The Bow Valley Parkway is a beautifully scenic drive that takes you from Banff to Lake Louise.
Although it’s just 51 kilometers long, the Bow Valley Parkway makes for a spectacular road trip, and you’ll constantly be pulling over to take photographs or just to gaze in awe at the surroundings
The tall Rocky Mountains shadow the route, wildlife can be seen from the road, and the start and endpoints are both fantastic destinations to explore in their own right.
This is the heart of Banff National Park, and outdoor lovers will be in their element.
To inspire your next adventure, here are the best stops on the drive from Banff to Lake Louise.
Don’t leave home without: Lonely Planet Banff, Jasper, and Glacier National Parks
Bow Valley Parkway Road Trip Guide
Where is the Bow Valley Parkway?
The Bow Valley Parkway is found within Banff National Park, in the province of Alberta.
Officially labeled as Alberta Provincial Highway 1-A, it runs parallel to the cross country Trans-Canada Highway and is a much more scenic drive.
The Bow Valley Parkway is 51 kilometers long, and it connects the town of Banff to the small village of Lake Louise.
Along the route, there are interpretive signs, viewpoints and incredible scenery that will have you stopping off constantly.
While you can easily drive the route in just an hour, you will probably want the entire day to really enjoy yourself. Some travelers take even longer, as you can tackle long hikes too from the parkway.
Throw in a few days to enjoy Banff and the rest of the national park, and you soon start to realize that there are a lot of things to do on the drive and that this is one of the best things to do in Canada!
Best Time to Drive the Bow Valley Parkway
The Bow Valley Parkway is technically open all year round, but bad weather in winter can cause the road to be temporarily closed, sometimes for days.
The drive from Banff to Lake Louise is beautiful all year round too, but it’s a very different road trip experience, depending on the time of year that you choose to visit.
The most popular time is summer when tourism in Banff National Park is at its peak.
Numbers boom in June, July and August, and are particularly large during July and August when much of the world are enjoying school holidays.
Summer is when the weather is best, of course, road conditions are perfect and there is a lot of wildlife around.
Accommodation can fill up though, flights and car hire can be expensive, and the road itself can be packed with other cars.
The shoulder seasons, spring and autumn, can be a great time to escape the crowds. April and May can see great springtime weather, as the snow melts and the wildlife begins to emerge after their winter hibernation.
Autumn, from September through to November, also sees fewer visitors, and the scenery is resplendent in autumnal hues. The weather can become much more unpredictable the closer you get to winter though.
Winter can be very long in the Rocky Mountains, and can realistically begin in November and last through to April.
There’s a lot of snow in Banff National Park, given the high altitude and the northern location, and while it’s a beautiful time of the year, winter can be a difficult time to travel in Alberta.
If driving through the winter, check the road conditions, check the weather and ensure you have experience driving in icy conditions.
Banff is a popular destination in winter for skiing, and the ski season can last until April, and perhaps even May. Winter is a great chance to enjoy snowsports, but be careful driving from Banff to Lake Louise!
Safety & Driving Tips on the Bow Valley Parkway
The Bow Valley Parkway is an incredibly safe place for tourists, but the weather can prove to be very unpredictable.
To stay safe, always be mindful of the road conditions and take closures seriously, as the highway will only be closed for a good reason.
In winter, this is doubly important as conditions can change rapidly, so always check in with the rangers before departing Banff for the drive to Lake Louise.
Snowfall can be fast and unpredictable, and you could even find that avalanches pose a threat too in severe winters. If there’s an avalanche warning, don’t even attempt to make the drive.
Rules to follow while exploring the Bow Valley Parkway:
- Stay on the trail. I repeat, STAY ON THE TRAIL. There is no exception to this rule and it should be the easiest to follow. However, we were appalled by the number of people that think they can tromp around wherever they feel like going. When you do this, others follow and it is extremely degrading for the terrain and environment in these parks.
- Do not climb over barriers or fences.
- Do not wander over to cliff edges and rocks for photos and risky views. This area is barricaded for a reason, usually due to unstable ground. This means that it can give away at any time. You are literally risking your safety, and even your life, by ignoring signs and going to these areas.
- There will be many opportunities to pull out on the drive, in both designated and non-designated areas. When you are pulling over in non-designated areas do not slam on your brakes. Be sure to put on your flashers, use your signal and pull completely off the highway in a safe manner before stopping. Make sure you are clear of the driving lane.
- Look both ways before you cross the Bow Valley Parkway. It sounds simple but I cannot even tell you the number of people that crossed the highway in front of us without looking. People, cars are driving up to 55mph on this highway. If you walk out in front of them, they cannot stop in time to save you.
- Just plain be respectful to your fellow travelers. Take turns taking photos. Smile, be friendly. Don’t push or shove at viewpoints. Again, sounds simple but you’d be surprised.
- Do not throw trash out of your car windows, on the trail or onto the ground in parking lots. Take it with you and dispose of it properly. Practice Leave No Trace at all times.
It is important that we all remember to travel safely, ethically and responsibly. Our actions determine the future of these natural wonderlands, so do your part and follow the rules.
Need to book a car for your road trip adventure? We use Discover Car Hire for comparing car prices to find the best deal. They search for both local & international rental companies.
Wildlife Along the Bow Valley Parkway
The drive is also renowned for the array of wildlife that is found along its length. Keep your eyes peeled and drive slowly to avoid unsettling the animals, or worst of all, being involved in a collision.
The road can have restrictions at some points in the year to give the wildlife more space, so stick to these restrictions when they are in force. In summer, for instance, the road is often closed from 8 pm until the early morning.
Rules to follow if you come across wildlife during your Bow Valley Parkway adventure:
- Be respectful of all wildlife species, at all times.
- Do not, under any circumstances, give food to any wildlife you see. Do not leave food leftovers or trash anywhere during your stops or hikes. This is dangerous for animals and teaches them to associate humans with food.
- If you come across wildlife while driving, reduce your speed and pull over safely to a stop and view them.
- Do not crowd wildlife with your vehicle. Respect them with space until they safely move on.
- No matter what, stay in your vehicle. I repeat, STAY IN YOUR VEHICLE. It is never okay, nor safe, to exit your vehicle in the presence of wildlife. You can take photos and observe them from your car just fine.
- Only lower your windows a short way, this is for your safety.
- Do not holler, clap or throw things at the wildlife to get their attention. Observe in silence and awe instead.
- If you are out hiking beyond the viewpoints and parking lots, take bear spray with you and know how to properly use it.
- Never go out hiking alone.
- If a sign says a trail or area is closed due to wildlife activity, TURN AROUND. Do not hike there.
- If a sign says you need a minimum number of people together to hike on the trail at that time. Listen to it. This is for your safety.
- If you happen across a bear on the trail, remember to stay calm and not act threatening. Slowly gather together, speak softly to each other and the bear and slowly back away. Do not try to get closer. Do not try to take photos. Do not try to pass the bear. Do not run.
- If you happen across a Mountain Lion on the trail, remember to turn and face directly at it. Keep eye contact. Hold your ground and do not run. Speak directly to it and loudly.
Accommodation From Banff to Lake Louise
While the drive may only take a little over an hour, you’d miss a lot if you didn’t stop along the way. This is why it is recommended to make a full day out of your explorations, or even better, stay overnight along the route.
Driving the Bow Valley Parkway will likely be part of a larger itinerary in Banff, so you’ll be looking to stay in Banff on one side of the drive and possible Lake Louise on the other end.
These are our recommendations for staying from Banff to Lake Louise:
- Fairmont Banff Springs (Banff): If you want to stay in a castle that offers amazing views of the Bow River and surrounding mountains, then this is the place for you. This hotel is absolutely stunning and has a very interesting history. The rooms are also very beautiful.
- Fox Hotel & Suites (Banff): This hotel has the best hot tub in town, hands down. Modeled after the natural hot springs, the hot tub is modeled after a cave that has an open-air hold above it. The hotel has a classic Canada lodge feel with comfortable rooms.
- Baker Creek Mountain Resort (Bow Valley Parkway): Featuring 35 charming cabins, this resort is located along the parkway and a great place to stay if you want to stop between Banff and Lake Louise. It is set right on Baker Creek with an excellent onsite restaurant and incredible mountain views.
- Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise (Lake Louise): This is an absolute dream property, located directly on the shores of the most famous lake in Canada, Lake Louise. This hotel holds nothing back and is a mountain oasis with incredible views. If you can swing the cost, it will be a stay you remember for the rest of your life.
- Lake Louise Inn (Lake Louise): Located in town, versus right on the famed lake, this mountain lodge styled property is comfortable and well located. It features a pool, spa and several onsite restaurants. We stayed here on our first visit to Lake Louise and enjoyed it.
Best Stops from Banff to Lake Louise
Banff is the center of tourism activities in Banff National Park. In summer, it’s a bustling base for outdoor activities and in winter, the surrounding ski resorts are some of the most popular in Canada.
Banff is a small town, but there’s a lot to do here, and it’s the perfect place to spend a few days before heading off onto the Bow Valley Parkway to Lake Louise.
You can visit the excellent local museums, learning about the town’s history and about the indigenous groups that have lived in the area for centuries.
You can hike mountains, explore lakes and then wind down after a long day with a trip to the hot springs!
Get a quick immersion in the stunning environment surrounding this city of Banff on this tour.
Discover natural attractions like the hoodoos, strange rock pillars twisted by millions of years of wind, and take in fantastic views on a Banff Gondola ride up to Sulphur Mountain.
One of the first stops out of Banff is an area known as the Sawback. In Banff, the rangers will often cut down, or saw back, large swathes of forest and enact controlled burns.
This helps to control wildfires, and it also creates large areas that become suitable for local wildlife, as the trees begin to grow back over time.
The Sawback is one such area, where you are likely in summer to see the wildlife, including moose and bears, even from the window of your car as you drive past.
A visit to the Johnston Canyon is a highlight of the drive from Banff to Lake Louise. Located roughly halfway along the Bow Valley Parkway, a short trail leads through the forest and into this spectacular canyon.
The trail leads to a series of waterfalls, which crash down into the canyon in summer, and which in winter are frozen solid.
The lower falls take just an hour to walk to, there and back, from the trailhead car park. The upper falls take around 2 hours, there and back, depending on your fitness.
Discover one of Banff National Park’s most popular hiking trails at night, without the fear of getting lost, during this small-group tour.
Explore Johnston Canyon with a guide leading the way, and marvel at shimmering frozen waterfalls and hike along a suspended catwalk. Then, take a break to warm up mid-route with hot chocolate and maple cookies.
Castle Mountain Lookout
For a panoramic view over the entirety of Bow Valley, then one of the best places to hike to is Castle Mountain Lookout.
A trail leads for 7.4 kilometers upwards from the Bow Valley Parkway, and it’s a steep, tough walk that will take at least 3 hours there and back, possibly longer.
It’s well worth the sweat and the aching muscles though because the view is extraordinary.
For those that are less keen to hike, there is a nice lookout over the Bow Valley from the road (as pictured above) that still offers a nice view. Either way, you cannot go wrong with this stop.
If you’re looking for a longer day hike, then take a hike to Rockbound Lake. The trail starts just off the Bow Valley Parkway, and it will take you through the backcountry and to two beautifully scenic lakes.
The first lake, Tower Lake, is 7.7 kilometers from the trailhead. The second lake, Rockbound Lake, is 8.4 kilometers away.
There and back to Rockbound Lake, you’re looking almost 17 kilometers, so bring plenty of food and water for the adventure.
Baker Creek Mountain Resort
For a great place to spend the night when you are driving the Bow Valley Parkway, then book into the Baker Creek Mountain Resort.
Found in beautiful surroundings off the highway, the resort offers an excellent restaurant and rustic log cabins. Even if you don’t spend the night, it’s a great stop-off for lunch on the way from Banff to Lake Louise.
From the parking lot you can access the Baker Creek, where you’ll find chairs to relax and enjoy the scenery. You may even spot a bear during your visit.
For a relatively easy, yet stunning hike, then take a walk to Silverton Falls. This beautiful waterfall is found less than a kilometer off the Bow Valley Parkway, and you’ll be there and back in well under one hour.
Silverton Falls aren’t quite as well known as other waterfalls and make for a much quieter hike than say Johnston Canyon.
Lake Louise is the endpoint for the Bow Valley Parkway, and it’s a beautiful place to explore. Lake Louise is a glorious, alpine lake that shimmers in the sunlight, and it’s one of the best natural sights in Canada.
The lake is known for its turquoise-colored water, which gains its color due to the sediments that flood down from the surrounding, mineral-rich mountains.
The lake is a few kilometers away from the small village of the same name, Lake Louise, which makes for a charming place to spend a few nights as you explore the surrounding area, and delve deeper into Banff National Park.
On this full-day sightseeing tour, enjoy round-trip travel from Banff and reach attractions including Lake Louise, Bow Falls, and Moraine Lake. Stop Enjoy personal attention from your guide on this small-group tour.
Have you driven the Bow Valley Parkway from Banff to Lake Louise? Feel free to share your experiences and favorite stops below.
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