Imagine being able to experience all that Banff or Jasper National Parks have to offer – the incredible scenery, the sheer diversity of wildlife, the hot springs, the shopping – with fewer people? That would be nearly impossible during peak summer season in the Canadian Rockies. Banff alone attracts more than 1.8 million tourists at that time with nearly half of the Alberta mountain town’s annual visitors coming between July and September.
But savvy travellers know that it’s a good idea to plan their vacation to the Rockies during the quieter off-season. They'll enjoy a more tranquil pace with smaller crowds, shorter lineups and wildlife galore.
“Banff’s shoulder season is full of fun,” says Michelle Gaudet, media relations specialist for Pursuit, an organization that provides travel tours and experiences in the Canadian Rockies, including cruises on Maligne and Banff Lakes, and a Glacier Adventure along the Icefields Parkway. “If you have the flexibility to travel outside of the busy summer months, you'll find better rates, fewer people and a more relaxed vibe.”
There are other advantages to travelling in the off-season. For one thing, you can forgo the Banff Gondola’s long lineups to get to the summit of Sulphur Mountain. In the natural thermal pools of the Banff Upper Hot Springs, you’ll have more room to relax in the mineral-rich waters.
“Around Canadian Thanksgiving [in October] is a traditional time to gather with friends and enjoy good food,” Gaudet says. It’s also a good time, she says, to squeeze in a final, gentle hike through the Rockies’ trails and mountains.
Even if you’ve visited before in summer, the spring and fall reveal an entirely different side of the famous mountain range and can deepen anyone’s appreciation of the Canadian landscape.
As winter fades away, the Rockies come alive with an abundance of wildlife, making it one of the best seasons to visit for animal lovers. Elk and bighorn sheep can be spotted feeding on spring grass, and black and even grizzly bears may be seen emerging from their dens and foraging after their winter hibernation. Bald eagles and ospreys are often observed taking a rest in the treetops before returning to their nests.
In late spring, the Rockies' colours come alive. Lake Louise’s famous turquoise lake begins to deepen and take on a more dazzling hue as silt from the thawing Victoria Glacier travels into the water. And just west of Banff, Vermilion Lakes is a popular spot among photographers who try to capture the reflection of the glowing white peaks of Mount Rundle on the mirror-like surface of the water.
Both spring and fall may bring surprise light snowfalls, creating a winter wonderland – at least temporarily. En route to Vancouver from Banff or Jasper, mountain peaks in the distance may be crowned with snow, while stretches of grass and trees nearby remain green. As the locals like to point out, there aren't many places in the world where you get to experience several seasons in a day.
In fall, get an up-close view of the larch trees, the only conifers to change colour. Their golden needles paint the landscape in a sunny hue that makes photographers swoon. Larch Valley at Moraine Lake is the most well-known spot to see them, especially at the peak of their splendour in late September.
October is also the perfect time to shop for new winter and ski gear in Banff’s well-stocked shops. Smart shoppers take advantage of preseason sales and put their savings toward a steak and seafood dinner at the Maple Leaf Grill, a restaurant that always requires reservations in the summer.
Fall is also prime time for signature events, including the Dark Sky Festival held in Jasper in October. The park is home to one of the world’s largest dark sky preserves, where light pollution is restricted, allowing for better stargazing all year round, though fall and spring are considered ideal times for viewing the northern lights, meteor showers and the Milky Way in all their glory. Visitors who crave an expertly guided tour of the stars can book an evening at the Jasper Planetarium to see the heavens through the largest telescope in the Rockies. Jasper’s high elevation also helps make it an enticing destination for astronomy buffs.
You can make the drive to the Rockies in the off-season, but unpredictable weather could add a bit of stress if you’re road tripping through mountain passes. The train, on the other hand, provides multiple benefits, including getting to see some of British Columbia’s remarkable landscapes, as well as UNESCO-protected parks.
Rocky Mountaineer, a luxury train that provides four unique routes between Vancouver and Seattle, and Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise, provides one of the best ways to take in the region’s natural beauty. Panoramic views of Mount Robson, Vermilion Lakes, Kicking Horse Pass, Castle Mountain and more, can be enjoyed through glass-dome windows in the train’s GoldLeaf Service, or oversized ones in SilverLeaf Service. And since the train travels by day at an average 50km/hr, the more relaxed pace of train travel means that visitors can truly savour every moment and every view. And don’t forget to keep eyes peeled for local wildlife. Rocky Mountaineer's onboard Hosts and engineers are old hands at spotting elk, bears and birds, and do their best to make sure guests never miss a thing.
If you’ve always wanted to see the Rockies at a relaxed pace, there may be no better time than the spring or fall, and no better way than by rail, to explore it all.
Rocky Mountaineer travels across four routes through the Pacific Northwest and into the heart of the Canadian Rockies. Its GoldLeaf Service, launched in 1995, features bi-level, glass-dome coaches with stunning panoramic views on the upper level and a dining room and outdoor viewing platform on the lower level. SilverLeaf Service features oversized windows, delicious meals served at your seat, and the same impeccable service and astounding views.
- Stars: Ryan Bray
- Larch trees: Nancy McMillan
- All others: Rocky Mountaineer
This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's Globe Content Studio.
The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.