in. I absolutely recommend more days if you are contemplating a similar trip, because while I am glad we got to see and do what we did, there was a lot we missed that I would like to go back and see another time.
Day One – Vancouver to Kelowna
We were up nice and early in Vancouver, waiting at breakfast as they laid out the food. By 7:15 we were on the road. I had hoped to beat the peak hour traffic getting out of Vancouver because I had heard it can get quite bad, and although we didn’t have a perfect run, it was not too bad and we were out of the city in a pretty good time. For the first time this whole holiday Vancouver lived up to it’s reputation and rained heavily for the first couple of hours of our trip. I was happy for it to happen while we were toasty and warm inside the car though.
The plan had always been to stop along the way if we saw anything interesting, but in this first leg, we also wanted to make good time as I had afternoon plans in Kelowna. It was going to be a fine balancing act. Our first stop came when we saw a rest stop with a mention of a hike to Bridal Falls. I googled and saw it was a short 15 minute walk from the car park, so this sounded like a great opportunity to stretch our legs.
The walk to the falls was through some Jurassic Park-like forest and was definitely not 15 minutes. In fact, I don’t think it would have even been ten minutes. Totally worth the walk though to see the waterfall and stretch our legs.
The rest stops in Canada are pretty good too. Usually there will be toilets (but often not water so come prepared with hand sanitiser in case theirs is empty) and sometimes a food or coffee truck. Some of them also had wifi hotspots since there are lots of stretches of highway with no phone reception
We got to Kelowna just after lunch and then spent the afternoon wine tasting. We visited five wineries, most of which were recommended to me by a local before we arrived. It was a great afternoon with delicious wines and good hospitality. I would absolutely visit this region again for more of the same. The draw card for my here in the Okanagan wine region was ice wine. This is where the grapes are left on the vine longer and are allowed to freeze before they are picked. This changes the composition of the grapes and produces a completely different wine. Ice wine is very sweet, so is like a dessert wine, but, as someone who is not really a fan of sweet dessert wines, I found it to be a lot smoother and more delicious. I would have happily brought a few bottles home, but it’s not exactly the cheapest wine around and I didn’t think it would do so well in my backpack.
COMING SOON: Click here to read more about the wineries we visited.
After five wineries we called it a day and made our way to our accommodation. We stayed at the Dilworth Inn, chosen mainly because it was cheap. We knew we would really only be here to sleep, so we were happy with a basic room. The Dilworth Inn was clean and tidy, had free parking, good wifi and breakfast included. There was also a pool and spa available to use, but we didn’t take advantage of them. If all you want is a place to sleep, then this is a good choice.
Day Two – Kelowna to Golden
The drive between Kelowna and Golden is only about 345km, and Google Maps told me it should take four hours. That meant we had plenty of time to look around on the way. It also meant we could leave a little later and take our time with breakfast.
When we did get on the road the weather was dismal. The clouds hovered only metres about us and the air was filled with moisture. It wasn’t quite raining, it was just damp. I spent the first hour looking at the views over the lakes we were passing and imagining how they would have been even more beautiful with blue skies and no clouds covering the hills in the distance.
With nothing notable to entice us to stop, we did half of the trip before eventually pulling over at Three Valley Gap. Here in a picturesque little corner on the banks of a lake and between towering mountains is a resort called Three Valley Lake Chateau. This would be a perfect stop during a summer road trip where visitors can take a dip in the lake or hire a kayak. We enjoyed walking down to the lake and admiring the views, but it wasn’t exactly a great day to enjoy the water.
Also at Three Valley Gap is a Ghost Town – or at least that’s what it is called. In reality it’s more like an open air museum. Over time, old buildings have been transported here from other parts of the country and now they have been set up as a historical town. Entry into the town is $14CAD each, and we decided to sneak some looks over the fences (not so hard really), have a quick look through the train carriages outside and continue on our way.
I had seen The Enchanted Forest on the map and thought we would stop there and check it out. We somehow managed to miss it though. I’m not sure if the signage on the highway was poor, or we just weren’t paying attention, but when I next checked the map we had already passed it. The Enchanted Forest is more of a family attraction, with some great things to do for kids. It also has an adventure area with a high ropes course to burn off some energy for the rest of the drive.
Our next stop was the town of Revelstoke and some of the attractions there. I had been listening to a podcast a few days earlier that had talked about the dams on the Colombia River, and the one here has a visitor centre and takes people on tours so I was keen to have a look. The Revelstoke Dam is huge and it would have been fantastic to learn about it. Unfortunately this year it was only open until Sept 7th, (we were there on Sept 10th!) and had closed for the winter season so we only got a brief view of the dam from outside the fences.
Just in the foothills of Mt Revelstoke is the Nels Nelson Historic Ski Jump. It is no longer in use but here is where world records have been set in the past. There is a steep climb up to the top of the jump if visitors are keen to have a closer look. Near the bottom is a small park that children will love, and there are some nice views between the trees.
For better views we continued on the road up the side of the mountain. We had originally planned to drive up to the summit of Mt Revelstoke along the Meadows in the Sky Parkway, but with such low cloud it was going to be a pointless drive, and we would likely have found the road closed a little further along. We did go up to the first two viewpoints though and got those views over the Revelstoke township.
As we continued driving along the road to Golden we came across a few short walks. The first one was the Giant Cedars Boardwalk Trail in the Mt Revelstoke National Park. Here we walked for about ten minutes along a boardwalk through the towering cedar trees. Some of the trees here are over 500 years old. The parking area here is also a good stop for toilets and picnic tables, so the short walk is a good bonus if you need a break during your drive.
The national parks in this area almost touch each other, so just a little up the road, not to be outdone by the cedars, in Glacier National Park there is the Hemlock Grove Trail. The hemlocks are very similar to the cedars and the walk is much the same, but I always enjoy an opportunity to get out of the car to have a look around. We spent way too long here fascinated by a tiny ground squirrel in the car park. He got so close to us I thought he was going to run up Simon’s leg in error. There was also a strange blue bird, that we eventually saw a few times but we still don’t know what type of bird it was.
And in case we were sick of trees, the next stop in Glacier National Park is this Rock Garden Trail. The trail was marked by strange symbols, all different, every little while. I still have no idea what these are for. While we were scrambling over the rocks, I was looking out for all the different mushrooms that were here. I’ve never seen so many, of all different colours and sizes. It was also here that we first started to glimpse the glaciers hanging from the snow caps peaks in the distance. Now I was getting excited about the beautiful landscape to come.
Day Three – Golden to Banff via the Icefield Parkway
I know, if you are familiar with the area you will be scratching your head. Driving from Golden to Banff does not take you along the Icefield Parkway! To drive from Golden to Banff is only about 140km, but we took a detour, turning left not right near Lake Louise. We drove up as far as the Colombia Icefield Discovery Centre, then turned around and retraced our steps to Banff, all up driving about 400km for the day.
The Icefield Parkway is often voted one of the most picturesque drives in the world – and oh boy, I so agree! The road is busy though, even right at the end of the season which is when we were travelling. Even second car is a RV or camper van, so sometimes traffic can be chaotic and slow, especially around the view points. Parking also can sometimes be a little challenging.
I cannot use enough adjectives to describe how beautiful this area is. I’ll try not to use “stunning”, “beautiful” or “wow” more than a dozen times each! There are so many places to stop and admire the view, and we did stop and quite a few, but I won’t describe them all or we will be here all day. I will just touch on the main stops we did.
First stop was Peyto Lake and we were already speechless! There were crowds of people here, including tour buses, and everyone takes about a ten minute hike (unfortunately all uphill) to a viewing platform on the side of the lake. Here we had to dodge the selfie-stick wielding tour groups and wait patiently for a gap in the crowd to get a quick snap of the wonder that is this lake. This lake really is as blue as in my photos!
I had read that there was a walk to the end of the lake where not many people went, so off we went to find it. The path is not marked at all, but pretty much all the tracks eventually come out at some rocks high above the lake with amazing views. While we were there, less than ten other people were on the rocks – and as they took up quite an area, there was plenty of space to sit and enjoy Peyto Lake without the crowds. The extra effort (about 10-15 minutes hiking) was worth it.
As we were making our way back to the carpark, Simon spotted an elusive marmot. I just missed it as it scurried off into the bushes, but I was surprised to hear it was about the size of a cat – for some reason I had assumed they were tiny.
The next major place we stopped at was Mistaya Canyon where a 2km hike took us to a waterfall and rapids. This one was a fairly easy hike. I enjoyed hearing and seeing the power of the water as it flowed down into a split in the canyon. Here we also got to see that classic Canadian landscape, the snow-topped mountains, pine trees and pristine river. Just beautiful.
Our destination for the day was the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre. We passed a few places I would have liked to stop, saying we would see them on the way back, and in the end, I am glad we did. We wanted to walk on the Athabasca Glacier at the discovery centre, and when we arrived we went straight in to get tickets, and at 1pm the next available trips up there were 3:30pm! This small stop in the middle of nowhere is a huge tourist attraction. There were dozens of tour buses all lined up and cars for miles. Inside the discovery centre was madness as the crowds milled around doing whatever they were doing.
The wait gave us plenty of time to hike to the toe of the glacier. It’s probably only about a kilometre each way, but we were at around 2500m altitude and the uphill section and headwinds at the end nearly killed me. I was puffing and panting like I’d run a marathon. All along the way are markers showing where the glacier came to in years past. There are also a lot of information boards about the area and glaciers in general. I was disappointed when we got to the end of the walk to discover we were still quite a distance from the toe. Thanks to the way the glacier has pushed up a pile of sediment in front of it, we were also not able to see the end of it very easily.
We returned to the discovery centre and had enough time to warm up with a hot drink before preparing for our trip onto the Athabasca Glacier. Inside the discovery centre it was still a bit of a shambles with people everywhere, and even though we had tickets for 3:30, for some reason we could not get on the 3:30 bus and had to wait until 3:45. I know it was only 15 minutes, but we were already not going to be back in Banff before dark, and everyone kept reminding us about the elk and moose and caribou on the roads at night.
A normal bus takes visitors up the side of the hill where everyone transfers to one of the custom built buses that drive on the glacier. We were in the oldest one called “Big Blue”. He stood out because all the other buses were red. The tires on these buses are about five feet tall and about five feet wide, built not only for the safety of the passengers but also to lessen damage to the glacier. To get onto the glacier the buses currently have to drive down an incredibly steep embankment. The roads are always changing as the glaciers move, and are completely rebuilt every two years to minimise the impact to the surface of the glacier.
Eventually we get to the place where the bus stops and we can all get out. Even though the sun is shining it is cold, but not because of the ice. There are katabatic winds here, that constantly come down from the icefields above and sweep over the glaciers chilling all in their path. We had about half an hour to look around the glacier, admire the view and take some photos with the flags in the area. They had not only a Canadian flag, but flags for many of the countries that most visitors come from. There was no trouble finding an Australian flag.
Once back down from the glacier, we swapped back to the normal bus and made our way to the Icefield Skywalk, with a short stop back at the Discovery Centre for people who wanted to get off there. As the bus rounded a bend in the highway we came to a halt at the end of a long line of vehicles. Our driver informed us that it looked like we were experiencing a “bear jam”. Sure enough, as we slowly moved forward we could see a mama bear and her two cubs wandering along the side of the highway. We were having such good luck seeing wildlife on this trip!
The Icefield Skywalk is about 1km long and ends with a semi-circular glass platform sticking out from a cliff over the Sunwapta Valley. The visit includes a free audio guide that talks about the features of the area, but to be honest, I listened to only a little bit of it then instead just enjoyed the views.
It was after 6:30pm when we got back to the Discovery Centre. We now had a two and a half hour drive to get back to Banff. We grabbed possible the most expensive sandwiches I have ever had ($14CAD each) from the cafe and got moving. We had a stunning drive back as the sun went down, but were slightly disappointed as we didn’t see any of those moose or elk!
In Banff we were staying at the Banff International Hostel, and this would be our first ever stay in a hostel dorm room. Accommodation was incredibly expensive here in Banff, and this was our best option for such a short stay.
We arrived about 9:00pm to find that two people had been allocated the other beds in our dorm. Their stuff was tidy and it was obviously two girls staying.
The room was much larger than I expected – I have seen some dorm rooms with barely room to move. This one had four bunks, a tv, desk and a fridge. Our room had it’s own bathroom that was very clean. In the bathroom was a built in shower/bath and the toilet, and in a seperate little alcove was a sink with mirror.
We went to sleep around 11pm without seeing our roommates. They came in around 1:30am and were relatively respectful that we were sleeping. They turned on the light, but I had anticipated that and set the dimmer (a thoughtful touch in a hostel!) to low. I also had an eye mask on. They spoke in whispers and didn’t rattle any plastic bags, but were a little bit noisy going in and out if the bathroom.
I am not a great sleeper at the best of times and knew this would not be ideal for me. I struggled to go to sleep. The bed was really comfy actually, but the room was hot and I really don’t like the restriction of an eye mask and earplugs. I didn’t doze off until after 2am – and then just before 3am I woke up to find the light on again. It was strange, because I am such a light sleeper I would have noticed if someone got up and turned it on. I could hear that Simon and at least one of the girls were still fast asleep. Strange! Luckily I could reach the switch from my bunk so I turned it off again.
Then I had to get back to sleep! I woke again at 5:30am, and gave up since we were getting up at 6am anyway. We had planned for this early morning and simply got dressed, cleaned our teeth, grabbed our stuff and left! Simon seemed to get an okay night’s sleep, but he is lucky and can sleep through anything!
So, the verdict! Would I do it again? My views really haven’t changed – I much prefer a private room. If it comes to this same sort of choice where budget options are limited then yes, I would again sleep in a dorm. But I think I can only do one night at a time. I then need a good sleep to recover!
Day Four – Banff, Lake Louise then on to Calgary
Today was the day we were going to explore Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. These two lakes are possibly the most popular attractions in this area.
I had read that we needed to arrive early or we would not be able to get a park at Moraine Lake, so we were up early and on the road before the sun came up. As we drove through Banff we had one of those elusive sightings – we’re still not sure, but we think it was a female moose, standing in the Main Street nibbling on the flowers growing in the median strip. It was still dark though, so it may have been an elk or a caribou we saw.
It’s about 50km from Banff to Lake Louise, then a little further to Moraine Lake. We arrived a bit before 7am and found that the road to Moraine Lake was already closed as the carpark was full! Not a good start.
So we parked at Lake Louise and went to where the shuttle leaves for Moraine Lake – to find the first bus was at 8:40am, about 90 minutes away. Plenty of time to go and watch sunrise over Lake Louise and then take a stroll along the banks.
It didn’t quite work out like that. We ended up hiking all the way up to the Big Beehive. I hadn’t intended to do that, but we ended up at the Agnes Lake Teahouse, and, well, we couldn’t pass up the challenge! As we walked up the side of the beehive we heard a strange squeaking noise and another hiker with a very big camera lens started madly snapping away. On the rocks below us was a little pika, a small rabbit like animal that surely has to be the inspiration behind Pikachu!
At the top of the Big beehive we had great views down over Lake Louise and the Fairmont Chateau on the banks. We also got to see the changing colours of the foliage as up higher it was starting to take on the golden hues of autumn. I can imagine that a week later it would have been turning red too.
On the way down we took a detour – I mean, why go down the way we know?? It’s much more adventurous to chose another way, where we didn’t see anyone else for about 45 minutes and spent our whole time wondering when a bear will pop out of the forest!
All up we walked about 15km around Lake Louise. We got back to the shuttle bus around 11am – to see a huge line and hear that we wouldn’t be able to get on the bus until 1:20pm!
That was way too much of a wait. We decided to drive back past the closed road, and hope our luck was in. As people left the car park it would free up spaces and they would let more people in. But since it was the way our day was going, we were not in luck! With regret we decided we would not be seeing Moraine Lake on this visit.
Instead we went to Johnston Canyon and took a short walk along a boardwalk there to see a waterfall. It wasn’t the most amazing waterfall we have seen, but was a nice walk all the same. It’s quite popular a popular walk, so car-parking here was also an issue.
By now I was starting to wilt after my lack of sleep the previous night so we decided to call it a day. We still had to grab some food and drive through to Calgary to finish off our road trip. We ended up stopping in the nearby town of Canmore to have a quick look around and get a coffee first. I originally considered staying here instead of Banff because I had heard good things, but it would have been even more in the wrong direction when we wanted to get to Moraine Lake really early. Next time though I will again look at it as an option because it looked like a nice place to stay.
We arrived at our accomodation at about 5pm, but sorry Calgary, we didn’t see much of you! You look great though, and we will spend some quality time here on our next visit. All I wanted to do was eat the salad and sushi I had picked up earlier at the supermarket for dinner, drink the last of my Okanagan wine and sleep for about two days!
In Calgary we stayed at the Econo Lodge Inn & Suites University. This was a standard cheap hotel. I had seen it listed as both a one star and a two star hotel, but I think it was a little better than that. The room was large and comfy, there was free parking, good wifi and breakfast was included. Service was a little slow each time we went to the counter, but for the cheap price I can’t complain too much.
Day Five – Back to Vancouver
Canada has so much to offer but I think this road trip might just have been my favourite part of the small sliver of the country I have seen. We absolutely have to visit this area again. I just loved it. The towns not so much, but I love getting out and exploring the natural beauty. One day, I will be back.
Please share this post with your friends and pin for later
Josie is a forty-something budget traveller. She only discovered travel in her late thirties, but since then has travelled extensively including taking an adult gap year. She is now based in Australia and loves sharing all she has learned about travelling on a budget but with the comforts a Gen Xer requires.