To road-trip or not to road-trip with kids, that is the question.
A 1500km Vancouver to Calgary road-trip through the Canadian Rockies has to be on your bucket-list. The scenery between Vancouver and Calgary is breathtakingly beautiful but is that enough to convince you to attempt this with kids?
We aim to show you how this road-trip with kids is not only doable but also enjoyable, even with a few 5am starts thrown in! Our boys were 6 and 4 when we did this trip and they described it as epic!
We did this trip in 7 days but we were pushed for time and did not manage to see and do everything we wanted so we would recommend taking a little longer if you have time.
Our 7 day Vancouver to Calgary route looked something like this.
Pre road-trip planning
Do you hire a campervan or stay in hotels?
There are a couple of ways to do this trip. You can hire an RV (campervan) and book campsites en route or you can hire a car and book hotels. You can of course book campsites – but bear in mind that Canadian campsites are not like European campsites. When you camp in the Canadian National Parks, you bring everything with you. There are no shops with croissants for breakfast. There are no swimming pools with slides. You are there to get close to nature and nature (bears) may get close to you if you don’t follow the rules on keeping a clean campsite!
We hired a car and booked hotels. This was partly because hiring an RV was eye-wateringly expensive and partly because navigating the Parks Canada camp site booking system required a degree in campsite booking navigation!
Car hire in Canada
We would advise that you hire your car before you go. Make sure to shop around for car hire. Car hire in Canada is quite expensive, especially in peak season. If you want a one way hire (picking up in one location and dropping in another), some companies will charge an extra fee. We checked the usual suspects Travelsupermarket and Rentalcars but in the end, we found that Canadian Affair had by far the cheapest rates.
We recommend hiring through a UK company as the insurance is generally included (but you should check). Never underestimate the distances you will cover so make sure you also have unlimited mileage. Canada is vast!
You need to consider whether to hire car seats through the rental company or whether to bring your own. If you bring your own, you need to make sure that they are compliant with Canadian regulations. Note that each province has their own rules.
If you hire through the rental company, you need to be aware that the cost of hire for a week or two will easily be more than the cost of buying a car seat! We also find that the standard of car seats provided by rental companies varies a lot. We had our own seats with us so we did not see what the car seats provided by Avis were like.
One final piece of advice. Make sure to download your route onto Google maps when you have WiFi so that you don’t incur hefty fees using data.
We have one piece of advice here. Book well in advance. Accommodation (hotels and campsites) in and around the parks gets very booked up, especially in peak season (July and August). Compared to European destinations, there aren’t many budget hotel options. If you have been saving loyalty points with a hotel chain, consider using them here for transit nights when you get in late and leave early the next morning. We booked most of our hotels through Booking.com as there is usually a certain amount of flexibility and they have a great choice of accommodation.
Plan your in-car entertainment
Kids can get easily bored on road trips. There are a few things you can do to help prevent “Are we nearly there yet?” being asked 100 times.
- Play games – First to spot X animal in the National Parks, I-Spy, ‘I packed my bag’ memory game.
- Pack snacks – anything, as long as its easily accessible. We have fruit, biscuits, cereal bars (for early starts)
- Break the journey up with stops – planned or unplanned. Sometimes unplanned turn out to be the best
Day 1 – Vancouver to Whistler
We picked up our hire car from the Avis rental office in downtown Vancouver. Heading out of Vancouver, we drove up the Sea to Sky Highway to Whistler. If you have time, you could stop in Squamish. They have family-friendly hikes, the Sea to Sky Gondola and Shannon Falls. We didn’t have time for a stop so we carried on up to Whistler.
The trip should take 90 minutes but we had a slight rockfall incident close to Horseshoe Bay so it took us a bit longer. We avoided most of the rocks that fell but ran over a small one that gave us an immediate puncture. We pulled over and changed the tyre and drove on cautiously at 80km/h. Luckily there was an Avis rental office in Whistler and they changed the car over for us at no cost to us as we had comprehensive insurance.
We stayed at the Legends Whistler which is actually based in Whistler Creekside, about 5km south of Whistler. We much preferred Creekside because it is a lot quieter than central Whistler and better for families.
Because we had an apartment with kitchen, we stocked up on some groceries at the local supermarket. Be warned that everything in the Whistler area is more expensive so if you have time, stock up before you arrive.
We checked out the hotel facilities. We loved their pool area with views of the mountains and had a lovely relaxing soak in the hot tub. They also have a great kids room with movies and games.
For dinner we drove over to Whistler and enjoyed some of the best sushi ever at Sushi Village. They were very busy and we hadn’t made a reservation so they took our name and we had a wander for 20 minutes. It is worth making a reservation. The kids aren’t into raw fish but there was plenty for them to eat, including chicken yakitori (chicken skewers) and rice dishes. Bizarrely, given their distrust of anything green, they also liked a seaweed dish!
Day 2 – Exploring the cycle trails of Whistler
We got up early and picked up mountain bikes from Can Ski. It was almost directly opposite our hotel and we used a voucher for 10% off bike rental that we were given when we checked in to the hotel. The rental process can take a little time if you are a large group but the great thing about staying in Whistler Creekside is that it is not overly busy.
Whistler is home to extreme sports with mountain biking being the most popular. It was so fun for the kids to watch the mountain bikers come down the slopes. We were far from expert mountain bikers so it was good to find out that there are lots of family friendly trails around the area.
We took the Valley Trail which is a network of 40km of paved trails from Creekside to Whistler and around the lakes. There are also playgrounds along the way if anyone wants to stop off for a break. We initially intended to spend the morning biking and then get back to Whistler for lunch, but a couple of wrong turns meant that we were out longer than we planned. Thankfully we had snacks and water with us. The kids were troopers and managed a 25km loop. They slept well that night!
After dropping the bikes back, we had a leisurely swim and hot tub at the hotel and went out for dinner at a local pizza restaurant, Creekbread. It was a 5 minute walk from our hotel which is always a bonus but the great thing about them is that they use fresh, local ingredients. Even their pepperoni pizza was made with house-made, nitrate-free pepperoni.
Day 3 – Whistler to Kamloops
Visiting Whistler mountain
You can’t come to Whistler without taking a trip up the mountain and admiring the views. To do this, you need to take a gondola up (or hike – but we didn’t have enough time for that and I suspect it might have been a bit much for the kids). We decided to take the Whistler Village Gondola up and the Blackcomb gondola down. First, you need to queue to buy a ticket then you need to join a different queue to get on. Our advice (as always) is to get there early. By 11am the queue was huge and it took an hour just to get on the gondola.
The ticket prices on the day are:
Youth 13 – 18 $57
Child 7 – 12 $32
Child 6 and under free
You can save up to $5 on tickets booked 3+ days in advance. You will also save some queuing time.
The Cloudraker Skybridge
The gondola ticket includes access to the Cloudraker Skybridge. Once you step off the gondola onto Whistler mountain, there is a short hike down to the chair lift that takes you up to the bridge. Little ones need to be more than 1 metre tall to ride the chairlift.
Also included in the ticket price is the Peak2Peak gondola which takes you from Whistler mountain across to Blackcomb mountain. We took this gondola across after we had eaten lunch at the Roundhouse Lodge. The ride takes 11 minutes and the views are stunning. There are 2 glass bottomed gondolas on this route which you can queue for separately. The wait time was up to 45 minutes when we were there so we didn’t bother.
It is some feat of engineering. If you are scared of heights, you may not want to try it in which case you can hike down which should take about 45 minutes to 1 hour.
We took the gondola down instead of hiking because it was quicker and we needed to get going to our next destination on our road-trip.
The lift ticket price may seem expensive but you can make it a full day out if you do more hiking than we did and the views are priceless.
We had so much action packed fun in Whistler and could have spent much more time there. The one thing we would have liked to have tried but didn’t because the kids just weren’t old enough is Ziplining. Minimum age is 7. This is something we will definitely do next time!
On the road to Kamloops
We left Whistler at around 4pm and headed up Highway 99 to Cache Creek then on Highway 1 to Kamloops. This is an incredibly scenic route to drive and helps distract you from the time it takes. We drove 300km in 4 hours.
There was a quick pit stop at Hungry Herbie’s in Cache Creek when we realised we wouldn’t make it to Kamloops in time for dinner. Their fried chicken was actually really good and they had a playground for the kids to stretch their legs which is always a good thing on a long road-trip.
It was a quick drive to Kamloops from here. We stayed at the Hampton Inn by Hilton because it was conveniently located just off the highway and was very reasonable. We just needed a bed for the night but as a bonus it had a pool with slides which the kids loved.
Day 4 – Kamloops to Tête-Jaune Cache
After a surprisingly good breakfast (we could make our own waffles) and a quick swim, we set off for Tête-Jaune Cache. We had to stop at Clearwater to refuel and it’s a good thing we did as we came across Dutch Lake by accident.
We were surprised that there was no mention of it in our Lonely Planet. It was a shame that we didn’t have our swimsuits to hand because it would have been perfect to have a swim. As it was, they made the most of the lakeside playground before we set off for Tête Jaune Cache.
We knew that our accommodation at Terracana Ranch Resort in Tête Jaune Cache was a little remote so we made sure to pick up some picnic stuff at the supermarket in Valemount. The last thing we wanted was to have to set off on a 40km round trip to the nearest supermarket just after checking in.
Instead, we unpacked a few bits and had a lovely scenic picnic lunch by our log cabin accommodation and explored the grounds.
We didn’t fancy making dinner ourselves so we set off to eat at Riverside Cafe at Tête Jaune Lodge. There was a buffet meal and kids under 5 were free. It’s relatively simple but tasty and the best thing about it was that there was no waiting. With so much choice, there was something for everyone.
Actually, the best thing about it was the setting. We had the most beautiful views from our riverside table. After dinner, make sure to take a stroll over the old railway bridge nearby for scenic photos.
Day 5 – Tête Jaune Cache to Canmore
This was our longest day. If you have longer, consider adding an extra stop closer to the Sasketchewan River Crossing between Jasper and Banff. We didn’t have longer so we were up early to head into Jasper National Park to beat the crowds. Or so we thought. We did not realise that the clocks went forward an hour when you cross from British Columbia into Alberta. Our schedule was pushed back an hour which makes a big difference to the crowds.
Leaving Tête Jaune Cache, you’ll go through Robson National Park first on Highway 16 with beautiful views of Mt Robson, one of the highest peaks in the Rockies. Look out for wildlife. We saw black bears almost immediately.
Jasper National Park
Shortly after crossing the boundary into Jasper national park you will drive through the Jasper West Gate on Highway 16. If you don’t have a guide book, you may want to pick up the free park brochure with your tickets.
Tickets are $9.80 / adult or $19.60 per family per day. Children are free. For more info on tickets, see the Canada Parks site. We bought our ticket at around 10am and it was valid until 4pm the following day, so it was over 24hours.
Couple of quick tips:
- Make sure to clearly display your ticket.
- Refuel in Jasper town if you need to. The next petrol station is not until the Sasketchewan crossing (about 150km)
- Keep to the speed limits (90km/h on major roads). You never know when wildlife will run across the road.
From Jasper town, head down Highway 93 (aka the Icefields Parkway). After 30km you will see signs for the Athabasca Falls. This was our first stop of the day. The car park was already relatively full but we found parking easily. There is no hiking involved. The falls are a short walk from the car park along a paved track. Depending on the time of day, it can be a jostle to find a spot to take pictures.
Back to the car and around another 30km further south are the Sunwapta falls. Again, the falls are just a short walk from the car park. There are hikes around the area but we had a very long day of travel so we just checked out the waterfalls. The amount of water gushing past is incredible, and this was late summer so I can only imagine how impressive it would be in spring with the thawing of the ice and snow.
Another 50km (45 minutes) further south is the Athabasca Glacier. The scenery around here is just spectacular. Tall, snow capped peaks and a moon-like landscape where the glacier has retreated. And it has retreated a shocking amount over the last century (roughly 1.25km).
It is a bit of a hike up to the toe of the glacier. It took us about 20 minutes from where we parked. Along the way you will pass markers showing where the glacier was 20, 30, 50 years ago so you can see how much it has retreated.
We set off again and had lunch on the go. It was about 90km (1 hour) to Peyto Lake. It was just a quick stop because it was not well timed at all. We arrived at around 2pm and it was so busy. We took a 10 minute walk up from the car to the viewpoint.
Peyto is one of the lakes I wish we had arrived at early or late. It was the bluest of all the lakes we saw and the kids were really impressed. It was beautiful, even with the crowds but I imagine it would have been really special without the crowds.
We saw so much this day but it was all a bit rushed and it felt wrong having our lunch on the go when there are so many lovely picnic spots.
We finally arrived at our hotel in Canmore, the Grande Rockies, and had some really tasty pizza for dinner at Rocky Mountain Flatbread. A quick swim back at the hotel and bed before another early start.
Day 6 – Canmore to Strathmore
Banff National Park
There is so much to see and do in Banff National Park but for us it was all about the lakes. We had decided to visit Lake Louise first because we had heard parking would be difficult. We woke really early this time. Alarms were set for 5.30am. We arrived at about 7.30am and signs were already saying that the parking lot was full. We tried our luck and circled the car park a bit and found a spot. See our post on visiting Lake Louise with kids for more tips including what to do if you can’t find parking.
Lake Louise is beautiful but it is also extremely busy. This is no surprise seeing as it is the number one attraction in Banff. We were there relatively early and there weren’t too many people around, so we took some lovely photos. The sun was just coming up over the mountains and the water was still so there was a beautiful reflection of the mountains. Later on, the lake is full of people out on kayaks so you will only get this image in the early morning.
We had seen on the way to Lake Louise that the road to Moraine Lake was closed. They were running shuttle buses, but we knew that this would take a good few hours to coordinate a round-trip so unfortunately we missed out.
We have since read that some people get there at 5am to secure a parking spot. If we had been staying closer, maybe we would have been able to do that and still make Lake Louise for 7.30. You have to draw the line somewhere though. A 3am wake up to view a lake with the kids was sadly just not feasible.
After Lake Louise we went to the Mt Norquay ski area. There wasn’t an easy hike to do with kids (quickest was a 2-3 hour loop) and there were bears in the area so we admired the great views over Banff and decided to take the opportunity to visit Banff instead.
Banff Upper Hot Springs
We wanted to try a hot springs while in Canada and this was conveniently located for us so we grabbed our swim gear and in we went. They are located just south of Banff town. There is a fairly large car park but it was full when we visited at 11am. We waited and circled and eventually found a spot.
The entrance fees are :
Adult (18-64) – $8.30
Youth (3-17) – $6.30 Child (Under 3) – Free
Senior (65+) – $7.30
Family (2 adults & 2 youth) – $24.50
You’ll get a locker token included with your ticket. Click here for more info on Banff Upper Hot Springs ticket prices.
The springs are around 37-40 degrees so if you are going on a hot summer day, you won’t want to stay in long. We were all a bit pink and needed to come out of the water regularly to cool down.
After the hot springs we had a picnic lunch in Central Park in Banff. There are picnic tables and large rocks that you can lay a blanket on. As the name suggests, it is central and so we had a little walk around town afterwards before setting off to Strathmore.
We chose Strathmore because of its proximity to Drumheller and Calgary and it was just somewhere to sleep. In hindsight, we would have been better driving that little bit further on this day and staying in Drumheller. Strathmore was pretty uninspiring, but the hotel was nice enough. We stayed at the Travelodge by Wyndham which was a pretty reasonably priced hotel with a pool. It also had super speedy laundry facilities so we managed to get all of our clothes laundered within an hour.
We ate at the next door Station restaurant. The menu was huge and the food was quite average but railway themed decor was quite fun. It was a 30 second walk to the hotel with not much else around so it worked out well and the kids enjoyed their burgers.
Day 7 – Strathmore to Calgary
Our final day took us on a loop up to Drumheller and back down to Calgary. Having two dinosaur-mad boys, Drumheller was always going to feature in our itinerary. On arriving in Drumheller, we headed straight for the tourist information centre. We wanted some info on where to go and what to do but we also wanted to see the world’s largest dinosaur. In fact, the whole town is dinosaur themed. Even the streets are named after dinosaurs.
We climbed to the top of the dinosaur for a great view out of his mouth! It’s open 10-5.30 and ticket prices are:
$4 / Person (Full Day)
Children 5 and under are FREE
$10.50 / Family Rate (1-2 adults, children 6-17)
We picked up a great map detailing the main sights to see. We took a route west out of town along the north side of the river (North Dinosaur Trail), crossed the river taking the Bleriot Ferry and headed back along the south of the river (South Dinosaur Trail) into town.
North Dinosaur Trail
Royal Tyrrell museum
Our first stop was the Royal Tyrrell museum. The Royal Tyrrell museum is a must see if you are visiting Drumheller. Whether you are interested in dinosaurs or not, we are sure you will enjoy it. It is possibly the best dinosaur museum in the world with over 130,000 fossils.
Ticket prices are:
Adult – $19
Child (7-17) – $10
Child (6 and under) – free
We loved the staging of the exhibits. There were scenes telling a story as opposed to just rows of bones and skeletons. There were interactive exhibits and an interesting short film on the history of the earth from the beginning of time and the life and death of dinosaurs. We highly recommend including this in your itinerary!
Horse Thief Canyon
Just a few kilometres along the route is the Horse Thief Canyon. The landscape is just like a mini grand canyon and was difficult to capture how picturesque it was. If you stay still admiring the view, you may see the resident gophers popping out of their holes to say hello!
The Bleriot ferry
Head on another few kilometres and you come to the Bleriot ferry river crossing. It is a free cable ferry that crosses the Red Deer river. You drive the car on and it only takes about 10 minutes to cross. The boys were invited to ‘control’ the ferry by the very friendly ferry operator which was very exciting for them.
South Dinosaur Trail
This is a quick stop just after the ferry crossing. The views up and down the canyon are pretty spectacular and there is an information board with the history of the area and the ferry.
Rosedale Suspension Bridge
Crossing the Rosedale suspension bridge was an experience! It is 117m long, free and you can check out some of the old structures that were used in the coal mining days across the river. It does sway quite a bit (in case you don’t like that sort of thing!)