With spectacularly craggy peaks, serene alpine lakes, grand park lodges, and blue-edged glacier fields, Jasper and Banff national parks are favorite destinations for a wide range of travelers. These mountains lure all types: those seeking natural beauty, those looking for accessible adventure, and those in search of epic active vacations. Whether your Canadian Rockies dream trip means an awesome spring ski break or a late summer evening paddle out to the middle of Moraine Lake, these national park wonderlands can provide unforgettable experiences. Each season means a wildly different vacation, however, so you need to decide what you most want from your time in Alberta.
Banff and Jasper, two of the brightest stars in Parks Canada’s firmament, are often visited on the same trip. Banff is half the size of Jasper but draws twice as many annual visitors. Most people fly into Calgary airport, rent a car, and enter the parks on glorious drives over passes and through the mountains. (From Calgary, Banff is a little more than two hours by car and Jasper is another two hours up the road.)
While most vacationers pass through the parks’ towns, Banff and Jasper, where services, restaurants, and most of the hotels are located, many continue on to experience the wilderness and some of the greatest outdoors in Canada.
To help you find the time of year for the Canadian Rockies adventure that best suits your interests, we’ve put together a seasonal guide that outlines what to expect when.
Best for: Endless opportunities for outdoor adventure
What to expect: Iconic emerald green lakes, glacier-capped peaks, and verdant slopes with Technicolor patches of wildflowers. The (semi-avoidable) downside? Crowds.
Summertime is by far the most popular time to visit thanks to the quintessential scenery when the livin’ is easy. Summer crowds have become a concern, though, with some rangers and conservationists even calling for a cap on national park visitors. While things can get a little tight in town, the amount of open landscape (a combined 6,764 square miles between the two parks) means it’s not too hard to get away from the crowds. If you choose trails that are a little more challenging or less well-known, you’ll have them to yourself.
You can arrive in June if avoiding other travelers is important to you. The lakes have thawed and the crowds aren’t quite as thick as during the peak months of July and August. Alas, however, many popular trails will still be snowbound. July and August trips mean full access to high-altitude mountain passes. And hiking the backcountry after the snowfields have been replaced by a carpet of wildflowers will be an experience you’ll always remember.
Insider tip: If you want to find peace at Banff's ever-popular Lake Louise or Moraine Lake, arrive either at sunrise or after 5 p.m. Summer evenings stretch out deliciously at these northern latitudes—until 10 p.m. around the solstice—which means plenty of time to enjoy the sights after the crowds thin at 5 or 6 p.m.
Best for: Blissful solitude
What to expect: Crowd-free hikes, first snowfall, and festival season
A September visit to the Canadian Rockies has much to recommend. Thanks to families returning home for the start of the school year, fall visitor numbers are a fraction of those during peak summer months. If you come, you get to witness the first few pretty snowfalls of the season, but since the snow rarely sticks, you’ll still be able to hike. Autumn means you don’t have to deal with the limited access to trails and passes typical of spring visits. As long as you have good rain gear and warm layers to pile on if the temperature drops, hiking during the first snowfall can be more pleasant and beautiful than getting caught in a summer shower. The autumn colors, fleeting at these northern latitudes, are still spectacular. To see the golden yellow of larch trees, the only deciduous conifer of the Rockies, head to Skyline Trail in Jasper and Larch Valley and Arnica Lake in Banff.
October is a different experience altogether. Shoulder season (or mud season) has definitely taken hold: Trails become a bit too sloppy or snowbound to hike but there isn’t enough snow for winter sports. Making up for that, though, October means it’s time for Jasper’s Dark Sky Festival (October 18-27, 2019)—a celebration of all things celestial as well as the park’s status as a Dark Sky Preserve.
Another reason to head north in between sun and full-on snow? Banff Centre Mountain Film and Book Festival (October 26–November 3, 2019) includes screenings, readings, competitions, and parties that provide park visitors with easy access to local culture.
Insider tip: Festival tickets are popular among locals and often sell out, so buy them in advance of your arrival.
Best for: The full-on winter wonderland experience
What to expect: Glittering landscapes and a variety of different experiences
Ski season in the Colorado Rockies stretches from mid-November well into May. And even better than the promise of powder: You’ll feel like you’ve glided into some secret ski destination. The slopes at the four ski areas—Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village Ski Resort, Lake Louise Ski Resort, and Marmot Basin—are never crowded in winter and lift tickets are reasonably priced, compared to those at U.S. mountains. Sunshine Village, Norquay, and Lake Louise all participate in the Mountain Collective and the Ikon Pass multi-resort programs, so if you bought one of those passes, you’re already set.
A ski vacation can be the sole reason for a winter visit for some visitors, but there is plenty to do beyond the slopes. Snowshoeing, dog sledding, and ice-skating are all available to those keen to explore winter without strapping on a snowboard or skis. You can also take scenic tours to frozen waterfalls (like Tangle Creek Falls, viewable from a spot on the Icefields Parkway) and to wildlife-viewing hot spots. (If you’re driving the Lake Minnewanka Loop or the Bow Valley Parkway, you may get lucky and see mule deer and elk. Winter hikers can often find moose at Moose Lake Loop and bighorn sheep around Johnson Lake.)
Finding solitude and quiet in the majestic mountain spaces of the Rockies in winter is easier than at any other time of year. And at night, chances are strong you’ll witness the northern lights.
Insider tip: Coming well-prepared for the weather may make the difference between having a great experience and one spent feeling uncomfortably cold. Bring lots of layers, plus winter socks and boots, and invest in hand and feet warmers if you aren’t accustomed to cold temperatures.
Best for: Late-season ski trips
What to expect: Springtime in these Rockies is arguably the best time to hit the slopes—you’ll enjoy great snow conditions without weathering arctic temperatures.
The four ski areas in Banff and Jasper national parks are open for almost seven months every year, but all close in May. Schedule your trip for any weekend in May, and you can be certain to catch an end-of-season bash at one of the resorts. These closing celebrations bring out wacky and weird impulses in skiers, so pack a onesie or silly costume to fit in or, rather, to stand out. While the daytime activities are family friendly, the evening events, held at base lodges, are perfect for skiers who travel to party.
Of course, spring ski conditions are variable: You could get lucky and enjoy a big powder dump or find yourself schussing through slush. If skiing isn’t your thing (or isn’t your only thing), this is still a great time to get outdoors and enjoy the crisp mountain air by snowshoeing, hiking with cleats, or taking in the glittering white vistas in more moderate temperatures than during winter.
Insider tip: Most of the region’s ski areas sell spring season ski passes that allow unlimited skiing. If you plan to ski three days or more, these short-season passes can cut your vacation costs significantly.
The wide variety of seasonal outdoor activity and cultural programming available in Banff and Jasper can make the decision of when to book a trip more difficult. The answer, however, is clear: Visit this beautiful region a few times and experience it all.
>>Next: Plan Your Visit With AFAR’s Jasper and Banff National Parks Travel Guide