The Rockies' summertime tendency to feel like a gigantic tour bus parking lot can undermine anyone's ability to commune with Canada's greatest outdoor wonderland. But there are ways to bypass the masses – if you know where to go.
"There's something special about Horseshoe Lake in Jasper," says Banff travel writer and Rockies' expert Andrew Hempstead (thecanadianrockies.com). "You'll be sharing it with local swimmers and cliff divers but there's room for everyone – and it's easy to find picnic spots with sweeping lake views."
It's not his only recommendation: "Waterton Lakes National Park doesn't get as much attention as Banff and Jasper, but it's laced with trails and has all the activities and amenities of its northern neighbours."
You can also eschew the queues with lesser-known things-to-do. Hempstead suggests guided hikes to the Burgess Shale fossil beds in Yoho National Park or renting canoes or stand-up paddleboards from the Banff Canoe Club.
Or you could take some lesser-jammed driving routes. "Escape the crowded Icefields Parkways by detouring east along Highway 11 at Saskatchewan River Crossing. It skirts turquoise Abraham Lake and passes through prime wildlife viewing in the Kootenay Plains. The almost-a-ghost-town of Nordegg is a good turnaround point."
Other routes abound.
"The short, yet scenic, Yoho Valley Road branches off the Trans-Canada Highway in Yoho National Park. Climbing to the turbulent confluence of the Yoho and Kicking Horse rivers, it has rare roadside marmot-viewing areas and ends at the spectacular Takakkaw Falls."
Since there's more than marmots to Rockies' wildlife-watching, though, local photographer Christopher Martin (christophermartinphotography.com) also has the inside track on critter-ogling hot spots.
"Kananaskis Country draws fewer visitors but its Highwood Pass along Highway 40 has great wildlife-viewing – including elk, deer and bighorn sheep. Coyotes and even wolves can be encountered here plus black bears and grizzlies," he says, adding that the Spray Lakes corridor near Canmore – a great mountain town alternative to Banff or Jasper – also rewards wildlife-watchers.
But what about perfect landscape photos without selfie-sticking tourists ruining every frame? "Wedge Pond [in Kananaskis] is a beautiful pot lake that reflects the sunrise and can paint the face of Mount Kidd with swirling mist. Upper Kananaskis Lake in the Peter Lougheed Provincial Park also has beautiful elements to work with from rivers to gnarled trees and massive peaks."
Solitude can also be hard for hikers to find here during summer's peak, says Brian Patton, co-author of the bestselling Canadian Rockies Trail Guide. "You wouldn't believe the places I've encountered columns of weary tour bus passengers in the backcountry."
Some spots are less afflicted, though. "Try Waterton Lakes National Park during the week for some of the Rockies' best full-day hikes and some excellent shorter trails. Look for the incredible wildflowers that move into the high country as the summer progresses – including some not found anywhere else in the region."
Accommodation-wise, I love Rockies' retreats such as Emerald Lake Lodge, but Patton's campground faves draw you even closer to nature's dew-glistened embrace. "It can be busy but I love Robson Meadows Campground," he says, adding Kootenay National Park's McLeod Meadows and Marble Canyon plus the north end of Banff National Park for Waterfowl Lakes and Rampart Creek to his camping recommendations.
Wherever you go in the Rockies, though, timing can make all the difference in sidestepping the madding crowds. For Martin, 5:30 a.m. can produce amazing, people-free photos – "even in busy locations like Moraine Lake or Lake Louise, I usually find only a handful of people at that time," he says.
Hempstead agrees. "It's worth rising early to enjoy the Rockies crowd-free. The first flush of sunlight on Victoria Glacier above Lake Louise, watching feeding wildlife without tourists around and being the first to reach the Cavell Meadows' wildflowers are memorable experiences not possible later in the day."
OUR READERS WRITE
- Island Lake Lodge in Fernie, B.C. A summer-road-accessible luxury backcountry resort and spa. Awe-inspiring Canadian Rocky Mountain vistas with an equally awe-inspiring menu. Michael Wilson
- Canmore is where Calgarians go. Try the Highline Trail for mountain biking, Verde Day Spa and condo stays rather than hotels. @Jody_Robbins
- One idea is the Highway 1A from Banff to Lake Louise, a quieter alternative that hugs the forests compared to the main highway. Or follow the tour buses to Lake Louise, then do a day hike to the Plain of Six Glaciers and get up close to the cliffs and glaciers. Or hike up to Lake Agnes and have a piece of apple pie in the tea house beside a tiny mountain lake. Mark Fields
- On a hot day in Jasper, locals flock to Horseshoe Lake to go cliff jumping. It’s a pretty unassuming spot: you park on the side of the highway and walk through a wooded area and BOOM, this amazing glacial lake appears! Also, an amazing place to camp is Saturday Night Lake – a great escape that you can manage in 2 days. @MikeySadowski
- Climbing Pyramid Mountain was a highlight of my summer in the Rockies – and a surprisingly quiet day hike. @postcardsplaces
- I prefer Canmore over Banff. It’s a less touristy, cute little town with good pubs, hiking and magnificent scenery. @AirbnbSuperhost
- I’m always a fan of the Legacy Trail bike ride. It’s just off the Trans-Canada Hwy but it can feel a world away! @Tamara_Elliott
- Try going up to Miette [Hot Springs Restort] Bungalows in Jasper. Good hiking followed by a hot springs soak and good eats. @MichaelV81512
- The hostels along the Icefields Parkway are quiet – with wood-fired saunas by cold creeks for plunging. @ColleenFriesen
- Staying at one of the HI Wilderness Hostels (like Yoho’s Whiskey Jack) makes sure you’ll escape the RV crowd. I stayed there with my kids a few year ago. Could see Takakkaw Falls without getting out of bed! @Tours_By_Locals
- Go for an early morning drive along the Icefields Parkway. @apfoot
- It’s all busy in summer but Bow Valley Parkway, Johnston Canyon and Baker Creek Chalets/Bistro are a bit off the main track. @myfriendrhea
- Waterton Lakes National Park. Forgotten majesty. Bonus is that it’s connected with Glacier National Park – see the glaciers before they melt! @pattenwilen
- Nordegg for all of the incredible hiking! Try Crescent Falls and Siffleur Falls. Or try Rockies Heli Canada’s backcountry heli-camping. The Rockies’ eastern slopes often get overlooked, but they’re amazing and there’s nary a tour bus in sight! @ashleymeller
- Of course you have to start the adventure in Calgary! Visit ramen maestros Shiki Menya; hit up Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame to celebrate awe-inspiring athletes; then hike to your heart’s content in Banff National Park. Rest in comfy beds at Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts – and take the scenic route back via our first craft distillery – Eau Claire Distillery! @nessincalgary
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