Jasper and Banff National Parks

Banff and Jasper, two of the national parks under the Parks Canada banner, account for 6,672 spectacular square miles of Alberta Province. Or, since this is Canada we’re talking about, it’s best to size the area up at an even more impressive sounding 17,519 square kilometers. What the two neighboring parks share in common: the Canadian Rockies; the Icefields Parkway, easily one of the world’s most beautiful drives; and the fact that each park also has a town that shares its name inside its boundaries. Banff National Park and Jasper National Park are also within the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks UNESCO World Heritage site, along with Yoho National Park, Kootenay National Park, and three adjacent provincial parks.


Photo by Floris Siegers/Unsplash


Know Before You Go

Banff, at 6,641 square kilometers, may be the smaller of the two parks but its namesake town, Banff, is the biggest town in the region. It gets twice the tourism traffic that Jasper does and has more services and stores, including both Tim Horton’s and Starbucks, to please the crowds. (If quiet is your thing, consider using the town of Jasper as homebase instead.) As for the parks themselves, the larger Jasper is the place to go for wildlife-viewing and for the greater likelihood of having the backcountry trails, alpine lakes, and mind-blowing vistas to yourself. While you’ll certainly see animals in Banff, too, some of the local wildlife seems to have decamped for quieter country as the park has grown in popularity. If you’re not a DIY adventure type, Jasper and Banff both have plenty of established trails and guided adventures that will take you far, far out of cell phone range.

When’s the best time to go to Jasper and Banff National Parks?

With world-class skiing in the winter and early spring (locals say March is the sweet spot for powder) and some of North America’s best hiking and paddling during late spring, summer, and fall, there’s actually no bad time to head to Banff and Jasper National Parks. If you want to mix nature and culture—and meet several thousand soon-to-be friends—popular annual festivals include SnowDays Festival in Banff and Lake Louise, the Canadian Rocky Mountain Festival, Banff Mountain Film & Book Festival, and the Banff Craft Beer Festival.

Can’t miss things to do in Jasper and Banff National Parks

While there are loads of factors to consider when it comes to your own can’t-miss spots (time of year, weather, your favorite types of activities, your level of outdoorsiness), there are spots that just about guarantee ooh and aahs out of everybody:

  • Wildlife, history, and the two parks come together along the 143-mile (230 km) Icefields Parkway. If you just have three or four days in the area, a stop-and-see drive along the parkway could serve quite nicely.
  • But if you’re after an 80/20 ratio of lazing to hiking, head to Jasper’s Lake Annette for beach days and easy hikes with a view of the Rockies.
  • For photo ops of a powerful waterfall, Athabasca Falls is your go-to spot (and it’s just 23 scenic miles from the town of Jasper).
  • Descend back into time at Maligne Canyon.
  • Unless you have a fear of heights thing, look down through the clear walkway of the Glacier Skywalk.
  • In Banff, paddle the glacier-cooled water of Lake Louise.
  • And it’s worth sacrificing some time in the sun for an immersion course in local history and culture at Banff’s Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.

How to get around Jasper and Banff National Parks

The closest international airport to Banff is Calgary International Airport, 80 miles (128 km) away; if you’re headed to Jasper, Edmonton International Airport is closer at 192 miles (370 km) away. Several private companies will transport you from airport to park if you’re heading out on a guided tour and won’t need a car. Otherwise, the most convenient way to explore the parks is by car. While there is public transportation in the towns and shuttles between the parks, you’ll want the flexibility to stop and hike or take a photo. Yes, you can ride a bike through the region, but only do so if you’re a strong rider and you have spent the necessary time to prepare, train, and gear-up for the trip.

Practical Information

Albertans speak English—though with truly distinctive Canadian style. (But if you look up the province’s official languages, you’ll see that French is one, as it is throughout Canada. Chances are slim that you’ll hear French spoken by the locals, though.)

Canada uses the same voltage and plug types as the United States. The currency is the Canadian dollar and most businesses accept credit cards.

Read Before You Go
Banff National Park is full of rugged mountain peaks, emerald lakes, and vast glaciers. Here’s what you need to know to make the most of your time there.
Resources to help plan your trip
Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada is a place where elk still wander through town and bears are often spotted along the highway—and the locals prefer it that way. This is a place where residents prefer cabins to condos, and believe 5-star ratings pale in comparison to the 5 million stars in the night sky. Glacier walks and mountain hikes, scenic cruises and epic road trips, Jasper is the largest park in the Canadian Rockies and it’s got the diversity of wildlife, wild views, and adventures to prove it.
With enough backcountry hiking and long trails to keep you busy for years on end, whittling a summer trip to Banff and Jasper National Parks down to a week takes some discipline. But even if you have to cut out the challenging 27-mile Skyline Trail, you’ll have enough time to float rivers, hike a wide selection of shorter trails, strap on crampons and wander out onto the Columbia Icefield, and dip your feet into the chilly waters of Lake Louise. And drive around Lake Minnewanka, raft part of the Athabasca River, and bag your first peak in the Canadian Rockies. Along the way, you’ll eat fondue, drink beers at Jasper Brewing, and melt into a giant cinnamon bun (or two). And the accomodations? Pure luxury. Seriously.
Just because you’re in a national park, doesn’t mean you have to eat freeze-dried meals. No how. No way. Both Banff and Jasper National Parks have restaurants that range from high-end to full-on quirky. Whether you go for a traditional meal of Alberta beef or a vegetarian meal (something slightly newer to the area) at Nourish Bistro, you’ll head off to sleep satisfied and ready to take on another day of fun.
Millions of wild bison called Canada’s first national park home for 10,000 years before hunting decimated the population. Several dozen were just released back into Banff as part of a five-year bison restoration project.
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.