When someone mentions a road trip in Canada, it’s usually either the drive from Banff to Vancouver, or the drive from Banff to Jasper up the Icefields Parkway. In today’s post, I want to explore a different route that I’ve never heard anyone talk about before – the drive between Calgary/Banff and Nordegg.
Last week, Louise and I decided to indeed take the road less travelled and go for a short car-camping trip to Abraham Lake, near Nordegg. The weather had warmed up a lot, so it was a great opportunity to get all our camping gear out and head out on our first overnighter of the season.
It was also a chance for us to test drive the new 2018 Toyota Rav4 Trail and put it through its paces. We took it out for a weekend during the winter and loved it, so we wanted to see how it would handle a camping trip with all our gear.
Normally, we drive a bigger SUV, so it was a chance for us to see how something a little smaller and nippier would handle the rugged/muddy outdoors and our talent for overpacking.
Gear for Car Camping:
Louise and I knew it was going to be a fairly long day, so we got up early and loaded up the car with all our essentials. The great thing about car camping is that you really can bring all your luxuries, and you don’t have to worry about the extra weight of a spare blanket or firewood.
If you want to follow our plan exactly and try out some car camping, then here’s what we brought along:
- 1 Tent
- 2 Sleeping bags
- 1 Gas Stove
- 2 roll mats
- 2 camping chairs
- 2 Day bags for short hikes (and to carry all our camera gear)
- 2 bigger backpacks for any toiletries, changes of clothes/extra layers, food etc
- Dry Logs & Kindling for our fire/axe
- Lots of snacks
- Hiking poles
- Bug spray
- Bear Spray
- extra blankets
See, we didn’t exactly pack light, but were surprised to find that it all fit quite easily into the Rav4 Trail. I think we could have quite easily packed a bigger tent and enough gear for 4 people.
Part 1 – Calgary to Canmore
As many tourists fly in to Calgary, we thought the best way to do the trip would be to start in Calgary.
The road to Banff is pretty straightforward, but something we’ve never really discussed. From Calgary it’s pretty simply to jump straight on the Transcanada and drive west into the mountains.
The old joke that Canada only has one road rings kind of true, because once you’re on the Transcanada, you can drive all the way to Vancouver without making a single turn. But we’re not going that far this time, don’t worry.
Within an hour, you’ll be in Canmore, which is a great place to get a first taste of the wilderness. Our normal suggestion is to take the Spray Lakes road up towards Spray Lakes Reservoir and give your car a break from all that boring asphalt. Up here, you can access the famous Ha Ling, EEOR and Grassi Lakes hikes, as well as numerous others in the Spray Lakes area beyond. There are fantastic picnic spots and it’s even a great ice fishing and frozen bubble hunting spot in winter.
Just an FYI, the road up there is a dusty gravel road with some pretty hefty bumps. Actually, the bumps were noticeably better when we attempted it in the Rav4, so maybe it just takes a car with good suspension! On busy days you should also watch out for traffic that tends to fly around the bends.
Grab some lunch in Canmore
If you decided to do one of our favourite hikes in Canmore, then I can guarantee you’ll be starving by the time you’re back in town. We recommend checking out the Grizzly Paw pub for some great pub food, the Belle Patate for some tasty poutine, or Crazy Weed for some fantastic food in a casual setting.
Part 2: Canmore to Banff
From Canmore to Banff, you’re in the National Park, so keep looking out the windows for more incredible mountain views. One thing to note is that the second you enter the National Park, the speed limit drops from 110k/ph to 90k/pm, and there are often cops lurking around the bends with speed guns. It’s a good idea to use cruise control and gently coast towards Banff if you want to be safe.
One thing I really liked about the Rav 4 Trail was its ‘Dynamic Radar’ cruise control. It automatically slows you down if you come up behind someone dawdling in the fast lane which really takes cruising to the next level.
One thing we did find a little frustrating was just how sneaky it was though. If there’s someone in front of you that’s cruising well below the speed limit, the cruise control will automatically slow you down to their speed and you won’t even realize it! There were a couple of times where we found ourselves driving 70kph in a 90kph zone (No speeding!). Not such a big issue though when you’re driving along the most beautiful roads in the world!
Once you’re in Banff, the most obvious detour to make is the Minnewanka Loop. It’s the town’s most iconic, shortest and closest scenic drive, and there are a ton of great spots to check out along the way.
We decided to stop at Two Jack Lake for a few minutes and watch the ice crackle as it quickly melted. We sat and watched as a couple of guys found themselves a giant iceberg and floated off into the middle of the lake, which seemed like a fairly poor life choice 🙂 Was entertaining to watch though as they jumped in to save themselves.
The other place you can’t miss is, of course, Minnewanka itself. Now that the ice is starting to melt, the Lake is starting to turn a deep blue and the crowds are starting to appear. There are some great walks along the edge of Lake Minnewanka, and there’s even SCUBA diving if you can handle the cold!
This time we just stopped for a few moments to admire the view before we got back on the road again.
Part 3: Banff to Lake Louise
You can do this the quick way or the scenic route, and a lot of people blast through the area without ever stopping to smell the roses. The quick route, naturally, follows the Trans Canada all the way, but the slow route gently winds along the Bow Valley Parkway. If you take the slow route, you can stop at Morant’s Curve and watch the trains and do the famous Johnston Canyon hike. There are also some incredible view points, like this view of Castle Mountain from Moose Meadows.
Part 4: Lake Louise to Saskatchewan Crossing
Once you pass Lake Louise, turn off the highway and down the Icefields Parkway headed towards Jasper. Roll your windows down, open the sunroof and crank those summer jams; now you get to cruise on one of the most beautiful drives in the world.
Make sure you keep an eye out for some of the amazing stops along the way, including:
- Crowfoot Glacier
- Herbert Lake
- Hector Lake
- Waterfowl Lake
- Peyto Lake (signposted now as Bow Summit)
- Bow Lake
- Helen Lake/Circque Peak (if you feel like going for a pretty long but beautiful hike)
- Num Ti Jah Lodge (great chili on a wet day)
- Mistaya Canyon (Parking lot currently under construction
You can find out more about some of the incredible things to see along the Icefields Parkway here.
This is where you’re going to want to spend most of the day. It’s one of those rare cases where the journey is better than the destination.
Saskatchewan Crossing to Abraham Lake & Preachers Point
Whereas normally you’d keep driving straight for part two of the Icefields Parkway, this time you’re going to take a hard right and enter the David Thompson Highway. Within a minute or two you’ll find yourself leaving the National Park and entering the Kootenay Plains Ecological Reserve.
During the summer months we usually see one or two black bears in the area or trying to cross the street, so keep an eye out!
Once on the David Thompson, the valley widens and you’ll pass through an enormous forest fire area and a wide river valley on your right.
There’s a beautiful hike off to the right that leads to Siffleur Falls, which is relatively flat and crosses a picturesque suspension bridge. We were about halfway down this hike when the heavens opened and we were utterly drenched. We trudged back to the car determined to make a fire ASAP to dry off. Thank god for our heated seats.
A little further and you’ll find your camp site for the evening – Preacher’s Point
Preacher’s point is probably my favourite campsite in Alberta. The reason is that it’s completely open and has stunning views of all the mountains in the surrounding area. It also lies above a small cliff above a river that gradually fills to become a lake as the season goes on. If you’ve ever wondered about frozen bubbles, this is the place to come in the winter!
The other great thing about this site is that it’s on crown land. Unlike the sites within the national parks, the crownland campsites haven’t got any restrictions or fees. The camping is free and you can make your fire wherever you feel like. There are also piles of rocks all over the place to create a rock barrier for your fire.
It gets a bit muddy in the Spring, and when we went there was definitely a healthy amount of mud for us to get through before we got to our campsite. I was expecting the Rav4 Trail to struggle but actually the all wheel drive ploughed comfortably through it. In fact, whereas we’ve almost got stuck in heavier 4×4’s, the lighter car floated through the mud with ease. It handled the off-roading with ease, so the “Trail” name certainly feels deserved.
Other sites in the area
If you’ve still got time before the sun sets, there are still a few more things worth checking out that are a little further on towards Nordegg:
- Crescent Falls
- Whirlpool Point
- Ram Falls (Much further)
- The lookout where the road passes through the rock (no name I think)
- Vision Quest hike
- Go for a heli tour over the Rockies (just past the Cline River crossing)
- Abraham Lake frozen bubbles
You can read more about Nordegg and the things to do here.
Other Reasons why it’s a great route:
- You’re getting away from the crowds. In the height of summer, all of the campsites are going to be jammed and you’ll be stuck in bumper to bumper traffic virtually the entire day. Taking the road less travelled might help you find some peace and quiet.
- Drones – If you head past the cline river on the David Thompson Highway, you’ll find yourself leaving all national and provincial parks. If you’ve been itching to fly your drone somewhere then this is basically the only mountainous area where you can legally fly. The area is stunningly beautiful and it’s nice to fly guilt free!
Final thoughts on the Toyota Rav4 Trail
Normally opting for a larger SUV, I was worried that I’d lose some of our capacity for adventure, but if anything it added to our experience. It’s a great little car that has all the ability of more traditionally hardcore offroaders but it still has all the luxury you’d expect from a road car. Thanks to Toyota for providing us with the Rav4, we had a great time blasting around the mountains in it!
This post was sponsored by Toyota, but all thoughts and opinions were our own.