The Canadian Rockies contain some of the most picturesque landscapes to be found on the North American continent. Glaciers, blue lakes, and alpine valleys along with bears, wolverines, moose, and rare woodland caribou can be found in this natural wonderland. It is a paradise for mountain lovers. Planning a summer adventure in the Canadian Rockies, however, can be full of deadlines and frustrations. It is a bit of an understatement to say that planning to spend time in the Canadian Rockies isn’t easy. We’ve created this Canadian Rockies guide to help fellow travelers navigate the challenges of spending times in the Candian Rockies.
First, you have to figure out where you want to go. With seven National Parks and a much larger number of Provincial Parks found in the Canadian Rockies, there is no shortage of beautiful country to explore. But, you have to think about resupply (for groceries, propane, etc) and perhaps work needs (internet access). In this part of the world grocery stores aren’t always right around the corner. Power, internet, and hot showers are scarce as well. In this Canadian Rockies guide, I will show you how to plan ahead so you can spend a weekend or an entire summer exploring this amazing wonderland.
The Best Time to Visit the Canadian Rockies
If you like to downhill or cross-country ski or snowshoe than the long winter months are best for you. However, if you are looking to hike, kayak, cycle, and backpack the short summers are ideal.
Late May – Early July: Snow still covers many of the peaks and this is a great time to drive through the parks. The creeks are bursting with water and the waterfalls are in full force. Trails are still very muddy but the mosquitoes aren’t yet out in full force. Bear cubs and other baby creatures are tottering around and foraging alongside their parents.
Mid-July – Mid August: The high country trails are open and while mud and snow can still be an issue most trails have thawed and dried out. The wildflowers are in full bloom but so are the mosquitoes.
Late-August – Early September: The days become shorter and colder killing off the hordes of mosquitoes. This is a great time to do day hikes and long backpacks are also great so long as you have a warm sleeping bag, but that is really needed all summer long as it can snow at any time while exploring the Canadian Rockies.
Mid-September – Early October: The nights are cold but the larks change to a golden yellow welcoming a short autumn to the Canadian Rockies. This is a great time to be out on the trails although you will need to be prepared for the even more likely chance of cold temperatures and being snowed on.
Planning Ahead for the Canadian Rockies is a Must!
You have to plan ahead if you intend to visit the Canadian Rockies during the summer. Last-minute campsites, especially ones that have power and hot water, are nearly impossible to come by. The best of the backcountry campsites are also snatched up on the day they become available. I like to go where the seasons take me and let the weather dictate activities but the majority of the Canadian Rockies are well-known and planning ahead is an unfortunate reality to having a great vacation or a nomadic lifestyle like ours.
The first item on the list when visiting the Canadian Rockie should be recreation. This translates to backpacking, hiking, cycling, climbing, and kayaking. Which trails do we want to spend our summer days exploring? The Canadian Rockies have far too many amazing trails to choose from but we are working on a list and the amount of time (days) we recommend for each. We also give seasonal recommendations based on the elevation at which each trail is found. It is important to pick trails that can be hiked at the time you choose to explore the Canadian Rockies.
Once you have chosen your recreational activities, the next step in the Canadian Rockies guide is to figure out where to spend your nights or, if like us, the workdays. For some, this will mean hotel rooms in the towns of Banff, Jasper, Hinton, Golden, and Radium Hot Springs. However, for most travelers campgrounds, which the Canadians refer to as front country camping, will be the more affordable solution. There are very few boon-docking options anywhere near the parks in the Canadian Rockies. We found a few options and we have shared those in our front country campground post.
Everyone is going to have different expectations for a campsite. Some drive massive RVs that will be nearly impossible to find a spot for outside of a few campgrounds in Banff. Others want everything to be provided for them in the form of glamping and here too a few campsites in Banff will fulfill those expectations (called oTENTik). We have solar on our roof so we seek to stay in campgrounds that have open skies. If there is too much tree cover we need access to power. After a few days of backpacking out on the trail hot showers are also a must. We have to have cell phone reception for internet access. Wifi is usually too slow in campgrounds and also non-existent in the Canadian National Park campgrounds. A nearby laundromat, grocery store, and propane refill places are also essential needs for long term camping.
Finding front country campsites in the Canadian Rockies that met our criteria was difficult. Cell service and even hot water are still very hard to come by in this area of the world. That being said we did find some spots although, here again, planning ahead is crucial as these spots go fast.
Canadian Campground Fire Permits
One nice thing about many of the Canadian National Parks is that for an additional fee they provide firewood. No collecting of wood is allowed inside the campgrounds. I believe many of the world’s parks should adopt this method as it keeps people from transporting wood and invasive species from park to park. That being said while an unlimited amount of firewood is provided, it is still a bit overpriced at $8.80 (CAD)/night (as of summer 2019).
Reserving Your Campsite Early
We had our entire summer of mountain exploration planned out by early January. Surprisingly, this was too late for a few desired spots and activities. Our Canadian Rockies adventure was spent in eight different parks. To a novice looking at the map, you might think that six of the parks are one giant park as they all share borders. The parks vary in their authority. Some are National Parks while others are Provincial Parks (for U.S. residences think state parks) so the governing bodies for each differ. Almost all of these parks have different dates for when reservations become available.
It is worse than that though because the backcountry sites do not become available at the same time as the front country sites within the same park and some special areas don’t fall into either the backcountry or front country. Trying to backpack across different parks you have to cross your fingers and hope you can get the second half of your trip after you reserve the first half. It is all very confusing and hard to navigate but this Canadian Rockies guide has the information you need to be successful.
Start Planning a Year in Advance Using this Canadian Rockies Guide
I will give you the dates we had in 2019 to follow (and continually update as dates become available) but they are only good for reference as Canada seems to move the dates yearly. The dates seem to get earlier and earlier each year. I recommend planning your summer trip in September of the previous year. This will give you time to figure out the dates that each park decides on for opening reservations. Put the dates on your calendar and make sure you are ready at the exact time (Mountain Standard Time) they become available. Many other people will be. On many of these dates I reserved at the first moment I could and checked back later in the day and the sites were sold out.
Canadian Rockies Guide to Reservation Dates
Here is a list of the dates in 2019 (I will update as new dates become available) and more importantly the websites for each that can be checked for figuring out the dates moving forward. Many of these reservations are made through the Parks Canada Reservation Service website. I suggest creating a login prior to the day that registration opens in order to save time.
October 1st (the year before):
Reservable front country camping opens up at the National Parks.
- Waterton Lake National Park
- Banff National Park (Including Lake Louise)
- Kootenay National Park
- Yoho National Park
- Jasper National Park
Front country camping is the one place where the Canadian National Parks seem to come together in a consensus.
Note that if you reserve consecutive nights within the same park at the same time even if they are at different campgrounds then the website only charges you one reservation fee. The exception is Banff which will group the southern campgrounds or the northern campgrounds (Lake Louise Area) but not a mix of the two areas. Yet, another quirk of the Canadian Rockies system.
January 13th (confirmed for 2020):
Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park Naiset Hut
Jasper backcountry permits become available.
Yoho and Banff backcountry permits become available.
4 Months to the Day Prior to the First Desired Night:
- This park can only be accessed on foot or by helicopter. There are no roads. If you plan to backpack in you will most likely need backcountry reservations for Banff campsites along the way.
- The helicopter flights are only on 3 days of the week so make sure if you want to get in or out this way that you plan accordingly.
- There is now a shuttle company that runs between Mt. Shark and Sunshine Meadows although it is almost as expensive as taking a helicopter.
- If you hike in from Banff take the Sunshine Meadows Gondola as it saves you hiking a lot of elevation. The Gondola ran every day in 2019 but this was the first year it did so. It is also very expensive.
3 Months to the Day Prior to the First Desired Night:
Mount Robson Provincial Park front country camping opens up. Keep in mind the reservable backcountry sites opened in October of the previous year.
Lake O’Hara (Yoho National Park). While all the other backcountry and front country sites in Yoho National Park become available in January this spot is different and highly coveted. There is also not a website for booking reservations. You must call 250-343-6433. While it is a pain to get this reservation (28 calls?) it was one of the highlights of our time in the Canadian Rockies. I highly recommend staying the maximum of 3 nights at the campground or in one of the huts. Early information for 2020 is that the O’Hara area may be reservable online and in January.
Bugaboo Provincial Park Backcountry Campgrounds. The two backcountry campgrounds found in the Bugaboo Park are both first-come, first-serve. While this destination hasn’t yet risen to the need of reservation status due mostly in part to the crazy long dirt access road, the steep terrain and the local wildlife liking to eat the rubber off of vehicles (more on that in another post) it still might be advisable to consider the Conrad Kain Hut (reservations available 1-year in advance) if you are wanting to explore the area and are concerned about making it to one of the backcountry sites before they fill up.
Glacier National Park (not to be confused with the U.S. park in Montana) is entirely first-come, first-served for its three front-country campgrounds as well as two backcountry campgrounds. The backcountry sites require a wilderness pass which can be acquired at either the Roger Pass Discovery Center or the Park Headquarters in Revelstoke.
New in 2020 – Mount Revelstoke National Park is opening a new first-come, first-served campground. Mount Revelstroke’s two backcountry campgrounds are also first-come, first-served or rather reserved at the welcome kiosk in that manner.
All the Canadian National Parks also have first-come, first-served campsites, and entire campgrounds, but some fill-up as early as 11:00 AM each day so reservations are recommended when able.
Other Backcountry Huts:
There are backcountry huts also available in many of the parks as well. Most seem to be available 1-year in advance and require visitors to fill out a form with no guarantee of getting a reservation. Here is a resource to get started if you are interested in those.
Canadian Park Pass
Don’t forget to budget for a Canadian National Park Pass. While you can purchase day passes, if you plan on being in the parks longer than a week the most economical thing to do is to purchase an annual pass called a Discovery Pass. The Discovery Pass can be purchased at any of the Canadian National Park entrance gates.
Discovery Pass Cost (as of summer 2019):
- Family/Vehicle (Up to 7-people): $136.40 CAD
- Youth (0-17): Entrance is Free
- Single Adult Pass: 67.70
What Should I Bring? – The Canadian Rockies Guide
- A Sense of Adventure
- Summer and winter clothing (we were snowed on in mid-July and mid-August).
- Really good boots. A lot of the trails stay very muddy throughout the entire summer season.
- Rain Gear
- Bear Spray
- Bug Spray and Bug Net
- Hiking Poles
- Warm Camping Gear
- Minimum of 0deg Celcius Sleeping Bag
- GPS or Maps.me
Canadian Rockies Guide Conclusion
The system for spending time in the Canadian Rockies is confusing, to say the least, and frustrating and nerve-racking at times. Having to reserve parts of your adventures months apart takes a lot of forethought and precise action but it can be done. The result of this preplanning and frustration far out weighs the effort. We are left striving to remember all the details because they melt away when the adventure is this beautiful and epic. Luckily, I keep notes along the way otherwise this Canadian Rockies guide might not have been possible 🙂
Have you spent any time in the Canadian Rockies? Did I get something wrong or has something changed? If so please let us know by dropping a comment below. I want to keep this information as accurate as possible to help guide future travelers, including myself as we will be back.