Calgary is a friendly, oil-rich city steeped in cowboy culture and set amid the ranchlands of southern Alberta. Bustling, cosmopolitan, Vancouver nestles between the snowy peaks of the Coast Mountains and the magnificent shoreline of the British Columbia coast. Driving between them provides one of most satisfying road trips in Canada, with a number of different routes that'll take you from towering mountain ranges and emerald lakes to California-style orchards and lakeside beaches. It's a trip that you could do (in either direction) in anything from three or four days to a couple of weeks, depending how much you stop along the way.
Calgary is a pleasant and laid-back place to start your trip; but for a totally different look at the city try to be here in late June/early July, when the town goes cowboy crazy at the annual Calgary Stampede
Driving west from Calgary, you'll see the pastoral-looking cattle farms soon give way to the brooding, snow-capped peaks of the Rockies. Banff itself is a handsome town with a main street lined with colonial-style buildings holding row upon row of souvenir shops selling comedy moose t-shirts and bottles of maple syrup. Lake Louise has a lower-key feel to it, but both towns are a mecca for outdoor recreation enthusiasts, who come to hike, bike, ride or ski through the thousands of acres of conifer-filled valleys, turquoise lakes and alpine meadows of the Banff and Lake Louise National Parks. The 230km-long Icefields Parkway
road (Alberta Highway 93 North) from Lake Louise to Jasper is often lauded as one of the world's most scenic drives. It takes about four hours if you don't stop, but it's best to allow an entire day and pack up a picnic to allow you to soak it all up from the many short trails and viewpoints along the way.
Far more compact than its better-known neighbours, Banff and Lake Louise, Yoho, just the other side of the British Columbia state border, is just as stunningly scenic but sees fewer visitors. The Trans-Canada Highway 1 cuts through the centre of the park through Kicking Horse Pass. It's well worth taking a side trip to Emerald Lake
, a postcard-perfect turquoise lake perfect for hiking or kayaking around. The small village of Field, with its cute wooden houses and pioneer feel, provides food, petrol and the like.
As you leave Yoho National Park, you're technically leaving the Rocky Mountains (you're now in the Selkirk and Columbia Mountains), but the scenery doesn't get any less spectacular as you come into Glacier National Park. If you can see it that is brace yourself for disappointment if you're here on one of the many, many days in which the glaciers are shrouded in cloud and the rain is pelting down.
Luckily there are a couple of activities here that work even on a rainy day, and they both revolve around the chance to get up close to two of Canada's most impressive predators. The Grizzly Bear Refuge at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, just outside the town of Golden, aims to research and champion the cause of the iconic grizzly bear. The sanctuary is home to Boo, a seven-year-old orphan, and interpretive tours highlight the vulnerability of the species and the unique role they play in the ecosystems of the Canadian Rockies. On the other side of Golden, the Northern Lights Wildlife Wolf Centre promotes wolf conservation by introducing visitors to six hand-reared grey wolves, a species that's still under threat in Canada from ranchers and hunters. For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, you can go out on a hike with the wolves and their adopted 'pack leader', Casey Black, and photograph them as they run free and off the leash.
If you're lucky enough to arrive on a clear day, drive up the Meadows in the Sky Parkway into Revelstoke National Park
. This road winds 26km up to the summit of Mount Revelstoke through alpine meadows filled with wildflowers in summer. The scenery in the park is forbiddingly beautiful, with bare grey mountain peaks and rockfalls cascading down to impossibly steep-sided gorges. There are also a series of beautiful lakes around the town, with plentiful opportunities for camping or staying at small lodges on their shores. If you've got a carful of bored kids, let them run wild in the Skytrek Adventure Park
, which offers a series of 'ziplines' through the forest, plus an 'enchanted forest' for the little ones. For tired mums, there are plenty of public hot springs to soak in if you're in need of serious pampering, book into Halcyon Hot Springs
on the shores of Arrow Lake.
Revelstoke to Vernon
After Revelstoke, you have the option of making your way south to Nakusp, following the shores of Lake Columbia and taking your car across it on one of the cute, free car ferries that get locals over the lakes in this region. Pick up Highway 6 in Nakusp and it'll take you through through Cherryville and Lumby into Vernon
. The contrast as you leave the mountains and drop down into the pastoral, warm Okanagan region is impressive conifer forests give way to fruit orchards, icy rivers to tranquil lakes, and moist, foggy weather to clear skies and sunshine. The Okanagan region is Western Canada's holiday playground, and many Alberta and British Columbia locals have fond memories of childhood summer holidays spent rowing boats and spitting cherry seeds in towns like Vernon. A good way to tap into the relaxed local vibe is to stock up for your picnic at a farmers' market, where the Vernon locals stroll around, stock up on apple jam and swap gossip. Look out for signs, or ask at any of the region's many visitors centres for times.
Kelowna to Vancouver
Larger than Vernon, sprawling Kelowna offers the chance of a dip on the town's lakeside beach, a stroll along the wooden boardwalk, play a round of golf
or a trip around some of the local vineyards to the south of town (try Mission Hill
or Quail's Gate
) with their rows of vineyards running down the lakeshore. Their best-known vino is ice wine, made from grapes frozen by the winter's fierce temperatures.
From Kelowna, it's well worth taking the scenic route to or from Vancouver via the Crowsnest Highway (Highway 3), which winds through pretty farmlands and picturesque villages and crosses the mountainous Manning National Park before joining up again with the Trans-Canada Highway just before Hope.