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3 Days in the Canadian Rockies for the Independent Backpacker

Author: Shannon Colman
Date of Trip: August 2011

I spent three days touring the Rocky Mountains in Alberta, having planned my own itinerary. There is plenty to see in this short time. Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise are great choices for giving you a taste of the Canadian Rockies.


Day 1:

The nearest airport to Banff is Calgary, from where you can take a bus with Brewster Tours ( into the town. Banff National Park was created in 1885, making it the third oldest in the world. The town Banff is very popular with tourists, undoubtedly because of its connection to many amazing sights such as Sulphur Mountain and Lake Minnewanka. I personally found the town to be a bit too commercialised.

I spent my evening here at the Banff Y Mountain Lodge. This was one of the more upmarket hostels I’ve stayed in and had a great location over the bridge away from the busy town. The Bow River is next to it where you can go and watch the mountains catch the evening sun. A path runs alongside it for a peaceful walk. Just make sure you have plenty of insect repellent!

If the weather is good, spend your morning on Sulphur Mountain. Buses run from Banff Avenue up to the base, where you can either hike up to the summit or take the Banff Gondola. I would have preferred to hike the ~6k route but unfortunately didn’t have time. A gondola ticket costs around 35 dollars and the ride to the top takes just under 10 minutes. It runs from 8am to 9pm so you can stay up at the summit as long as you like! The views from the top of the mountain are incredible – glistening lakes in the distance overlooked by huge mountains dotted with fir trees and a turquoise river winding its way past the tiny town. I went early in the morning which is probably the best time as it is bound to get very busy with tourists in the afternoon.

Day 2:

If you’re backpacking like I was, you may prefer Jasper with its quieter, more rural setting. Brewster Travel runs buses from Banff to Jasper along the Icefields Parkway, which has fantastic scenery. If you’re lucky like I was, you might even spot a black bear on the way, and the bus driver will stop to let you look.

I stayed in the HI-Jasper hostel which was situated 7km south-west of the town. If you ask in the tourist office, they will book a taxi for you as buses don’t run there so regularly. The accommodation is rustic and basic with some dorms containing 28 beds for example, but there are few alternative budget accommodation options in the town. It has a good kitchen and dining facilities and is located about 15 minutes walk from Jasper Tramway, which carries you up to Whistlers Mountain.

After taking the gondola, the hike to the summit is 1.5km. Make sure you’re wearing warm clothes as your ears will get chilly in the wind, and sensible shoes as the terrain is loose and rocky. The views from the summit are magnificent – snow-capped mountains stand proudly for miles in front of you, wisps of cloud floating amongst them. It was very hard to leave.

I really recommend booking an afternoon tour of the Maligne Valley with the friendly team at SunDog Tours ( We stopped at Maligne Canyon to see the gushing falls and deep gorges, then went onto Maligne Lake, where a boat took us out to Spirit Island. This acts as a base for some of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen – bright blue lakes surrounded by snow-capped mountains. It was like something from a fairytale. The colour of the water is truly astounding.

We also passed an elk and plenty of mountain goats on our tour! Jasper National Park is a great place to see wildlife.

Day 3:

Instead of just booking a straight bus to somewhere, make a tour out of your journey. This is what I did on my way to Lake Louise. This time I went with Brewster Tours. First we stopped at Athabasca Falls with its volumnous falls, then we went to the Columbia Icefield. Here buses drove us onto the Athabasca Glacier where we were allowed to get out and walk around on the ice. The tour guides were very informative and funny. The bus then stopped near Peyto Lake, which provides yet another jaw-dropping view of lakes and mountains. It’s a view that would never get boring.

Finally the tour stopped at Lake Louise, which was very busy (a bit too busy for my liking), but that’s probably because the plush Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise hotel has been built next to it. However there are many trails around Lake Louise where you should be able to escape the tourists. I unfortunately did not have time to explore these for myself, but if you buy a decent guide book you will be given many ideas. Moraine Lake is one place I would have liked to see.
I stayed at the HI-Lake Louise hostel, which was really pleasant, with a lovely attic-style area for reading/checking emails. It’s a small and sweet village with bakeries, shops and a post office, situated next to a quiet river.

3 days seeing the aforementioned places is enough to fall in love with the Canadian Rockies and never want to leave! I was however lucky with the weather because it was sunny on all three days. If you’re travelling in summer, accommodation should be booked well in advance. If you’re backpacking I recommend hostels as a cheaper option. Bus/boat tours are comprehensive and great value for money. Because I was travelling on a budget, I bought my food from a supermarket in Banff which lasted me the three days. However there are many café and restaurant options.

For a more detailed description, my blog entry is here:

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