The big question, when you’re planning a visit to the Canadian Rockies in Alberta, is whether to prioritize a visit to Jasper or Banff. While both places have pros and cons, and both offer incredible sights and scenery around every corner, we think you should visit Jasper over Banff on your Rocky Mountain adventure, and here’s why.
The charm of Jasper
The township of Jasper, within Jasper National Park, is smaller than Banff in both size and population. But the laid-back, less commercialized and rustic charm of this town is exactly what makes it so enticing. Banff is seemingly saturated with tourists year-round, and Jasper receives smaller numbers of visitors, even in summer. The small main street nonetheless has everything you need.
Another of the advantages of Jasper is the fact that VIA Rail, the national train carrier, stops in Jasper and not Banff. Getting a train to the Canadian Rockies allows you to see some of the best views in the region, but only those who visit Jasper will get this experience. If you’re coming from the west coast, you can catch a direct train all the way from Vancouver to Jasper.
Bigger is better
Jasper National Park is a lot larger than Banff National Park. This may come as a surprise, as Banff National Park seems to have more well-known places, such as Canmore and Lake Louise. Jasper National Park, on the other hand, just includes Jasper and a whole lot of incredible scenery.
Jasper National Park is home to 53 mammal species, such as black and grizzly bears, coyotes and wolves, wolverines, bighorn sheep, cougar, lynx, moose and elk. As always, when visiting a national park, remember to keep your distance and treat the animals with respect. Wildlife viewing is often better in Jasper than Banff, as there are fewer people around.
Banff has plenty of hotels and hostels lining the main street, and it even has a fairytale castle atop a hill. The situation is quite different in Jasper, which has a minimal number of hotels within the township – but this has encouraged many residents to open their homes (and more often their basement suites) and offer bed-and-breakfast-style accommodation. Supporting a local family and getting insider recommendations is a fantastic reason to visit Jasper over Banff.
Skiing without the crowds
Banff National Park does have three ski mountain resorts: Mount Norquay, Lake Louise and Sunshine Village. However, the slopes are extremely busy during peak ski season. Why not skip the crowds and head north, to Marmot Basin in Jasper National Park? A local favorite, Marmot Basin is known for its views, its 86 varied runs and its laid-back atmosphere. It also has the highest base elevation of all the ski areas in Canada, which means it has an extended season – usually until May. Skiing at Marmot Basin is a must while you’re in Jasper.
The Icefields Parkway, which connects Jasper to Banff, is one of the most scenic highways in the world. One of the unmissable stops along the way is the Columbia Icefield and Athabasca Glacier, one of the largest non-polar ice fields in the world. Within Jasper National Park, visitors have the chance to travel in the iconic Ice Explorer and walk on – and drink from – the Athabasca Glacier. There’s also the opportunity to walk along the glass-floored Glacier Skywalk and marvel at the magnificent Sunwapta Valley.
The food and drink scene
Locals will tell you that the food and beverage scene in Jasper is better than in Banff. Jasper Brewing Company is a popular option – they make their beer from natural mountain water sourced from the Canadian Rockies. Meanwhile, Syrahs of Jasper boasts the most innovative cuisine in town. Their desserts are the business, too, and most of their menu is gluten-free.
Dark Sky Preserve
The Royal Astronomical Society of Canada named Jasper National Park a Dark Sky Preserve in 2011, and it is the second-largest in the world. We recommend visiting Pyramid Island, Maligne Lake, Old Fort Point and the toe of Athabasca Glacier for optimal night-sky viewing. Being a Dark Sky Preserve means Jasper is also a fantastic (and relatively easy) place to see the Northern Lights in Canada, and it also hosts an annual Dark Sky Festival for adventurers who love to stargaze.
The Jasper SkyTram offers the best views in Jasper. It takes riders up Whistler’s Mountain for breathtaking 360-degree views of the Canadian Rockies. At the top, there are boardwalks, hiking trails and mountainside dining options. Visitors can also choose a Rise & Shine package that gets you a free breakfast when you reserve an early flight. They also have Dark Sky Packages in September and October, coinciding with the Dark Sky Festival.
Due to the size of Jasper National Park, many of its hikes are less developed than their counterparts in Banff, which is definitely a positive for adventurers and experienced hikers, as it means fewer crowds. Some of the best Jasper hikes include Tonquin Valley, which National Geographic named one of the best hikes in the world. The valley has trails that take from two to seven days. Other options include Cavell Meadows, Sulphur Skyline, Morro Peak, Bald Hills and the Skyline Trail, the most popular backcountry hike in Jasper.
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