Kootenay, Banff, and Jasper National Park Loop
While summer 2020 has been unlike any other for pretty much all of us, we were privileged to take Sven for a journey through the Kootenays and Rocky Mountains after the Covid-19 lockdown eased up in Western Canada.
Van life was ideal for keeping socially distanced, and we did our best to stay away from people and crowds. This summer was extra special as tourist hotspots like Banff and Jasper were not as busy as usual. We managed to camp for free in many areas, as well as show up at provincial campgrounds without a reservation. I honestly can’t imagine doing this trip without a van like Sven. He kept us warm, cozy and at ease in the changing weather patterns and drastic landscapes. Plus he was a dream to drive, and easier to manoeuvre than most small cars.
We began our trip in Penticton and headed to the Kootenays on our first day. After a quick stop for coffee in the cute, laidback town of Nelson, we drove another half hour north to take a short ferry to the east side of Kootenay Lake. The Garland Bay Camp Site provided us the first night of epic scenery, perched on a beautiful mountain-lined lake. Sites here only cost $12, but you can van camp for free in the parking lot next to the sites (which we did and had no problem with). We brought our two chairs and dinner down to the beach (2-minute walk through the forest) for lakefront dining. The water was crystal clear for swimming and there were relatively little people here for the beginning of August.
Tip: there is 9 km of dirt road to get to Garland Bay so drive slow and careful!
The landscape on this trip began to get even more exceptional around Cranbrook, as we witnessed the Rocky Mountains starting to loom in the distance.
We stopped for a night’s rest at the Johnson Lake Rec Site (also free camping) near Invermere before heading into the Kootenay National Park. We purchased a park pass which gave us access to the three national parks in this area: Kootenay, Banff and Jasper. From here, we began the stunning drive to Banff.
Warning: there are no gas stations for over an hour along this route (and very few throughout the National Parks), so make sure you fill up in Invermere or Radium. Thankfully Sven is incredibly fuel efficient so we didn’t have to worry about filling up too often.
The mountains and valleys along this drive are intense and dramatic. Officially in Alberta, Banff is an adorable little town set against an impressive backdrop of peaks.
The hype is real, and while Banff was still touristy, I imagine it was less than previous years. The town is worthwhile to see (we stopped for a quick dinner), and offers up a smorgasbord of outdoor activities and adventures at its doorstep. After dinner in Banff we hopped back in Sven and continued on THE MOST epic drive through the Icefields Parkway.
Beginning in Banff National Park and ending in Jasper National Park, this highway blew our minds. We’ve seen images of these mountains and glaciers in film and television, but to see them in real life was something else. I grew up in British Columbia and have traveled to several continents around the world… I have never seen mountains like these in my life. My words and photos will not do them justice, so if you have the opportunity to drive this highway, take it! A new glacier appears around each corner, and there are countless moments to pull over and take photos, park at trailheads to begin mountain hikes, and camp in provincial campgrounds along the way.
Anticipating that most of the campgrounds would already be reserved, we researched free camping close to the parks (yet outside their official limits) ahead of time. Preacher’s Point turned out to be one our most stunning campsites. Located 30 minutes from the Parkway at the Saskatchewan River Crossing, the site is perched beside the glacial river of Abraham Lake and has stunning Rocky Mountains as its backdrop. This camping site is not divided into traditional sites, but there are fire pits throughout, and we were told that people can park and camp anywhere they find a spot. Thus, you should always be able to find a spot to stay, even in the busiest of seasons. We stayed here for two nights as we waited for the rest of the family to meet us for the remainder of the trip.
Tip: Need a refresher after 4 days of backwoods camping? Morning glacial baths (more like dips) in this water was not only cleansing but exhilarating and rejuvenating.
After two nights of camping at this gorgeous location, we headed back out to see the rest of the Parkway. There are countless hikes to do throughout this route. We stopped to hike the Wilcox Pass for first-hand views of the famous Columbia Icefield. This hike is a 3-hour return trip, however most of the hike is tundra (above the tree-line along ridges) and has epic 360 degree views of the icefields the entire way - so there are plenty of opportunities to shorten your hike without missing out on the main attraction. We actually got caught in a storm at the top and were not wearing the right rain gear. Even though we got back to the vans absolutely drenched (and cold), the hike was still incredibly memorable.
Warning: it was much colder in the Icefields Parkway than we anticipated, so bring rain gear and hiking boots, and extra layers, even in August! Thankfully, Sven’s duvet and comfy pillows kept us warm and cozy in the chilly nights.
We were lucky that many of the official campgrounds in the national parks were not full this year, so we snagged a couple sites at the Wapiti Campground near Jasper for one night. We dried off from our hike, lit a fire, and snuggled into Sven for the night as another rainstorm hit and temperatures dropped to 5 degrees celsius. We woke up to snow-dusted mountain tops giving us a hint of the beauty of these mountains in non-summer seasons.
On route back to the Okanagan we took Highway 16 from Jasper through Clearwater. Even though the mountains in this region are not quite as dramatic as the Icefields, they are high and lush, with multiple rivers converging to create an ideal camping location - especially for the fishers out there! Plus, it’s at least 15 degrees warmer than the Rockies. We camped at the North Thomspson Provincial Campground which is only a 5-minute drive from the popular Wells Gray Provincial Park. This park is massive in size, covering a good chunk of British Columbia. It notably has 37 waterfalls and much more to offer. I can’t recommend this area enough, and I am sure we would have explored more and stayed longer had we not had to get back to the Okanagan.
SOME KEY TAKE-AWAYS FROM OUR TRIP:
- Start West (interior BC) and go East (Rockies). This way the mountains become dramatically bigger each day, leaving you constantly more impressed!
- It’s entirely possible to find free camping in a van. Apps like iOverlander can help you find great spots along the way, but it would also be easy to just pull down a random road and park for the night.
- Pro tip: search “Recreational Site” on Google Maps to find maintained, free campsites throughout BC.
- Pack clothing for all seasons. You never know what kind of unexpected weather patterns might role through.
- Keep stocked on gas! (Even though Sven is exceptionally great on gas, some of the national park stretches are long)
- Bring multiple cameras and batteries… you will not want to stop documenting these sights!
- Be prepared to have strangers come up to chat requesting to take a look at your van…Sven is easy on the eyes and popular on the road ;)