There are a number of different options when driving between the British Columbia coast and the Canadian Rockies (or the reverse). Which one you take will depend on how much time you have and what you like to do. There are three routes that head directly for the Rockies, and then a number of deviations from the main routes are possible, allowing you to customize the route to your personal schedule and interests. Keep in mind that if you add in the suggested sightseeing stops, you are adding overnight stops to the journey. Do not expect to travel from Vancouver to Banff in one day and actually have time to do more than wolf down some fast food and fill the tank with gas. The primary choices to get to the Rockies from Vancouver, from shortest to longest, are:
Any of these routes can be adjusted to include the Whistler-Pemberton-Lillooet (Hwy 99) gateway to the interior which connects to Highway 97 at Hat Creek north of Cache Creek.
Option A - Hope (Hwy 1), Kamloops (Hwy 5), Revelstoke (Hwy 1), Banff, Calgary
This is the main highway route for traffic going to Calgary, part of the Trans-Canada Highway. To drive directly to Banff with a minimum of stops is about 10 hours, so if you have a very limited amount of time and just want a quick trip to the Rockies, this is your best choice, although it can be fairly argued that if that is all you are planning to do, you are better off just flying to Calgary and driving from there. It is also quite scenic as you travel through several mountain ranges and national parks to get to your destination.
If you are going to do some sightseeing en-route, then you can extend your journey by:
- taking Hwy 1 up the Fraser Canyon through Boston Bar to Cache Creek, then on to Kamloops from there
- taking 97C at Merritt and heading into the Central Okanagan Valley at Kelowna and heading north to Highway 1 through Vernon and some terrific BC wine and lake country.
Sightseeing options along the way include The Othello Tunnels (open seasonally), Alexandria Bridge Provincial Park, Hell's Gate Tramway, Kamloops Wild Animal Park, Shuswap Lake, the location of the last spike on the CP Rail Line at Craigellachie, Mount Revelstoke National Park (Meadows in the Sky Parkway, Skunk Cabbage boardwalk, Giant Cedars interpretive walk), Revelstoke Railway Museum and the Mountain Coaster, Glacier National Park, and Yoho National Park (Emerald Lake, Natural Bridge, Takakkaw Falls).
Option B - Hope, Cache Creek, Kamloops (Highway 1), Barriere, Clearwater, Tete Jaune Cache (Route 16/Hwy 5)
This route follows the same as Option 1 for the southern portion, but then heads north to Jasper along the Yellowhead Highway.
Route extensions include:
- continuing north on 97 from Cache Creek through Clinton and the high Cariboo Plateau to Lone Bute, then east on 24 to join the Yellowhead (Hwy 5) at Little Fort. The Cariboo is cowboy country and there are several working guest ranches (also called dude ranches) in this area that welcome visitors for a ranch experience.There are also many beautiful and peaceful lakes for fishing and boating.
A popular sightseeing stop along this route is Wells Grey Provincial Park and Helmcken Falls, with an overnight at Clearwater. Once in Jasper, you head down the world-famous Icefields Parkway to Banff.
Option C - Hope (Hwy 1), Princeton, Osoyoos, Castlegar, Cranbrook (Hwy 3), Invermere, Radium (Hwy 93), Banff
The vistas on this route are prettier heading east to west so this mght be a preferred return to the coast route.The highway through Kootenay National Park begins between Banff and Lake Louise. A free ferry crosses Kootenay Lake if Nelson is a desired stop. Midway is Osoyoos with a warm water lake, hot dry summers and many wineries near by. A great stop.
Route extensions include: "the opportunity to visit the Okanagan and the Kootenays, including Arrow Lakes. At Osoyoos take Hwy 33 north to Kelowna then Hwy 97 on to Vernon; you could easliy spend a few days in this area. From Vernon head east on Hwy 6 to Needles where you'll take a free ferry across one of the lakes. Continue on Hwy 6 up to Nakusp and on down towards Nelson. Once in Nelson take Hwy 3A down to Creston (or the ferry from Balfour to Crawford Bay) and on to Banff as above.
- If you want to skip Banff and simply go on to Calgary, then stick to Hwy 3 and head to Fernie (delightful town with lots of good hiking and skiing) and continue east through the Crows Nest Pass to Pincher Creek, Alberta. Take time to stop at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump UNESCO World Heritage Site near Fort McLeod. From there you can head north into Calgary. This route can be driven in two easy days but 4 or 5 days will give you a real sample of all the variety BC has to offer.
How to choose?
This region has a lot to offer, and most vacationers simply do not have time to see everything, meaning some difficult choices are ahead. You need to do some reading and research, set some clear and firm priorities about what you are going to see, and then build your route around your available time and your top priority destinations. Some top planning mistakes are:
- trying to do this as a loop from Vancouver without enough time. Switching to a start or finish from Calgary often makes more sense.
- trying to plan this trip much much too late. For the Canadian Rockies, you want to be booking your accommodation between September and the end of the year, with all bookings confirmed no later than the end of February to ensure maximum flexibility with dates and best options for value accommodations. People who try to put this trip together in April or May for the same calendar year find they can't get the dates, locations and prices they need to have a good trip.
- assuming that camping is somehow going to improve flexibility or cost. It does neither. Camp because you want to camp, but know that you have to book your campgrounds just as early as you have to book your hotels.
Why drive the Icefields Parkway twice?
People are generally pretty torn about how to organize their route, and the idea of driving the same piece of road twice is something that often puts people off. It is worth seriously considering that you drive the route to Jasper and back along the Icefields Parkway in both directions. Here's the reasons for it:
- It is one of the most scenic, spectacular drives anywhere in the world. Like a really good movie, you need to see it twice.
- There are lots of stops on the Parkway and its quite a long way. You most likely will run out of time and energy before you get through all the features and attractions on the Parkway. You'll need a second day on the Parkway to finish it off.
- The views are different southbound. If you don't drive it in both directions, you've only seen half of it!
- What if you plan this magnificent, expensive holiday and you allow one day - only a single day - on what is arguably the highlight of the entire trip... and it's raining. Low clouds, rain... you see nothing. Those magnificent mountain peaks are hidden. You have to come back another time and try again! Or you can put some insurance in your plan and make sure to allow a second day on the Parkway after 2-3 days in Jasper.
Its worth planning your route to come at the Rockies via Banff, head up to Jasper and back down again, and then continue with your itinerary from there.
The usual recommendation for a reasonably paced trip is something like:
- 2-4 days Vancouver
- 2-5 days crossing BC in each direction
- 5-7 days in the Canadian Rockies split between Banff and Jasper
If you want to tack on time on Vancouver Island, then you should allow 5-10 days. Anything less than that and you should just pop over to Victoria for a couple of nights, no more.
Jasper fills first, so it is recommended you book your Jasper accommodations, then get your Banff accommodations on dates on either side of Jasper. There are no reasonable alternatives to staying in Jasper. Hinton is the act of a desperate person and not recommended. Banff, Lake Louise and Canmore are fairly interchangeable as a base for Banff, and it's worth considering the tiny village of Field as well. It's possible to get to an afternoon flight out of Calgary if you leave Banff that morning.