Western Canada…. the home of the Rocky Mountains, ski resorts, maple syrup, wild animals and delicious salmon…. It is one of the planet’s most spectacular locations and one of my very favourites. Explore by horse, boat, train, gondola, plane, skis, Ice Explorer or motorbike, meet the incredibly friendly locals and fall in love with nature on a whole new scale.
As if you needed any more convincing, here are my favourite things to do in Western Canada.
1. Marvel at the beauty of Lake Louise
One of the most famous lakes in the world, Lake Louise dazzles. With famous Mount Victoria at one end, and the Chateau Lake Louise at the other, this blue lake changes colour before your eyes with every movement of the sun, reflecting the majestic scenery around it and captivating you with it’s mountaineering history.
2. Gaze upon the Sunken Garden in the Butchart Gardens, Victoria
An empty limestone quarry was turned into one of the most magnificent gardens in the world by an enterprising Jennie Butchart in the early 1900’s. Visit the entire Butchart Gardens where over a million blooms flower annually and marvel at the vision of the Butcharts in creating such a spectacle.
3. Channel your inner cowboy at Echo Valley Ranch
Where Western Canada turns into the Old West – a family run ranch in the middle of Gold Rush country, this ranch is a luxury lodge and spa retreat in one where you become part of the family, explore by horseback and enjoy some of the best company to be found in Western Canada.
4. See some of the bluest lakes you’ve probably ever seen
The abundance of glacial fed lakes in the Rockies mean magic happens before your eyes, the lakes are the bluest of blue and stand in beautiful contrast to the scenery around them. Travel along the Icefield’s Parkway drive and stop at the lakes along the way, it is a true feast for the eyes.
5. View the Rockies peeping out above the clouds from the top of Sulphur Mountain, Banff
If you’re lucky, once you get to the top of Sulphur Mountain gondola in Banff, the cloud might just be at eye level, making the tips of the highest peaks around you peek through the carpet of white, topped off by a brilliant blue sky.
6. Try and capture the beauty of the Icefield’s Parkway at viewing points along the drive
Photography enthusiasts will not stop clicking at view points along this spectacular route between Jasper and Lake Louise. The conundrum is literally how many places to stop off at and when to stop clicking!
7. Attempt to strike it rich gold panning in the Fraser Canyon
The site for the gold rush in the 1800’s, this spectacular canyon is in British Columbia’s cowboy country and you can try your hand at panning for gold alongside many local prospectors. Organise your trip from Echo Valley Ranch.
8. See the world’s largest bathtub – Medicine Lake – which empties itself every year
This beautiful lake is a natural phenomenon – emptying itself through a natural ‘plughole’ every year and then refilling when the snow melts from the surrounding mountains. Just 15 minutes from Jasper, it is in the middle of Jasper National Park and incredible to visit at any time of the year.
9. Try and spot the highest peak, Mount Robson, not covered in cloud
The highest point of the Canadian Rockies Mount Robson is often shy, hiding itself behind clouds. Head to the Information Centre along the Southern Yellowhead Highway and hopefully spot the mountain cloud free and in it’s full beauty.
10. Get up early to see the mist rise from the lakes
It’s magic hour in Western Canada, when the early sun captures the mist rising off still water and you can see your breath in front of you. The best way to wake up (with a hot coffee in your hand of course!).
11. Discover the many waterfalls that Western Canada has to offer
There is plenty of water in Western Canada, fed by glaciers, melting snow and rain. You are spoiled for choice for spectacular waterfalls such as these, the Athabasca Falls, fed by the Athabasca River, west of the Columbia Icefields along the famous Icefields Parkway. The thunderous waters have carved spectacular gorges beneath the falls which you can explore.
12. See The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise reflected in the water
As the sun starts to set, this amazing illusion is cast onto the still waters of Lake Louise, perfectly mirroring the Chateau and all it’s beauty. Best seen on an afternoon Mountain-Heritage guided walk from the hotel.
13. Take to the skies on a seaplane to witness the magical rainforest and wilderness
Canada is a must-see from the air. With incredible views over pristine wilderness like the Great Bear Rainforest on the Western Coast, the only thing that can top it off is a spectacular seaplane landing on the waters beneath.
14. See the majestic Rockies surround you through the glass domed roof of the Rocky Mountaineer train
Take a 2-day journey through the heart of the Rocky Mountains, viewing the glory outside through the glass dome of Gold Leaf Service. Sit back, watch valleys beneath you and and peaks towering over you and compete with fellow travellers to spot a bear.
15. Have afternoon tea at The Fairmont Empress Hotel, Victoria
Take a step back into Old England with a traditional afternoon tea at one of the most historical buildings in Victoria.
16. Ride the gondola up Whistler Blackcomb, then ski back down
Straight from the village of Whistler, you can hop onto this gondola and head up Blackcomb mountain to world-class ski runs. I saw a few bears on this journey so keep your eyes peeled. Up the top, you can also choose to take the Peak 2 Peak Gondola, the longest and highest lift in the world with a view over British Columbia’s rooftop, connecting Blackcomb and Whistler Mountains so you can ski back down either.
17. Feast your eyes upon the Vancouver skyline from Stanley Park
Stanley Park is Vancouver’s largest urban park and a national historic site of Canada. With 400 hectares of rainforest, coastline, cultural and historical landmarks and recreation sites, the view back to the city is just one of the highlights.
18. Take a traditional horse and carriage ride through charming Victoria
Victoria, the capital of British Columbia and main city on Vancouver Island, is a little piece of Old England. Discover it’s charming streets filled with thousands of blooms, the magnificent Houses of Parliament and English-style gardens on a traditional horse and carriage ride, the perfect way to get your bearings.
19. Stay the night in the ‘Castle in the Rockies’ and brave the ghost stories
One of the most famous hotels in the world, The Fairmont Banff Springs hotel is more than just a place to lay your head – it is an experience in itself. Built for rich Canadian train travellers who visited Banff for it’s ‘wellness’ springs, the Castle in the Rockies has more than it’s share of history, including some infamous ghost stories. If you are staying there, you can book a free heritage tour with the hotel historian who will share all of the hotels stories, including some fairly legendary guests.
20. Go whale watching off the coast of Victoria
In the seas between Vancouver Island, and the US state of Washington, Humpback Whales and Orcas frolic almost year-around, but particularly between April – October. Whale watching tours depart Victoria where you can discover both resident and migratory whales in their habitats, plus an entire population of Sea Lions around Race Rocks Lighthouse.
21. Get treated like royalty on the Rocky Mountaineer in Gold Leaf Service
This iconic journey is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Treat yourself to Gold Leaf Service and enjoy the glass domed carriage where you will pass through some of the most incredible scenery you have ever seen. And equally as amazing, in my books, is the food. Enjoy three course breakfasts and lunches on board in the downstairs dining car, drinks and snacks all day in the main carriage, and feel like royalty as you experience one of the most traditional forms of travel in this region.
22. Take a walk on the Athabasca Glacier at the Columbia Icefields
One of six ‘toes’ of the Columbia Icefields, the Athabasca Glacier lies along the famous Icefields Parkway and is 6km long and between 90-300metres thick – that’s about the height of the Eiffel Tower! It moves at a rate of approximately 5 metres per year and has lost half it’s area over the last 125 years. Board a custom designed Ice Explorer vehicles for a journey onto the ice where you can get out for a glacial walk.
23. Feed the seals at Fisherman’s Wharf floating village, Victoria
This gorgeous little village is a must-visit when in Victoria. Head around to the Fishermans Wharf on the harbour and buy some fish to feed the local seals – beware the seagulls who will zoom in for a snap too. While you’re there, grab some fish and chips for yourself and explore the little town built on the water where people actually live.
24. See the grizzly bears catch and eat their dinner in Great Bear Rainforest
This experience puts you fair and square inside a real life wildlife documentary. In Great Bear Rainforest on the West Coast of British Columbia, Great Bear Nature Tours operate bear excursions for limited numbers of guests who stay in their purpose built floating lodge on beautiful Smith Inlet. Only accessible by seaplane, you experience unbelievable lodge hospitality, but best of all go out on bear viewing excursions where, from the safety of a bear hide (which owner/operator Tom built himself) you can watch grizzly bears in the wild. In salmon season, watch them stock up on their food in preparation for hibernation and pinch yourself in this bucket list experience.
25. Stock up on quality outdoor gear and souvenirs in Banff
There are a million things to see and do around beautiful Banff, but don’t miss a little bit of time simply wandering down the charming main street of Banff and doing a little shopping. You will find excellent souvenirs and of course, all the best gear to pursue the outdoor adventures which Banff is best known for. There are also excellent cafes and restaurants to spend some time in.
26. Buy wild, local salmon at Granville Island Market, Vancouver
Salmon is something the locals in Western Canada take quite seriously and rightly so. It is some of the tastiest and freshest wild salmon in the world, and the fishmonger at Granville Island Public Markets has been selling some of the best for more than 20 years. Fresh and smoked, you can even buy salmon packed especially for travel back to your home.
27. Go on a Harley Davidson ride through Jasper National Park
There is nothing quite like roaring down a mountain road with the freshest wind in your face and the sight of the Rocky Mountains all around you. For some adrenalin filled sightseeing, jump on board a Harley with one of Jasper’s local drivers and explore the surrounding national park in all it’s beauty.
28. Spot Inuksuit (Inuit monuments) throughout the region
These mysterious monuments built of unworked stone are erected by the Inuit people for communication and survival signals. They can be directional signals, placed to mean ‘someone was here’ and ‘you are going the right way’. Spot them throughout the region.
29. Sleep in a Lake View Room at The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise
The rooms in the Chateau are heavenly enough, with luxury traditional furnishings honouring the legend of the hotel, but nothing beats the view from the lake side of the building, facing onto the famous blue waters of Lake Louise and Mount Victoria. You can sit at your window all day staring at the scene, so don’t forget to go outside and explore it up close!
30. Continuously stop at every roadside view point for scenes like this
Around almost every corned of British Columbia and Alberta lie breathtaking scenes of nature which look just like a picture postcard. Try and stop yourself from halting at every viewpoint to take pictures like this!
31. Hear your heart pound as you cross the 150 metre high Capilano Suspension Bridge
Just 15 minutes from the hustle and bustle of downtown Vancouver, and you are in pristine wilderness. Capilano Suspension Bridge was literally built by the landowner George Grant Mackay to get from one side of the Capilano River to the other, the bridge suspended 150 metres high above the canyon. Also at the park is the Treetops Adventure set amongst towering evergreen rainforest and the Cliffwalk, a glass cantilevered walkway which hugs a granite cliff and really tests the nerves!
32. Get up before the sun rise at Lake Louise
Canada is a place for getting up early. Nature puts on a show from first light, and the mist rising off Lake Louise before the sun starts to rise is a beautiful spectacle worth the early start.
33. Relax on a float trip down Bow River, Banff
Relax as you float down the majestic Bow River, surrounded by the pristine wilderness of the National Park, and gazing at the incredible wonders all around you. The perfect way to get up close and personal with nature at it’s best.
34. Gasp at the colour and scenery of glacially fed Moraine Lake
Turquoise lakes are not uncommon in this part of the world but Moraine Lake pretty much takes the crown. Dubbed the world’s most photographed lake, this beauty is not far from Lake Louise and will stun you with it’s incredible colour, capped off by majestic mountains all around.
35. Spot the local elk in The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge
Part of the fun of The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge is spotting the local residents that simply wander the grounds as if the own the place. Spot them on the world-class golf course, or simply out the front of the restaurant having a nibble at the carefully tended blooms. Just don’t approach them, especially during rutting season!
36. Have a glacial adventure on the famous Ice Explorers at Columbia Icefields
These custom designed Ice Explorer vehicles are one of only two of their kind in the world and descend the second steepest navigable road in North America to take you on your very own ice adventure on the Athabasca Glacier. With wheels as high as your head, and very entertaining driver/guides, these vehicles are half the fun of the glacier experience.
37. View the valleys and mountains of the Rocky’s from Sulphur Mountain overlooking Banff
If you get the gondola up Sulphur Mountain in Banff and you have a clear day, you will get a 360 degree view of the amazing scenery, valleys and peaks and of course the town of Banff. Spot the Banff Springs Hotel, Bow River, name the surrounding peaks and face in the direction of your own home country (with distance facts included).
38. See the Rockies covered in snow
The Rockies are dusted (or dumped) in snow for many months of the year and nothing is quite like gazing at them in all their glory. White peaks touch the sky and descend into dramatic valleys and the pine forests look like they’ve been dusted in icing sugar.
39. Watch the sun set at The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge
Grab a cold one and sit by the lake at the lodge and watch the sun descent over the Rocky Mountains at the end of another adventure filled day.
40. Eat Bison, Venison and Elk in the heart of the Rocky Mountains
Indulge in the local fare with a taste of the local game. Many restaurants here offer dishes showing off the flavours of the region, including this one that I devoured in Bow Valley Grill at The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. Delicious!
Inspired to visit Canada? Watch our Best Of Western Canada episode here