The drive from Vancouver to Calgary is something of a highlights reel of BC and Alberta. With often only a week or two in the county, the Vancouver to Calgary road trip is a smart choice for visitors wanting to see as much as possible. The problem is that Highway 1 is often seen as the default route. Being an easy but still very scenic drive, there’s nothing really wrong with that. These Vancouver to Calgary road trip routes are unapologetically longer and slower but each one also offers something a something different to the well-worn tarmac of Highway 1.

Route 1: bears, lakes and hot springs, oh my

If you like water (in all forms), this is the route for you. It’s also a good choice if you want to see the most popular parts of the Rockies but still get off the beaten track a little. You’ll need a minimum of five days to see it all.

Highlights of this vancouver to calgary road trip

Pacific ocean views, natural and man-made hot springs, potential to see grizzly bears, driving through mountain ranges

Rainforest to desert

The gorgeous Sea to Sky Highway (99) hugs the ocean as it leads north to Squamish. Feeling fit? Take a hike up the Stawamus Chief (that huge rock towering above the town) for epic views. Alternatively, there is a gondola (B). A little further up the road, thundering Brandywine Falls (C) and picture perfect Joffre Lakes (D) are also worthwhile stops.

The transition to BC’s hot, dry interior region can be quite a shock after the coastal rainforest and mountain vistas around Whistler and Pemberton. Lillooet (E) offers rugged landscapes and a couple of great wineries such as Fort Berens. A swim in the beautifully green Kalamalka Lake (F), just south of Vernon, will be well earned after another few hours on the road.

Hot springs aplenty

From here, take Highway 6 east and cross Upper Arrow Lake via the free ferry. The small town of Nakusp (G) is the epicentre for half a dozen wild and developed hot springs. Visit one, visit them all!

Another free ferry (don’t boat trips just make road trips that bit more adventurous?) north is your connection to Highway 1 and the mountain town of Revelstoke (H). Highway 1 may be the main route but this section is anything but ordinary, travelling through dangerous avalanche country. Learn how this impressive road was built in Glacier National Park (I) before heading south to yet more hot springs in Radium (J).

Underrated Kootenay National Park is one of the easiest places to spot grizzly bears in the spring. At the end of Highway 93, cross over to the Bow Valley Parkway (1A) for a slower, more scenic route to Banff or turn left to visit Lake Louise, Moraine Lake et al. Calgary is only a short drive from here.

Grizzly Bears in Kootenay National Park on vancouver to calgary road trip alternative route

Route 2: A slight northern detour

Fast at first, this route slows down in the second half to visit the highlights of the Rockies from top to bottom. Magnificent peaks, tumbling waterfalls and vast glaciers….this road trip has it all. You’ll need a minimum of five days to see it all.

Highlights of this vancouver to calgary road trip

Highest point in the Canadian Rockies (Mount Robson), driving the Icefields Parkway, waterfall viewing in Wells Gray

The road north

The quickest road out of Vancouver offers surprisingly wonderful views of the coastal mountain range as it heads towards Hope. Just outside of this small town, pause to check out the Othello Tunnels (B), a series of impressive old train tunnels and bridges cut directly through granite rock. The water wonderland of Wells Gray (C) is the next stop – be sure to see spectacular Helmcken Falls. A canoe or kayak trip in the park is well worth the time if you have it.

From lakes to peaks, Mount Robson Provincial Park (D) is your next major destination. The park is home to the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies. If hiking is your jam, the Berg Lake Trail could be the highlight of your Canadian trip (reservations required so book early!) Rest and recharge in Jasper (E), a rightfully busy mountain town at the top of the Icefields Parkway. Take a side trip to stunning Maligne Lake.

The Icefields Parkway

One of the top reasons to drive this route has to be the legendary 230km Columbia Icefields Parkway (F). Frequently called the best one-way drive in the world, the Icefields Parkway travels through a landscape carved by glaciers. Don’t miss the Athabasca Glacier and Peyto Lake. If you struggle with crowds (like me) be sure to get up early and hike further from the highway. Most people do not go much beyond the roadside viewpoints.

The glacier fed lakes of Louise and Moraine (G) are conveniently located at the end of the Icefields Parkway. Turn away from the main highway onto the Bow Valley Parkway for a slightly slower drive east via Castle Mountain and Johnston Canyon. Calgary (H) beckons just beyond the resort town of Banff.

Route 3: Small towns, high mountain passes

The longest route of the three, this is a road trip for people who appreciate off the beaten track travel and the rewards that come from it. The route skirts the US border and travels over some of BC’s highest passes. You’ll need a minimum of seven days to see it all.

Highlights of this vancouver to calgary road trip

Small towns, quiet roads, unusual attractions (Spotted Lake, Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump)

view of osoyoos from highway 3, vancouver to calgary road trip alternative route

A desert oasis

The view of the coastal mountains as you pass through Chilliwack is only a taster of what is to come. Before heading east, stretch your legs at the pretty Bridal Veil Falls (B), just before Hope. The Crowsnest Highway (3) winds alongside the fast Similkameen, offering brief glimpses of the Cascade mountains range. Take the opportunity to experience the coastal rainforest in Manning Park (C); there are many excellent multi-day trails alongside short, roadside routes such as the Sumallo Grove Interpretive Trail.

The mountainous route eventually gives way to dry grasslands. Before reaching Osoyoos, look for a small right-hand turn-off to Spotted Lakes (D), a historically sacred site that has to be seen to be believed. Stop in Osoyoos to sip wine, taste local fruit and marvel at Canada’s only true desert region. Don’t forget to pause at the top of Anarchist Hill for epic views on your way out.

Small places, big impression

The Kootenay region of BC is full of characterful towns, from tiny historic outposts like Greenwood (home of the world’s best tasting water, who knew?) to hippy cities like Nelson (F) and mountain resorts like Rossland and Fernie (G). Detour as much as you and your schedule allows, but keep in mind the high mountain passes, windy roads and lake ferries that can slow down travel between them. While deciding your route, take a dip in Christina Lake (E). It is said to have the warmest water of any tree-lined lake in Canada.

Once in Alberta, the route to Calgary is quick and straightforward. If you’re looking for more adventure, however, head the opposite direction to Waterton National Park (H). Here, the prairies of Alberta meet the rugged peaks of the Rockies. Once you’re all hiked out, head north to the Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump (I) archaeological site and learn about traditional hunting methods. Calgary (J) is just another few hours north.

christina lake, vancouver to calgary road trip alternative route

Are you planning to drive between Vancouver and Calgary? What route will you take?

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Gemma
Author

One half of a Canadian/British couple currently living in Penticton, British Columbia. Gemma is happiest with a paddle in her hand, on the trail or planning the next big adventure.

2 Comments

  1. Hi there,
    My name is Libby, and I’m from Perth Western Australia. My family and I are planing a trip to Canada and Alaska in April 2019. We’d love to do one or maybe even two of these road trips. We like to be ” off the beaten track ” so these are great. We would probably be renting motor homes (RV’s) so I was wondering if you knew a site we could look up to find camping sites along these routes. Any info would be greatly appreciated

    Regards
    Libby Edwards

    • Gemma
      Gemma Reply

      Your trip sounds exciting! If you were already in Canada I would recommend purchasing one (or a few) of the very awesome Backroad Mapbooks – but for planning before your trip, I would check out the BC Provincial Parks and also the Recreation sites and Trails BC. The latter are often free. I’ve written a bit about finding camping in BC (and the differences between campsites) elsewhere on this site too. For Alaska and Yukon, definitely get the Milepost. It’s a mile by mile account of all of the major roads in Alaska, Yukon and also most of BC (includes every rest stop, every campground etc). If you can get it in advance of your trip, I think you’d find it exceptionally helpful.

      I would keep in mind that April is pretty early season for travel in Canada – some private and Provincial Park campgrounds will not be open yet.

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