By Michael Lanza
While I always prefer to get as far from any road as possible whenever I visit a mountain range, one truth that may—and perhaps must—be said of the Canadian Rockies is that they will leave you smitten with an lifelong, unshakeable love before you even step out of the car. Driving to any trailhead along the 143-mile-long (232-kilometer) Icefields Parkway between Lake Louise and the town of Jasper, or along the Trans-Canada Highway across the mountains, and you will struggle to sound like a literate person as superlatives and simple gasps of “wow” roll repeatedly off your tongue. On my most recent visit we saw, in addition to countless, sizable glaciers tumbling off a chain of peaks stretching for miles, perhaps the largest grizzly bear of my life (a sow with two cubs), two bull elk with racks possibly broader than my wingspan, and a pod of bighorn sheep—all from the car in one afternoon on the Icefields Parkway.
But if you’re like me, you go to the Canadian Rockies to walk deeply into the mountains, either for a day or multiple days. This story will provide you with a window into that experience, sharing images from many of the backpacking trips and dayhikes I have taken in Canada’s Rockies on my recent trip and over the past three-plus decades, including the 10 years I spent as Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.
Straddling the Continental Divide in the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, the Canadian Rockies extend for about 1,000 miles/1,600 kilometers from northern British Columbia to Waterton Lakes National Park on the U.S.-Canada border, which bumps up against America’s Glacier National Park. Spanning over 5.8 million acres (over 9,100 square miles or 23,600 square kilometers), the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site encompasses four national parks (Banff, Jasper, Yoho, and Kootenay) . and three provincial parks (Mount Robson, Mount Assiniboine, and Hamber).
That’s a very large area—nearly equal to Yellowstone, Everglades, Grand Canyon, and Glacier national parks combined. The phrase “you could spend a lifetime exploring it” gets rolled out hyperbolically a bit too often, but when applied to the Canadian Rockies, the descriptor rings true.
Every time I go there, I wonder whether there’s a mountain range in the Lower 48 that really compares with the Canadian Rockies. Seriously.
In late July and August 2023, three-fourths of my family, joined by a father-daughter who are longtime friends of ours, backpacked a pair of three-day trips and took some dayhikes in Banff, Jasper, and Yoho national parks. We started with the Skyline Trail in Jasper (lead photo at top of story), a classic, three-day, 27.3-mile/44k traverse usually hiked south-to-north, from the Maligne Lake Trailhead to the Signal Mountain Trailhead, just southeast of the town of Jasper. For much of its distance, the Skyline stays true to its name, following the crest of a mountain range with constant panoramas of massive walls of rock rising in every direction.
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That was followed by the Nigel, Cataract, and Cline Passes Route, a small sampler of the Great Divide Trail, a 698-mile/1,123-kilometer trail stretching from Waterton Lakes National Park to the GDT’s northern terminus in Kakwa Provincial Park. From a trailhead on the Icefields Parkway in northern Banff, we hiked over a first pass into a southern corner of Jasper, then up a valley sliced by the meandering, emerald-green, glaciated Brazeau River to cross a second pass below a hanging glacier, entering the White Goat Wilderness, where we spent two nights in an alpine basin ringed by rocky peaks, with yet another tongue of ice dangling off a mountain just beyond our camp.
Watch for my upcoming stories about that trip.
This post also includes photos from my family’s four-day backpacking trip several years ago on the approximately 34-mile/54-kilometer Rockwall Trail in Kootenay National Park. Well known among Canadian backpackers but less so among Americans and other international trekkers, the Rockwall’s name comes from its defining geological feature: a massive limestone escarpment plastered with glaciers and towering in some locations about 3,000 feet (900m) above the trail. Backpackers follow the base of this wall for more than 18 miles/30k. It’s no exaggeration to liken it to dozens of the tallest cliff in Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, lined up in a row stretching for miles.
Click on the photo gallery below to open it and use right and left arrow keys to scroll through it. Scroll below the gallery for a link to a menu of stories about the Canadian Rockies at The Big Outside.
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See all stories about hiking and backpacking in the Canadian Rockies at The Big Outside.
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