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 neighborin…g 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. 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. Pure bliss.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
Carolina Novotny After more than a decade of chasing summer as a hiking and biking trip guide, Carolina finally began craving snow and settled back home: in the Canadian Rockies. Now she works as a travel writer and media specialist, based in Canmore, AB, and enjoys the eight months of winter the Rockies always delivers.
Jeff Bartlett is an adventure photographer and writer based in Jasper National Park. He loves active travel. His memorable trips include cycling across Argentina, ski touring in Norway, and hiking around New Zealand. Follow him on Instagram at @PhotoJBartlett.