The view of the Canadian Rockies is an unforgettable highlight of the road trip from Calgary to Banff. This is the start of a road trip from Calgary to Vancouver (more on that below) or Calgary to Jasper via the Columbia Icefields Parkway.
In good weather, it’s about two hours drive time, and you’ll be covering just under 100 miles. From Banff to Lake Louise is another half hour.
Even in winter, this is a well-traveled route to the ski resorts in Banff National Park.
July and August are peak summertime months. September and October bring golden leaves on the trees. June has the most rain, and November can be dreary. From December to May, skiers expect blue skies and soft, fresh snow.
The main routes are:
- The Trans-Canada Highway or TCH; this is Highway 1, called 16th Avenue North inside Calgary
- Highway 1A, called Crowchild Trail North inside Calgary, with the option of going on to the TCH
- Highway 8 (an extension of Glenmore Trail SW inside Calgary), using Highway 22 to join the TCH
With over 1.5 million people, Calgary is a cosmopolitan city with an inspiring local food scene, art and entertainment options, professional sports, and year-round outdoor recreation.
The biggest event is the Calgary Stampede in July. It’s a major international rodeo, exhibition, agricultural fair, midway, and music festival combined.
Pro Tip: Dress Western and book your accommodations early.
To see Canadian wild animals, visit the Canadian Wilds at the Calgary Zoo. Then, explore local history at Fort Calgary and Heritage Park. The Military Museums have everything from medals to airplanes.
Downtown, check out Stephen Avenue Mall for shopping and heritage buildings.
The nearby gift shop at the Glenbow Museum has unique local creations and a good selection of books about Calgary and the area.
The town of Cochrane is a bedroom community of Calgary with its own firmly established identity.
The Big Hill outside of Cochrane gives commanding, panoramic views of the Rockies before the road drops into town.
If I didn’t live in Calgary, I’d spend a night in Cochrane before the road trip. I’d like to experience a stay at the original Rockyview Hotel. I’ve stayed in old hotels like this before — every town used to have one — but the Rockyview looks especially charming.
Cochrane’s Legacy Statue in Historic Downtown, which the locals refer to as the chicken lady, is by Studio West, a highly regarded fine art foundry and Western art gallery.
Cochrane has a nice selection of places to shop, eat, and drink. The town even has a meadery.
Kananaskis Country And Peter Lougheed Provincial Park
Between Calgary and Banff there is one very large park, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, and several small parks and day-use areas, all within Kananaskis Country. The Alberta Parks website’s searchable database shows the various parks’ features and details.
Peter Lougheed Provincial Park is south of the Trans-Canada Highway on Highway 40. It’s a scenic alternative to Banff if you only have a day. Kananaskis Village is a cluster of hotels near golfing in summer and skiing in winter. It’s a great escape!
All kinds of outdoor activities are available, including hiking, fishing, rafting, mountain biking, camping, and horseback riding. Everything is photogenic.
It’s common to see deer. Grizzly bears, black bears, cougars, and wolves aren’t normally seen, but they’re not rare either. They’re hiding or hibernating. Mountain sheep and elk are less shy. One winter, a moose licked the road salt off of our parked car!
William Watson Lodge offers accessible accommodation right in the park.
Pro Tip: Do respect the animals, but don’t let a fear of animals stop you from exploring. Do read the official guidance from Alberta Parks and Parks Canada, especially about wildlife safety. Never approach wild animals. Don’t try to feed them. Don’t leave food where they can get it. Be even better prepared by reading up on our tips for safely viewing wildlife in national parks before you go.
Lac Des Arcs
Just as the Big Hill above Cochrane gives that first memorable view of the Rockies, Lac Des Arcs provides another visual first.
This unserviced roadside pullout doesn’t have the best view (there’s a cement plant across the lake), but it’s where I first feel like I am really “in” the mountains as they’re on all sides.
Canmore was formerly a coal mining town. Now it’s an outdoorists’ paradise, the last town before the Banff Park Gate.
There’s accommodation and dining galore. The pubs serve craft beer, and the coffee shops are pretty good at keeping the quality high.
Canmore is a base for skiing and hiking in Banff National Park. Insiders know you don’t have to go to Banff for a great outdoor experience. The Canmore Nordic Centre, a legacy of the 1988 Winter Olympics, has trails for all skiers. Mountain biking is big in Canmore, and in summer, the Nordic Centre trails are popular.
For easier biking, try the Legacy Trail to Banff.
Pro Tip: I haven’t had a chance to do this yet, but the people at Alberta Food Tours are the experts when it comes to showing you where to eat and drink in the province.
Banff is the name of a town and also the big park in which it sits, Banff National Park.
You could spend a whole summer hiking in Banff National Park and still have lots more to see. Besides backpacking, there are places for tent and RV camping. In the summer, all the campsites can be fully booked far in advance, so check the Parks Canada website and reserve as far ahead as you can.
Banff caters to every desire of the tourist. They’ve been doing it a long time, and they do it well. For just about every budget, there will be something to buy, something to eat, and maybe somewhere to sleep, though in the low end of the price range, this can be a challenge.
True adventurers can join the Alpine Club of Canada, which offers huts and hostel stays, while luxury seekers are likely to head for the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. This is one of Canada’s grandest buildings, built like a Scottish castle to attract train passengers.
If a night at Banff Springs isn’t in your budget, you can still literally dip your toe in the water at the Willow Stream Spa in the hotel. Having done that, I am forever unable to enjoy any place calling itself a spa unless it has massive hot pools indoors and out, and a mountain view.
It’s tempting to spend time in town strolling down Banff Avenue and checking out the shops, but there’s more.
The Upper Hot Springs is the reasonably-priced version of the Banff spa experience. Sunshine Meadows offers high-altitude hiking in the summer thanks to the gondola and chairlift of Sunshine Ski Resort. Sunshine Mountain Lodge has year-round on-hill accommodation. The gondola is wheelchair accessible.
Banff is known for scenery, luxury, and mountain sports. It’s also home to the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, a leading arts center that offers performances and courses.
Pro Tip: In the winter, when it gets dark early, you can bathe outdoors under the stars. It’s magic. You should also read up on how to spend a beautiful winter day in Banff if you’ll be road tripping in one of the chillier months.
Part of the area between Calgary and Banff is within the Tsuu T’ina Nation and the Stoney-Nakoda Nation.
Watch the Alberta Indigenous Tourism website for tourist-friendly opportunities offered by both Nations.
Calgary To Banff Road Trip Tips
For detailed information about wheelchair accessibility and special needs assistance, please check with the venues and local tourism offices. Alberta’s businesses, parks, and attractions are generally accessible, but trail conditions might not always be suitable for people using wheelchairs and other aids.
Have additional time? This Calgary to Banff road trip is just the beginning of our beautiful Canadian Rockies road trip: Calgary to Vancouver. West of Banff, there’s Lake Louise, Roger’s Pass, Revelstoke, and more.