There is no doubt that the pristine alpine lakes, soaring peaks, deep canyons, turquoise rivers and ancient glaciers of Banff National Park feature high on many travel bucket lists.
But Banff is also the most expensive summer destination in Canada. In summer, basic hotel rooms cost upwards of $350 a night. Most need to be booked many months in advance. The parking lot of one of Banff National Park’s star attractions, Moraine Lake, fills up by 6am in July.
There is no doubt that Banff is beautiful. Millions of people visit every year and absolutely love it.
But this area of Canada happens to be absolutely full of magnificent places and most of these are not experiencing the incredible surge in tourism that Banff is (up 30% in the last five years). There are many other options. Keep reading to discover some of them!
This article was written and published in December 2019
Awesome Alternatives to Banff
So whether you….
- Want to avoid the biggest crowds
- Prefer travelling beyond the beaten path
- Are visiting the Canadian Rockies for a second or third time
- Would like to save money
…then this post is for you!
I’ll be sharing some of my top ‘beyond Banff’ destinations around the Canadian Rockies for active, adventurous travellers who love the outdoors. My recommendations are based on 5+ years of experience exploring this jaw-dropping area.
The majority of the places suggested here (Waterton is the only exception) would be perfect for a stay of around a week. This allows enough time to explore both the local area and other attractions nearby.
Looking for a longer adventure? Combine three, four or even all five destinations over a two-week road trip.
Let’s get started!
This post includes some affiliate links. If you make a qualifying purchase through one of these links, I may receive a commission at no extra cost to you. In the summer before writing this post, we worked in partnership with Mount Engadine Lodge, Tourism Revelstoke and Resorts of the Canadian Rockies.
Waterton National Park
Waterton is the smallest national park in the Canadian Rockies but this doesn’t limit its mightiness. This is the place where the flat prairies really do meet mountain peaks.
Just beyond Waterton’s tumbleweed strewn boundary line is a chain of stunning lakes, surrounded by towering mountains.
A little further in and you’ll find a historic hotel with one of the best panoramas in the world. Venture deeper into the park and you’ll find scenic trails, roaring waterfalls, delicate alpine meadows and colourful canyons.
A two and a half drive south of Calgary, Waterton National Park borders Glacier National Park in the USA. Together, they form the world’s first International Peace Park. Combine a trip to Waterton with a hop across the border to fully appreciate the outstanding scenery.
What to do in Waterton National Park
- Watch waterfalls – The easiest to reach is Cameron Falls, almost right in town. Bertha Falls is worth the short hike to reach. If you have time and stamina, continue on to Bertha Lake to see pretty alpine wildflowers.
- Hike the Crypt Lake Trail – This adventurous 17km round trip hike includes a boat ride to the trailhead, spectacular valley views, several stunning waterfalls, a slightly nerve racking steel ladder climb and an exposed traverse. It’s a busy route but we still found it exceptionally rewarding.
- Take a boat cruise – Regularly scheduled tours leave from Waterton Marina to cruise down the lake and into the USA side of the International Peace Park. Wildlife, including bears and mountain goats, can sometimes be seen on shore.
- Rent a bike – Unbelievably colourful Red Rock Canyon is one of Waterton’s best sights but the road is not currently accessible to vehicles (see note below). The best way to reach it at the moment is by bike. Both regular and e-bikes are available for rent in Waterton Village.
- Explore Waterton Village – Visiting Waterton in July, we were so surprised how chilled out the experience was compared to Banff and Jasper. For one thing, it was so easy to park downtown! It’s also a lovely place to stroll around, especially on the lakeshore path.
Important note – due to local wildfires in 2017, some access roads, trails and attractions are still closed for redevelopment at the time of writing. For this reason, I’d recommend also visiting Glacier National Park if you’re looking for a longer trip (more than 3 nights) in the area.
Where to stay in Waterton National Park
With one of the most gorgeous views you can find anywhere in the Rockies, the Prince of Wales Hotel is an iconic place to stay in Waterton.
Built in 1927, the Prince of Wales is still decorated in the Edwardian style. The rooms are small but comfortable and some even have lake views. We loved breakfast (not included) in the lakefront dining room.
In town, check out the spacious rooms at Waterton Glacier Suites. No more than two or three blocks away from any restaurant or store in town, this hotel is also very close to the marina for lake cruises.
Camping in Waterton National Park
There are two operating vehicle accessible campgrounds in Waterton.
Townsite campground is centrally located in the village and has 237 sites. Reservations open in January every year, most sites are booked out well in advance of summer. There are, however, nine first-come, first serve vehicle accessible sites. If the previous occupants decide not to stay, the sites become available at 11am. We managed secure a site quite easily in July.
Belly River campground is a more primitive campground (no showers, no flush toilets) located close to the US border. There are 24 sites and all are available on a first-come, first serve basis only.
The laid back town of Canmore is found only 20 minutes drive east of Banff. Despite being located in a narrow valley surrounded by impressive mountain peaks, Canmore is not in a national park and gives the opportunity to stay in and explore a stylish, yet still down to earth mountain town.
Sure, there are still plenty of tourists in Canmore, but the vibe is noticeably more low key and local. Canmore’s downtown area is still bustling however, with a larger range of locally owned restaurants and stores than Banff. Prices are also slightly lower, for both accommodation and food in Canmore.
Canmore is the closest comparison to Banff on this list. Being so close, the vast majority of classic Banff experiences can be had while staying in Canmore instead. And, of course, Banff is very easy to visit on day trips.
What to do in Canmore
- Explore downtown – Canmore has a vibrant downtown to rival that of nearby Banff. There’s a little something for everyone here, with souvenir shops, breweries, galleries, outdoor stores and plenty of choice for food. Every Thursday in summer there is also a Mountain Market featuring local produce and artisan products.
- Go hiking – You don’t have to go far from Canmore to find some excellent hiking trails. Popular destinations include the emerald coloured Grassi Lakes and distinctive Ha Ling Peak. Both offer impressive views back towards Canmore.
- Rent a bike – The Legacy Trail is a 26km mostly flat cycling and walking route between Canmore and Banff. One option is to cycle to Banff and take the regularly scheduled Roam transit bus back to Canmore. More info about the Legacy Trail here on hikebiketravel.com
- Go caving– Crawl, climb and wriggle your way around the Rat’s Nest Cave system with Canmore Cave Tours. It’s a one of kind journey to discover intricate formations, ancient artifacts and the beauty of the underground world
- Explore Banff National Park – Canmore is only minutes away from the boundary of Banff National Park and makes the ideal base for exploring this iconic area. To visit the famed Moraine Lake in summer, be sure to arrive early (before 6am) or be prepared to take a shuttle bus.
Where to stay in Canmore
The Pocaterra Inn offers one of the best value stays in Canmore. It’s a short walk from downtown and all stays include a hot and cold breakfast. Spacious rooms, fireplaces and an indoor pool make this a great place to be based while exploring the area.
If you’re looking for something a little more high end, consider the Malcolm Hotel by CLIQUE. This luxury hotel is very close to downtown, offers amazing mountain views and has a heated outdoor pool with hot tub. The CLIQUE hotels group has multiple highly rated resorts in Canmore (Falcon Ridge, Stoneridge et al).
Important note: Canmore has the most expensive accommodation of all destinations on this list. The prices are usually a little lower than Banff, but not dramatically.
Camping in Canmore
There are two campgrounds very close to downtown Canmore – Spring Creek (RVs only) and Wapiti Campground. The latter has particularly impressive views. Sites at Wapiti Campground are allocated on a first-come, first-serve system.
Further away from Canmore itself, Bow Valley Provincial Park is home to a number of scenic campgrounds. Bow River Campground, for example, has 66 sites with some located right on the water. Most campsites have both power and water.
For more camping options, check out the Kananaskis Valley (below).
The Kananaskis Valley
If you’re looking for all of the punch of the Canadian Rockies without the crowds or flashy mountain towns, head directly for the Kananaskis Valley. Situated between Banff and Calgary, the rugged mountains and spectacular lakes here are visited mostly by locals.
A place that has so far escaped the trappings of mass tourism (chain restaurants, souvenir shops, giant parking lots and the like), the Kananaskis Valley is a place to really connect with nature. And it’s best done one or more of the many breathtaking hiking trails.
The Kananaskis Valley is an ideal match for independent travellers, specifically those who prefer to be off the beaten path. Trail signage is simple and facilities are on the rustic side, but the rewards come unbelievably quickly. Take a drive off Highway 1 and see for yourself.
What to do in the Kananaskis Valley
- Take a hike (or two) – The Kananaskis Valley is best explored by foot. There is no national park pass required here, so go ahead and hit the trails! My favourites are Burstall Pass, Rummel Lake and Tent Ridge. The latter has epic views but should not be taken lightly as there some exposed scrambling required.
- Watch waterfalls – There are some wonderful waterfalls to find in the Kananaskis Valley. One of the most impressive has to be the Karst Spring near Watridge Lake. Here, a huge waterfall emerges from below a rockface and cascades through the forest.
- Enjoy afternoon tea – One of the most delightful things you can do in the Kananaskis Valley is have afternoon tea at Mount Engadine Lodge (more info below). The full afternoon tea includes an artisan charcuterie board, fresh baked cakes and bottomless tea/coffee. And, of course, the views from the patio are fabulous!
- Get some hydrotherapy – The recently opened Kananaskis Nordic Spa is an alpine sanctuary. Total disclosure, I haven’t been here (yet!) but it looks absolutely serene. Five outdoor pools, four steam and sauna cabins, winterised hammocks, therapeutic massages and more.
- Go paddling – Shaped by both mountains and lakes, the Kananaskis Valley is a great place to paddle. There are a few different places to get out on the water, with Barrier Lake being popular. Kananaskis Outfitters offer beachside canoe, kayak or SUP rentals. Alternatively, there is also the chance to take a voyageur canoe tour.
Where to stay in the Kananaskis Valley
Overlooking a meadow and surrounded by mountains (including its namesake peak), Mount Engadine Lodge has one of the most enviable locations in the Canadian Rockies.
Mount Engadine Lodge is most easily described as a road accessible backcountry lodge, with four types of accommodation on offer (cabins, lodge rooms, glamping tents and a yurt).
Alongside the spectacular views, four tasty meals (breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner) are included with every stay at Mount Engadine. World class alpine hiking is also free and starts right outside every door. Our two night stay at Mount Engadine was one of the highlights of our summer.
Camping in the Kananaskis Valley
Spray Valley and Peter Lougheed Provincial Parks have some great options for camping, both for RVs and tent campers. There are also multiple backcountry campsites, accessible via hiking trails.
Boulton Creek Campground (Peter Lougheed PP) is one of the largest provincial park campgrounds in the area, with 160 reservable campsites. The majority are unserviced, though showers (extra fee) and flush toilets are available.
Also in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park is Canyon Campground, which has 50 unserviced campsites available on a first-come, first-serve system. There are numerous bike trails easily accessible from this campground.
Spray Valley has two rustic vehicle accessible campgrounds – Eau Claire (51` sites) and Spray Lakes West Campground (50 sites). The latter is on the shores of the Spray Lakes Reservoir and can be exceptionally peaceful. Both campgrounds operate on a first-come, first-serve system.
Being just twenty minutes drive to the border of Yoho, Golden makes an excellent base for visitors looking to tick off all the national parks within the Canadian Rocky Mountains World Heritage Site.
Yoho, Banff, Kootenay and Glacier National Parks all lie within one hour driving time from Golden. A little bit further and it’s possible to add Jasper and Mountain Revelstoke to the list as well.
Outside the national parks, there’s also wealth of beautiful provincial parks and other protected areas. To look at a Backroads Mapbook of the area, access roads seem to stretch like spiderwebs into every mountain range. Golden is a place that really rewards those who dare to look deeper.
This is true for the downtown area too. It would be so easy to pass Golden altogether on Highway 1, assuming that there’s nothing to see besides the long stretch of motels, gas stations and fast food joints. But that is a mistake.
Go beyond and you’ll see heritage buildings, trendy bars and unique boutiques, accompanied by an adventurous yet laid back atmosphere. And backdropping it all is mountains, mountains and….yep, more mountains!
What to do in Golden
- Get the best views in town – Take the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort gondola to 2500m and explore the magical alpine. From the gondola top, there are both hiking and downhill mountain biking trails plus a restaurant and Via Ferrata course (see below). Don’t forget to try and spot resident grizzly bear Boo in his mountainside refuge on the way up and down!
- Go climbing – Kicking Horse Mountain Resort has one of Canada’s only Via Ferrata courses, featuring fixed metal steps and handles. There is no climbing experience required. We tried out the two hour Discovery course and had so much fun while still being challenged.
- Watch paragliders at Mount 7 – For more excellent views close to town, take a drive up Mount 7. A gravel road (bumpy in sections) winds up towards the summit, ending at a popular paragliding launching site. From here, you can hike further into the alpine or take in the vistas and watch the paragliders go by.
- Hike in Glacier National Park – Canada has its own Glacier National Park and it is found 45 minutes (about 58km) to the west of Golden. Most hiking trails in the park are unrelentingly steep but trust me, the rewards are more than worth it. Be sure to also check out the Rogers Pass Discovery Centre.
- Explore Yoho National Park – Despite being so close to Banff and Jasper National Parks, Yoho can sometimes be overlooked by visitors to the Canadian Rockies. Emerald Lake is an obvious highlight (it looks as it sounds!) plus Takakkaw Falls and the impressive Iceline trail (minimum 17km return).
Where to stay in Golden
The landscapes around Golden lend themselves well to cabins, lodges, chalets and other traditional mountain accommodations.
One of the most highly rated is Canyon Ridge Lodge, an owner operated B&B with quiet and cosy rooms. Outside, there are stunning views and a hot tub, ideal for a post-hike soak.
Camping in Golden
Golden has a wonderful choice of free camping opportunities made possible via the BC Recreation Site network. North of town, we particularly like the rec sites at Waitabit Creek, Bluewater Creek and also those in Blaeberry Valley.
The campgrounds in this area tend to be fairly exposed and are definitely on the rustic side, with limited facilities (a few picnic tables, firepits and at least one outhouse). But the views are fantastic. Imagine a rushing turquoise river backdropped by mountain peaks. For more info, see the Sites and Trails BC website or buy a Backroad Mapbook.
Closer to town, Golden has a 72 site municipal campground with showers and laundry. Backed on to the Kicking Horse River, the campground is a 20 minute walk from downtown Golden.
Another option is the Golden Eco-Adventure Ranch, a 400 acre property with both powered and unserviced sites.
Revelstoke is British Columbia’s best up and coming adventure town. Affordable, approachable and immediately likeable, Revelstoke is also exceptionally convenient to visit.
The town is right on Highway 1, almost exactly halfway between Vancouver and Calgary. Activities, accommodation and food are all easily accessible from the very walkable downtown area.
This may not be the Canadian Rockies per se, but it hardly matters. The Monashees and the Selkirks are formidable in their own way and offer almost all of the mountain delights you’d expect near Banff.
Impressive views, check. Beautiful alpine lakes, check. Excellent hiking, thundering waterfalls, adrenaline sports, check, check, check!
Revelstoke is a particularly excellent choice of destination if you like to try local food and drink. There are two breweries, two distilleries and a large range of stylish eateries specialising in fresh, seasonal produce. Hike by day, drink and dine well at night!
What to do in Revelstoke
- Hike in Mount Revelstoke National Park – This small but perfectly formed National Park offers a 26km paved scenic drive all the way to the alpine. Check out the viewing platforms along the way before hiking amongst the beautiful wildflowers in the summit area.
- Ride the Pipe Mountain Coaster – Fly down the slopes of Revelstoke Mountain Resort at 42km/h, whipping around the trees and enjoying the views as you go. An exciting experience found nowhere else in British Columbia, Revelstoke’s Pipe Mountain Coaster is a must do!
- Soak in hot springs – Revelstoke is an ideal base to take a dip in some hot springs. My favourite has to be Halfway Hot Springs, featuring several natural pools set into a forest, with a river flowing past nearby. Unbelievably, this hot springs experience is completely free!
- Try paragliding – Being home to the highest paragliding descent in Canada, Revelstoke is the place to go paragliding. Soaring 2000m above the ground, I found paragliding to be more of a relaxing, scenic aerial ride than an extreme sport experience. And, of course, the views are outstanding!
- Go white water rafting – Looking for something even more exciting? The thundering Illecillewaet River offers exhilarating white water rafting, from Class II to Class IV rapids. For the most extreme conditions, visit as early in the rafting season (usually June) as possible.
Where to stay in Revelstoke
Located in the middle of the action downtown, the Regent Hotel has spacious rooms and one of the best (complimentary) breakfast buffet I’ve ever had. This stylish hotel is one of the oldest family owned and operated hotels in Canada.
The Swiss Chalet Motel is a 10-15 minute walk to downtown but has exceptionally reasonable prices, especially for groups. I stayed in a two bedroom suite with close family and we all had plenty of space.
The Cube Hotel has funky modernist style and is walking distance to downtown. The rooms are compact and have shared (though still private) bathrooms as well as a communal kitchen.
Camping in Revelstoke
Martha Creek Provincial Park and Blanket Creek Provincial Park are a short drive away from downtown Revelstoke. Both are good options for RV users and tent campers. There are also numerous low cost (but more rustic) recreation sites located on Highway 23, on the edge of Lake Revelstoke.
Feeling more adventurous? Consider checking out Echo Lake Recreation Site. It requires some driving into the hills on gravel roads to get there but it is such a beautiful spot and is completely free.
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