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canadian road trip

Canadian Road Trip: camping and exploring Waterton Lakes, Banff, and Vancouver

Canada is a quite a gem and gigantic!  If you’re a fan of jaw dropping mountain views, turquoise glacial waters, and super friendly people, then Canada should be added to your travel list.  This particular trip was part of a larger, one-month long road trip, in our 1887 VW Syncro Van.  We combined a mix of Airbnb’s, hotels, and camping.   We traveled in June and July from Southern Alberta to the coast of British Columbia.  The crowds were reasonable for the summer season, in the exception of Banff.  The weather was gorgeous and the views at every turn, were stunning. I fell in love with Canada’s welcoming spirit, jagged mountain ranges, and their hidden gems at every turn.

 

GETTING THERE

We entered the Canadian border just North of Glacier National Park, into the Alberta province.  The border experience was a breeze and we were welcomed with kindness.  It is important to have up to date passports, for all who are entering. I would also suggest checking with the CBSA for details on what you can and cannot take across the border.

traveling in canada

STAY

On this trip, I had booked a small handful of hotels throughout Canada, in tourist impacted locations.  The remainder of our trip I left unplanned, “choose your own adventure.”  This can be a bit scary to not have a set plan, however our most amazing experiences have been led by talking with locals (often van owners) at gas stations or coffee shops, and getting the local advice about best roads, “wild camping” coordinates, and eateries.  Bicycles were also a part of what made this trip amazing, a bike hitch is a must for transport.  It was a nice break from our van to get out and explore small towns on bike.

Prince of Whales Hotel in Waterton Canada 

On entering in Alberta, Canada I began searching for unique places to stay.  Our first stop north of the border was Waterton Lakes National Park. After Googling the area, I was struck by the historic beauty of the Prince of Wales Hotel.  I am a softy for historic lodges, and this fit the bill.  The hotel is perched on a hill overlooking Waterton Lakes and town proper.  The views are stunning, and it looks as though you are in the Swiss Alps.  It is a landmark 1920’s hotel and just a 6-minute walk or short bike ride to Waterton township.  The rooms are clean, a bit pricey, but worth it, and the service was excellent.  The lodge has a beautiful dining room with sweeping views.  The staff hosted a haunted story time hour in the grand room, which gave a lot of history peppered throughout the lore.

 camping in alberta, canada

The following two nights we camped our way towards Banff: one night “free range” camping along Hwy 940 and the next night at Upper Kananaskis Lakes campground.  Kananaskis Campground was delightful with forested bike paths, lots of hikes, and beautiful views of the Rockies.

camping in canada

Once in Banff, I had booked one night at the Canalta Lodge.  This lodge was perfectly located in downtown Banff, had a hipster mountain theme, and wonderful hot tubs and sauna.  The following night we stayed at the Paradise Bunglows.  Paradise Lodge Bungalows were built in the 1930’s and just short of a mile from Lake Louise.  This was my favorite stay, away from the crowds, nestled in the trees, and hikes from our doorstep.  We bought groceries prior to leaving Banff proper, and enjoyed a charcuterie board on our cabin deck.

banff canada

Heading westward towards the coast, we camped our way to Vancouver.  I started hunting for deals in Vancouver on Hotel Tonight.  I found a great deal at the Four Seasons Hotel in the heart of downtown and included secure covered parking.  This was at the top of our price bracket, but it was our anniversary, and everyone was ready for white robes and clean sheets.  The rooftop pool, views from our room, and delightful staff did not disappoint.

The Four Seasons in Vancouver

EAT

The food in Canada was surprisingly delicious.  I often use the Yelp app on my phone to quickly get a sense of what food options are highly rated in the area.  Once settled in our room at the Prince of Wales Hotel, we headed out on our bikes to explore the adorable town of Waterton.  Two eateries that are a “must stop” in Waterton, are Weiners of Waterton and Waffleton.  Wieners of Waffleton is literally the best hot dog we have ever experienced!  A simple concept of a wiener option with toppings-- pure genius.  Waffleton offers decadent golden Belgium waffles, savory or sweet.  The waffles are made from scratch and it receives five stars for a reason.  We loved the savory waffle: prosciutto and swiss buried inside the waffle.  I am a waffle snob, and I still dream about this one! 

food in canada, waffleton in waterton

The food in Banff was underwhelming, in my opinion.  Tourism abounds in Banff, which leads to high prices and long waits.  We did splurge on one meal worth mentioning on Lake Louise, the Fairmont Chateau for their buffet breakfast.  The food was worth the money and the views were breathtaking.  It’s quite possible it tasted much better because we just canoed across Lake Louise and were famished. I’m sure there are amazing options in Banff, but we weren’t willing to sit and wait with our boys or pay exorbitant prices.

As we worked our way across the Canadian map westward, the next stop foodie stop is Vancouver.  Vancouver is a food mecca and worth a trip alone just to experience all it has to offer. 

food in vancouver canada

A few of our favorites were Rodney’s Oyster House, sushi at Miku (this was a date night sans kids), and the best waffles on the trip at an unassuming spot called Nero’s Belgian Waffle Bar. 

food in vancouver

A short water taxi or bike ride to Granville Island’s Public Market was also a gastronomical treat.  Lots of artisanal food, food stalls, and a visual smorgasbord of options.  We opted to stock up on a few pastries, olives, and cheeses for the rest of our journey homeward.

 

SHOP

Shopping in Canada was not a priority on this family vacation.  It consisted more of a food tour than perusing unique boutiques.  The shopping in Banff was primarily tourist shops.  In Vancouver however, unique boutiques line the streets, especially Granville Island.

food in vancouver

It is a great mix of artisan studios, makers, and be sure to check out the Kids Only market for unique toys.   Gastown is also a hotspot for boutiques and modern homewares.  Explore a little further to Abbott and Carrall, and Cordova, this is where you’ll find the hipster shops.

WHAT TO SEE

The tiny town of Waterton can be toured by bicycle.  We meandered through the town, stopping to eat, shop, and ride directly up to Cameron Falls.  There are plenty of hikes in Waterton Lakes National Park, just check in with the visitors center to suit your preference.  Wind surfing and kite surfing is very popular on Waterton Lake.  There were several outdoor shops that offered lessons and gear.

biking in canada

We fortuitously met another van owner and ice climber from the area, when packing up to leave Waterton National Park.  He insisted we head on the dirt roads for “wild camping” on Hwy 940 towards the Don Getty Wildland Provincial Park.  This proved to be our favorite road.  It was a compacted dirt, top speed at 45 mph, and multiple Prius’ were spotted traveling along this road.  This road was pure beauty and worth the views!  The road hugged the foothills of the Canadian Rockies and stunning Elk River.  We continued Hwy 940 to Kananaskis Lakes, and then towards Canmore and Banff.

wild camping in canada

Banff was our next stop on my bucket list, based upon the beautiful photographs I had seen of glacial lakes, and peaks of Mt. Rundle and Mt. Cascade.  The town of Banff is adorable, but a touristy spot in the summer.  Banff is a hiker’s paradise.  If you are visiting in the summer, it is imperative to get an early start in the day to beat the crowds.  Canoeing on Lake Louise was also must, so we set out early the next morning and paid the hourly rate to canoe across the lake.  The water is unreal, the views are spectacular, and I’m glad we paid for the experience.  An alternate plan would be to rent a canoe or kayak in town and choose a less populated lake, like Hector or Bow Lake.

lake louise in banff national park, canada

Heading north on Highway 93 out of Banff was a stunning drive! The towering Canadian Rockies loaded with glaciers followed us all the way to Athabasca Glacier.  Athabasca Glacier is one of six glaciers in the Columbia Icefields, also one of the largest non-polar ice fields in the world. The Columbia Icefield Adventure is an expedition style adventure on an explorer vehicle which drives directly on top of the glacier.  The tour took us on an informative and entertaining ride directly onto the 10,000-year-old Athabasca Glacier, and the ability to walk right on to the glacier itself.  We all loved the massive ice Explorer vehicle and the rich stories of the area.  

jasper national park, columbia ice field

Part two of the tour was a bird’s eye view on the glass-bottomed Columbia Icefield Skywalk.  It is 918 feet drop above the Sunwapta Valley. A stunning view with informative stations presented in a storytelling format.  The tour was an engaging learning experience that we all enjoyed!  I would suggest booking tickets prior to your arrival www.columbiaicefield.com due to making the most of your time in Jasper National Park.

 

Vancouver offers so much to see its hard to take it all in! Our family especially enjoyed biking around Stanley Park.  The bike path hugs the shore and circumnavigates the Brockton Point.  Bike rental shops are available near the entrance of the park.  Once inside Brockton Point Park, there are horse drawn carriage rides, botanical gardens, grassy picnic areas, a shoreline public pool, and a zoo.  This was our favorite sightseeing activity while in Vancouver AND it was great exercise.

biking in vancouver canada, brockton point

This family road trip was one of our favorites!  We have all heard Canadians rave about their country and after the trip, I don’t blame them.  The Canadian Rockies are so majestic and the people we encountered were nothing but delightful.  Canada is definitely place we will return, because there is so much to see!  Hopefully this guide gives you a glimpse of what Canada has to offer.

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