- Ride the Banff Gondola up Sulphur Mountain for dinner with a view at Sky Bistro
- See the red, orange, and mustard yellow Paint Pots at the end of a scenic hike
- Soak in the natural hot pools of Lussier Hot Springs beside the chilly Lussier River
- Venture into the remote wilderness around Nelson and trek a loop to Kokanee Lake
- Discover Okanagan wine and eat exceptional meals in Osoyoos
|Arrive in Calgary, Drive to Banff (2 hours)
|Drive from Banff to Radium Hot Springs (2 hours)
|Radium Hot Springs
|Drive from Radium Hot Springs to Nelson (4 hours)
|Explore around Nelson
|Drive from Nelson to Osoyoos (3 hours)
|Drive from Osoyoos to Vancouver (4.5 hours)
Day 1: Arrive in Calgary, Drive to Banff (2 hours)
Welcome to Calgary, the gateway to the Canadian Rockies! Starting your road trip adventure from Canada's cowboy capital, collect your rental car and follow the Trans Canada Highway (Highway 1) west and ever closer to the magnificent Rocky Mountains and popular Banff. Pull over in picturesque Canmore, worth a stop for a meal and a stroll, and find a seat at the town's eclectic PD3 by Blake restaurant (where they serve Asian-inspired cuisine from a remodeled 1962 silver double-decker bus).
Banff, a small mountain town located within Banff National Park (Canada's first national park), is one of the country's most visited destinations, packed with visitors in the peak summer months. For good reason, Banff provides year-round opportunities for wildlife watching, outdoor adventures, cultural activities, and makes for a great hub for nearby Canadian Rockies icons, like Lake Louise and the Yoho and Kootenay national parks.
Stroll the shop-lined streets to get your bearings as you make your way to the Banff Park Museum for an introduction to the local wildlife. From there, take the Banff Gondola up Sulphur Mountain to walk the boardwalk trail. Enjoy the mountain panoramas and stay for dinner with a view at Sky Bistro. And then indulge in an evening dip in the hot mineral waters of the Upper Hot Springs Pool near the base of the cable car.
Driving time (Calgary to Banff): 1.5-2 hours (79 miles / 127 km)
Day 2: Drive from Banff to Radium Hot Springs (2 hours)
Fuel up on an early breakfast at Wild Flour Bakery and proceed to follow the Bow Valley Parkway, a scenic alternative to Highway 1, west out of Banff to reach captivating Lake Louise. Admire the turquoise lake and its backdrop of chiseled mountain peaks and Victoria Glacier. Escape the crowds by taking a short hike and follow the flat 1.3 mile (2 km) Lake Louise Lakeshore Trail or the steep Fairview Lookout Trail for stunning views. Then be sure to visit the equally beautiful—if not more rugged—glacier-fed Moraine Lake. (Have lunch in Lake Louise or be sure to pack a picnic lunch for the next segment of today's drive.)
From Lake Louise, backtrack to Castle Junction and turn south on Highway 93 to cross into British Columbia at the Continental Divide and into the exquisite Kootenay National Park—the only Canadian national park to contain both glaciers and cacti.
Laced with 125 miles (200 km) of hiking trails—from easy walks to challenging hikes through remote backcountry—take advantage of today's short drive to hike through your surroundings. See the red, orange, and mustard yellow Paint Pots at the end of a scenic 0.6-mile (1-km, one way) trail over the Vermilion River. Or tackle the full-day Stanley Glacier Trail through a massive U-shaped glacial valley to end at the crest of a moraine before returning the way you came in (6.3 miles / 10 km).
Nearing Radium Hot Springs, you'll cross the Vermilion and Kootenay rivers at separate crossings, offering pretty views of the milky-green rivers surrounded by grassy meadows and tree-lined hills. Nearly 2 miles (2.8 km) south of Verdant Creek at the Vermilion Crossing, look to the east for Mt. Assiniboine, "The Matterhorn of the Rockies," in the remote Mount Assiniboine National Park. Then pull over at the Kootenay Valley Viewpoint for views that stretch from the Kootenay River Valley to the mountains along the Continental Divide before squeezing through the narrow Sinclair Canyon on your way into Radium Hot Springs.
The town of Radium Hot Springs is home to wandering bighorn sheep and, of course, its namesake hot springs—one of the largest hot spring mineral pools in Canada. Depending on timing, you can go on the 3.7-mile (6-km) Juniper or Sinclair Canyon trail that leads you into the canyon with an elevation change of 850 feet (260 m). End the day with a restorative soak in the outdoor mineral-rich waters of Radium Hot Springs, followed by a casual meal accompanied by a glass or two of provincial wine.
For your accommodation, consider staying in Invermere, a pretty lakeside town south of Radium Hot Springs, only 15 minutes by vehicle.
Recommended stops and activities:
- Johnston Canyon. Trek along the cantilevered walkways of one of the busiest hikes of Banff National Park. Allow two to two and a half hours to complete both the Lower and Upper Falls trails.
- Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Boathouse. Rent a canoe to explore Lake Louise on your own steam.
- Lake Louise Gondola. Spot grizzlies on the avalanche slopes, disembarking at the top of Whitehorn Mountain at 6,850 feet (2,088 m).
- Marble Canyon. Take the 1.2-mile (2-km) trail along this ice-carved, marble-streaked canyon.
- Guided or self-guided paddle. Discover the Columbia Valley wetlands from the vantage of a kayak, canoe, or paddleboard, just south of Radium.
- The Home of A Thousand Faces. Meet the Radium Woodcarver and see the eccentric artist's large chainsaw-made carvings just outside of town.
Driving time (Banff to Radium Hot Springs): 2 hours (85 miles / 136 km)
Day 3: Drive from Radium Hot Springs to Nelson (4 hours)
Get an early start to the day with breakfast at Bighorn Café before heading south alongside the Columbia River, passing by lakes, hot springs, and quaint communities with the every-present Kootenay Rockies just beyond.
For a unique mid-morning break, veer off Highway 93 for 11 miles (18 km) to soak in the natural, rock-lined hot pools of Lussier Hot Springs in Whiteswan Lake Provincial Park accessed via a gravel logging road. Set amid a chilly river, you'll want sturdy water shoes to mitigate the slick rocks. Farther south, consider pulling over in the small community of Kimberley to stroll The Platzl, a Bavarian-themed promenade to admire the grand cuckoo clock and choose a cool restaurant for a bite of lunch.
Continue the drive south toward the agricultural town of Creston, setting your watch back an hour to Pacific Coast time as you enter the West Kootenays and continue to work your way toward Nelson. Sitting on the extreme West Arm of Kootenay Lake, Nelson is an artsy town of eclectic shops and restaurants and up to 350 restored Victorian-era heritage buildings, some of which creep up a hill that overlooks the park and beach-lined waterfront. Its main drawcard, however, is the surrounding wilderness of the Selkirk Mountains.
Pick up a Heritage Walking Tour brochure from the visitor center and then walk pedestrian-friendly Baker Street, the city's main drag, to admire the historic architecture. Follow the Waterfront Pathway that runs the length of the lakeshore to hang out next to BOB ("Big Orange Bridge"), the iconic Nelson Bridge, from the shade of a bench or spot on the beach in Lakeside Park. And when it's time for dinner, head over to All Seasons Café to sit under the maples lit with twinkling lights for an artful meal of seasonal British Columbian eats.
Recommended stops and activities:
- Lake Windemere. Stop for a swim at the sandy beaches of the charming Invermere's in-town lake.
- Ktunaxa Interpretive Center. Outside of Cranbrook, learn of the Ktunaxa First Nations history from the first floor of the St. Eugene Resort, the former mission and residential school for indigenous students.
- Fort Steele Heritage Town. If you like history, pay a visit to the living history village to experience life back in the gold rush days of the 1860s.
- Baillie-Grohman Estate Winery. Make a reservation in advance to sample superb cool-climate wines of the Creston Valley.
- The Glass House. Pick up Highway 3A for an alternate route to Nelson to see the unusual 1950s home of former funeral director, David H. Brown, made up of 500,000 empty embalming fluid bottles
Driving time (Radium Hot Springs to Nelson): 4-4.5 hours (232 miles / 373 km)
Chat with a local specialist who can help organize your trip.
Day 4: Explore around Nelson
In spring and summer, there are a host of outdoor activities to experience from kayaking and canoeing deep-blue Kootenay Lake to hiking and mountain biking nearby trails. At the same time, the closeby Selkirk Mountains (and magnificent Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park) in the winter provide conditions for world-class skiing and snowboarding. Meanwhile, as a cosmopolitan city, Nelson boasts more restaurants per capita than San Francisco, blocks of specialty and boutique shops, and access to numerous spas.
Today is yours to spend as you like. To satisfy your breakfast needs, watch the world float by over coffee and baked goods from local favorite, Oso Negro. Then consider paying a mid-morning visit to Touchstones Nelson, a museum of local history and art that features modern displays of First Nations, explorers, miners, and the Doukhobors as well as Nelson's contribution to World War I.
If you're looking to get outdoors, head to the visitors center for up-to-date information on road and hiking trail conditions before venturing into the remote wilderness surrounding Nelson. For some of the best trails, drive into Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park. Here you can hike the two-hour summer-only circuit to Kokanee Lake uphill from Gibson Lake (2.5 miles / 4 km). Driving out the way you came in, and before turning west, you'll find Kokanee Creek Provincial Park, a perfect place to plonk your towel anywhere on the half-mile stretch of sandy beach.
Come the evening, make your way to the Hume Hotel to listen to live jazz from your cozy candlelit spot in the elegant Library Lounge after dining on "Viet-Modern" cuisine at Yum Son or wood-fired pizzas at Marzano's.
Recommended stops and activities:
- Cottonwood Falls Park. Relax in peaceful environs and see the misty falls cascade beneath the highway overpass off Baker Street.
- Pulpit Rock. For views of Nelson and Kootenay Lake, set out from the parking lot on Johnstone Road to climb a couple of hours to the lookout, the most frequented Nelson hike.
- Nelson-Salmo Great Northern Trail. Hike at least the first 3.7 miles (6 km) of the former Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail line from the corner of Cherry and Gore Streets.
- Mountain biking. Pick from the many downhill options of Mountain Station or ride the winding Svoboda Road Trail, an old logging and mining road, in West Arm Provincial Park.
- Kokanee spawning. At the end of summer, be sure to see the spawning kokanee (freshwater salmon) accessed from the visitors center of Kokanee Creek Provincial Park.
Day 5: Drive from Nelson to Osoyoos (3 hours)
Wind your way through the West Kootenays this morning, navigating the undulating Highway 3 toward the South Okanagan. Stop in at the Doukhobor Discovery Center in Castlegar to discover the Doukhobor legacy, Russian pacifists who emigrated to the Kootenays in the early 1900s. Before leaving, head over to the Brilliant Suspension Bridge, a National Historic Site and one built at the hands of the Doukhobor community.
Stop in Greenwood, Canada's smallest city. Savor tasty butter tarts from Copper Eagle Cappuccino & Bakery as you complete a short (self-guided) walking tour of the town's historic structures, including a saloon established in 1899. (You can pick up a free guide from the Greenwood Museum and Visitor Center.)
Resting at the arid southern end of the Okanagan Valley along the Canada-US border sits Osoyoos, a small town on a narrow spit of land ringed by the beaches of Osoyoos Lake, as well as the orchards, farms, and vineyards it irrigates. If you arrive early enough, venture a short distance north to sip wines from the Black Sage Bench, renowned for its premium Bordeaux-style grapes. Check out two notable wineries, Stoneboat Vineyards and Burrowing Owl Estate Winery, where you can reserve a table for an exceptional dinner at The Sonora Room.
Recommended stops and activities:
- Grand Forks. Order a bowl of borscht with a side of pyrahi (baked turnover stuffed with potatoes, spinach, or cheese) at The Borscht Bowl, a restaurant serving Doukhobor cuisine.
- Cascade Gorge Trail. Hike the easy 3-mile (5-km) route, developed along the original Kettle Valley Railway bed in Christina Lake, and see Cascade Falls.
- Rock Creek. Make like a prospector and pan for gold at the Canyon Creek Ranch.
Driving time (Nelson to Osoyoos): 3 hours (162 miles / 261 km)
Day 6: Drive from Osoyoos to Vancouver (4.5 hours)
Following Highway 3 out of Osoyoos, zigzag your way across southern British Columbia to Vancouver. Stop in the Similkameen Valley to visit a winery or two, like Forbidden Fruit or Orofino wineries in Cawston, or check out the historic grist mill in Keremeos and purchase fresh-picked fruit from any number of roadside stands in between.
For a taste of gold rush history, visit Princeton and District Pioneer Museum to see pioneer artifacts from Granite City, Chinese and Salish artifacts, and a considerable fossil display. Stretch the legs and experience the lakes and alpine meadows of E.C. Manning Provincial Park. If you have three hours to spare, hike Heather Trail (12 miles / 20 km) to Three Brothers Mountain and enjoy the colorful views: a carpet of yellow, orange, and white wildflowers (late July to mid-August).
Approaching Vancouver, the scenery transforms from the bright sunlit rock faces of the Coast Mountains to misty coastal cedars and tall firs as you near the coast. Have dinner in the suburb of Richmond for some of the best Chinese cuisine outside of China.
Recommended stops and activities:
- Canyon scenery. Twenty minutes off the main drag, cross the river at the north end of Princeton's Bridge Street toward whimsical Coalmont.
- Othello-Quintette Tunnels. Five tunnels carved out of solid granite of the Coquihalla Canyon.
- Hell's Gate Airtram. Ride the tram over the Fraser River Canyon, a scenic pit stop (and 50-minute detour north of Hope).
- Harrison Hot Springs. Charming village and spring-fed mineral hot springs, popular with families.
- Fort Langley National Historic Site. Heritage-style antique shops, boutiques, and restaurants with interpreters in period costume.
- Stanley Park's Seawall. Just before sunset, walk (two hours) or bike (one hour) the six-mile (10-km) loop around a natural West Coast rainforest with views over the city. Time your walk to hit the midpoint at Siwash Rock and Third Beach for the best spot to watch the sun dip below the horizon.
Driving time (Osoyoos to Vancouver): 4.5 hours (247 miles / 398 km)
Day 7: Depart Vancouver
Head to The Naam (open 24/7) for an early morning breakfast before making your way to the airport. If you're feeling indulgent, splurge on a seaplane harbor tour to take in the magnificent scenery of the mountain-and-sea-dominated city from a new perspective. Alternatively, enjoy some more time at Stanley Park, paying a visit to Klahowya Village via the Spirit Catcher miniature train to watch cultural performances. Here you can also purchase souvenirs and gifts of traditional First Nations arts and crafts from the Artisan Marketplace and Métis Trading Post.
It usually takes 30 minutes to travel from downtown Vancouver to Vancouver International Airport but allow extra time in case of traffic. Best to arrive at least two hours prior to your international departure while allowing extra time to drop off your rental car.