Highway heads straight towards majestic snowy mountains, surrounded by thick forests

Driving CALGARY to JASPER: My Favorite Solo Road Trip

If you’re planning a road trip from Calgary to Jasper, I have 15 FANTASTIC things for you to do along the way! As much as I love driving the Icefields Parkway with others, I REALLY love driving it solo. And I think you will, too.

When I headed out from Calgary to meet up with my long-time besties near Jasper (Miette Hot Springs, to be precise), I packed my favorite music and snacks and that was about it. No research on stops to make. Just some good ol’ spontaneity. And while it was awesome and I stopped a lot, there are a few extra things I would’ve loved adding to my trip that I just didn’t know about then. 

Icefields Parkway (Highway 93) from Lake Louise to Jasper is an absolutely GORGEOUS drive. Around literally every corner is a new breathtaking scene. So, give yourself plenty of time to stop to your heart’s content. It takes about 5 hours to drive from Calgary to Jasper without any stops.

Here are the stops I made, plus some extras YOU might want to make.

Icefields Parkway heads straight toward a majestic, snowy mountain

Limited time? Save me for later.

CONTENTS:

7 TIPS: How to prepare for your road trip from Calgary to Jasper

  1. Winter tires are required for winter driving. Between November 1 and March 31, winter tires are legally required on Icefields Parkway (Highway 93). And you’ll want them; in poor or wintery conditions, this road can be treacherous. So, if you’re planning your drive during this time, check road conditions at 511 Alberta.
  2. You’ll need a pass to stop. The only way you don’t need a pass to drive through a national park is if you literally don’t make even one stop along the way. For one to a zillion stops, you’ll need a pass of some sort. Find the one that makes sense for you at the Parks Canada website.
  3. Fuel up before you go. It’s more expensive along the way and there are long stretches between services. If you’re concerned your car won’t make the full 415 kilometers (258 miles), Canmore is a solid option before prices jump up (although it’s usually quite busy).
  4. Pack snacks and picnics. As with fuel, there are long stretches without places to eat or grab a snack. It’s a great idea to pack some snacks and a picnic, because then you can also enjoy them in one of the beautiful spots you stop at. (Just please remember to pack out what you bring in.)
  5. If you want to do some solo hiking, be sure you plan for this. Tell someone which hikes you’re doing and approximately when, and have a check-in/check-out plan in place. There are plenty of places to get lost or to find yourself on the wrong side of the trail from a mama bear; make sure you have backup.
  6. Take a deep breath and expect a sloooow drive. This beautiful drive from Calgary to Jasper is very popular, especially in summer. Your speed limit is 90km/hr (55mph) with a number of slower areas; and with many steep inclines/declines through the mountains, it’s very likely you’ll find yourself behind a slow-moving vehicle. A few times.
  7. Mark GPS coordinates for the trip back. Guaranteed, you’ll pass by waterfalls, creeks and pull-outs you’ll want to explore more on your way back. Pin these on your map and ideally take a picture or make a note of why you want to stop there. This will help you decide between all of them!

Alright, let’s get on the road. Here are my favorite things to do on your solo drive from Calgary to Jasper. And … GO!

Real Canada

Intrepid Travel’s Small Group Tour: Real Canada

Ready to take a hike? You’ve come to the right place. Canada is home to some of the finest trails in North America. This tour will have you tackling paths that coil around mountains and snake through inland rainforests, plus enjoying views of massive glaciers and snow-covered peaks in the Canadian Rockies. Combine active adventures with spotting wildlife, munching maple-flavoured everything (cookies, donuts, bacon … you name it) and stargazing with your new friends. This 12-day adventure is the perfect introduction to Canada’s beautiful west coast.


15 awesome things to do on your drive from Calgary to Jasper

1. Take Bow Valley Parkway out of Calgary

Take the road less traveled … it’s the best one! 

Although the Trans-Canada (Highway 1) is zippy, the drive is MUCH more pleasant along Bow Valley Trail (Highway 1A). Take Crowchild Trail west out of Calgary and follow it all the way until it merges with the Trans-Canada Highway by Canmore. It’s a quieter two-laned highway that runs parallel to the Trans-Canada. You’ll be treated with some pretty views of the Bow River and Ghost Lake, and it takes you right through Cochrane (#2). 

If the 80km/hr (50mph) speed limit will drive you crazy, you can turn off at Morley Road to get onto the Trans-Canada. After Morley Road, Bow Valley Parkway gets prettier but slower.

2. Stop in Cochrane for ice cream

Cochrane is KNOWN for its epic ice cream spot: MacKay’s Ice Cream (220 1 St W, Cochrane). It’s right on main street, which is also cute for walking and browsing if you want to stretch your legs already. The only place to sit is outside on the benches, so walking and browsing is actually a great idea.

MacKay’s Ice Cream is locally made, has been perfecting its deliciousness since 1948, and offers more than 40 flavors, plus sorbet. My favorite is still White Chocolate Raspberry Truffle, but I’d also confidently recommend Rocky Mountain Coffee and Coconut Delight. YUM. 

3. Stretch your legs at the Banff Springs Hotel

Romantic towers of the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel reach above its forested surroundings

Photo credit: Ezra Jeffrey Comeau from Unsplash.

It’ll take you just over an hour to reach Banff from Cochrane. If you’re ready to stretch your legs, my favorite place to do this is at the luxurious Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel

Banff Springs Hotel was built in 1888 and is styled after a Scottish Baronial castle. Surrounded by thick woods and greeted by friendly doorsmen, you’ll be whisked away into a whole other world of elegance and romance. (Yes, I think it’s perfectly okay to romance yourself a little!) Stroll around the beautiful hotel and gardens, check out its 14 shops and enjoy lunch or a treat at one of its 11 restaurants before heading back out.

4. Get back onto Bow Valley Parkway

About five minutes out of Banff you can escape the main highway by getting back onto Bow Valley Parkway (Highway 1A). It’ll add about 20 minutes to the drive if you take it all the way to Lake Louise; but, you have the option of getting back onto the Trans-Canada Highway at Castle Junction, which is about half way.

If you want to do some hikes in this area, Highway 1A takes you right past a lot of highly-rated trailheads.

5. Hike the lovely shaded Johnston Canyon

Falls cascade down Johnston Canyon.

Photo credit: Jessica Snoek from Unsplash.

If you haven’t been to Johnston Canyon, you really should stop here. It does get very busy, but rightly so; it’s a short, easy and beautiful hike and mostly accessible. It’s about half an hour from Banff along Highway 1A, just before you get to Castle Junction.

The shaded wooded trail through the canyon puts you right alongside the pretty creek. At the end of the canyon, you’re rewarded with a refreshing waterfall. And you’re very likely to spot at least a few squirrels and chipmunks along the way.

If you want to go farther, hikers say it’s worth it to hike up to the upper falls and all the way to the ink pots. Round trip, you should give yourself about 3 hours. I’ve only been to the lower falls, which you can easily enjoy in a short 1 hour stop.

6. Pause at Castle Camp Memorial 

This is a short but impactful stop: Castle Mountain Internship Camp memorial. This small memorial is 4.4 kilometers (2.7 miles) west of Castle Junction, and 500 meters (.3 miles) before you reach the turnoff to Castle Mountain Lookout Trailhead. I’m ashamed that I didn’t know about this place before I stumbled on it during my drive from Calgary to Jasper. 

Leading up to the First World War, Canadians were becoming afraid that immigrants from countries like Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria couldn’t be trusted. So, the Canadian government introduced the War Measures Act. This Act required “enemy aliens” (immigrants from countries mentioned above) to check in monthly at registration centers across Canada. If they failed to check in or were considered a security risk, they were imprisoned. In total, 8579 men were imprisoned.

These prisoners were transported to internment camps, like the one by Castle Mountain. They were then forced into building roads and bridges in the national park, including some of the road that takes you past the memorial. 

A quote from the Calgary Daily Herald, 1915, entitled “Intern them all: …There is only one safe way to handle this question, and that is, as the Herald pointed out the other day, to intern all German and Austria alien enemies, without regard for their present harmlessness.” Wow. Not the Canada I’ve been so proud to call my home.

A tribute worth stopping to see for yourself.

7. Take the shuttle to Lake Louise

Lake Louise has SO much to do and it’s also incredibly beautiful. I highly recommend planning a stop here. 

That said, parking in Lake Louise and at the lake itself is very limited, with parking lots filling up by sunrise in the summer. So book your spot on the shuttle at pc.gc.ca (walk-up seat sales are no longer offered) and park at the Park and Ride just south of town.

Here are three amazingly cool things to do in Lake Louise by yourself:

  • Glamorous tea and a stroll. Have tea at the gorgeous Chateau Lake Louise overlooking the perfectly turquoise glacier-fed Lake Louise. Then take a leisurely stroll around the lake. This fully accessible walk is 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) one-way, takes about 1 hour, and takes you past its milky feeder creek.
  • Hike to tea houses. Another interesting hike that starts at Chateau Lake Louise takes you past two super-cute tea houses with amazing views. The first section is a moderate 3.4 kilometers  (2.1 miles) to the Lake Agnes Tea House; the second section is another more strenuous 4 kilometers  (2.5 miles) to the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House. Cash only and about 4-5 hours round trip, plus tea.
  • Gondola ride. Ride the Lake Louise Gondola up for breathtaking elevated mountain views, wildlife sightings and delicious food options. 

8. Hike past Bow Lake to Bow Glacier Falls

Half an hour north of Lake Louise is the pretty Bow Lake. Here you’ll find the headwaters of the beautiful Bow River that flows on towards Calgary. And tucked in behind Bow Lake are waterfalls that tumble from the Wapta Icefield above. 

Start the Bow Glacier Falls Trail at the Num Ti Jah Lodge at the north tip of Bow Lake. The first part right along Bow Lake is easy and suitable for all ages, but to get to the base of the waterfall you’ll need to climb a fairly steep section. Altogether, the walk is 6.5 kilometers  (4 miles) return and 60-meter (200-foot) elevation. It’ll take you about 2.5 hours plus time at the waterfall.

If you’re interested in spending the night along your drive from Calgary to Jasper, many who hike the Bow Glacier Falls Trail recommend staying right at the Num Ti Jah Lodge

9. View Peyto and Bow Lakes from Bow Summit Lookout

Perfectly turquoise waters of Lake Peyto, surrounded by thick forests, towering mountain peaks and blue sky above

Perfect Peyto Lake. Photo credit: Gary Corken from Unsplash.

Only five minutes up the road from Bow Lake is Peyto Lake. Peyto Lake is possibly the most popular and most photographed glacier-fed lake in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Its bright turquoise color comes from glacial rock flour that flows into the lake during the summer.

At the south end of Peyto Lake is where you’ll turn off to start the hike to Bow Summit Lookout. Bow Summit Lookout is the highest point on the Icefields Parkway drive. Hiking to the lookout where you can see both Bow and Peyto Lakes is easy and popular, and will only take you about half an hour round trip. If you continue on to the alpine meadows, expect to spend another 2 hours. It’s 6 kilometers (3.5 miles) and 245-meter (805-foot) elevation.

10. Get your “WOW” moment at Big Hill and Big Bend

About an hour north of Peyto Lake is an awesome section of Icefields Parkway that’ll inspire that jaw-drop: Big Hill and Big Bend. At the bottom of the valley is a hairpin turn, and then you head vertical … 

The only pull outs are heading northbound, so make sure to stop on your way up to Jasper from Calgary to get those epic photos. On your way back to Calgary, you’ll get the awesome view driving down the mountain. This is also a great time to stop at the bottom of the valley (at the hairpin turn) to explore the area; just make sure you pull right off the road, as there aren’t any pull outs here.

Canadian Rockies

Intrepid Travel’s Small Group Tour: Canadian Rockies

Explore Canada’s Rocky Mountains on a 15-day Lonely Planet Experience tour, powered by Intrepid. Walk the streets of Vancouver, hike the trails of Jasper and Banff, meander along the river in Yoho National Park and soak up the superb alpine scenery. Spot native moose and bears and unleash your inner daredevil with a range of potential escapades … mountain biking or river rafting, anyone? With a mixture of included activities and optional extras, you get to decide just how active or relaxed you want this adventure to be. Jump in feet first and immerse yourself in the beauty of Canada in this outdoor experience.


11. Breathe in crisp cool air at Columbia Icefield

About an hour north of Peyto Lake is the famous Columbia Icefield. These “fields of ice” are the largest south of the Arctic Circle. So even if you just stop and gaze at them from the parking lot, it’s worth a pause.

For a closeup experience, you’ll have to pay a pretty penny for a guided tour. You’ll take a bus from the visitor center, and then a special bus suited for the glacier. Expect temperatures to drop significantly the moment you’re on the glacier.

12. Test your guts at Glacier Skywalk

Only five minutes north of Columbia Icefield is the epic Glacier Skywalk. This glass-floored observation deck puts you 280 metres (918 feet) over the Sunwapta Valley. Expect to pay about $30 through banffjaspercollection.com.

If you’d rather not pay for this experience, you can still take in a sweeping view of Sunwapta Valley at the pull-out just past the Sky Walk. 

13. Screech to a halt at Tangle Creek Falls

This is a warning! Although you’ll find breathtaking views around pretty much every corner on the Icefields Parkway, THIS is my FAVORITE one.

Just before you get to the Sunwapta Valley pull-out, on the right-hand side you’ll pass by the STUNNING Tangle Creek Falls. It’s literally on the side of the road and the only car park is on the opposite side. So watch for parked vehicles and take care as you stop yourself. (On your way back south, watch out for people running across the road!)

14. Feel the force of Sunwapta Falls 

Just half an hour north of Tangle Creek Falls and one minute off Icefields Parkway is another impressive stop: Sunwapta Falls. It’s classified as a Class 6 waterfall based on its high volume of water and it’s fed by the Athabasca Glacier.

Sunwapta Falls is a narrow 9 meters (30 feet) wide and falls 18 meters (60 feet) over two drops: first, about 8 meters through a crack in the rockbed, and then it constricts further and is shot out another 10 meters to the canyon below. It’s most impressive in late spring when you get a lot of snowpack runoff. That’s when I happened to be driving from Calgary to Jasper, and it was incredible … 

Even videos don’t capture how stunning it is, as you stand on the wooden bridge with the falls plummeting right beneath your feet.

Continue a short 1.3 kilometers (.8 miles) through a pretty woodsy trail to the lower falls, which is a set of three smaller waterfalls.

15. Marvel at the elegance of Athabasca Falls

Powerful Athabasca Waterfalls thunder past rock and treesAthabasca Falls is a must-see. Although Athabasca Falls is only 23 meters (75 feet) high and not nearly as tall as many impressive waterfalls in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, the size of the Athabasca River makes it one of the most powerful. Take in the potholes, short canyon and other carvings it’s created in the limestone beneath the falls.

Athabasca Falls is 20 minutes north of Sunwapta Falls and 30 minutes south of Jasper.

Where to stay in Jasper

If you’re still flying solo once you reach Jasper, your best accommodation options are hostels. 

Here are my two favorite hostels in/near Jasper:

  • HI Athabasca Falls (32 kilometers south of Jasper on the Icefields Parkway, just south of Athabasca Falls; $40CDN): A more rustic hostel option without showers and flushing toilets, but it has electricity and is rated very high. Its common area and firepit are very cozy for meeting other travelers.
  • HI Jasper (708 Sleepy Hollow Rd, Jasper; $65CDN): A more modern, comfortable hostel perfect for a solo traveler who still wants electricity, hot water, regular toilets and showers! Fantastic reviews and right in Jasper.

If you’d rather have your own hotel room, Maligne Lodge (912 Connaught Dr, Jasper; $100+CDN) offers decent value. It includes an indoor pool, outdoor hot tub, sauna, wifi and on-site restaurant. Here are other options on Booking.com.

Summary and Resources

Snow-covered lake under the towering mountain summits and beautiful blue skyIf you’re looking for a great solo road trip from Calgary, I highly recommend heading up to Jasper. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking, but there’s also a ton to do, too. Whether you love donning those hiking boots, something more upscale, or simply finding the perfect spot to read a book, you can find your nook and cranny on this drive.

Here are helpful resource when planning your road trip from Calgary to Jasper:

  • IcefieldsParkway.com is a great resource for planning your perfect stops.
  • Parks Canada website: 
    • National Parks overview on how to get your visitor pass and various safety and need-to-know tourist information.
    • Banff National Parks section has a ton of helpful information on activities, points of interest and trail conditions in the Banff area and up along Icefields Parkway.
    • Jasper National Parks section gives you helpful information on activities, points of interest and trail conditions on the north section of Icefields Parkway and into Jasper.
  • Intrepid Travel is a fantastic small group tour company, with awesome trips through the Canadian Rocky Mountains 
  • TripAdvisor.com is my go-to for checking traveler reviews of activities and accommodations.
  • Booking.com is usually what I use to book my accommodations (after comparing prices on Google).

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Featured photo credit: Icefields Parkway by Ryan Stone from Unsplash.

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