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15 Things to KNOW Before Driving the Bow Valley Parkway

15 Things to KNOW Before Driving the Bow Valley Parkway

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When you’re exploring a part of the world that’s as insanely beautiful as the Canadian Rockies, it’s always nice to take the scenic route. The Bow Valley Parkway is a beautiful, 48 km (30 mile) stretch of road between Banff and Lake Louise, with many natural attractions to explore along the way.

Banff and Lake Louise are also connected by the Trans Canada Highway, but although this route is faster, it’s also far less scenic. You don’t drive along the Bow Valley Parkway just to get from A to B, but also to enjoy the many picturesque viewpoints and pretty Banff hikes along the way. Johnston Canyon, which is one of the most famous attractions in Banff National Park, is also smack dab in the middle of this beautiful road. 

However, before you embark on a road trip along the Bow Valley Parkway, there are some things you need to know. There are lots of natural attractions to explore, restrictions as to when you can drive along the road, as well as several places to stay if you want to spend longer than one day exploring the many hiking trails around.

We’ve put together a guide containing everything you need to know before driving the Bow Valley Parkway! This way you can really make the most of your journey along this lovely stretch of road.

Table Of Contents
  1. 1. About the Bow Valley Parkway
  2. 2. When is the best time to visit the Bow Valley Parkway?
  3. 3. Is the Bow Valley Parkway open in winter?
  4. 4. When is the Bow Valley Parkway open to vehicles?
  5. 5. Does the Bow Valley Parkway close?
  6. 6. What are the best tours on the Bow Valley Parkway?
  7. 7. Can you bike the Bow Valley Parkway?
  8. 8. Is the Bow Valley Parkway the same as the Icefields Parkway?
  9. 9. What are the best stops along the Bow Valley Parkway?
  10. 10. Can you see bears on the Bow Valley Parkway?
  11. 11. How long do you need to explore the Bow Valley Parkway?
  12. 12. Where to stay on the Bow Valley Parkway
  13. 13. What facilities are there on the Bow Valley Parkway?
  14. 14. Where to eat along the Bow Valley Parkway
  15. 15. Is the Bow Valley Parkway worth visiting?
  16. Other Things to do While You're in Banff
  17. Thanks for reading!
  18. Why We Book Tours with Viator
  19. Renting a Car in Alberta

1. About the Bow Valley Parkway

Bailey at Morant's Curve on the Bow Valley Parkway
Morant’s Curve is stunning!
Lower falls at Johnston Canyon in Banff National Park
Lower falls at Johnston Canyon in Banff National Park

The Bow Valley Parkway covers 48 km (30 miles) and connects two of the most beautiful places in Alberta – Banff and Lake Louise. Both are popular tourist destinations inside Banff National Park and you can’t go wrong with visiting each of them!

Also known as the 1A, the Bow Valley Parkway was the first road to connect the two places before the Trans-Canada Highway opened in the 1960s.

Taking the Bow Valley Parkway from Banff to Lake Louise is much slower than the Trans-Canada Highway, partly because there’s a 60 km/h (37 mph) speed limit imposed the whole way. However, it remains a popular drive thanks to its ample sightseeing and hiking opportunities. If you’re traveling between Banff and Lake Louise, we highly recommend choosing this road over the highway.

We’ll get more in-depth about the highlights of the Bow Valley Parkway later on in this blog, but some of these include the famous Johnston Canyon, Silverton Falls, Moose Meadows, and Castle Mountain lookout. It’s also a fantastic place to spot wildlife around Banff, including animals like bears, bighorn sheep, and elk.

You need a Park Pass to drive along the Bow Valley Parkway since it’s part of Banff National Park. You can buy one online via the Parks Canada website or at a Visitor Center or booth when you enter the park. It’s valid from the date of purchase until 4 pm the following day. This means you could actually get two days of adventures along the Bow Valley Parkway for the price of one.

A Parks Pass costs $10.50 CAD for adults. It’s free for anyone under the age of 18, and you can also get group passes to save money. A group pass costs $21 CAD for up to 7 people in the same car, so if you’ve got 3 or more adults in one vehicle then this can save you money.

And if you’re going to be exploring the Canadian Rockies for a while, you can also buy an annual Discovery Pass for $72.25 CAD per adult or a group pass for $145.25 CAD.

Parks Canada Pass Quick Info

If you plan on spending time in Canada’s national parks (including Banff, Jasper, Yoho, Mount Revelstoke, Glacier, Kootenay, and more) then you’re going to have to pay for a Parks Pass.

Single Daily Admission:

This type of pass is valid for one person for one day. It is ONLY the best value if you are traveling alone and only plan to visit a national park for a couple of days.

  • Adult (ages 18-64) is $11 CAD
  • Senior (65+) is $9.50 CAD
  • Youth/Child (17 or younger) is FREE

Group Daily Admission:

If you’re traveling in a group or with family, you can buy a single-day admission for your entire vehicle (up to 7 people in one vehicle.)

  • $22.00 CAD gets your entire vehicle entry for one full day

Parks Canada Discovery Pass

The “Discovery Pass” is what Parks Canada calls their year-long (365 days from the purchase date), multi-park entry pass. This pass will give 365 days of access to all participating national parks in Canada. This includes the most popular parks like Banff, Jasper, Yoho, Kootenay, Glacier, Mount Revelstoke, and so much more.

  • Adult (age 18-64) – $75.25 CAD
  • Senior (65+) – $64.50 CAD
  • Group/Family (up to 7 people in one vehicle) – $151.25 CAD

Hot Tip: Although more expensive up front, if you plan on spending more than 7 days in different parks in Canada within a 12-month period, then the Discovery Pass is actually the better deal!

Parks Canada Passes can be bought online here or at one of the Visitor Centers or booths at the entrance to many national parks.

2. When is the best time to visit the Bow Valley Parkway?

Scenic view on the Bow Valley Parkway near Banff, Canada
Fall in the Bow Valley Parkway!

The Bow Valley Parkway is beautiful all year round, but we think that summer is the best time to go. This time of year has the best conditions for both driving and hiking, and it’s when you’re most likely to see wildlife.

If you’re visiting Banff during the summer or are spending a summer vacation at Lake Louise, it’s best to go early in the morning or later on in the afternoon, as the road is quieter during these times and you’ll have a greater chance of spotting wildlife.

Spring and fall are also pleasant times to visit, especially when the trees are changing color during autumn around Banff.

To be fair, the Bow Valley Parkway is also gorgeous during winter, but it’s more difficult to drive during this time. The road is plowed during the winter, but not as frequently as the Trans Canada Highway, so you’ll need to be careful and check the road conditions before you go. It’s a good idea to bring snow chains with you, and you’ll need to drive much more slowly than in summer.

Driving hours are also restricted along the Bow Valley Parkway at certain times of the year, which we’ll go into more detail on a bit later in this blog.

Related Read: If you’re flying to visit the Rockies, here’s all your options to get from the Calgary Airport to Banff.

3. Is the Bow Valley Parkway open in winter?

Bow Valley Parkway road in winter covered in snow
The road in winter!

Yes, the Bow Valley Parkway is open during winter in Banff and Lake Louise, but the driving conditions can be tricky. It’s much more dangerous to drive along this road during the winter than in summer due to snow and ice.

Car rental rates tend to be cheaper in winter than in summer, but it’s definitely best to rent a 4X4 during this time of year, and some snow chains.

If you’re not used to driving in the kinds of conditions that an Alberta winter can bring, then it might be best to reconsider which time of year you will visit. You can always take a guided adventure tour along the Bow Valley Parkway instead. This way you can completely relax and enjoy the sights while not worrying about road conditions.

4. When is the Bow Valley Parkway open to vehicles?

a map showing the season road closure on the Bow Valley Parkway
This map shows the section of road that is closed to cars during certain times of the year.

March 1 – June 25

During this time of year, the eastern section of the Bow Valley Parkway between the Fireside Picnic Area and the Johnston Canyon Campground is closed to vehicles, cyclists, and pedestrians from 8 pm until 8 am.

It is fully closed to vehicles 24 hours a day from May 1 – June 25. However, if you are a cyclist, you’re in luck! You can cycle the road with no cars during this time (except those overnight hours of 8 pm to 8 am) during the May 1 – June 25 window.

You’ll find the Fireside Picnic Area at the start of Bow Valley Parkway on the Banff end of the road. This restriction is in place to protect wildlife, as the eastern section of the Bow Valley Parkway is a critical wildlife corridor.

June 26 – August 31

At this time of year, the whole of the Bow Valley Parkway is open to cars and bicycles 24 hours a day. These are also the peak summer months in Alberta, so this is an ideal time to plan your Bow Valley Parkway road trip.

September 1 – September 30

In September, the same eastern section of Bow Valley Parkway is closed to vehicles. Again, this is to protect the wildlife corridor. However, no restrictions apply to cyclists.

October 1 – February 28

The entire Bow Valley Parkway is open all hours of the day during the winter months. However, driving and/or cycling on the road during these months can be tricky due to the harsh conditions, so make sure that you have the appropriate equipment and check the road conditions before you head out.

5. Does the Bow Valley Parkway close?

Castle Mountain Viewpoint along the Bow Valley Parkway
Castle Mountain Viewpoint along the Bow Valley Parkway

Yes, the Bow Valley Parkway is fully closed to vehicles from May 1 – June 25 between Banff and Johnston Canyon. It’s also closed to cyclists overnight, but you can bike along here during the daytime. The same section of the road also closes to vehicles for the whole month of September.

If you want to drive to Johnston Canyon from Banff during these months, we recommend that you opt for the Trans Canada Highway instead and take the Castle Junction exit. You can drive there along the Bow Valley Parkway from the Lake Louise side!

6. What are the best tours on the Bow Valley Parkway?

Views from the upper viewpoint at Johnston Canyon in Banff National Park
Views from the upper viewpoint at Johnston Canyon in Banff National Park

Banff area full-day tour from Calgary or Banff

This full-day tour of Banff National Park from either Calgary or Banff explores the Bow Valley Parkway and beyond, as you’ll also visit exciting nearby destinations like Sulphur Mountain, Surprise Corner, and the Hoodoos. One of my favorite parts about this tour is the Johnston Canyon walk, which is arguably one of the most beautiful stops on this scenic road.

The tour costs $160 CAD per person, including all of your transport and your Park Pass, however, you will need to buy your own lunch. You also have the option of upgrading your ticket to include a 90-minute tour up the Sulphur Mountain gondola, a beautiful location we highly recommend you check out.

Taking the gondola is a nice way to get an overview of Banff town and the surrounding area, while experiencing one of the best stops along the Bow Valley Parkway.

You can check availability and book the full-day tour here!

Johnston Canyon Icewalk

If you want to visit the Johnston Canyon during the winter, then taking a tour is a great way to experience its beauty and avoid having to navigate difficult conditions along the Bow Valley Parkway 

This 4-hour tour takes you on an exciting icewalk along the edge of the famous Johnston Canyon to see its stunning frozen waterfalls, as you learn all about the natural history of the area. The hike is 5.4 km (3.4 miles) long with 135 meters (442 feet) of elevation gain, so you don’t need to be a pro athlete to take part, but you should have a decent level of fitness. 

We really like that this is a small group experience with a maximum of 12 participants, so you won’t need to worry about it being too crowded, or getting left behind. Your ice cleats and hiking poles are included in the price, and you’ll also get to warm up with a hot chocolate and a snack afterward.

Our tour guide, Erin, was super knowledgeable about the area – you can instantly see the passion that the tour guides have for the area. At $95 CAD per person, we definitely think it’s worth it. The smaller group size and plentiful photo opportunities make for a very fun tour! This is a popular tour, so make sure to book your spot here through Viator before it fills up!

Sign at the entrance of the Bow Valley Parkway
Welcome to paradise!

Hop-on and hop-off Banff bus

If you are eager to explore the length of the Bow Valley Parkway but don’t want to drive yourself, then this hop-on, hop-off Banff bus is perfect for you! This is one of the top tours to Lake Louise from Banff and because the bus travels via the Bow Valley Parkway, you’ll get to soak in the beauty of the Bow Valley Parkway without having to worry about concentrating on the road.

The bus stops outside of the Johnston Canyon Lodge, which is just a 4-minute walk from the canyon itself, so you can get off here and explore the Bow Valley Parkway’s main attraction for as long as you like. It also continues along the road to Lake Louise and stops at Moraine Lake (making it a great tour option to get to Moraine Lake since there’s no public parking there anymore) before heading back to Banff.

Tickets cost $80 CAD for adults and $65 CAD for kids. We think that this is one of the best Banff bus tours and is a really great way to enjoy a scenic journey along the Bow Valley Parkway without having to drive yourself. Click here to secure your seat on the hop-on hop-off bus.

Johnston Canyon evening icewalk

You can add an extra layer of adventure to your Johnston Canyon Icewalk by taking a magical nighttime tour. Your professional guide will make sure that you stay safe and don’t get lost along the way, leaving you free to admire the frozen waterfalls and ice features that shimmer under the moonlight.

Obviously, it gets pretty chilly at night, so we recommend that you wrap up, but you’ll warm up with hot chocolate and maple cookies along the way.

With a maximum of 12 people per tour, you’ll be provided with headlamps (which you get to keep at the end of the tour) that will light the way as you explore. Along the way, you’ll hear stories about the area from your guide, helping you to get fully immersed in the beauty and history of the area.

This tour costs $95 CAD per person, so it’s the same price as the daytime version, and you’ll drive along part of the Bow Valley Parkway to get there even though the experience focuses solely on the canyon itself. You can book this scenic tour online here!

Views of a mountain at Morant's Curve along the Bow Valley Parkway
This would make a great desktop wallpaper.

Johnston Canyon winter hike and Bow Valley Parkway adventure tour

We love this small group tour which combines a beautiful hike along the Johnston Canyon with a tailored tour of the Bow Valley Parkway. 

You can choose just how far you would like to go on the hike, you can simply explore the easier trail to the Lower Falls or extend your journey by continuing along the steeper path to the Upper Falls. Plus, the itinerary for your drive back along the Bow Valley Parkway will be carefully crafted on the day to take weather, big tour schedules, and wildlife sightings into account, ensuring you have the best possible experience.

We’re not fans of big group tours that make you spend more time peering through the windows of a crowded bus than exploring outside. This is why this bespoke tour (with a maximum of 10 people) is perfect if you want to make the most of all the natural beauty that the Bow Valley Parkway has to offer.

You can also bring along a water bottle for free refills of filtered mountain water – how refreshing!

The tour costs $95 CAD per person including safety equipment and hot drinks, so we also think it offers great value for money. You can book your spot on this tailored tour here.

eBike and hike Banff to Johnston Canyon

As we’ve already mentioned, the Bow Valley Parkway is closed to cars at certain times of the year, so a guided e-bike tour is a fantastic way to explore this lovely stretch of road while it’s quiet. Plus, your legs get way less tired with some electric assistance!

You’ll start in Banff and cycle to the beautiful Vermillion Lakes, and then take the Legacy Trail onto the Bow Valley Parkway. You’ll ride in the open air along this gorgeous stretch of road until you reach Johnston Canyon, where you’ll go on a guided walk to the Lower Falls. This is the easier part of the Johnston Canyon hike, so you don’t need to worry about it being too strenuous.

After this, you’ll be driven back to Banff after an exciting half-day of exploration. Groups are capped at 7 people, making this a quiet and enjoyable tour.

This tour costs $167 CAD per person, and we think it’s a great way to explore the Bow Valley Parkway, spend some time in nature, and get some exercise. Plus, you’ll have a guide with you to make sure that you know exactly where to go, and that you get the most out of your experience. You can book your space on this tour here.

Why We Book Tours with Viator

Viator is a trusted online booking system for tours around the world! We almost always book our tours using Viator for a couple of reasons:

  • Free cancellation on most tours – Most of the tours on Viator allow you to cancel and get a full refund up to 24 hours in advance. This is handy in case plans change, or if booking an outdoor activity, the weather forecast is looking grim.
  • Reserve now and pay later – You can secure your spot on some of the most popular tours well in advance and not pay until closer to the day of the tour.
  • Lowest price guarantee – If you happen to find the same tour at a lower price elsewhere, Viator will refund you the price difference.
  • Pay in your chosen currency – Avoid costly international transaction fees by choosing to pay in your home currency.
  • Peace of mind – When booking with tour operators you find in person on the street or in small booking offices, you are often promised one thing and given another. This online platform holds tour operators accountable with a written description of inclusions as well as the opportunity for customers to leave reviews.

Check out the Viator website here! Or, for more info, read our detailed review about Viator here.

7. Can you bike the Bow Valley Parkway?

Fat biking in Canada
Fat biking is the best way to ride through the snow!

Yes – in fact, it’s one of the most popular roads to cycle along in the Canadian Rockies!

It’s actually part of the reason why the eastern section of the road is closed to vehicles at certain times of the year. But if you’re going when the road is open to cars, there’s no need to worry because there are spacious road shoulders, so it’s still safe to cycle.

The Bow Valley Parkway is 48 km (30 miles) long in total, so if you cycle the entire thing it will be a 96 km (60 mile) return journey. However, you can also do it in sections. For example, it’s a 50 km (31 mile) return ride from Banff to Johnston Canyon or 65 km (40 miles) to Castle Junction for amazing views of Castle Mountain. 

Alternatively, you can cycle from Banff to Lake Louise via the Bow Valley Parkway, and then catch the Roam bus back, as there are bike racks on board. The 8S and 8X buses will both take you from the lakeshore back to Banff High School Transit Hub for $10 CAD per adult, or $5 CAD for children and seniors. The last bus back to Banff from Lake Louise leaves at 11 pm, so you’ll have plenty of time to explore.

Catch the 8S if you want to enjoy the scenic drive along the Bow Valley Parkway once more, or the 8X if you want a faster route back to town along the Trans Canada Highway. The buses depart regularly during the day, although schedules do vary according to season.

During the summer months, or on weekends during winter, fall, and spring, you can also cycle 25 km (15.5 miles) to Johnston Canyon and catch the Roam bus back from there instead. A one-way fare costs $2 CAD for adults, or $1 CAD for seniors and youths.

8. Is the Bow Valley Parkway the same as the Icefields Parkway?

a car drives down the Scenic road down the Icefields Parkway in Canada
The Icefields Parkway
Bailey at Morant's Curve on the Bow Valley Parkway
The Bow Valley Parkway

No, these are two completely different roads. The Icefields Parkway is much longer at 232 km (144 miles) and stretches from Lake Louise all the way to Jasper. Meanwhile, the Bow Valley Parkway only goes from Banff to Lake Louise, so the entire road is inside Banff National Park.

In our opinion, the Icefields Parkway is the more scenic option of the two, with many more stunning stops along the way. If you only have time to drive along one of the two roads while you’re in the Canadian Rockies, we recommend that you choose the Icefields Parkway.

Related Read: There are so many fantastic tours on the Icefields Parkway to explore as well!

9. What are the best stops along the Bow Valley Parkway?

The Ink pots along the Bow Valley Parkway in Banff National Park
The Ink Pots along the Bow Valley Parkway in Banff National Park

Cory Pass Loop Trailhead

For incredible scenic views, it doesn’t get much better than Cory Pass. At 12.7 km (7.9 miles) long with an elevation gain of 3,723 feet (1,135 meters), this challenging hike is perfect for those with good levels of physical fitness.

This trail takes approximately 4–5 hours to complete, however this will depend on the trail conditions and the time of year you visit. For those driving, there is also a convenient car park located right at the foot of the trail.

We highly recommend walking this trail between May and September, as this is when travel is easiest and the views are at their best. The trail is also very well-marked, so it’s easy to stick to the route. For those looking for a challenging but extremely rewarding hike, this one can’t be missed!

Backswamp Viewpoint

Situated towards the eastern end of the Bow Valley Parkway, Backswamp Viewpoint is a beautiful stopping point offering amazing views of the Bow River. Here you can sit down, take a breather, and truly bask in the view. If you’re lucky, you may even spot a train making its way through the valley!

The viewpoint is found on the eastern end of the Bow River Parkway, so be sure to check your dates and make sure the area is open if you are driving, cycling, or going on foot.

Johnston Canyon

No trip through Bow Valley Parkway is complete without a hike through Johnston Canyon. This is an easy walk that is perfect for families and individuals with all levels of fitness, at around 2.5 km (1.5 miles) to get to the Upper Falls area.

You’ll also most definitely be rewarded for your effort! Along the way, you’ll pass by stunning glacial waterfalls which are just as beautiful in summer as they are in winter. In the wintertime, these waterfalls freeze over to create a magical scene of giant icicles – we highly recommend taking a guided nighttime tour here in the winter!

Open year-round, Johnston Canyon is free to get to and you can also enjoy free parking in one of the two available parking lots.

If you’re visiting in winter, we highly recommend bringing ice cleats or spikes. These can save you a lot of embarrassment, leaving you free to enjoy the surroundings without worrying about falling over!

Ink Pots

The much-loved Ink Pots are a group of five mineral pools found north of Johnston Canyon. Each of the pools is a different color, a result of each pool filling up at a different rate. At around 4°C (39°F) year-round, the Ink Pots are well worth visiting for the views alone.

To reach them, you have a couple of options. You can start at the Johnston Canyon parking lot or at the Moose Meadows trailhead which is situated about 1 km (0.6 miles) to the west of the parking lot. We personally prefer hiking through Johnston Canyon, which while often busier offers plenty more scenic views.

Hiking through Johnston Canyon: Head up from the parking lot along the trail to the Upper Falls. From here you’ll take a short spur trail that connects with the Moose Meadows trail and carries on to the Ink Pots. All in all, a one-way trip from the parking lot to the ink pots is about 5.4 km (3.4 miles).

Hiking from the Moose Meadows trailhead: Beginning at the trailhead, it’s very easy to follow the trail all the way up to the ink pots. The route is quieter than the Johnston Canyon trail, but can be quite muddy, especially when it rains, so make sure to bring proper hiking shoes and gear with you. A one-way trip taking this route is about 6 km (3.7 miles)

Moose Meadows along the Bow Valley Parkway (2)
Moose Meadows along the Bow Valley Parkway

Moose Meadows

As the name suggests, Moose Meadows was once a very popular spot to see groups of moose grazing their way through the valley. Nowadays, sightings are a bit rarer – but you may still get lucky! To get to Moose Meadows, you can find the small pullover bay here.

Even if the moose are hiding, this area is a great place to take photos. We highly recommend grabbing a shot or two at sunset if you find yourself here then! The combination of pretty wildflowers in the spring with the gorgeous backdrop is truly very special.

Silverton Falls

Silverton Falls, Banff
Silverton Falls Banff

If you’re looking for an easy hike to stretch your legs on the Bow Valley Parkway, then Silverton Falls is the perfect trail to tackle.

The trail is 1.8 km long (1.1 miles) return and takes most people around 45 minutes to complete. Although it’s considered an easy trail, it does have a steep section towards the end, about 110 meters/360 feet, so you’ll also get a bit of a workout in. The effort is worth it once you reach the beautiful Silverton Falls.

The trail begins at the Rockbound Lake Parking Lot, just off the Bow Valley Parkway. From there, you can follow the wide dirt path to Silverton Falls, which is a narrow two-tiered waterfall. It’s a bit of a hidden gem in Banff National Park, despite its proximity to the famous Castle Mountain. 

One thing we will say is that, although this hike is easy, it does take you along a cliff with a steep drop, so if you’re afraid of heights you might be better off choosing another of the routes on this list.

Rockbound Lake Trail

This is a challenging, although relatively straightforward hike that begins right next to Castle Mountain, about halfway through Bow Valley Parkway. For much of the hike you are surrounded by pine trees, however, once you reach the finish line you’ll have unparalleled views of Rockbound Lake.

The Rockbound Lake trail is about 18 km (11 miles) long there and back with an elevation gain of 3,336 feet (1,017 meters). For the majority of the trail, you’ll be walking up a moderate incline, but the final 0.8 km (0.5 miles) is quite a bit steeper, although manageable. You’ll also find parking right at the start of the trail.

It’s a great hike for those looking to challenge themselves and experience a much-deserved reward – there’s nothing like the grand view of Rockbound Lake to make you say – “wow!”

Castle Cliff Viewpoint

Castle Cliff Viewpoint is one of the best spots to have a quick stop and take in the amazing views of Castle Mountain. As the cliffs have eroded over the years, it’s quite easy to see where the mountain gets its name from.

You’ll find a parking area here as well as a small path that leads up to a view platform. Don’t forget to bring your camera along to make the most of it!

For those who do not have the time to walk the Castle Mountain Lookout Trail (mentioned below), or are simply passing through, this is a good alternative to take a break and enjoy the surrounding nature.

Castle Mountain Lookout Trail

Castle mountain covered in snow and cloud along the Bow Valley Parkway
Castle mountain covered in snow and clouds along the Bow Valley Parkway

For those with a bit more time to spend, the Castle Mountain Lookout Trail offers fantastic, panoramic views of Castle Mountain. You’ll find the trailhead about 22 km (13.7 miles) from Lake Louise along the Bow Valley Parkway.

All in all, the entire hike is a little over 7 km (4.3 miles) long with an elevation of about 1,800 feet (557 meters) and will likely take you about three to four hours to complete. The trail is well-kept and is accessible from May until October.

While we would class this as an easy-to-medium difficulty hike, there are some steeper sections involved. Although the views totally make the effort worth it. Make sure to bring along plenty of water and snacks for the trail too. On a clear day, you may even see as far as the Three Sisters Mountain in Canmore!  

Protection Mountain Campground

Open from June 21 to September 4, the Protection Mountain Campground is the perfect place to immerse yourself in nature during the late summer to early fall months. From moose to deer and bald eagles, it really is one of the best locations to see the many amazing animals of Banff National Park.

You’ll find the campsite towards the western end of the Bow Valley Parkway, about 43 km (26.7 miles) west of Banff.

Great for both individual campers and families alike, this campsite is fully equipped with flush toilets, piped hot and cold water, firewood, kitchen shelters, and more. There are 72 campsites in total with a maximum of 6 people per site.

With parking available, you can also leave your vehicle here as you travel to other areas of the parkway. Roam Public Transport offers a bus service that runs to both Lake Louise and Banff. You can learn more about the schedule as well as view a route map here.

Spaces are available on a first come first served basis, with a nightly rate of $23 CAD. You can view a detailed breakdown of all fees here. Of course, you are also welcome to stop by for the day to enjoy a picnic!

Train at Morant's Curve, Banff
Morant’s Curve!

Morant’s Curve

Named after the photographer Nicholas Morant, who worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway, this is a popular viewing point for fantastic views of the Bow River and the trains which occasionally pass through. With an incredible mountain backdrop, visiting Morant’s Curve really does make for a special photo.

Morant’s Curve is around a 5 to 7-minute drive along the Bow Valley Parkway after you leave Lake Louise heading towards Banff. Along the way, you’ll spot signs for the viewpoint to the small parking lot.

As for when the trains come through, you have the best chance of seeing one during a weekday, passing by at least once an hour. It’s best to have your camera ready so you can get the perfect shot!

This is one of our favorite places to return to whenever we are traveling through Bow Valley Parkway.

Lake Louise Ski Resort

One of the largest ski resorts in North America, Lake Louise Ski Resort is a fantastic place to visit no matter the time of year! Not only is it a great place to visit during the winter, with incredible skiing opportunities, but the Lake Louise Gondola is also so much fun during the summertime.

As for the skiing side of things, there are four mountains here with 160 runs in total. There are plenty of gentle slopes for beginners as well as much more challenging runs for the experienced. The snow here sticks around as well, from November all the way through to May!

During the summer, the Lake Louise sightseeing gondola offers unparalleled views of the surroundings – you may even spot an elk or two on your way up! To avoid disappointment, we highly recommend booking the gondola in advance, with the prices as follows:

  • $63 CAD for adults
  • $27 CAD for teens aged 13-17
  • $14 CAD for children aged 6-12
  • Free for children 5 and under

At the top of the gondola ride, you’ll also find the amazing Whitehorn Bistro which offers great food and an equally good view of the mountains. There’s a reason why we rank this as one of the top restaurants in Lake Louise!

Related Read: The Lake Louise Gondola is one of four incredible gondolas in the area. Here is our comparison on all the Banff and Lake Louise gondolas after riding them all!

10. Can you see bears on the Bow Valley Parkway?

A young grizzly bear along the roadside grass on the Bow Valley Parkway in Banff
A young grizzly!

Yes, you certainly can! In fact, it’s pretty common to see both black and grizzly bears along the Bow Valley Parkway.

There are also lots of elk, cougars, and wolves around to spot. The eastern section of the parkway (from Banff to Johnston Canyon) is a critical habitat for these animals, which is a big part of why it is closed to vehicles at certain times throughout the year.

Related Read: Get up close and personal with nature (and have a better chance of seeing animals!) with the best wildlife tours in Banff National Park.

11. How long do you need to explore the Bow Valley Parkway?

Bailey sips a coffee at Morant's Curve along the Bow Valley Parkway
Morant’s Curve in winter!

You need at least two hours if you’re exploring by car and not doing any hiking.

But if you do want to do one of the longer hikes, like the Rockbound Lake Trail or the Cory Pass Loop, then you’ll need to allow the entire day. If you want to mix it up and tackle a few of the shorter trails, such as Johnston Canyon or Castle Mountain Lookout, then allow about half a day.

If you’re cycling, it will take you about 3.5 hours to bike the length of the Bow Valley Parkway from Banff to Lake Louise, plus any hiking stops along the way. If you take the bus back, it should take about an hour to return to Banff again.

12. Where to stay on the Bow Valley Parkway

baker creek mountain resort is an amazing hotel in banff national park
Photo Credit: Baker Creek Mountain Resort

Whether you’re into camping or looking for a stand-alone, cozy cabin, there are lots of places to stay along the Bow Valley Parkway. These are our picks for all budgets!

Hotels

HI Castle Mountain Wilderness Hostel – $

The HI Castle Mountain Hostel is a great place to stay if you’re traveling with a group or just want a cheap bed on a budget. It’s also very close to the Rockbound Lake trailhead, so it’s a good choice for hiking enthusiasts! Meanwhile, Johnston Canyon is also just a 10-minute drive away.

You’ll have a shared bathroom and kitchen, and you’ll need to bring your own bedding to stay here. There are also fire pits out in the garden, as well as a cozy communal lounge with a fireplace where you can warm up during the winter. It’s basic, but it’s also nice, clean, and comfy, so it’s a great option if you want to stay for a night or two along the Bow Valley Parkway and spend time enjoying the area’s hikes and viewpoints.

A bed in a dorm room starts at around $35 CAD per night, and you can easily book online through Hostelworld.com or Booking.com.

Baker Creek By Basecamp – $$

If you want somewhere a bit more private and luxurious to stay after a long day of cycling and hiking, then Baker Creek is an ideal choice. You can choose to stay in a suite or chalet, complete with mountain views, a spa bath, a private patio, and a kitchen or kitchenette where you can cook your own food. There’s also a fitness center on-site, as well as a sauna and an ice rink during the winter months.

Prices vary quite a lot here according to the time of year. During the summer, you’re looking at upwards of $630 CAD for a suite, while during the winter prices fall as low as $275 CAD per night. You can book your stay at Baker Creek here.

Castle Mountain Chalets – $$

The Castle Mountain Chalets are perfect for families and groups as they can sleep up to six people, and they’re pet-friendly. These self-contained chalets each have their own bathroom, as well as a fully equipped kitchen and dining room, plus a flat-screen cable TV. They’re super rustic and cozy, so you really get a feel for outdoor Rockies living when staying here! Plus, there’s an insane view of Castle Mountain in the background.

Prices start from $206 CAD per night for a family-sized chalet, although during the peak summer months, you could pay as much as $695 CAD per night as prices go up a lot during tourist season. You can secure your stay by booking online here.

Johnston Canyon Lodge & Bungalows – $$$

Probably the biggest selling point of Johnston Canyon Lodge & Bungalows is that it’s just a few minutes walk away from Johnston Canyon itself. This makes this the perfect base for exploring the most famous stop along the Bow Valley Parkway. Plus, the Roam bus to Banff stops right outside, so you’ll have easy access to the town.

Room sizes range from a studio to a family-sized bungalow that sleeps up to 5 people. Some rooms also come equipped with fireplaces, and there’s a tennis court and a barbecue area on the property to enjoy.

This property is only open from May until October, and you can expect to pay between $395 – $545 CAD for a studio to between $790 – $940 CAD for a family bungalow. Thanks to how accessible this resort is, rooms can book up quickly, so we recommend checking your dates and booking in advance online.

Campgrounds

Johnston Canyon Campground

If you want to get closer to nature and camp along the Bow Valley Parkway, then the Johnston Canyon Campground is a prime spot! There are 132 sites for tents and small RVs, and there are flushing toilets, showers, and an outdoor kitchen on site.

The campground is usually open from late May until the end of September, and it’s best to book your campsite in advance. You can do this from March onwards via the Parks Canada website. It usually costs around $30 CAD for a site.

Protection Mountain Campground

We really like this small, scenic campground, which has 72 sites for tents and motorhomes. It has flushing toilets, running water, fire pits, and a sheltered cooking area. Sites cost around $23 CAD per night, and the campground is first come, first served, so we recommend getting here early to secure your spot and then going to explore once you’re all set up.

You can learn more about fees and regulations for Protection Mountain here.

Castle Mountain Campground

This is a rustic, unserviced campground with toilets, washrooms, and a covered cooking area. It’s a small area with 43 sites for tents and RVs up to 24 feet (7 meters), all of which are available on a first-come, first-served basis, so again, we say it’s best to get here early.

It costs around $23 CAD per night, and you can have two tents or vehicles per site, but do note that this campground is closed for the 2023 season. You can learn more about the campsite here.

13. What facilities are there on the Bow Valley Parkway?

Blackswift Bistro at Johnston Canyon Banff
Blackswift Bistro at Johnston Canyon Banff

There aren’t a ton of facilities along the Bow Valley Parkway – that’s part of what helps it keep its natural beauty! But there are a couple of places to get gas, buy a snack, and relieve yourself if nature calls.

After you leave Banff, there’s only one fuel stop on the way to Lake Louise, which is the Castle Mountain gas station at Castle Junction. You can also buy snacks and drinks here, and the bathrooms are clean. Aside from that, there aren’t really any shops along the way, except for the gift shop at Johnston Canyon.

You can find toilets at the parking lot at Rockbound Lake, which is also the trailhead for the hike. This is very close to the gas station at Castle Junction, so you’re basically spoiled for choice here! The Muleshoe, Sawback, Storm Mountain, and Coral Creek picnic areas also all have toilets, so there are plenty of places for bathroom breaks along the way.

You should be able to get some cell coverage along the Bow Valley Parkway, but you can’t count on having it the whole way. It’s best to download maps and information before you go just in case, as service can be spotty, especially when you’re hiking around.

14. Where to eat along the Bow Valley Parkway

Johnston Canyon Lodge & Bungalows food
Photo credit: Johnston Canyon Lodge & Bungalows
Johnston Canyon Lodge & Bungalows dessert
Photo credit: Johnston Canyon Lodge & Bungalows

There aren’t a ton of places to eat along the Bow Valley Parkway, but a few of the resorts have restaurants. Otherwise, it’s a good idea to bring some snacks for the road, or a picnic to enjoy at one of the many scenic spots along the way.

Johnston Canyon Lodge & Bungalows

There are two places to eat at Johnston Canyon Lodge & Bungalows. The Market Cafe serves coffee, sandwiches, and baked goods, so it’s the perfect place to stop for a quick bite to eat before or after exploring the canyon itself.

Alternatively, you can get a bigger meal at the Blackswift Diner. They serve hearty breakfasts, burgers, poutine, and even salmon fillets or steak for dinner. There’s also a cocktail, beer, and wine menu if you want to reward yourself with a post-hike drink. You can make a reservation via their website, or just drop in.

Bear in mind that since the Johnston Canyon Resort only opens from May – October, you can only eat at the restaurants here during the summer.

Baker Creek Chalets

There’s a nice bistro at the Baker Creek chalets, but it’s currently being renovated after a fire and won’t reopen until 2024. However, you can still get something quick from the Creekside Café, which serves breakfast and lunch, as well as some really great local coffee from Devil’s Head in Calgary.

15. Is the Bow Valley Parkway worth visiting?

Road with views of the mountains on the Bow Valley Parkway
Yes, it’s one of the most beautiful drives in Canada!

Yes, absolutely! It’s one of the most scenic drives in Canada, and there are so many great hikes along the way. Plus, Johnston Canyon is a must-see natural attraction in Banff National Park!

Other Things to do While You’re in Banff

Banff gondola building and boardwalk on a early spring day with lots of snow
The top of the Banff Gondola
Bailey and her mum pose for a photo at Moraine Lake
Moraine Lake!

Cruising the Bow Valley Parkway is just one of many things to do in Banff. But with so much to choose from, it might feel overwhelming. So below, I’ve picked some of my favorite activities in the area.

  • Look for wildlife – Banff is home to some pretty incredible wildlife. You might just spot elk, bears, deer, foxes, coyotes, bighorn sheep, and more! The best chance you have of seeing the most critters is on a wildlife tour in Banff. We really liked this small group tour where the guides tailor the itinerary to recent wildlife spottings and you get to see highlights of the national park along the way.
  • Visit Lake Louise and Moraine Lake – If you want to see more stunning lakes in the area, check out these two! Parking at Lake Louise can be tricky (and impossible at Moraine Lake!), so we’d recommend this Banff National Park Tour. You’ll get to visit Lake Louise as well as Moraine Lake in one go – with enough time to walk around, learn the local history, and snap postcard-worthy photos.
  • Explore Banff town – While many nature-based activities are nearby, you shouldn’t neglect Banff town itself! Start your morning by visiting one of the cute local cafes, or grab patio drinks along Banff Avenue in the afternoon. To avoid traffic, check out the pedestrian-only Bear Street, with even more restaurants, cafes, and shops. And if that’s not enough, there’s also a Farmers Market every Wednesday in the summertime.

Renting a Car in Alberta

A car drives along the Icefields Parkway
The drive is mesmerizing!

If you’re arriving in Alberta via plane then I can’t recommend getting a rental car enough. Canada is a large country and traveling between cities and even just getting out to some of the best places to visit in Alberta requires transport. Although you can use public transport, on some occasions, it means your trip will not only require more time but more planning.

Renting a car will definitely make exploring all of the fun things to see and do in Alberta easier.

Car rental in Canada isn’t super cheap, but it isn’t overly expensive either, especially if you get a budget car. The cheapest car with pickup and drop-off in different locations is around $100 CAD per day. The price does vary though depending on the time of year and the type of car that you rent. For car rentals, I use the website DiscoverCars.com. It’s a search engine with lots of deals with good customer service. In fact, I’ve used them all over the world including in Chile, New Zealand, and Australia.

Another popular option is to rent a campervan or motorhome (only for the brave in winter.) Using Motorhome Republic you can search hundreds of deals across multiple companies to pick a great vehicle and the cheapest price. Having a motorhome is a stunning way to see Canada, and using crown land and campsites, you can often camp for free or very cheap in the most beautiful places imaginable!

Thanks for reading!

Daniel and Bailey take a selfie in Campbell River, BC
Thanks for reading!

Driving the Bow Valley Parkway is one of our all-time favorite things to do in Alberta, with so many incredible hikes and trails to explore along the way. It’s also a fantastic destination for cyclists, although it’s still important to keep an eye on which times parts of the Parkway are closed during the year.

We hope you have learned a lot about this incredible location, and we wish you all the best with planning your next trip there! Let us know what you’re planning to do in the comments and be sure to check out our other blogs on Alberta:

How to Get from Canmore to Lake Louise +BEST Road Trip Stops

15 FUN Things to do in Sylvan Lake, Alberta (this Summer!)

Where to Stay in Banff National Park – Pros and Cons of 5 Different Areas

10 BEST Tours in Jasper, Alberta (that you don’t want to miss!)