A dramatic Alberta route of colossal peaks, mirrored lakes and ever-present wildlife, this leisurely road trip also includes glacier walking, cowboy nightlife, First Nations culture and hearty mountain dining.
Jasper National Park: Best for wildlife
Steam rises from dewy grass alongside the highway as the sun creeps over the forest and towering saw-tooth peaks. Drivers zip by, each casting sidelong glances into the trees. Suddenly, a hulking elk ambles across the road, bringing a comparatively tiny white car to an abrupt stop. The elk stares it down with superior, beady-eyed disdain. Humans may run Jasper, the Canadian Rockies' largest national park, but the animals rule it.
'Wildlife jams are a problem here,' says elaborately mustachioed Wes Bradford. It may be the only place in the world where the drivers seem to enjoy the gridlock. Wes worked for many years as a Parks Canada warden and is no stranger to this scene. 'Elk caused me a lot of headaches, but I've always loved them because they're such majestic animals.' Grizzlies, black bears and bighorn sheep were also regular 'workplace issues' in his former job.
Columbia Icefield: Best for glaciers
Nine crampon-footed hikers crunch up the slope of Athabasca Glacier before stopping to catch their vaporous breath. It's the cue for effusive guide Fridjon Thorleifsson to introduce the surrounding Columbia Icefield, a 77-square-mile web of six silvery tentacles between Jasper and Banff, and the largest ice cap south of the Arctic Circle.
'The Icefield is said to feed up to 80 per cent of Canada's drinking water,' he says, 'but most of this glacier's volume has been lost since the 1920s. It's still moving forward by about 20 metres a year, but it's also melting faster than ever.' He displays a crumpled photo from decades past showing Athabasca's blue-streaked tip almost nudging the roadside. Today, the road is a good distance away.
The leaden movement of ancient glaciers has shaped the Rockies' jagged landscape. From the Icefields Parkway - Canada's most scenic driving route - their monumental work is displayed in ever-larger peaks, rising like ruined castles on either side of the road. The Parkway's visual highlights also include the glacier-fed, extraordinarily turquoise Peyto and Bow Lakes.
The area's main lure has always been the chance to clamber on a glacier. Die-hards can spend up to 15 hours climbing the glacier's almost vertical north face, but moderate hikers prefer this wind-whipped, 90-minute scramble, where the spectacular views more than compensate for any burning thighs. At the 1.2-mile point, Fridjon stands at the edge of a cave-like crevasse, gripping each hiker in turn as they peer into the pitch-black hole.
'If you fall in, you'll probably get spit out eventually,' he says with a smile. Most of the crevasses are natural but, adds Fridjon, Canadian military once used the glacier for bombing practice - hikers often find rusty shrapnel 'souvenirs' on its sparkling surface.
Where to eat
Located on the Icefields Parkway, the Crossing has a cafeteria, a large dining room, a pub with a barbecue grill and a patio deck. Open April to October (mains from £6; thecrossingresort.com).
Where to stay
Num-Ti-Jah, a 1930s wooden lodge, is known for its eclectic décor and dramatic views over Bow Lake. There are 16 rooms, mostly of the superior motel variety (try to get one with a lake view). The log-lined Elkhorn Dining Room in the heart of the lodge is warmed by a fire and serves a hearty, steak-heavy, four-course dinner. The walls are lined with Canadiana, including a collection of animal heads. Open May to October only (from £125; num-ti-jah.com).
Banff National Park: Best for nature walks
'The scenery is very dramatic here, but there's also a lot more colour than people anticipate,' says Tamara Dykshoorn. The guide and Alberta local is hiking in her favourite part of Banff National Park, in the Sunshine Meadows area. At an elevation of 2,220 metres and straddling the Alberta and British Columbia border, it's the Rockies' most spectacular alpine swathe and a vast paintbox of wildflowers for much of the year. 'In summer, it's usually carpeted with reds, whites, yellows and even some blues,' adds Tamara.
Pockets of purple fireweed and yellow glacier lilies spill across the lake-studded plateau, causing hikers to stop regularly to scan the views. Golden eagles swirl overhead, suddenly diving at tiny ground squirrels that are hiding in the grass. All around, grey-blue mountain peaks poke up through the clouds, surveying their surroundings like curious giants. Banff became Canada's first national park in 1885, and it's not hard to see why.
Colours that seem impossible in nature entice many to hit the trails to Banff's ethereal lakes. The iridescent, emeraldgreen Lake Louise is best viewed from the heights of the challenging Lake Agnes trail - from this vantage point it glows like a neon paint slick among the trees. Moraine Lake, a short drive away, is even more striking. Shadowed by peaks resembling the man-made towers of ancient civilisations, it has a mesmerising clearblue brilliance. (The surreal colours of the lakes are triggered by sunlight reflecting off glacial minerals suspended in the water.)
'Fall is always my favourite time of year to walk here,' says Tamara. 'People come for the changing leaves in the trees and you can still see some great alpine flora, but the wildlife-watching - especially during rutting - is much more dramatic. The colours and views are always changing, depending on the season.'
Where to eat
The Bison Restaurant, a slick joint in Banff town, would be at home in a big city. Its walls are lined with artwork and a tempting menu combines top-grade Alberta beef dishes with creative seasonal salmon and venison mains. Book during peak season, and try to get a table on the upstairs patio for mountain views (mains from £13; thebison.ca).
Where to stay
In a tranquil setting on Tunnel Mountain at the edge of Banff, the Hidden Ridge Resort is made up of self-contained apartments each have their own patio, log fireplace and kitchen. A grocery shop and restaurants are a short walk away. While there's a free shuttle into town, most guests prefer to spend time in the large outdoor hot pool area (from £120; bestofbanff.com).
Calgary: Best for a night out
Fast-footed dudes in white Stetsons whirl their partners around the dance floor. Across the neon-lit room, wild hollers encourage a one-armed rider on a bucking mechanical bull. And near a photo display of legends past, champion rodeo rider Scott Schiffner chats with fellow regulars. It's Friday night at Ranchman's, Calgary's top introduction to Western good times.
'This is the best bar in Canada for cowboys,' says Scott. 'They let us get away with a lot here, that's for sure.' Wildly popular every summer during the Calgary Stampede - an annual rodeo and festival celebrating all things Western - Ranchman's has been luring cowboy-curious out-oftowners for years. Initially they watch shyly from corner tables, but they're up and linedancing with the locals after a beer or three.
While the region's cowboys may have chowed down on beans and grits back in the day, the city's dining scene has advanced in recent years.'We've moved beyond the typical Alberta steakhouse,' says Jean François Beeroo, co-owner of downtown's new Char Cut, a restaurant with a contemporary lounge-club feel. The joint beckons meat-lovers with homemade charcuterie, fire-roasted prime rib and rotisserie chicken. Added to this is a secret dish that seems to satisfy both modern and old-school cowboys. 'At around 10pm on most Fridays and Saturdays, we put up a sign around the back of the restaurant advertising our $5 gourmet alley burgers,' says Jean François. Among the selection are burgers made with pork and lamb, and dressed with cheese curds and egg. 'We never know how many we're going to have ready, but the word quickly spreads,' adds Jean François. 'There's a queue within minutes and they always sell out.'
Where else to eat
The Ranche Restaurant is a century-old renovated farmhouse offering a candlelit take on Western fine dining and ale-marinated elk steaks from its own Alberta ranch (mains from £22; crmr.com/theranche).
Where to stay
Hotel Arts, a designer boutique hotel near the centre of town, has the minimalist feel of a gallery, with works by local artists - from the large metal bull in reception to hand-blown glass light fixtures. The mood-lit rooms are spacious and the on-site bar is the perfect place for a final tipple after a night on the town (from £125; hotelarts.ca).
Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park: Best for First Nations culture
A blur of coloured feathers sweeps around the stage as a deep, ever-quickening drumbeat rattles the ribcages of the audience. The pace crescendos for a final charge before the sweat-beaded dancers suddenly halt and the drum falls into silence. The Men's Fancy Dance, as it is known, is over. The crowd gathered at the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park erupts into a din of applause and cheers.
The Historical Park is a meeting place for members of the Siksika First Nation, a self-governing indigenous community, and visitors are welcome. Overlooking a river valley that's changed little since Chief Crowfoot signed the 1877 treaty that created the reserve, there's the Interpretive Centre, shaped like a tipi splayed flat. Inside is a museum housing historical dioramas, elaborate ceremonial attire and exhibits illuminating the locals' original buffalo-hunting prowess. And then there's the dancing.
Many of the area's 6,000 residents - most with evocative names such as Laura Sitting Eagle or Robert Big Tobacco - frequently come here to watch and, donning feathered, multi-beaded regalia, to dance. Tonight, the crowd has witnessed a spectacle of wild energy, but not yet the dance that the Siksika First Nation is most famous for: the Chicken Dance.
'Our Chicken Dance comes from the legend of a young man who saw a rooster strutting around to attract females,' says Treffrey Deerfoot, the twinkle-eyed cultural curator of the Interpretive Centre. The Chicken Dance begins: men dressed in colourful feathers, bent forward with elbows pulled back, shuffle and preen in imitation of the mating dance of the prairie chicken, to the obvious delight of the crowd. So popular has this spectacle become that the World Chicken Dance Championships are held here each June.
'We're connected to the past and our ancestors with our dances. And we try to connect visitors to who we are today when we perform them,' explains Treffrey, gazing over the verdant tree-lined valley the Siksika have called home for centuries.
Where to eat
Along Highway 1 towards Calgary is Strathmore Station Restaurant & Pub, lined with locomotive memorabilia. There are comfort food classics, steaks, salmon and quesadillas, and the Sunday brunch buffet is a winner (mains from £8; strathmorestation.com).
Where to stay
The best way to dip into Siksika culture is to spend a night in a Blackfoot Crossing Tipi in the valley just below the Interpretation Centre. Facilities are basic (sleeping bags, portaloo) but the campfires, stove-warmed quarters and coyote howls make up for any lack of luxury (from £23 per person; blackfootcrossing.ca).
John Lee is a travel writer based in Vancouver. He contributed to Lonely Planet's Canada (£15.99) and wrote the Vancouver City Guide (£11.99).
The article 'The Perfect Trip: The Canadian Rockies' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.