The Ultimate Camper Van Itinerary for the Canadian Rockies
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
A 6-week hybrid road trip from California to Jasper showcasing the areas most scenic hiking trails and photography spots
Our targeted destination was the Canadian Rockies – we had been there once before on a self-guided group cycling tour and vowed to go back to explore it on foot. My husband and I are both avid hikers, love the mountains but currently live in California - that’s a long way away from Banff and Jasper. So we plotted a course that would take us, over 6 weeks, through some of our favorite, scenic, active-travel locations in California and Idaho on the way out, and then bring us back through Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Teton, and the Eastern Sierras on the return. Yup. That’s a tall order. But my husband being a professional photographer had already researched key spots that he wanted to capture and so started mapping it out as a day-by-day route. We planned meals, hikes we wanted to do, and when we would take rest days. We also threw in some really cool heli-hiking adventures, a backpacking overnighter in Jasper and a few stays at some amazing alpine lodges to mix it up. As chance would have it, forest fires were raging through Northern California and most of the Canadian Rockies for several weeks while we were there, resulting in smokey skies and poor air quality. So we had make the difficult decision to change our plans, which resulted in leaving British Columbia early, skipping Waterton and Glacier National Parks and heading south sooner in search of clearer skies. But that’s the beauty of camper van travel - your house is where you park it and changes in plans can be easily made without losing too much money.
This itinerary may be too long for some readers to complete at one time. But it can also be easily done in segments. So take any information and ideas that you can from it – the trails, the campsites, the photo inspiration – and if you don't have six weeks to travel like we did, then customize an itinerary to fit the travel time that you do have available.
2017 Mercedes Sprinter Van – 4x4 ; 19’ long; diesel engine, gets 14-17mpg; 14-15 gallon water tank; 2 solar panels, AC and DC power; shower head (between rear doors out back with snap-on curtain); hot water heater; d/c space heater; electric penthouse canopy; sleeps 4 ( but 2 adults have most room); outdoor canopy; automatic sideboards; off road lights; air compressor; fridge; sink; microwave; lots of storage. Code name: the Stover Rover.
Time of year
August to mid-September. If we did this trip again, we’d probably start mid-September. August, despite having the warmest temperatures in Canada and with the least chance of rain, is also prime forest fire season.
BOOK Canadian National Park campsites far in advance!
Free camping is not allowed in Banff and Jasper National Parks, so finding spots with low risk of being caught, is more challenging. And if you do get caught, the fines are stiff. Reserve unique accommodations like Assinaboine Lodge and Canadian Mountain Holidays Heli-hike lodges far in advance as well.
The Route/ Initial plan
The Route/ the modified plan
As I mentioned, after two weeks of tolerating smokey skies with a positive attitude, we decided to head south sooner than we had originally planned. At the time, Waterton National Park was closed due to smoke and fires and Glacier National Park wasn’t faring much better. Some of our reserved campsites had 72 hour to 7 day cancellation windows and we were able to get most of our deposits back. We headed south, directly to Jackson, Wyoming with hopes that forecasted rain would improve air quality at Grand Teton National Park. Luckily, it did. Our next deviation in plan was bypassing Saint George,Utah and heading towards the Eastern Sierras, passing through Great Basin National Park and Cathedral Gorge State Park en route.
Average daily cost
We monitored three areas for this on a weekly basis: Food (groceries, restaurants, beer and wine), Gas and Miscellaneous spending not pre-planned for/pre-paid for ahead of time (gear, occasional hotels, souvenirs, etc). We grocery shopped for breakfast and snacks items and cooked at least three dinner meals a week. We did not skimp, ate at some wonderful restaurants on occasion, and even bought some good bottles of wine and averaged $145/day or $1021 US/week. Gas was actually the smallest average weekly expense, and food/restaurants/wine expense was the highest. Which means, if we needed to or really tried we could do it for much less.
Campground fees, park passes -$760 in including refunds for our changed plans, we were able to free camp several nights on BLM land or forest service roads throughout the trip. But predominantly chose campgrounds close to where my husband wanted to get sunrise or sunset shots, without a long drive. This is an area of expense that can be modified according to budget and/or availability of free camping spots.
Extras – cost of staying at Mount Assinaboine lodge, heli-hiking at Bobbie Burns lodge, and the aerial tour from Jackson are not included. These are extra features subjective to individual travel budget.
Stop 1 - Lake Tahoe
Drive time (approx.) – 7 hours
NOTES – we loved DL Bliss campground – beautiful, well–laid out, and we paid for a premium site close to the beach and lake (146-153). The best sites at Emerald Bay are in the lower lot (#51 and higher) . The layout of William Kent campground was functional but only one bathroom was operational and there were no showers.
Recommended activities, trails or sites – Rubicon Trail, Desolation Wilderness day hike to Eagle lake and Velma Lake (about 11 miles RT to both), rent SUPs or kayaks up near Sunnyside. Sunnyside bar/restaurant is a popular afternoon hangout but can get busy.
Stop 2 - Boise, Idaho
Drive time - (approx) 8 hours
Camp/lodging options – hotels and Mountain View RV site near airport. There are more but they are further away from the center of town. You can try your luck at Lucky Peak State Park but may have to pay a fee to park there. It can be crowded and overnight parking/ camping is not advertised but ...?
NOTE – we had friends we were visiting en route, so it made sense for us to stay a few nights. Boise is a great place to get any supplies, groceries and break up the drive, before heading further north to Stanley (where there are fewer facilities)
Recommended activities, trails or sites – trail run or mountain bike in the Boise Foothills – there is a large trail running and mountain bike community here! Bike or walk the Boise greenbelt, or check out BSU campus and its famous blue turf. There are small cafes and wine bars you can bike to, on the river down near the Whitewater Park. Check out the small shops and eateries in Hyde Park, and the many great restaurants and cafes downtown on 8th street and Bodo. Alive After Five is a beer garden/free music night on the plaza all summer long. Saturday mornings, there is a great Farmer's Market downtown. There is a reason we lived here for ten years – it's a happening city!
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Stop 3 - Stanley, Idaho
Drive time (approx) - 3 hours
Camp/lodging options – We got lucky with drive-in at Redfish lakes Mount Heyburn campground.
There are many free camping spots /off-service roads - see here.
NOTE – Stanley books up early for the summer! We waited too late and only had walk-in only or trail head camping. Prime campsites around Redfish lake need to be booked FAR in advance. There are a few campgrounds that save some sites for FCFS, and we got lucky at Mount Heyburn camp, arriving on a Wednesday midday. But every morning after that, cars were lined up in the road by 6am, waiting for potential slots to open up.
Recommended activities, trails or sites – Sawtooth Lake hike, off Hwy 21, is a must-do! Spectacular trail to a gorgeous alpine lake. About 4-5 hours RT. Alice Lake/ Toxaway loop - a beautiful 19 mile loop, recommend overnight backpacking to do this in 2-3 days.
Stop 4 - Missoula, Montana
Drive time (approx.) – 6 hours
Camp/lodging options – we found a forest service road just west of Paradise, MT and camped over night free. There are several campgrounds in the Missoula area.
NOTE – We chose to free camp as we were simply breaking up the drive with a functional overnight stop. We also re routed up through HWY 95 and Cranbrook due to Canadian that had HWY 93 at the border severely backed up with traffic.
Stop 5 - Invermere, Fairmont Hot Springs
Drive time (approx.) 5-6 hours
Camp/lodging options – campgrounds were full on the date we were here, or had 2-3 night minimums. We stayed at Fairmont Mountain Bungalows – cute, small, basic cottages with stocked kitchenettes and shower, etc. But if you book further ahead then get a campground. There are plenty of them off HWY 95.
NOTES – border crossing day. Make your life easier: no guns, no fresh fruit, no mace, (bear spray was okay), only two bottles (750 ml ) of booze per person.
Recommended activities, trails or sites - Fairmont Hot Springs Resort is popular but crowded. We preferred Lussier hot springs, which a beautiful, natural spring by the river. It's a bit of a drive to get there, but a lot less crowded.
Stop 6 - Banff
Drive time (approx.) - 3 hours
(we booked late, so couldn’t get 3-4 nights at one place)
NOTES – Tunnel road camp was closest to Banff, you could ride a bike into town but there is a steep hill on your return to camp. Water and dumping station here as well.
Johnston Canyon was a more basic campground, but had potable water as well.
Recommended activities, trails or sites – Takkakaw Falls, Iceline Trail (incredible views, but steep, forested path for the first few miles, then open and rolling terrain) Banff Springs Hotel back patio for drinks or dinner ( light Mexican) , walk the town in the evening, Cory pass/ Mt Edith trail ( difficult hike but rewarding views, I'd recommend hiking it clock-wise)
Stop 7 - Bow lake and Peyto Lake lookout
Drive time (approx.) 2 hours
Camp/lodging options – Mosquito Creek or Silverhorn Overflow site, a seven minute drive north of Peyto Overlook
NOTE - Silverhorn Campground: NO potable water, bathrooms but no showers, basic campsite and cheap, best for those who are self-contained, no hookups. Basically, a nice place to overnight park or camp in a pinch.
Recommended activities, trails or sites – stop at Bow lake en route, but go back in the evening for sunset and especially in the morning just after sunrise! We did the same for Peyto Overlook, stopped en route, but went back for sunrise . It was so worth getting up for, just to avoid the crowds here! At Bow Lake, you can park up near the lodge, great place for picnic, or coffee in the morning.
Stop 8 - Mount Robson Provincial Park
Drive time (approx) 3.5 hours
Camp/lodging options – Drive in at Mount Robson River campground
NOTES – reservations recommended, some drive-in spots. We timed it well and got lucky, arriving ~ 3pm
Campsites along the Berg Lake trail fill up 6 months in advance! This is a popular back-backing circuit for a reason: gorgeous trails, incredible views, terrific campsites (level platforms for tents), covered picnic tables and even a few pit toilets/outhouses along the way. Even if you only have a few days, consider heli-porting in, stay 1-2 nights at a site near Berg Lake, and then hike out.
Recommended activities, trails or sites – Overnight or multi-day backpacking. Robson Heli-magic transport to Berg Lake and hike downhill 14-15 miles.
Stop 9 – Jasper
Drive time (approx) 1 hour
Camp/lodging options – Whistlers campground
Stop 10 – Bow Valley/ Mount Assinaboine
Drive time (approx) - 4 hours
Camp/lodging options – Bow River campground
NOTES - For this segment, we decided to stay two nights up at Assinaboine Lodge.
Our route was partly dictated by the dates that were available to reserve. This is such a unique lodge, accessible only by a 15 mile hike over Wonder Pass or chopper ride in and out. A lodge stay includes meals and wine/beer is available for purchase. This lodge books up very early, so plan ahead. On check–in day, pickup was at Mount Shark helipad in Spray Valley, so we selected the closest campground.
Recommended activities, trails or sites – There are so many wonderful hikes from Assinaboine lodge! Or you can simply sit, relax and enjoy the view.
STOP 11 – Lake Louise
Drive time (approx) 2.5 hours
Camp/lodging options – Lake Louise campground. **NOTE** if your camper van has a pop-up canopy like ours does, you will need to reserve in the tent campground (not RV) due to bears in the area. Their safety laws treat any vehicle with soft-side sections, the same as a standard tent. This 'tent' campground is surrounded by a metal fence as added bear protection. Rangers will enforce this, even if you do not have your canopy up. There are also a few other campground options on the Bow Valley Parkway 1A within 10 minute drive of Lake Louise.
NOTE: this area in the summer can feel like a zoo and quickly gets packed with tourists, forcing late arriving vehicles into overflow parking and long shuttles lines to get to see these areas. Best advice: GET UP EARLY! Wake up, drive to the parking lots where you want to be, then go back to sleep for a few hours. Believe me, its worth it.
Recommended activities, trails or sites – Moraine Lake, rent canoes on Lake Louise, hike the Plain of Six Glaciers and Agnes tea house loop, have a nice dinner or cocktail at the Fairmont, check out the cool bookstore in Fairmont hotel. From Moraine Lake, hike to Sentinal Pass or the Consolation Lakes
Stop 11 – Radium, then Heli-hiking in the Bugaboos/ Purcell Mountains
Drive time (approx) - 90 minutes
Camp/lodging options: Canyon RV resort, then three nights at Bobbie Burns lodge with Canadian Mountain Holidays(CMH).
NOTE: a stay with Canadian Mountain Holidays includes pickup and helicopter transport up to their lodges. Our heli-pad for the Bobbie Burns lodge was near the town of Parsons. Go here to read my in-depth review of our experience with CMH.
Recommended activities, trails or sites – Every CMH lodge has several options to choose from, depending on your hiking ability and desire. We chose tow of the longest day hikes: Mount Nimbus and Conrad’s Glacier, both of which had some pretty exciting via ferrate. We loved this stay and plan to return. Highly recommend if you have some room in your travel budget. Go here to read my full review of CMH heli-hiking.
Stop 12 – Fernie (where we changed plans)
Drive time (approx) - 4 hours
NOTE: Fernie RV Resort is a very modern campground, with really nice showers and laundry. They even have cruiser bikes for rent to get into town. When we booked, it was the only location with camp spots available, as we waited so late. However, it ended up being a beneficial stop as we were ready for a good shower and needed to do some laundry. Fernie is well known for its mountain biking trails. But this is where the forest fire smoke got to us, and we changed plans. We were only here one night.
Stop 12 – Jackson, Wyoming
Drive time (approx) - 10 hours We made this drive over 2 days (5 hours each), with an overnight midway at a drive-up campsite near Butte, Montana.
Camp/lodging options – Once in Jackson, we free camped on a forest road near Shadow Mountain, got a hotel room in Teton Village, Jackson Hole one night, and then stayed at the trail head of another early morning shoot.
Recommended activities, trails or sites – Jenny Lake, rent kayaks or hike around the lake, take the ferry across and hike up to Lake Solitude, Surprise Lake hike or any of the hikes starting within the valley are also great. Rent bikes at Dornan's and pedal the extensive bike path to Teton Village or Jenny Lake, how about a plane tour of the area, including a scenic flight over of Yellowstone and the Grand Prismatic?
Stop 14 - Great Basin National Park
Drive time (approx) - 8 hours - we split this up and stayed overnight halfway at a drive-up campground overnight.
Camp/lodging options – camping at Wheeler Peak, Lehman Creek
NOTE: Great Basin National Park has one of the darkest night skies with lowest light pollution in the country. For this reasons, Wheeler and Lehman campgrounds fill quickly.Baker is the closest town and there is really not much to it. But Kerouac’s restaurant is an anomaly and a hidden gem for a tasty meal.
Stop 15 – Cathedral Gorge state park
Drive time (approx) - 2 hours
Camp/lodging options – Cathedral Gorge campground
NOTE - this was a really cool place! And the campground is terrific, with showers and walking trails to the hoodoos. A great location for starry night or sunset photography.
Stop 16 – Mammoth/ Convict Lake
Drive time (approx.) - 5.5 hours
NOTE - Convict Lake was my favorite. It was less crowded, and a gorgeous place to hike, fish or kayak.
Recommended activities, trails or sites - Devil's Postpile hike (if you want to drive down yourself, you will have to go before 7am. Afterwards, they close the road to cars, and only allow shuttle buses), rent a kayak, paddle board or go fishing at Convict Lake. Hike the trail around the lake or venture further into the mountains on the Mildred/Dorothy Lake trail.
Stop 17 – Home to San Luis Obispo
Drive time 6-7 hours
Feel free to check out some of our other road trip itineraries!
The Best Road Trip for Fall and Winter - A 12 day Desert Photography Escape to Mojave, Zion, Capitol Reef, Saint George and Valley of Fire
The Ultimate Pacific Northwest National Parks road trip - a 14 day road van-camping trip through, Lassen, Crater Lake, Olympic and Rainier National Parks
Our 2021 VanLife Road trip plans?
Stay tuned – we are already planning our next adventure in the Stover Rover....