The parking lot at Banff’s Moraine Lake can fill up by 7:00 AM, and traffic jams, shuttle lines, and relentless crowds don’t exactly spell summer fun. Instead of fighting to get into Banff, let’s dedicate 2020 to the lesser-known spots, the crowd-free spots, the stay-six-feet-away spots. In Western Canada, even these spots look like stock desktop wallpaper, practically offensive to the rest of the planet in their outrageous beauty.
The below national and provincial parks — the provincial parks are free to visit — are all in British Columbia or Alberta, concentrating on the Canadian Rockies. Each of them has a fraction of the visitors you’d find at Banff, not to mention Yellowstone or Yosemite. Even if you can’t get here soon, here’s where to point your dreaming.
Waterton Lakes National Park
Glacier National Park’s twin just across the border, Waterton Lakes somehow gets 2.5 million fewer visitors than its identical American counterpart. The beauty, though, certainly doesn’t care about the flag change.
True to its name, Waterton Lakes is as much about the water as it is the mountains: Hop on the classic Waterton Lake boat tour, take the scenic Akamina Parkway all the way to Cameron Lake, and from here, consider taking the 12-mile Carthew-Alderson Trail past four other lakes to Carthew Summit. For something a bit more casual, the 8.7-mile Red Rock Parkway is another scenic drive that’s absolutely worth your time — take it slowly and keep your eyes peeled for wildlife, like bears, deer, and bighorn sheep.
Mount Revelstoke National Park
Mount Revelstoke. Giant Cedars boardwalk. Meadows in the Sky Parkway. Inspiration Woods. The fairytale-ish names at this national park are well-deserved: Here you’ll walk among giants, you’ll summit mountains, you’ll paddle jade-green waters. If nothing else, you’ll definitely revel.
Mount Revelstoke’s summit is reachable via hike, bike, or car — stick around after sunset, though, and you’ll be in for a night sky that’s almost as bright. On your way to the top, stop at the Monashee Viewpoint on the aforementioned parkway for a bird’s-eye view over British Columbia.
Tip: Heading east out of Revelstoke takes you along Highway 1 across Roger’s Pass to Glacier National Park of Canada and Yoho National Park. It’s a 2.5-hour drive you won’t believe.
Yoho National Park
45 minutes from the town of Banff, Yoho — a Cree word to describe amazement or awe — gets 80 percent fewer visitors than its next-door neighbor. And yet if you were to compare images of both, you wouldn’t be able to tell which is which. Glittering lakes, snowy peaks, northern lights, thundering waterfalls, the works.
Lake O’Hara is can’t-miss, though you’ll need a reservation to shuttle in (otherwise it’s an eight-mile hike). There’s also Emerald Lake, true to its name, and the impressive Takakkaw Falls, Canada’s second-highest waterfall at 1,250 feet. You can drive right up to the base.
As for hiking, consider the 10-mile trek to Twin Falls, the easy three-mile loop around Emerald Lake, or the two-day, 12-mile Iceline Trail. In certain parts of the park, you’ll be hiking along Burgess Shale, known for its insane sea-creature fossils from the Cambrian Explosion. Keep your eyes peeled.
Note: We’d be remiss not to mention the Emerald Lake Lodge. With 85 rooms, you’ll certainly run into other travelers, but its location on the lake — and its boardwalk — make it hard to not make an exception.
Kootenay National Park
Kootenay sits in Banff’s shadow a mere 30 minutes away, yet another underrated spot with all the glorious glacier-capped peaks and turquoise lakes of Banff at a fraction of the crowds.
If you’re coming from Banff, you’ll hit the Vermilion Pass Area first — you’ll want to make the 5.2-mile round-trip trek to Stanley Glacier or the shorter one-mile hop to Marble Canyon. From the south, it’s easy to spend the day hanging out around Olive Lake or soaking in Radium Hot Springs. The Sinclair Canyon and the stretch of Hwy 93 along the Kootenay River offer great photo opps, too.
Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park
You guessed it: Mount Assiniboine is just south of Banff, and, well, you get it. Nicknamed the “Matterhorn of the Rockies,” Mount Assiniboine is the peak to know. It would certainly not have a fraction of Banff’s visitors if it had any roads.
To get in, you’ll be hiking, taking a helicopter, or some combination of both, and you’ll definitely be staying the night. You’ll have a few hiking options regarding routes, each about 20 miles. Once you’re here, you’ll spend your nights camping, staying in hostel-esque huts, or taking it easy in the remote Assiniboine Lodge. You’ll spend your days hunting for the most beautiful lakes you’ve ever seen, no overcrowded parking lots in sight.
Wells Gray Provincial Park
Wells Gray’s volcanic, waterfall-tumbling landscape — still in the Canadian Rockies but a solid six hours from Banff — mixes this list up a bit. The southern quarter is the only truly accessible section, the 21-mile “Corridor” leading you to trailheads, campsites, and millions of acres of potential.
While here, you’ll want to see the twice-as-high-as-Niagara Helmcken Falls, paddle Murtle Lake, and climb Pyramid Mountain — the eight-mile round-trip to the summit provides you with spectacular views over the province.
Mount Robson Provincial Park
The highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, the 12,972-foot Mount Robson is a giant among its kin. The stunning Berg Lake Trail is well known in Canada, rising 2,600 feet over 14 miles — most do the picturesque trek across several days.
If you’re not one to backpack, check out the headwaters of the Fraser River, hike to the spectacular Kinney Lake, gaze at Rearguard Falls, and go for an afternoon paddle on Moose Lake.
Jasper National Park
At well over 4,000 square miles, Jasper is the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies. Its views would cement it near the top of this list, but with 2.4 million visitors in 2019, we can’t quite call it crowd-free — even if it does have almost half the visitors of nearby Banff.
That being said, it’s absolutely worth your time, and with its size, it shouldn’t be too difficult to find a corner to yourself. Backpackers and campers can easily avoid the crowds; those who prefer waking up to Italian espresso should look to the 32-room Glacier View Lodge, the only glacier-view resort in Canada, and their private morning tours of the Columbia Icefield Skywalk.
Joffre Lakes Provincial Park
Three glacier-fed lakes — Lower, Middle, and Upper Joffre Lakes — give this park its name, though “park” is a tiny bit of a misnomer. Yes, it’s a park, but for all intents and purposes, it’s a hiking trail. Park five minutes south of Lower Joffre Lake, and in about 2.5 hours you’ll be resting along the edge of Upper Joffre Lake, where you can camp from the night or picnic on the water before heading back to civilization.
Pacific Rim National Park Reserve
Pacific Rim passed the one-million-visitor mark last year, making it one of Canada’s more popular parks. It’s on the southwest side of the famously wild Vancouver Island, known for its epic storms and ultra-dense rainforest. But paddle out to the Broken Group Islands or go for days on the West Coast Trail, and those million-plus visitors will be a distant memory.
Kananaskis Country doesn’t make the list because it’s not a park — but it used to be part of Banff before its downsizing in the 20th century.
Now, it’s parks, plural — 11 to be precise. Because of its confusing designation (and its proximity to Banff), the trails are rather quiet: The four-mile Read’s Tower hike feels like Fjord Norway, the six-mile trek to Sarrail Ridge would be one of the best in Glacier, the easy 2.5-mile Grassi Lakes hike will get you your own private Moraine Lake-esque experience. And there are dozens more, each tucked into a corner of the Canadian Rockies that could be all yours.