The drive between Banff and Jasper may be one of the most epic I have seen (top contenders are road trips on the Pacific Highway in the U.S., drive through the Scottish Highlands, and the Connemara coast of Irelands). Breathtaking views at every turn – unspoiled and serene vistas of lakes, waterfalls, forests, and more flank the long, wide highway on both sides.
But like every beautiful place these days, Icefield Parkway can be a different experience when surrounded by hordes of tourist families, waiting endlessly in line for tickets or battling the crowds for a perfect photo. With that in mind, here are the top 5 stops on the drive that will make sure you skip the crowds but still experience the treasures along this scenic road trip.
1. Moraine Lake
Distance to Banff: 44 miles
Distance to Jasper: 153 miles
Now, I know this is hardly a secret; the reputation of the gorgeous blue waters framed by looming, soft grey mountains precedes it. The trick to making Moraine Lake a non-chaotic stop is about timing and location.
Firstly, you have to get there really early, I mean before 8am, if you want to get parking at Moraine Lake. If you get there early, you will likely not have to deal with too many crowds. If you don’t get there that early (like me) your other option is to take a shuttle over from Lake Louise which costs $30 a person and leaves every hour. Note that this is shuttle is small and you should plan to line up about 20-30 mins in advance to get a seat.
Once you are there, Moraine Lake itself unsurprisingly is pretty crowded. There is a vista point on top of a Rockpile which does allow for breathtaking views. But I would also recommend doing a hike to Resurrection Lake, a lovely, lush hike culminating in moody views of the lake amidst snow-capped mountains. Here you will find much fewer people and have some peace and quiet to yourself.
2. Herbert Lake
Distance to Banff: 39 miles
Distance to Jasper: 140 miles
Just north of Lake Louise lies the unassuming Herbert Lake reflecting the ice-capped mountains and tall, feathered trees surrounding it. Not as popular as some of the other stops on Icefield Parkway, this is a perfect place to enjoy the views with some peace and quiet avoiding the massive crowds. We saw people kayaking in the River and I read that in the summer it is warm enough to swim in. I don’t dive into unknown waters myself but for the more adventurous, it would be a great place to swim and a picnic in the summer! Just be sure to look out for the signs for this quiet respite a few miles after Lake Louise as it is easy to miss.
3. Bow Lake
Distance to Banff: 39 miles
Distance to Jasper: 140 miles
Next, stop at the turquoise-tinted Bow Lake around 96KM from Banff. Caution: this is a stop on one of the big tour buses so it might be crowded during certain times. Of course, the earlier you get there the better, and if you do get there and see a lot of people, you might have to wait it out to get the pristine views to yourself and take a few stunning photos.
The Num Ti Jah Lodge on the shores of the lake was built in 1923 first as a small shack by an eccentric pioneering Englishman who came to Canada in 1896 and quickly become a renowned explorer and guide for the Rocky Mountains. Today, it has some of the most breathtaking views of Bow Lake bookended by the towering Crowfoot Mountains. Filled with ice-cold glacier waters, you get a perfect view of the expansiveness from the shores of Num Ti Jah complete with a wooden walkway and a raised platform perfect for creating dreamy Instagram shots.
4. Mistaya Canyon
Distance to Banff: 81 miles
Distance to Jasper: 99 miles
Almost midway between Banff and Jasper is Mistaya Canyon, probably my favorite stop on the road trip (and believe me there are plenty to choose from)! A canyon carved out by the force of gushing water through a narrow passageway has led to a truly interesting pit stop. A few minutes of walking from the parking lot will lead you to a bridge that you cross to get to a rock plateau from where you can gaze upstream at the Mistaya River emerging through an opening between lofty trees and the mountains looming high behind them.
5. Horseshoe Lake
Distance to Banff: 162 miles
Distance to Jasper: 18 miles
The emerald, turquoise waters lie still between cliffs capped with autumnal shades of rust oranges, aging golds, and earthy browns. Apparently a popular place to cliff jumping (it’s apparently one of the deepest lakes in Jasper and I am a terrible swimmer so count me out), it was nevertheless deserted when we got there early in the morning on the drive back from Jasper to Banff. And what a place to stop; in all honesty, we totally chanced upon it and found it to be one of our favorite spots on the drive. There are lots of hikes snaking through the surrounding cliffs leading up to lovely views of Horseshoe Lake.
Because really, 5 stops are not enough!
6. Tangle Creek Falls
Distance to Banff: 119 miles
Distance to Jasper: 60 miles
A literal roadside stop on the drive, this multi-tiered waterfalls is a nice opportunity to stretch your legs and get a few quick shots before sitting and admiring the beauty of the water cascading down the cliffside.
7. Peyto Lake
Distance to Banff: approx. 60 miles
Distance to Jasper: approx. 115 miles
While most people head to Bow Summit and the short trail there to see pristine ice-blue Peyto Lake, I personally did not care to battle the intense crowds there. Instead, we drove a bit further down Icefields Parkway to get to a vista point peering down on the glacier-fed waters.
What is NOT on the list
Lake Louise is beautiful and the Fairmont Hotel on its shores does look like a castle but it is entirely overrun with tourists and families so I did not enjoy spending much time there. I would advise snapping a quick pic if you end up going there to get to Moraine Lake or just avoiding it completely because there are no dearth of gorgeous lakes on the rest of the drive.
the largest icefield in the Rocky Mountains, this is an epic sight to behold but I personally did not care to stand in line for hours and then take a bus to get close to the glacier. Perhaps it is a good way to entertain kids if you have them, but if not, I would just look at the glacier on the drive and stop by for some great photos versus spending half a day navigating the crowds.