Banff Stories and Tips

Winter Driving in the Canadian Rockies

Canada’s Rockies are more accessible in winter (or other seasons) than you might initially suspect. It’s quickest to approach from Alberta, although it’s a longer but beautiful approach from Vancouver and the west. Calgary and Edmonton share the same longitude, four hours apart and directly east, respectively, of the towns of Banff and Jasper. The northwest slant of the Rockies means that while Calgary is slightly more than an hour from Banff, the drive from Edmonton to Jasper is closer to three. This makes a large loop possible, but there’s little between Alberta’s two largest cities to justify the trip along Canada 2. If weather permits, why not backtrack through the fabulous mountains?

But in winter, that might be easier said than done. Through Hotwire, we rented a compact car for a modest $20/day, but received a minivan instead. It was nice to have the extra size and mass, but an even better bet in the snow is anything with all-season radials or snow tires. Every road heading out of the Bow Valley—Highway 93 west over the Divide to Windermere, the Icefields Parkway northwest to Jasper, or Highway 1 west over the Rockies to Field and Golden—warns you to have good tires or even chains. And there’s something both cool and intimidating about the large barriers behind those signs, ready to be lowered and close the road at a moment’s notice. As we approached from Calgary, my wife noted that our guidebooks recommended four-wheel drive, which we were pretty sure our Chevy Uplander didn’t have.

Roads can be in great shape, or completely impassable, so make sure you check. My pleasure at being among people who know that winter is a fact of life and prepare to enjoy it extended to their care for the roads, but it does take time to clear out after a storm. Even the flat pathways from Calgary to the foothills can be challenging (think the blowing snows of Iowa, Nebraska, or the Dakotas). Outside of Canada 1, the strategy is to leave the snow on the road and maintain it with plowing and gravel, which produces a pretty decent surface. This was the character of the Bow Valley Parkway, the old route from Banff to Lake Louise, a very nice two-lane road through the forest. Unfortunately, it has narrow shoulders, which I discovered by slipping my front tire over the edge when my concentration wandered for a second. Thanks to the kindness of strangers, we only lost an hour to that snowbank: a kind woman from Edmonton headed to Castle Junction and reported that we were stuck, then dropped her passengers and came back to retrieve us, and another woman who overheard our phone call to CAA got her husband to borrow a tow rope and extract us with his jeep.

We planned to drive the Icefields Parkway from Lake Louise to Jasper, a 150-mile trip rated by some as the world’s most scenic highway. Sorry, we can’t offer our own opinion. It’s maintained in the winter—a Cold War era agreement requires that it be kept open, as part of the only overland route to Alaska—but the plowing hierarchy places it after Canada 1 and ahead of the Bow Valley Parkway. Think twice before setting out: we got a wide range of opinions from local residents about the road, and after finding the driving conditions rated ‘poor’, adjusted our plans and cancelled. That felt right after our Bow Valley incident, the fatal accident we encountered on Canada 1 as we set out for Lake Louise. Had any of those been a little different, we probably would have taken a shot at it. It’s said to be wide and fairly straight, but subject to ice and slippery conditions. And in winter, there are no services, and no towns or stops along the way. Thankfully, both our hotel and our two pre-paid tours accepted our cancellations without penalty.

As a substitute for Jasper, we drove south from Canmore into Kananaskis Country, which proved a worthy substitute. The weather was perfect, with cloudless blue skies and moderate temperatures, and the snowpack road was eminently drivable. Remote but not abandoned, it weaves between peaks and along the long lake formed by a small dam. We drove, stopped for pictures, drove, stopped some more, and continued that pattern for about 50 km until hitting the sharp boundary between our clear skies and a heavy snowstorm. We abandoned our plan for a circle drive, and enjoyed revisiting our scenery on the way back.

In short, the roads where we wanted to go were largely open, and ready for travel. And if not, you're probably staying somewhere comfortable: what's wrong with staying put for a bit?

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