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Summer Travel in Canada: Stunning Alberta, Part 1

It has been a long year, and as a working parent with three school-aged kids stuck at home right now, it feels even longer. I’m ready for the summer break. Thankfully, as vaccination rates continue to increase and COVID-19 numbers continue to decline country-wide, there is hope that it’ll be a good one. 

Although Prime Minister Trudeau hinted a couple of weeks ago that international travel could be back on the table sometime this summer, I’m not holding my breath.

Aside from safety concerns, the lack of certainty about anything in these pandemic days makes planning a family trip very difficult. But with reopening plans set unfold across the country, travel within Canada will likely be a popular and more realistic option for most Canadian families this summer.

Last year, I had written about a couple of family-friendly resorts in Ontario (the JW Marriott The Rosseau Muskoka Resort & Spa and Deerhurst Resort), as well as our summer trip to Vancouver, Whister and Tofino, which are all great places to visit this summer.

In this two-part series, I want to highlight another beautiful Canadian destination: Banff and Jasper National Parks and their surrounding areas. 

Having visited this part of Alberta a few times now, I’m still awestruck by its breathtaking scenery each time I go. If your family enjoys being outdoors, then you’ll love this place, as there’s no shortage of hiking trails, water activities, and wildlife sightings in the area.

Let’s take a look at one of my previous itineraries, the transportation considerations, a few accommodation options, and some family activities to enjoy at each stop. 

Unfortunately, with the anticipation for increased demand for local travel this summer, the cost of vacationing within Canada has gone up substantially, and so I’ll also highlight some cost-saving strategies and deals that can be help minimize the cost. 

The Itinerary

You could easily spend several weeks in Alberta, but if you’re limited in time, you’ll want to spend at least seven days to have a leisurely experience. Here is the itinerary for a 10 day trip we took:  

  • Canmore: 2 nights
  • Jasper: 1 night
  • Lake Louise: 2 nights
  • Banff: 2 nights
  • Kananaskis: 3 nights

We flew into and out of Calgary on this trip, so there was some redundancy with our route. We stopped in Canmore en route up to Jasper, and then visited Lake Louise, Banff, and Kananaskis on the way back. 

(Part 1 of the series will focus on our planning process for the Alberta trip, as well as our first three nights in Canmore and Jasper. Then, we’ll cover the final seven nights in Lake Louise, Banff, and Kananaskis in Part 2.) 

Flying out of Edmonton is a good option to make it a one-direction journey, although it only saves you about 50 minutes of driving. At the time we travelled, flights to and from Edmonton were more expensive and I really wanted to check out WestJet’s new Elevation Lounge, so we stuck with Calgary.

There are several other destinations that could also be included in an Alberta trip, but may be better to visit when restrictions are fully lifted (as many of the attractions are currently closed or not fully operational due to the pandemic):

  • Drumheller: To visit the Royal Tyrrell Museum (Canada’s only and largest dinosaur fossil museum), see the World’s Largest Dinosaur, and hike the Hoodoos trail
  • Edmonton: To visit the West Edmonton Mall (North America’s largest shopping mall and entertainment complex)
  • Calgary: To visit Cobb’s Adventure Park (which offers a kangaroo petting zoo, giant slides, tractor rides, pedal carts, mazes, games, and fun for the whole family), the Calgary Zoo, Telus Spark science centre, and Heritage Park (a pioneer village)

Alberta’s COVID-19 Restrictions

Alberta recently implemented stronger public health measures in light of the third wave. Like the rest of the country, their COVID-19 case counts are steadily declining. Currently, there are no restrictions for entering Alberta from another province, and provincial parks remain open.

Hotels, however, are quite restricted in what they can offer at this time:

Keep an eye out for updates, as with declining COVID-19 cases, restrictions will likely be loosened at least somewhat for this summer. For the most up-to-date information, visit Alberta’s official website.

Flights

Flights within Canada right now are at an all-time low, with round-trip economy flights from Toronto to Calgary on Air Canada available for $234 throughout the summer, or just over 8,000 Aeroplan points!

Not to mention, the core and premium Aeroplan co-branded credit cards are currently offering statement credits after a certain amount of spend on Air Canada tickets.

If you generally fly economy and have a co-branded credit card, this may be one occasion you want to pay the cash fare and save the points. For example, if you hold a CIBC Aeroplan Visa Infinite Card, you could save an additional $25 off that one-way base fare of $115, bringing the cost down to $90!

Car Rentals

Car rentals in Alberta can get pretty expensive. We’ve had particularly good luck with Hertz, so we usually rent with them.

One of the benefits of holding the American Express Platinum Card is that it gives you President’s Circle status with Hertz, which comes with a guaranteed car upgrade and also allows you to use American Express’s Corporate Discount Program (CDP) code, which often gives better rates than Costco’s.

This time, however, we used RBC Avion Visa Infinite‘s CDP code 451401, which not only gave us the cheapest rate, but also included a free car seat.

We booked the Manager’s Special after hearing some people having good experiences with it. We had no clue the type of car we’d be getting prior to arrival, so it is a gamble, but in the end, we were not disappointed.

Upon arrival, we were given the option between a Dodge Durango or a Ford Expedition – both great options for our family of five – and better yet, all for the price of $382.64 for 10 days. 

Park Passes

Visiting Banff and Jasper National Parks will require a park pass. Passes can be purchased online beforehand, but we just bought ours at the gate entrance.

You can opt to pay the daily rate, but it you’re going to be spending seven days or more in the area, or you plan on visiting some other national parks in the coming year, it makes sense to purchase a Discovery Pass.

This is an annual pass which grants access to over 80 sites managed by Parks Canada, including National Parks, National Marine Conservation Areas, and National Historic Sites.

Days 1–2: Canmore

Canmore is a town en route from Calgary to Jasper, and is a great place to break up the five-hour drive. There are a couple of really fun activities for the whole family, which is the main reason why we chose to stay in Canmore, in addition to a few kid-friendly hikes in the area. 

Our accommodation: Blackstone Mountain Lodge by CLIQUE

Price: $186 per night for a one-bedroom suite when we went during the shoulder season; currently $432+ for a deluxe hotel room in July

Room: The one-bedroom suite features a bedroom with a king-sized bed and a living room with a sofa bed. There’s a fully equipped kitchen with a fridge, stove, dishwasher, and sink. There’s also a breakfast bar with seating for four.

If you prefer an actual dinner table, then you’ll need to book the one-bedroom deluxe suite, which is one category up. The hotel also has two-bedroom suites for larger families. Another great family feature was ensuite laundry machines in our suite, which was not available in the smaller studio rooms.

Blackstone Mountain Lodge Canmore – One-bedroom suite
Blackstone Mountain Lodge Canmore – One-bedroom suite
Creative sleeping arrangements

Amenities: The property is located a 20-minute walk from downtown Canmore. Wifi and parking are complimentary.

They have a heated outdoor pool which the kids enjoyed, as well as two hot tubs. There’s also a spa, fitness centre, and a small outdoor courtyard with two BBQs that can be used by guests. There is no on-site restaurant. For family night, take advantage of their complimentary movie and board game rentals. 

Blackstone Mountain Lodge Canmore – Outdoor amenities
Blackstone Mountain Lodge Canmore – Outdoor amenities

COVID considerations: At this time, indoor amenities remain closed until further notice. When the pools and hot tubs were open before the current shutdown, they allowed families to book a 30-minute time slot each day, booked on a first come, first served basis each morning. 

Cost-saving strategies: We paid the cash rate when we went, but given the high costs this summer, I would opt to pay with my TD Rewards points by booking through Expedia for TD, or some other credit card with points that can be redeemed for travel credit.

Save an additional 20% by stopping at a Costco in Calgary and buying CLIQUE gift cards at a 20% off discount. The hotel will happily reverse the charge on your credit card and apply the gift cards when you arrive.

With the kitchenette, you can easily pick up a few things at the grocery store or from Costco in Calgary and cook your own meals. 

Alternative accommodation option: Basecamp Resorts. They have several properties in Canmore, including options that can accommodate large families.  

Activities:

  • Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary: This facility is located mid-way between Calgary and Canmore and offers an opportunity to see and interact with wolf dogs. For those aged 6 and up, you can do a self-guided walk around the outdoor facility; for those aged 10 and up, you can book a guided tour which facilitates closer encounters. 
  • Adventure Dog Cart Tour with Snowy Owl Tours: We did dog sledding (the winter version of this activity) with this company, and it was by far the highlight of our whole trip to Alberta for the kids. They loved interacting with the dogs and the thrill of the ride. I’ve heard that this summer version is not to be missed

Snowy Owl Dog Sledding Tour
Snowy Owl Dog Sledding Tour
Bow River
  • Policeman Creek Boardwalk Trail: This is a 3.9km easy and stroller-friendly boardwalk trail along a creek.

  • Grotto Canyon Trail: This is a 7km trail along a stream bed within a canyon that is rocky and rugged and is better suited for school-aged children. If offers views of a waterfall, an inukshuk garden and a tiny cave two-thirds of the way into the trail. 

Day 3: Jasper

Jasper National Park is the largest park in the Rocky Mountains. It boasts beautiful waterfalls and trails and is teeming with wildlife. 

Heading out of Canmore towards Jasper National Park, you’ll first pass through Banff National Park, where you can purchase your park pass. Then, the 232km highway between Lake Louise and Jasper ranks amongst the world’s most scenic drives, with breathtaking views of the Rocky Mountains and its valleys and ice fields.

Note that once you pass Banff, there aren’t many options for gas or food, so be sure to prepare ahead for a long drive.

Our accommodation: The Crimson

The Crimson, Jasper

Price: $174 per night for a studio room when we stayed; currently $360 in July

Room: The room was basic with two queen beds, but did feature a small kitchenette with a kettle, microwave, and fridge. They also supplied paper plates and plastic cutlery.

The Crimson, Jasper – Studio Room
The Crimson, Jasper – Studio Room

 Amenities: The property is located right on Connaught Drive, the main street of Jasper. Wifi and parking are complimentary. There is an onsite restaurant, indoor pool, hot tub, and gym facility. 

COVID considerations: At this time, indoor amenities remain closed until further notice. Their restaurant remains open for takeout, as are other restaurants just down the street. 

Cost-saving strategies: I booked this hotel through Hotels.com, which qualified as my sixth stay in their rewards program (stay 10 nights, get 1 free). Try to grab Hotels.com gift cards at a discount for an additional discount – RBC Rewards sometimes run promotions on them.

If you’re in the US credit card game, occasionally Amazon.com runs promotions with American Express, in which redeeming just one Membership Rewards point will unlock a 50% discount on a purchase. I recently redeemed this 50% offer on a $100 USD Hotels.com e-gift card. 

You can also save a bit by eating in, which is the benefit of having a kitchenette. We reheated our $7 rotisserie chicken from Costco along with some instant noodles for dinner one night. There is also a pizzeria just down the street with very reasonable prices. A grocery store just outside of the hotel was convenient for breakfast items like milk and cereal, as well as topping-up our snacks for the kids.

Alternative accommodation option: Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. If you’re a fan of the Fairmont chain, you may want to check out this property. We didn’t stay here as it was a little too pricey just for the one night.

Activities:

  • Wildlife Tour through SunDog Tours: Jasper is known for its wildlife sighting, including bears, elk, moose, deer, bighorn sheep, beavers, and eagles. We took a three-hour tour (it ended up being “private” as no one else had booked that day) and had no regrets.
     
    Make sure you request Norm to be your guide as he was absolutely fabulous. Not only was he great with kids as a grandpa himself, but he was a wealth of knowledge about Jasper and its wildlife. He was so passionate about it and showed us so much, that we left wishing we were staying an extra night or two.
     
    Oh, and if you’re not in a rush and he’s got the time, he’ll happily show you much more than you bargained for. He also gave us his personalized discount card to the Jasper Planetarium. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to check it out, but would love to the next time we’re in the area.
SunDog Wildlife Tour with Norm, a not-to-be-missed kid-friendly tour
SunDog Wildlife Tour 
  • Jasper SkyTram: My kids never get bored of going up the mountains. This sky tram takes you up Whistlers Mountain at 2,263 metres above sea level and rewards you with beautiful views of Jasper National Park. There is a trail at the top, but it’s not an easy one and will be more suitable for older kids.
  • Maligne Canyon Trail: A 3.4km trail alongside a deep canyon, not suitable for strollers or young toddlers. There are some steep cliffs to walk along, and if the trail is muddy, it will be slippery! 
  • Athabasca Falls: Located right off the highway, this natural wonder is easy to access with a well-groomed trail that makes for a nice quick sto
Athabasca Falls
Athabasca Falls
  • Paddleboarding, kayaking, or canoeing: Pure Outdoors is a company that provides a delivery service to all the major lakes in the area, saving you the hassle of transporting the equipment.

Conclusion

The national parks of Alberta can be an amazing choice of destination for your upcoming summer travel plans in Canada. 

Ours was a pretty action-packed 10-day itinerary, so feel free to pick and choose the activities that suit you and your family – I’d certainly recommend spending an extra day in Jasper if you have the time.

In Part 2, I’ll continue sharing with you our itinerary in Lake Louise, Banff National Park, and Kananaskis Country as we explore even more of Alberta’s stunning natural beauty.