The road west from Calgary towards Vancouver was well travelled by pioneers, attracted by the promise of jobs in fishing, logging and mines – not to mention several gold rushes.
Taking in some of Canada’s finest national parks, and The Rockies, it is still a favourite road trip today as well as a spectacular train ride.
Cool mountain peaks and even ‘cooler’ cities, Canada offers a world of experiences Find out more here.
The struggling province of British Columbia, long fought over diplomatically between America and Britain, joined the Canadian Confederation in 1871, four years after it was formed.
As part of the enticements, a railway line linking Montreal and the Pacific Coast was promised within ten years. The biggest problem was the Rocky Mountains were in the way, climbing to more than 13,000 feet at their highest point.
The Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) was actually completed in 1885 – with the help of thousands of exploited Chinese labourers – but it was some years before an all-weather road followed.
You can now drive from Calgary to Vancouver, following the Fraser and Thompson rivers and the route of the CPR for much of it. It’s a route that is full of drama and history, and the challenges facing its builders – and those who still maintain it – are everywhere apparent.
The railway allowed the opening up of Canada’s prairies and helped bond the new country together. The CPR was given vast tracts of land in return for building the line and it advertised heavily in Europe for immigrants to come farm it.
Its ships brought them and its hotels housed them.
In the later 1800s and early 1900s, the company also built a series of great city hotels aimed at business travellers and resort hotels designed to encourage tourism.
These included Chateau Lake Louise, Jasper Park Lodge, The Banff Springs Hotel, and Glacier House in Glacier National Park. (Most are now Fairmont hotels.)
Banff Springs Hotel was so popular that it led to the creation of a national park around it, the first of Canada’s many parks since.
The drive from Calgary to Vancouver can be done in around 12 hours – obviously having two or more drivers is a good idea – but we would recommended that you take up to two weeks in order to enjoy it.
It’s roughly 600 miles, excluding detours into national parks, but those miles are filled with great beauty as well as some long, monotonous stretches.
Remembering to keep your petrol tank filled is vital as there are often long stretches between towns and service stations.
An alternative is the dramatic Rocky Mountaineer train (see Major Sights, below), designed for sightseeing with onboard guides, viewing decks and upmarket cuisine.
ViaRial also runs The Canadian, which travels the route year-round, unlike the seasonal Rocky Mountaineer. The Canadian is a good way to avoid the drive but it passes many scenic areas in the dark.
The Rocky Mountaineer overnights in Kamloops so that passengers can see everything during daylight.
Be awestruck by Canada’s Rocky Mountains on a journey through the clouds Find out more here.
This pretty resort town with its feel is popular with hikers and bikers in summer, skiers and snowboarders in winter, and those who enjoy spas all year round.
It is surrounded by mountains, including the 7,480-feet Sulphur Mountain which can be ascended by the Banff Gondola for a popular mountain boardwalk. The Rocky Mountaineer and other tour trains stop at its station.
The three ski resorts around Banff are among the best in Canada: Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village and Lake Louise (see below). Being a little over an hour from Calgary adds to their appeal.
Must-do: Enjoy a spa day at the Banff Hot Springs, natural pools discovered in 1883.
The turquoise waters of Lake Louise are the result of suspended rock flour created by the grinding of glaciers. It forms a colourful backdrop to the equally striking Chateau Lake Louise – the model of a grand European hotel but built by someone with a proper budget.
Its 550 luxury rooms and six restaurants cater to guests and visitors who can explore the rugged mountains around on foot, bike or by horse. A statue in the grounds commemorates the Swiss mountain guides who introduced skiing and Alpine climbing to the area. It still has some of the best skiing in North America.
Must-do: Walk around the lake to the Lake Agnes Teahouse, whose scones are baked on ingredients that have to be packed in.
Jasper is roughly 180 miles north of Banff, and the centre of Jasper National Park. The Canadian calls in, and its tiny station is also a stop for the Rocky Mountaineer.
The national park covers mountains, lakes and glaciers, and also includes The Icefields Parkway. This 140-mile route from Lake Louise to Jasper is a must-see on the transcontinental drive.
It includes the photogenic Peyto Lake, with its striking turquoise waters far below, and an almost mandatory expedition on massive Ice Explorer trucks to the Athabasca Glacier. Stepping out on the ice to taste ancient glacier water is a memorable experience.
Skiing in Jasper NP centres on the Marmot Basin, which has dozens of runs for all grades and more than 3,000 feet in drop.
Must-do: Walk the glass-floored Glacier Skywalk, suspended 918 ft over a cliff.
Glacier National Park
One of the most dramatic parks in Canada has tall peaks, steep valleys, thick forests and large glaciers. In summer, it is a hiker’s dream and in winter can be an avalanche nightmare for over-adventurous skiers.
However, its 5,000-foot runs of powder snow make it the experience of a lifetime. The tales of the ski pioneers who opened it up make for exciting reading.
The Trans-Canada Highway passes through the park and brings many visitors, most of who are content to enjoy the view from their cars. It is kept open in winter by a vigorous avalanche control programme.
Must-do: Walk the 20-minute Rockgarden Trail through ancient forest and rocks.
Wells Gray Provincial Park
With no through road, relatively few visitors spend time here, which helps make it the perfect area for adventurers wanting to canoe, camp or hike through the wilderness of the Caribou Mountains. More sedate is the drive to see the spectacular falls that the park is noted for.
Must-do: Bring your camera to capture Spahats Falls, Dawson Falls and Helmcken Falls.
An overnight halt on the Rocky Mountaineer and a rest stop for drivers, this town in the heart of The Rockies in British Columbia is famous for its brewhouses. It has 13 golf courses (the season is mid-March to late October) and several ski resorts nearby.
Must-do: Borrow a rod from the Kamloops Visitor Centre and try fly-fishing for free.
The cry of “All Aboard” is still evocative of a golden age of travel as the Rocky Mountaineer pulls off for the two-day journey across The Rockies. Chefs conjure up meals from the tiny gallery, while train staff point out places and things of interest along the track.
Steep climbs, sheer gorges, rushing rivers, picturesque bridges, endless forests, snowy peaks – the train rolls on past them all. It stops only to let near-endless freight trains pass by, carrying cargoes to and from the Pacific.
A night in Kamloops and the long, sweeping arrival from the mountains down into Vancouver and back to urban life. It’s a luxurious, leisurely trip that still somehow feels like an amazing adventure.
The train has three routes across The Rockies: the northern Vancouver-Whistler-Jasper, southern Vancouver-Kamloops-Jasper and the extended Vancouver-Kamloops-Lake Louise-Banff.
Naturally, the train runs both ways. There is also a coastal route from Seattle to Vancouver that connects with the routes through the mountains.
Must-do: Bring your camera, and an appetite.
This month-long festival in January starts the year in Banff/Lake Louise with a celebration of winter. Ice carving, ice climbing, and curling are among the competitive events, while everyone else gets on with enjoying themselves. Skiing, skating, snowshoeing, dog-sledging – pick your fun.
Banff Rocky Mountain Wine & Food Festival
Good food, fine wine and sumptuous scenery. What more could you need to enjoy these offerings from Banff & Lake Louise’s top restaurants and hotels? Held in mid-May, it’s a showcase for the talents of local chefs and sommeliers.
Banff Summer Arts Festival
The interesting Banff Centre runs this annual event from May to August, featuring everything from music and art to dance and drama. Much of it is created at the Centre itself, which is well worth a visit (and also runs a hotel).
Big Valley Jamboree
A four-day country music event in early August that is one of the largest music festivals in North America. Held in Camrose, it attracts around 100,000 fans and headline acts such as Tanya Tucker and “Nashville” star Sam Palladio.
Jasper Dark Sky Festival
Held in October, this event reinforces Jasper’s commitment to being one of the World’s largest Dark Sky Preserves. Most of us don’t realise how much light pollution we are exposed to until we come to place like this and see a night sky filled with countless bright stars.
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