Canada's National Parks in a Nutshell
Glaciers, Forests, Wildlife & Lakes
Every country has a speciality, something that it prides itself on, and for Canada, it’s the unprecedented natural beauty of its seemingly never-ending wilderness. This destination’s national parks are some of the best of their kind in the whole world.
The scenes are iconic: towering peaks, glittering glaciers, thick forests, incredible native wildlife and otherworldly lakes, so dazzlingly turquoise that photoshop would be the first assumption. Here, you have Canada’s most favoured poster children and any nature lover’s most prized pilgrimage.
Banff National Park
With Canada’s pride and joy – a.k.a. the soaring Rocky Mountains – rearing its jagged peaks through the heart of Banff National Park, you’d be tempted to think that it was the Rockies’ rugged beauty that led to the creation of the park. But it was actually Banff’s hidden treasures that gave it national park status back in 1885. Yes really, 1885. It was the world’s third, and Canada’s first, protected natural area.
So what are its secrets exactly? Well, in short, hot springs. The natural thermal pools found in Banff’s Cave and Basin National Historic Site have been a source of sparkling wonder for over a century. A distinct pong of sulphur may not scream ‘top attraction’ – it’s often likened to rotten egg – but like much of Banff’s beauty, this ethereal cave really is quite mesmerising. It’s this hot spring that will give you an insight into Banff’s rich history, but take a trip the upper springs and you’ll be able to pair a quick dip with some staggering views. Forget Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, Banff is where it’s at.
Then there’s the lakes. From Moraine that will have you seduced in seconds and Minnewaka with its immense size, to Peyto the underrated gem and Louise the limelight stealer, all of Banff’s glacier-fed lakes are just as delicious in person as they are in the pictures. And no, it’s not photoshopped, these lakes really are that blue. “But how?”, we hear you ask. Well as much as locals would like you to believe that it’s dyed, there’s actually a far more scientific reason. Apparently when the ice melts and runs down the mountains into the lakes, it carries silt-like rock flour with it, tinging the water as they refract blue and green wavelengths of light. Pretty cool. Or at least we think so anyway.
Venture into Banff’s dense forests and you may be lucky (or unlucky, depending on how you see it) enough to spot a black bear or two. If not though, you’ll still have plenty to see with a whole host of marked trails just waiting to be hiked. For 360 panoramas, it doesn’t get better than a ride on the Banff Gondola up to Sulphur Mountain’s scenic summit – which is such a must that we’ve included it in all of our western Canada base tours. Hello, mountain majesty.
An array of independent shops, bars and eateries set to a backdrop of outstanding natural splendour marks Banff Town – a lively hub that appears mirage like from the wilderness. With a boutiquey ski town feel, ever-friendly people and good beer will make you feel at home in no time. Here, the modern world makes its stamp. But with the park getting on average three million visitors a year, the town’s existence is more important today than ever before.
Jasper National Park
Larger than any other park in the Canadian Rockies and ruggedly handsome, Jasper National Park is the kind of place that you fall head over heels in love with.
So vast that it can take a good hour to drive from one highlight to another may seem like a downside, but in Jasper that just simply isn’t the case. The road-trips here are the very definition of epic. From the safety of your car and away from people populated trails, spotting the park’s rich bear population just got a whole lot more likely. And it’s not just bears that you should be on the lookout for – moose, elk, bighorn sheep, osprey and bald eagles can all be found in the wilds of this region too.
The road to Maligne Lake is one of Jasper’s best. Just when you don’t think that the scenery can get any better, it does. Scenic spot after scenic spot pave the way to the park’s showstopper: Maligne Lake. Spellbinding would be much of an understatement. It’s often argued whether Banff or Jasper has the better lakes and although Banff often clinches it, Maligne certainly makes it a difficult decision. Here, glassy, glacial waters that are skirted by old growth forests, flanked by the iconic Rockies and punctuated by Spirit Island, mark Jasper’s most photographed site. To really say that you’ve been there, done that, paddle-boating your way around it is a must.
Athabasca glacier and falls, lake beaches and a plethora of hikes are the other natural world highlights that you’re bound to come across, whilst Jasper’s small, yet charming, town offers up all the creature comforts that you could possibly be missing after a few days getting back to earth’s beautiful basics.
Named a ‘Dark-Sky Preserve’ by the Royal Astronomical Society in 2011, Jasper’s appeal isn’t limited to daylight. And now that the world-renowned Rocky Mountaineer runs journeys to and from here, this park is getting increasingly popular year on year. Opt for our Western Canada Rocky Mountaineer base itinerary to see what all the hype is about. But really, when you know that this iconic rail journey means travelling through otherwise unreachable terrain whilst enjoying michelin star meals, isn’t it obvious?
From hidden valleys and towering peaks to glistening glaciers and lush pine trees teeming with wondrous wildlife – Canada’s national parks illustrate the epitome of North America’s natural world splendour. You’re in for a trip of a lifetime, that’s for sure.