I’ve been referring to my western Canadian itinerary as my Grand Western Swing.
The trip started in the far northwest of British Columbia, went east to the eastern edges of the Rocky Mountains in Jasper, south from there along the Icefields Parkway to Banff, then back west again to almost the southwestern most tip of British Columba.
Did I have enough time on this trip?
No. With the exception of a career break of 10 months, when have I ever felt that I had enough time traveling?
But was it a great trip? Did I learn lots? Was I exposed to new cultures, people, geography, and history?
Absolutely, on all points! It was fantastic!
Now, it’s time to report on this trip. I’m starting today by giving you my:
- 12-day itinerary for Western Canada
- More to See in Western Canada and an Alternative Itinerary
- Top 12 Things to See and Do in Western Canada
- Travel Budget for 12 Days in British Columba and Alberta
I will follow up with articles on specifics for each stage of the trip.
Table of Contents
12-Day Western Canada Itinerary
I would have loved a couple of extra days for this trip but the train schedules were a roadblock for me. You see, both the Via Rail train and the Rocky Mountaineer only travel on certain days. The way their schedules work, I would have had to add four or five days to my time away and I just didn't have it available. Hopefully, you have the luxury of more time than I had. Here's my Western Canada itinerary.
- Fly to Prince Rupert. Day 1 – This took all day as I flew from Toronto to Vancouver and then Vancouver to Prince Rupert. Prince Rupert is near the Alaskan border so it is far north. Getting there from just about anywhere other than Vancouver is a full day's journey. I was told that flying into Terrace, BC, which is about an hour and a half away by car along a spectacular route is less expensive. You can take the train from Terrace to Prince Rupert as well, however, it does not run every day.
- Two days in Prince Rupert. Day 2/3 – Great hiking, canoeing and kayaking, food, and friendly people make this one of the best small towns I've visited. Story to come!
- Two days aboard Via Rail traveling from Prince Rupert to Jasper. Day 4/5 – This train ride involved a one-night stop in Prince George. Time on the train is approximately 33 1/2 hours as it covers over 1,100 km. Because freight trains have priority on the tracks, it is rarely on time and usually late, sometimes by a few hours. It's a beautiful trip and I met lots of wonderful people on it. It runs about every other day but check the Via Rail schedule.
- Drive the Icefields Parkway from Jasper to Banff. Day 6 – This is a 3-hour drive so I thought there would be plenty of time to stop and enjoy. Because there was so much of interest and I stopped frequently, I covered only about half of it in seven hours. It is spectacular. I think it is a drive that everyone should do at least once.
- Explore Banff and area. Day 7 – One day certainly does not do this area justice. And, unfortunately, my one day was a Saturday which made it really challenging to get around. There were people and cars everywhere trying to see Lake Louise, going to Canmore, strolling around town. You really have to stay in town on such a day and explore the semi-urban hikes, shopping, and museums or go early to a trail that is not known around the world.
- Take the Rocky Mountaineer between Banff and Vancouver. Days 8/9 – This is a luxury train with full service of meals and drinks, and your overnight hotel in Kamloops. Staying overnight here as I did in Prince George means that all travel is during the day.
- Explore Vancouver. Days 10/11 – If you've never been you could spend a week or more in Vancouver but I spent just a couple of days as I have lived in Vancouver and visited before. Still, I found new things to do and will share my recommendations soon.
- Fly home. – Day 12
More to See in Western Canada and an Alternative Itinerary
While I was certainly happy with my itinerary, if I were traveling for a month I would do more. There were great temptations along the way and times when I had to think about how lucky I was to be where I was, doing what I was, and remind myself that to leave wanting more is actually a good thing.
- Take a ferry from Prince Rupert to Haida Gwaii. This would require an extra four days or so because of the ferry and train schedules so it was not meant to be for my trip. However, this ferry trip or one to Alaska via the ferries out of Prince Rupert would be wonderful. Here's a link to the maps of the BC Ferry system that show you the many options you have.
- Spend more time in Jasper. There are lots of tourists in Jasper but nowhere near the numbers that there are in Banff. I would have liked to spend more time hiking there.
- Spend more time on the Icefields Parkway. There are a couple of hostels along the Parkway and I just know that spending time in them would have resulted in meeting fascinating people and some great wilderness experiences.
- See Lake Louise. On the Saturday that I was in Banff I did drive to Lake Louise but there were so many people I turned around and drove back. Fortunately, I salvaged the day with other activities. Unfortunately, I didn't see the lake, which was, long ago, the first glacier-fed lake I ever saw. It is a moment that is burned into my memory and I wanted to relive it once again. Doing so with thousands of people around would not have worked.
- An alternative route to Prince Rupert. Working to your own schedule you could:
- Fly to Vancouver and spend a couple of days there.
- Take the ferry to Victoria and enjoy the province's capital city.
- Travel up Vancouver Island. If you have time for Tofino, go! But, essentially, you're heading to Port Hardy.
- Take the ferry along the inside passage to Prince Rupert and then continue on the itinerary above.
My Top 12 Things to See and Do in Western Canada
My Top 12 Things to See and Do in Western Canada is a result of this trip, other trips, and having lived in Vancouver for a couple of years. So, it covers more territory than the trip I just took.
- Soak in the grandeur of the Rockies. Nothing can beat traveling through the Rocky Mountains, whether by car, train, or, if you are in incredible shape, by bike. The views are spectacular. Banff is certainly the center of the grandeur but travel beyond and you'll enjoy the mountains with far fewer tourists.
- Take the train. You have luxury and budget options. Whether you go luxury or budget (see the cost of my trip below and you'll see the cost of both) taking the train through western Canada is a great way to travel so that you can enjoy the views safely. You get to know the geography and the surprising range of climates. You go from rainforest on the west coast to dry mountain air in the Rockies to a desert in south central British Columbia.
- Drive the Trans-Canada Highway. If the train is not a possibility for you then do a road trip along the Trans-Canada Highway. From Calgary to Banff, it passes over multiple mountain ranges, into a desert and then out again to the Coastal Mountains and Vancouver. Yes, it's part of the main highway across Canada but that just means good quality roads and spectacular scenery. If you base your travel time on Google Maps you will be getting into your destination very late. This trip requires many stops because it is just so awesome.
- Explore the Icefields Parkway. The parkway runs from Jasper to Banff. It is in the southern section, towards Banff that there are glaciers. The most famous glacier is the Athabasca Glacier because that is the one that is developed for tourism. Brewster Travel Canada has the corner on tours to the glacier. They are controversial for ecological reasons. I chose not to take one. However, one can enjoy spectacular views of the glaciers from pull-offs on the Parkway and hike to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier independently. My first sighting going from the north is one that I won't forget. If you don't stop between Jasper and Banff the trip will take about 3 1/2 hours. However, it's much too beautiful for that. Plan on the trip taking a good 8 hours, if not more.
- Walk the rainforest of the west coast. Whether you go to Prince Rupert, as I did, or Vancouver Island (as I have done in the past), the rain forests are not to be missed. Not surprisingly, they can be a little wet but the rich forest floor and towering trees are spectacular!
- Travel the inside passage by ferry. The fjords, islands, rainforest, beaches, waterfalls, and mountains of Canada’s Inside Passage make for a wonderful trip. This trip also brings you closer to a number of aboriginal cultures. You can book a 7-day cruise with BC Ferries or piece together your own trip which will allow you to linger longer.
- Glacial Lakes. Rock flour is what makes the glacial lakes of the Rocky Mountains a spectacular turquoise. The fine mineral rock flour sloughed off the rocks by the water before entering the lakes tends to stay at the surface for a while before sinking. The powder reflects back the turquoise color rather than taking on the color of the sky as most lakes do. Lake Louise is the most famous of these lakes but 14 km away is Lake Moraine in the Valley of the Ten Peaks. Moose Lake near Jasper is another great glacial lake destination.
- Wine country. The Okanagan Valley is full of fruit trees and grape vines. Consequently, it is the original wine country of British Columbia. There are now many more wine regions in the province making it possible for you to explore wine country just about everywhere you travel in BC.
- The Thompson Canyon. It's been more than a few years now since I rafted on the Thompson River but it is a journey I'll never forget. Over the centuries, the Thompson carved itself a canyon and while rafting there does not involve large rapids or waterfalls, it does include some very fast water and very impressive whirlpools. The Trans-Canada Highway, Highway 1, follows the Thompson before it meets the Fraser River.
- Visit Vancouver. Vancouver is my favorite city in Canada and I would live there if my family were not in Toronto. So, what to do in Vancouver? Are you after food, theatre, music, art, hiking, anything on the water, beaches? It's all there. Read One Day in Vancouver – Food, Ferries, and a Walk around Stanley Park. I spent my time very differently on this trip to Vancouver. I'll be writing about it soon.
- Hike the national parks. Hiking is a major pastime in British Columbia and Alberta. Even in the city of Vancouver, there are great hiking options. Go to Jasper and Banff National Park websites for details on hiking there. Here's a site with an overview of hiking in British Columbia.
- Explore Vancouver Island. Victoria is the capital of British Columbia and sits at the southern tip of Vancouver Island. In Victoria, you'll see the British heritage of the city but explore the rest of the island and you'll experience almost 50 First Nations cultures, spectacular rainforests, and fabulous beaches on the west side.
Travel Budget for 12 Days in British Columbia and Alberta
The prices below are in Canadian dollars and exclude taxes.
- Toronto to Prince Rupert then Vancouver to Toronto by Plane: $908.89
- Accommodation Prince Rupert: Black Rooster Guesthouse. $297 for three nights or $99/night.
- Prince Rupert to Jasper by Train: $139.65. You have the option of touring class which gives you a better quality carriage and meals.
- One night in Prince George: The train stops for the night in Prince George so you have to book your own hotel. I paid $89.25 which included a decent breakfast.
- One night in Hinton outside of Jasper: $140 for one night. I would not recommend this accommodation.
- Car rental: $660.02 which included the drop charge of $350.
- Accommodation in Banff: Two nights in the YWCA dorm. Very central with free parking and free Wi-Fi. $89.98 or $44.98/night.
- Rocky Mountaineer to Vancouver: Included breakfast and lunch each day, drinks and snacks morning and afternoon, and hotel for one night in Kamloops which is the halfway point on the trip. $1699
- Two nights in Vancouver: I stayed with family.
- Flight from Vancouver to Toronto: Included in the first price above.
Total for transportation and accommodation:
- For all of the above: CAD$4,023.79. The cost of food and excursions like one to the Columbia Icefields or the gondola up Sulphur Mountain are not included in this figure.
- There are two ways I'd save a bundle on this trip next time:
- Drop the Rocky Mountaineer at $1699.
- Return the car to Jasper rather than pay the drop fee of $350.
Of course, doing both of the above would result in other costs but they would likely be much less.
- Where I'd spend more on this trip:
- I'd definitely stay at a better hotel in Jasper. For one night this would increase my cost by about $200.