Whenever I go home to Edmonton, Alta., I make a point of doing the three to four-hour drive to the Rocky Mountains. Of course, there are many ways of driving down from Edmonton to your mountain town of choice, depending on how scenic and how quickly you’d like to reach your destination. As I could do the drive from Edmonton to Calgary to the mountains with my eyes closed (I’m a safe driver, I swear), I like to add a few more detours to make the trip more interesting than an endless highway drive.
With Alberta winters being notoriously dry and cold, any stops I make on the Edmonton-Rockies winter road trip are usually indoors or a quick road-side stop. (Unlike during the summer when I prefer driving through Rocky Mountain House to see lush farmlands and beautiful glacial lakes.) But that definitely does not mean your typical truck stop.
This time for a winter getaway, my boyfriend and I decided to do a three-day excursion from Edmonton to Banff. Coincidentally, as it was the Valentine’s Day weekend (a.k.a. a three-day Family Day weekend in Canada), Banff was swamped with vehicles trying to drive into town and people swarming the main streets (Wolf Street and Banff Avenue). Although it’s entirely possible to make a day out of Banff, we only stopped in quickly for coffee before heading home.
Duration: 5h45 driving; 2-4 hours stops.
If there’s anything I’ve learned about going to the Rockies, it’s that everything is super expensive. Although fuel comes largely from Northern Alberta, the rural, low-populace nature of the mountains makes gas prices higher than in larger cities, like Edmonton and Calgary. (Edmonton was just under 60 cents per litre, compared to 78 cents per litre in Lake Louise, when I went over the Valentine’s Day 2016 weekend.) It usually takes half or three-quarters of a tank to make it to the mountains in a small vehicle, depending on the route chosen. Make sure that your fuel is topped up before leaving Edmonton; make minimal refuels in the mountains- enough to drive comfortably to Calgary on your way home, where gas is cheaper.
Another expensive item in the Rockies is food- from groceries to restaurants. Restaurant meals will typically cost about $20-$30 CDN. (So for anyone on a budget – cough, cough, broke Uni students- eating out may require some extra savings beforehand.) Groceries will also cost slightly more, once again due to rural, low-population communities. Though this will add a few more bags and coolers to your trunk, stocking up in Edmonton before heading to the mountains will save you some cash. I’d also recommend packing some snacks and sandwiches for lunch, especially if you have dietary restrictions, as options along the highway are limited to fast food and gas stations.
Test out your Jurassic Park knowledge
The first stop on your getaway is a bit counter-intuitive, as it takes you a little over an hour off-course. But, as you can gather from the photo above, it’s to release your inner child at the Dinosaur Capital of the world, Drumheller!
If you take highway 56 (map here), you’ll enter Drumheller through the badlands. Unlike the typical flat farmer fields that line Alberta highways, the badlands look like they’re from another planet. With large striped hills, a rich diversity of dinosaur fossils and strange rock formations, like hoodoos and coulees, the badlands will instantly revive you from the onslaught of endless fields.
After following the windy roads through the badlands, take the North Dinosaur Trail to the Royal Tyrrell Museum. Named after geologist Joseph Burr Tyrrell, who discovered the Albertosaurus in 1884, the museum is home to a wide range of fossils from different paleontological eras and to Shelly, the soft-shelled turtle. (Fun fact: Shelly is a little speedboat thanks to evolution and her soft shell!)
Get local in Canmore
Once you’ve made your way through the museum, grab a snack and blast some Queen as you make your way over to the small town of Canmore, located 40 minutes outside of Banff. Known for its cute downtown core and local beer, it’s a tourist-free way to visit a mountain town!
I stayed at an AirBnB here at a cheaper price (and less traffic) than what I would’ve paid at a hotel in Banff. (AirBnB is illegal in Banff, as it is a national park.) My hosts brought my boyfriend and I to the local recreation centre for some rock climbing shortly after we arrived- a great way to get moving after spending all day in a car!
After spending the day in the car the day before, it’s time to get outside and enjoy the mountains! So grab your skis and head up to Sunshine Ski Resort for a day on the slopes! Be sure to get there early in the day to avoid having to park along the road and taking the shuttle to the base.
If you’re not too tired after a full day on the mountains, be sure to head into Banff to check out their bar scene- they’re known for their nightlife.
In the morning, pack up your things and drive up to Chateau Lake Louise to see the iconic lake hidden in the mountains. Although many people visit the lake in the summer to see its clear, aqua-coloured water, the winter allows for fun activities on the lake like skating, cross-country skiing, building snowmen, snowshoeing and ice sculptures!
I recommend renting some snowshoes from Banff ($15, here) and walking across the lake to see the Chateau Lake Louise from the opposite side. With ankle-deep or higher snow, the snowshoes will keep you from sinking into the powder.
When you’re done, head into the Chateau for some lunch or drinks. Although the Chateau doesn’t look particularly elegant on the exterior, the wooden beams, chandeliers and large windows will remind you of a time where women wore evening gowns to dinner with their men in tuxedos. There is also an outdoor ice bar just outside of the Chateau, if any non-drivers would like a drink.
Grab a coffee in Banff
As for the driver, head over to Banff to grab a coffee and walk down the quaint streets. The downtown streets are filled with little shops, cafes and restaurants made with stone and wood beams. Be sure to stop into Beaver Tails for a very sweet Canadian treat and into the fudgery along Banff Avenue- the sugar will keep you extra alert on the drive home!
But, if the downtown is too busy for your liking, walk down some neighbourhood streets. With the exception of Banff Avenue, they’re all named after wildlife and flora, making your imaginary house on Otter Street that much cuter.
The downtown will become quite busy toward the end of a ski day, so beat traffic by traveling down neighbourhood streets and trying to leave the town by 4 p.m. Plus, you’ll finish your 3-day weekend getaway with the sunset bringing you most the way home to Edmonton.
What’s your favourite route to the Rockies? Let me know in the comments below!