Upon landing in Calgary, I wasted no time hopping into my rented Ford Explorer and hitting the road, eager to escape the seemingly endless dusty plains to the east. Driving west, as the majestic mountains rose higher in my windshield, so did my anticipation. I was heading into the mountains to explore the Golden Triangle, one of Canada’s most scenic drives.
It’s possible to do the Golden Triangle in a day or two, but why would you want to do that? The route encompasses three of Canada’s most beautiful national parks — Banff, Yoho and Kootenay — as well as two beloved adventure towns, Golden and Canmore. I did this road trip in about a week, which included an extended stay in Golden.
My trip spanned late April and the beginning of May, as I was trying to avoid both the summer and winter crowds. I succeeded in that, but would suggest doing this road trip in mid-to-late May, at the earliest; many of the trails I planned to hike where either still closed or had remnants of ice and snow when I visited. Also, many businesses are closed around this time to give staff time to recharge from the busy winter season before the hectic summer season begins.
One more bit of advice: unlike in the U.S. where there’s a gas station and convenience story at virtually every interstate exit, services are few and far between for much of this route. Keep an eye on your gas gauge and fill up before leaving town. Carry some water and snacks with you as well.
Banff became Canada’s first national park in 1885, and many argue it’s still the best. The park is absolutely massive —2,500 square miles (6,600 square kilometers) — and you could easily spend a week or more exploring it alone. That said, I recommend hitting just the highlights on this road trip, but make notes about what to check out when you return. (Trust me, you will return.)
The town of Banff may be the most picturesque I’ve ever visited. It’s as if Walt Disney conceived of the perfect ski town, but scrapped it because it looked too perfect. I’d later find out that wasn’t too far off the mark; the Canadian Pacific Railroad created the town to appeal to tourists. Oh boy, did it work. Many of the town’s roads lead your eye to one of the surrounding mountains.
Having limited time, I essentially took Banff 101, aka the Discover Banff bus tour, to get a feel for the surrounding area. Normally I don’t enjoy these types of tours, but the three hours on the bus took me to several scenic spots, including the Hoodoos Lookout, where I took a few nice snapshots of Rundle Mountain towering over the Bow River, and the still-frozen Lake Minnewanka.
I was able to walk from the Banff Aspen Lodge where I was staying to a trailhead in about 15 minutes. I hiked up Tunnel Mountain, so named because railroad executives were going to tunnel through the mountain, only to later change their minds. The initial quarter mile is really steep, but the trail tapers off to a more reasonable grade afterward. The hike is about three miles round trip from the trailhead, with the summit offering gorgeous views surrounding the town. Compared to the periphery behemoths, Tunnel Mountain is a relative molehill, but believe me, your friends will still be impressed.
The best views will come from the top of 7,486-foot Sulphur Mountain. You can hike it, but I was lazy and took the gondola instead. At the top, take the boardwalk to explore the top and take in stunning views of the Bow Valley. If you’re feeling fancy, have lunch at the Sky Bistro. It’s not cheap, but the food and service make it an easy splurge. When you get back to Banff, wind down with a cocktail at Park Distillery, which may be the only distillery located in a national park in the entire world.
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It’s easy to fall in love with a landscape, but driving from Banff into Yoho National Park, I felt a sense of home I’ve never felt before. Behind the wheel, I’m sure I looked like a boxer, my head bobbing and weaving, trying to get a clear view of the peaks high above me. The highway parallels a river for much of the route, and I couldn’t help but wish I’d brought my fly rod with me on this trip.
Several friends suggested I check out Emerald Lake, which was still mostly covered in ice and snow. Even so, the scene was beautiful. There were several trails open, most of which were less than a mile or two, and one of which leads to a picturesque waterfall. There’s no cell signal in the Emerald Lake area, so it’s best to download any needed maps before arriving.
Nearby you’ll find Natural Bridge. It’s little more than a viewpoint of a pretty glacial cascade, but worth the stop.
In many ways, Golden is the anti-Banff. (That’s not a burn on Banff at all.) You’re not likely to see a tourist with a hoodie or ballcap advertising Golden, BC. Perhaps the easiest way to sum it all up: you take a one-week vacation to Banff and have the time of your life; you live in Golden and enjoy the surrounding outdoors as your backyard every day.
For hikers, mountain-bikers and semi-functional alcoholics — I may or may not fall into all three categories — Golden may be the small-town ideal, with multiple bars and surrounded by snow-capped mountains. The Kicking Horse River runs through the middle of town; on perfect evenings, the orange and red colors of sunset shine on the perfectly turquoise water, creating a living piece of abstract art. On a gorgeous day, you’ll find families riding bikes along the pedestrian trails, while anglers toss a line into the river before calling it a day and heading to one of the local bars for beer.
Kicking Horse Resort is the hub for much of the outdoor activity, skiing in the winter and mountain biking in the summer. Be sure to visit local celebrity Boo, a grizzly bear living in a 20-acre refuge on the property. Closer to town, the Canyon Creek Trail brings in plenty of area mountain bikers and hikers.
Visitors can find plenty of RV parks and several hotels in and around Golden. Back doors at the Rooms at Riversedge open up to a pedestrian path along the river, and it’s a beautiful two-minute walk to grab dinner or pick up some replacement socks at one of the local gear shops.
Kootenay National Park tends to get overlooked thanks to its proximity to Banff, but believe me, it’s not because it lacks beauty or things to do. Kootenay is a great option for visitors who want to experience the outdoors, but without all the massive crowds. Using the town of Radium Hot Springs as a jumping-off point, head north to experience the namesake pools. After spending the last several days hiking trails throughout the area, I was ready to soak in some hot springs and relax my aching legs. Unfortunately, they were temporarily shut down for maintenance during my visit, so I did the next best thing and went for another hike.
After meandering down to see a small waterfall, I continued onto the four-ish mile Juniper Loop. The terrain was fairly rolling, but easy enough for experienced hikers. Mountain goats are known to frequent the area regularly, but I missed out. Luckily the views of the surrounding Canadian Rockies made up for it.
The drive north through Kootenay takes between 90-120 minutes with minimal stops and is almost entirely without cell signal. You will be making stops however; the Dog Lake Trail crosses a couple of suspension bridges and passes through old-growth forest before reaching the eponymous lake. Marble Canyon requires a short hike, but rewards visitors with a kaleidoscope of greens, blues and greys.
Canmore is where everyone who works in Banff actually lives — and it’s stunning in its own right. Canmore offers a ton of options for hiking, paddling and mountain biking both in and just outside town. Some of the spots require a day or annual pass to recreate, while others only require a parking pass. If you brought along a furry friend, the Quarry Lake dog park and picnic area, offers a multitude of trails, some of which connect to the larger trail network.
I attempted the Cloudline Trail, but it was closed midway through because of potentially hazardous conditions. I could have continued onto the Highline Trail, which offers gorgeous views of the iconic Three Sisters mountains, but unfortunately was running out of time. I needed to return to my Grande Rockies hotel room to pack my bags for my flight home.
Before long, I was back on the highway, as the mountains gave way to foothills to plains to Calgary city sprawl. It’s just as well; my notebook was already filled with nearly too many variations of “gorgeous snow-capped mountain peaks” and “fun hike with incredible views.” I barely scratched the surface of things to see and do during my week exploring the Golden Triangle, but that would still be the case if I spent a month there. There’s almost an inexhaustible amount of activities for every outdoors lover, whether they’re into photography, paddling, cycling or hiking. The next decision is what gear I bring back with me when I return.
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