Canada’s Rocky Mountain national parks beg exploration—boundless and beautiful, these wild spaces offer some of the best hiking in the world.
Choosing a trail in the combined 18,000-sq-km of parkland, however, can be daunting. Here are 16 top treks to get you started, as selected by Explore editor David Webb:
(Did we miss your favourite? Comment below!)
Gear for trekking these trails:
Hiking Trails in Jasper National Park
The largest and most northerly of the three world-famous parks, Jasper is renowned for high-alpine hikes, abundant wildlife and fewer crowds than Banff.
For more info on these and other hikes: pc.gc.ca/jasper
1. Sulphur Skyline
Distance: 8 km
Time: 6 hours
Starting from the Miette Hot Springs parking lot, you’ll climb through 700 vertical metres of switchbacks and open vistas en route to the 2,050-metre summit. Enjoy lunch with a jaw-dropping view of the Fiddle River Valley and limestone peaks beyond before returning the same way.
2. Cavell Meadows Trail
Distance: 7 km
Time: 3 to 5 hours
This popular route starts at the end of Cavell Road and leads sharply upslope into the alpine environment. Midsummer, the ideal time to hike here, the path is lined by wildflowers and its renowned glacial views astound throughout.
3. Morro Peak
Distance: 2 km
Time: 2 to 3 hours
Find the trailhead for this steep climb right on Highway 16, about 20 km northeast of Jasper townsite. It will take you about three hours to bag Morro Peak—a 1,700-metre stunner with sweeping vistas atop the Athabasca River and beyond.
4. Bald Hills
https://www.flickr.com/photos/15295652@N00/Distance: 10 km
Time: 4 to 5 hours
From the Maligne Lake parking lot, the ascent up the Bald Hills leads through critical woodland caribou habitat and onward to a knee-weakening overlook of Maligne Lake. Be aware: there are steep sections along the way, but the panoramic payoff for this day-hike is well worth the sweat.
5. Cottonwood Creek/Pyramid Lake Loop
Distance: 5 km
Time: 2 to 3 hours
This is one of the best short hikes in Jasper—perfect for a summer afternoon or weekend warm-up. Find the trailhead at the Jasper Activity Centre parking lot, then wander through old-growth Douglas fir, keeping an eye out for bighorn sheep grazing on the Pyramid Bench.
6. Skyline Trail
Distance: 42 km
Time: 1 to 3 days
This is Jasper’s signature backpacking trail—a scenic wonderland that meanders above the treeline for more than half of its distance. The Skyline Trail is home to woodland caribou, grizzly bears and grey wolves. While some intrepid folk have jaunted through Skyline Trail in a day, most spend more time in this high-elevation (2,510 metres maximum) environment to truly appreciate its beauty. The trailhead is at Maligne Lake; backcountry permit required for camping.
Hikes Trails in Banff National Park
Banff is our oldest and most-visited national park—drawing millions of tourists from around the globe every year. But solitude is still very easy to find within its sprawling, 6,600-sq-km borders.
For more info on these and other hikes: pc.gc.ca/banff
7. Helen Lake to Cirque Peak
Distance: 15 km
Time: 7 to 8 hours
Make sure to stretch and fuel-up before tackling this athletic hike—it climbs just over one vertical kilometre to the craggy summit of Cirque Peak. Start at serene Helen Lake, near Bow Lake on Icefields Parkway, and wander past mountain meadows before your upslope scramble. Tough as it is, this is still one of the fastest ways to bag a peak in Banff.
8. Johnston Canyon
Distance: 3 km
Time: 90 minutes
Easy? Yes. Gorgeous? You bet. From the Bow Valley Parkway, this partially catwalked trail winds through a surreal limestone canyon to a cascading falls. (At times, the iron walkway is suspended above the rapids.) Hike early to avoid the crowds.
9. Plain of the Six Glaciers
Distance: 11 or 12.5 km
Time: 4 to 5 hours
Starting at the busy Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, follow the emerald shoreline to the far end (where the crowds thin) to begin your climb. Switchbacks treat to monumental views over the lake, glaciers and pyramidal peaks. You may even spot a shaggy mountain goat. Reward yourself with a cuppa at Lady Agnes Tea House at the top, and continue for an additional 1.5 km to the worthy Victoria Glacier viewpoint. Read more about Plain of Glaciers.
10. Aylmer Pass
Distance: 26 km
Time: 9 to 10 hours
Start from the Lake Minnewanka parking lot (Lake Minnewanka Road). This lofty day-hike begins easy enough—you can even bike the first eight kilometres. Once at Aylmer Pass Junction, your climb to the 2,285-metre pass begins. Don’t worry, expansive views atop Lake Minnewanka are more than worth the effort.
11. Bow Glacier Falls
Distance: 9 km
Time: 3 to 4 hours
Find the Bow Glacier Falls trailhead to this scenic beauty on the Icefields Parkway, about 36 km north of Lake Louise. Your reward for ambling along this relatively easy route is a view of the Bow River headwaters, sourced from meltwater as it weeps from Wapta Icefields. This route can be busy—hike early to enjoy the serenity solo.
Hiking Trails in Waterton Lakes National Park
The smallest and least-visited of the three, Waterton is often considered the most dramatic Rocky Mountain park, as its peaks jut abruptly from the prairie grasslands and it harbours the Canadian Rockies’ deepest lake.
For more info on these and other hikes: pc.gc.ca/waterton
12. Wall Lake
Distance: 11 km
Time: 4 to 5 hours
Accessed from Akamina Parkway, this moderate trail climbs into the Continental Divide and crosses ever-so-slightly into British Columbia before its terminus at Wall Lake, a mountain waterbody encased in fortress-like granite. (Wall Lake is actually located within BC’s Akamina-Kishinena Provincial Park.)
13. Vimy Peak
Distance: 18 or 25 km
Time: 8 to 9 hours
This is a challenging trail, accessed on the far side of Waterton Lake (boat access), or from the Chief Mountain Highway Trailhead (longer route). Vimy Peak is a 2,363-metre crag with amazing views over the lake and townsite, but you’ll have to earn it. The final section is a scramble, which leads to further ridgeline hiking.
14. Crypt Lake Trail
Distance: 17 or 21 km
Time: 7 to 9 hours
This is one of Waterton’s most challenging and rewarding day hikes. Access is by boat shuttle across Waterton Lake (or kayak, if you’re ambitious). After a short jaunt along the trail, a side trip to Hell Roaring Falls awaits—if you feel up to it. From there, switchbacks follow in increasing steepness and increasingly impressive views. Some tricky scree slopes await further on. Munch lunch along serene Crypt Lake and return for your afternoon boat pickup.
15. Tamarack Trail
Lanila | Dreamstime.com
Distance: 32 km
Time: 2 days
Named for the signature tree—the tamarack, or larch—which glows orange in autumn, this is Waterton’s best-loved overnight trek. Leave your car in town and take the Tamarack Hiker’s Shuttle ($60 for two people) to the trailhead. Follow this overnight route into remote jagged alpine peaks that parallel the Continental Divide—it’s the highest elevation trail in the park. There are three campsites en route; a backcountry permit is required.
16. Blakiston Falls
Distance: 2 km
Time: 1 hour
Not every hike in Waterton is as exhausting as the above—Blakiston Falls is a popular, and mostly flat, trail that rewards with an impressive view of the cascading falls backed by spiky Mount Blakiston. Feel those negative ions flow!
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