The drive from Vancouver to Calgary is something of a highlights reel of British Columbia and Alberta. With often only a week or two in the county, a 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. But there are other quieter, underrated routes between Vancouver and Calgary. This post will feature three alternative options.
I have tried and tested all of these routes, visiting every destination mentioned. Indeed, I would estimate that JR and I have road tripped at least 35,000km around beautiful British Columbia over the years!
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.
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Vancouver to Calgary 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
Vancouver to Vernon
The gorgeous Sea to Sky Highway (99) hugs the ocean as it leads north from Vancouver 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.
A little further up the road, thundering Brandywine Falls and picture-perfect Joffre Lakes are also worthwhile stops.
The transition to British Columbia’s hot, dry interior region can be quite a shock after the coastal rainforest and mountain vistas around Whistler and Pemberton. Lillooet offers rugged landscapes and a couple of great wineries such as Fort Berens.
A swim in the beautifully green Kalamalka Lake, just south of Vernon, will be well earned after another few hours on the road.
Vernon to Golden
From here, take Highway 6 east and cross Upper Arrow Lake via the free ferry. The small town of Nakusp 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. Don’t miss a chance to drive the Meadows in the Sky Parkway alpine to see stunning wildflowers or the Giants Cedar Boardwalk Trail.
Highway 1 may be the main route but this section of the road is anything but ordinary, travelling through dangerous avalanche country. Learn how this impressive route was built in Glacier National Park before heading onwards to Golden.
Golden to Calgary
Take a trip up the gondola at Golden’s Kicking Horse Mountain Resort to dine at the highest restaurant in North America surrounded by spectacular mountain panoramas. There’s also a chance to see Boo, the resort’s resident grizzly bear or have a go at Via Ferrata climbing.
Though the return to the highway may be reluctant, look forward to yet more hot springs in Radium. These are my favourite of the Parks Canada hot springs, featuring a large pool set into a canyon. Wild Bighorn sheep are a common sight here.
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.
Looking to book a stay in Revelstoke?
Alpine Inn & Suites – Great value motel, walking distance to all downtown attractions
Regent Hotel Revelstoke – Family owned hotel in central location with complimentary breakfast
Explorers Society Hotel – Modern, stylish boutique hotel, highly rated on Booking.com
Vancouver to Calgary Route 2: A 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 experience this Vancouver to Calgary road trip.
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, all of the most popular Canadian Rockies sights
Vancouver to Wells Gray
The quickest road out of Vancouver offers surprisingly wonderful views of the coastal mountain range as it heads towards Hope.
Just outside of Hope, pause to check out the Othello Tunnels, a series of impressive old train tunnels and bridges cut directly through granite rock. From here, the highway climbs to the Coquihalla Pass (1240m), and is surrounded by dramatic mountain peaks. The water wonderland of Wells Gray is the next stop.
The water wonderland of Wells Gray is the next stop. The park features as many as 39 waterfalls, with 9 being easily accessible from the Wells Gray Corridor drive. Whatever you do, be sure to see spectacular 141m high Helmcken Falls. A canoe or kayak trip in the park is well worth the time if you have it.
Wells Gray to Jasper
Switching from waterfalls to mountain peaks, Mount Robson Provincial Park is your next major destination. The park is home to the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies. After taking in the view, enjoy a walk on the short Overlander Falls Trail.
Rest and recharge in Jasper, a rightfully busy mountain town at the top of the Icefields Parkway. Take a side trip to stunning Maligne Lake or a boat trip to spectacular Spirit Island.
Jasper to Calgary
One of the top reasons to drive this route has to be the legendary 230km Columbia Icefields Parkway. 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 are conveniently located at the end of the Icefields Parkway. As of 2020, you MUST prebook a shuttle to Lake Louise and Moraine Lake
Turn away from the main highway onto the Bow Valley Parkway for a slightly slower drive east via Castle Mountain and Johnston Canyon. Calgary beckons just beyond the resort town of Banff.
Vancouver to Calgary Route 3: Small Towns, High Mountain Passes
The longest route of the three, this is a Vancouver to Calgary 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 British Columbia’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, unique attractions (Spotted Lake, Fort Steele, Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump), beyond the beaten path experience, multiple mountain passes
Vancouver to Osoyoos
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, just before Hope or take a walk through the historic Othello Tunnels.
The Crowsnest Highway (Highway 3) winds alongside the fast Similkameen, offering brief glimpses of the Cascade mountains range.
Take the opportunity to experience the coastal rainforest in E.C. Manning Park; there are many excellent multi-day trails alongside short, roadside routes such as the Sumallo Grove Interpretive Trail. Whatever you do, don’t miss the spectacular views at the Cascade Lookout!
The mountainous route eventually gives way to dry grasslands. Before reaching Osoyoos, look for a small right-hand turn-off to Spotted Lakes, 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.
Osoyoos to Alberta border
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 and mountain resorts like Rossland and Fernie.
At Fernie Alpine Resort, you can try swing, balance and jump along the elevated obstacles in the aerial park. The resort also has wonderful opportunities for alpine hiking, accessed by a chairlift.
If outdoor adventure is your priority (and time is not an issue), make the trip to magnificent Valhalla Provincial Park. The hot springs at Ainsworth are the perfect post-treat.
On the historical side, the region has a number of interesting ghost towns (such as Sandon, pictured below) and heritage sights. Fort Steele is a living time capsule of a 19th century gold rush boom town, complete with working blacksmith shop, theatre, steam railway and more.
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 at Gladstone Provincial Park. It is said to have the warmest water of any tree-lined lake in Canada.
Alberta border to Calgary
Once in Alberta, the route to Calgary is quick and straightforward. There are, however, some attractions in this area you definitely shouldn’t miss.
Stop at the Frank Slide to learn about Canada’s deadliest landslide in 1903. A short hike close to the interpretive centre leads through some of the 110 million tonnes of limestone that slid down Turtle Mountain.
If you’re looking for more adventure, however, head the opposite direction to Waterton National Park. Here, the prairies of Alberta meet the rugged peaks of the Rockies. Quieter than its northern counterparts of Banff and Jasper, Waterton is home to gorgeous lakes, waterfalls, hiking trails and more.
Once you’re all hiked out, head north to the Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump archaeological site and learn about traditional hunting methods. Calgary is just another few hours north, but it’s worth delaying your arrival to detour through the spectacular Kananaskis Valley.
Looking to book a stay at the end of your Vancouver to Calgary road trip?
Alt Hotel Calgary East Village – Modern option with wonderful views, close to downtown attractions
Regency Suites Hotel – Good value, especially considering the location
Hotel Elan – Highly rated on Booking.com and located in busy restaurant area, just south of downtown
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