Canada is a big country bordered by three oceans and made up of diverse geographies, climates and cultures. This can make it very hard to decide on where to go and what to see when planning a holiday. We had one week to use for a mother and daughter vacation and we managed to come up with an epic road trip that took us through towering mountains, wild river valleys and rolling wine country.
We started our road trip in Canmore Alberta. Canmore is a little over an hour west of Calgary and is a gateway town to the majestic Canadian Rocky Mountains.
The mountain views from just about anywhere in town are spectacular and the stars of the show are three mountain peaks called the Three Sisters. This lovely town is intersected by the beautiful Bow River, a glacial turquoise river that winds through town from the Wapta Ice field north of Lake Louise, through Banff and Canmore. Canmore is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts, providing hiking, biking, climbing year round. It also serves the “foodies” well with great restaurants and cafes.
We bypassed Banff (covered under a separate post) and headed south before Lake Louise on Highway 93 towards Radium Hot Springs. There is a wonderful canyon hike on 93 called the Marble Canyon. It rivals the well-known Johnson Canyon near Banff for its natural beauty and the raw power of the raging water that pours through it. The canyon gets its name from the brilliant limestone rock walls rather than marble. You park at the pools at the bottom of the canyon right off the road and hike up along the top of the canyon wall as it gets deeper and deeper. Foot bridges cross the canyon at a few spots and are likely a terror for those who don’t like heights. The water thunders through the canyon for a while before you reach the top where it flattens out before the drop. Overall, it’s an easy hike and well worth the stop.
Radium Hot Springs (Radium) is a tiny village at the end of Highway 93 at the south entrance to the Kootenay National Park. It is known for its hot spring pools, mineral water that is geothermally heated and once thought to have curative powers. Relax in the pools and ease the travel stiffness away while gazing at the gorgeous mountain scenery before heading to your accommodation or onward to your next destination. Just before you get to Radium be ready to stop and take in the beautiful Sinclair Canyon and the Redwall Fault. It’s a geographic wonder and the drive through the canyon fault down to Radium will take your breath away.
From Radium Hot Springs head north on highway 95 towards Golden. This part of the trip wanders up the Columbia valley floor between two mountain ranges that form part of the larger the Continental Divide. One of the best parts of any road trip are the unexpected things you find. In this case, we drove past one of the most EPIC slip and slides I have ever seen. These enterprising people had built an actual slip and slide down a huge hill at the base of the mountains. We could see lawn chairs lining the way down. I can only imagine what went through their heads as they reached the bottom but we will never know, although we really wish we had seen it in action.
When you reach Golden, you are back on TransCanada 1 and at the home of the best burger of the whole trip. The Bears Den is a wood and brick restaurant right on the main highway that serves up top quality steaks and burgers. My elk burger was huge but tender and perfectly grilled and came with a mountainous side of fries. You might consider staying in Golden because you will want a good nap after eating at the Bears Den.
The next leg of this road trip takes you through Rogers Pass in the heart of the Rockies and some of the most spectacular scenery you will see in western Canada. Rogers Pass is a high mountain pass in the Selkirk Mountains in Glacier National Park. Prepare to concentrate on the road though or the squirrel in your head may get out giving you whiplash. You will find yourself stopping often to take in the scenery and to take lots of photos. The road passes through a number of avalanche tunnels in sections of the highway where winter brings the highest risk of avalanche. One note of caution: even though you likely have personal insurance coverage for your rental car, please don’t waive the windshield coverage. During our drive through the pass, we were hit by a rock, which damaged the windshield and ended up costing us for a replacement. Really though this can happen anywhere in the mountains…lesson learned on this trip.
There is a Discovery Centre along the highway, which gives you information on the history of the pass and other interesting facts. Just the views of the mountains from the parking lot left us awe-struck; that is, until we were attacked. It was a very small, very cute attack by little furry creatures called Marmots. Marmots are hearty little mammals about the size of a guinea pig with short ears and a tail. They are indigenous to the mountains living in burrows within rock piles and they communicate with squeaks and whistles. They are very familiar with cars and people and have come to expect food from them at the Discovery Centre and they are not shy about asking.
Eventually we wandered our way into the Okanagan valley past Vernon and Kelowna to Penticton. This became our home for the next few days while we explored the lovely city of Penticton as well as the Naramata Bench in wine country. We lucked out in Penticton to be there on a Saturday when they close part of the main street for the farmers market that highlights local growers, artisans and street vendors. There is a lovely park right in town called Skaha Lake Park where you can wander along the beach and swim.
There are a few different wine touring regions in the area around Penticton, but the loveliest in my mind is the Naramata Bench. This route meanders along country roads where wineries perch between the shores of Okanagan Lake and the mountain foothills.
These award winning wineries provide a personal experience to visitors who can relax in beautiful surroundings while eating lunch or partaking in wine tastings. You can have your wines shipped back to you as well so feel free to pick up some of our favourites to commemorate your road trip when you get back home.
On the way back to Canmore, we stopped in Revelstoke for a night. One of our fondest memories of the journey was our ride down Revelstoke Mountain on a crazy roller coaster. You buy your tickets at the bottom of the gondola. You will likely have to wait for your trip up so there is just enough time to get some liquid fortitude into you at one of the lodge’s bars. When it is your turn, you ride up the gondola and queue up at the top of it for the ride. I could have used another shot of courage but managed to make it down with just a few screams. The ride is fast (although you do have a brake you can use) and you sit on top of a small cart with just a lap belt to hold you on. It feels like you’re going to careen off every corner but somehow you stick to the rails until you come screaming into home at the bottom of the hill. Yes, I would do it again in a heartbeat. While in Revelstoke, you can also take a drive down to the river that runs through Revelstoke or out a few kilometres to Moses Falls, more beautiful scenery for pictures.
One of the most iconic and photographed lakes in the west is Moraine Lake near Lake Louise. If you want to see it that’s fine, but you need to be ready for outrageous crowds, impossible parking and long wait times for buses in to the lake. Fortunately, you can get the same breathtaking views and photo-ops without all the chaos by going to Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park.
Although there are still many people, if you go early you can easily get parking and can have time to rent a canoe if you choose. There is a hiking trail that loops all the way around the lake and gives you jaw dropping views of the emerald waters and towering mountains all the way around.
Another worthy stop in Yoho Park is at Takakkaw Falls, the second tallest water fall in Canada. The falls are impressive even from a distance, flowing from the Daly Glacier and thundering down 373 metres. Even the road up to the falls is exciting with many switchback curves and steep canyon climbs.
Before leaving Canmore to head back home, we explored a bit of backcountry behind the town. Spray Lakes road is an unpaved steep road that climbs its way upward to the reservoir behind the town. It is very steep and has few guardrails so it can be nerve wracking in spots. Ha Ling Peak is at the top, and can be seen from the main highway. It’s a very popular climbing site for rock climbers. You can take some great photographs of the town way down in the valley and the surrounding mountains from here.
If you follow the Spray Lakes road for another 30 kilometres or so you will come to Spray Lakes Reservoir, formerly a chain of gorgeous turquoise glacial lakes surrounded by mountain peaks, now collectively known as Spray Lakes Reservoir.
This is a popular hiking and camping area and is popular in the winter for backcountry skiers. We saw a grizzly bear here, which was a nice end to our epic road trip.
During this week-long trip, we travelled across two provinces, four national parks, three provincial parks, two mountain ranges and some of the most beautiful wine country we have ever seen. We did it all in one week and only experienced a very tiny part of what western Canada has to offer, but we came away with memories to last a lifetime.