In celebration of my dad’s 60th birthday, the entire family came together for a three week trip through 11 sensational stops in the Rockies. We started the excursion with a train ride through the Canadian Rockies to Vancouver. From Vancouver, we flew to Anchorage and headed onboard the Celebrity Millennium Cruise down the Pacific coast of Alaska before completing our journey back to Anchorage. The weather was absolutely beautiful during our early July trip with temperatures in the 80s and long sunny days. We even stumbled upon some Canadian festivities during our time abroad. We spent roughly 3 weeks on this trip. Here are some of the key things I appreciated on our trip:
- Laundry detergent/ laundry bag or plastic bag for clothes
- Rain coat
- Warm layering clothes- especially 2 sets
- Hiking boots
- USD / Canadian dollars for tips
- Bug Spray
- Protein bars/ energizing snacks
- Waterproof case/ ziplock gallon bag
The trip for myself originated in Toronto, Ontario Canada. We flew from Toronto to Calgary on a 4 hour flight (keeping in mind a 2 hour time change). When we arrived in Calgary, not only were we greeted with pleasant summer weather, but also cowboys and cowgirls dressed in traditional hats, flannel tops, and cowboy boots. July 6th was the start of their week long, Western themed Stampede Festival that dominated the entire city of Calgary.
DO: Check when the Stampede Festival is scheduled. It usually is the first or second week in July and typically means sold out hotels and the start of peak season (until September) when everything becomes busy and expensive (think double the price!)
From the Calgary Airport to downtown Calgary, you can take a cab for about $45 CAD (which is $34 USD). They also have Ubers available and public buses, however, the Ubers were a little bit more expensive than the fixed Taxi prices to downtown.
We stayed overnight at the Westin Hotel. The hotel was right in the middle of downtown Calgary within walking distance of the riverwalk and local restaurants and coffee shops.
If you can afford to splurge, I would make reservations at Char Cut Restaurant ($$$$). Calgary is known for their beef, so I ordered a steak entree which was mouth watering.
DO: While visiting Canada, you need to try Poutine, which is basically French fries drenched in melted cheese and gravy.
For breakfast, we headed to Alforno coffee shop. Aside from their delicious coffee and tea selections (we ordered a few cold brews, London Fogs, and traditional iced coffees) we couldn’t resist their Eggs Benedict. Again, I stuck with the beef version of the Eggs Benedict just to satisfy my craving for meat before heading out of Calgary to our next destination.
2. Chateau Lake Louise
Banff, Alberta Canada
DO: If visiting the Rocky Mountains will be your first experience, seeing Lake Louise is an absolute MUST on your bucket list.
The view doesn’t get any more jaw dropping than the turquoise blue lake water, majestic mountains, and the historic hotel nestled in the Rockies. The lake is open to the public. You don’t need to be a guest of the hotel to enjoy the hotel grounds. There are, however, some restaurants and parts of the hotel that prioritize hotel guests or are altogether off limits to the public.
As a family, we boarded on the Brewster Bus line for a 1.5 hour bus trip to Banff transportation center in the heart of Banff Springs before heading out to Chateau Lake Louise (CLL)- another 45 minute ride. The coach bus was comfortable and modern with outlets and USB ports in addition to back of the bus bathrooms.
The Fairmont at Chateau Lake Louise is exceptional. It comes with a hefty price tag but offers stunning views of the lake and priority seating on the Chateau grounds and the unobstructed views from the restaurants.
The Lakeview Lounge was one of the outdoor patio restaurants we decided to grab dinner at. With an unobstructed view, we enjoyed a few cocktails and happy hour while taking in the breathtaking view around us. Reservations were not necessary at this hotel restaurant, unlike the others. In addition, we made sure we grabbed seating around 6:30pm since the best seats in the house quickly filled up by 7-7:30. The beauty of July weather in the West is that sunset happens after 9:30 every night. Therefore, after dinner, we had a few extra hours to grab a coffee and listen to local musicians pluck around on their guitar strings and piano keys both inside and outside the hotel.
One morning, we woke up early to catch the sunrise. We grabbed our coffees, loaded on our life jackets, and clambered into canoes to paddle out on the lake to watch the sun rise up from behind the mountains. What a serene moment!
Once we finished the sunrise canoe experience, we picked a hiking trail close to the hotel that headed up to Lake Agnes.
DON’T: Forget to pack bug spray!!! The mosquitos are outrageous.
For those interested in hiking, the trail to Lake Agnes was roughly 4 km (one way) at a fairly steep incline. We hiked at a fast pace and made it up and down in about 1.5 hours. We had a time crunch so we really booked it up and down, but for those not in a rush, it would realistically take 2 to 2.5 hours to complete.
Along the hike, we encountered Mirror Lake and a small waterfall before reaching the peak (and Lake Agnes) where there was a cute log cabin. The cabin sells coffee, tea, and snacks, but lacks electricity and therefore only accepts payment in the form of cash.
After the hike, and a fresh shower, we loaded on to the Brewster Bus again for an 8 hour tour throughout Banff.
DO: Load up on healthy, protein-based snacks to keep your hunger tame during the long bus ride.
Overall, the bus tour was comfortable and modern, but we found that it was hit or miss with the tour guides. The tour visited Moraine Lake, Spiral Tunnels, Kicking Horse River Valley, Emerald Lake, and Takkakaw Falls.
3. Banff Springs
Banff, Alberta Canada
Our journey continued roughly 45 minutes over to Banff Springs. Over a bustling few city blocks, Banff Springs was decorated with tourists, motor coaches, indoor shopping malls, breweries, boutiques, and coffee shops. Only employees of the city are allowed to live in Banff Springs in order to keep their carbon footprint low.
There is a city bus that costs $2 CAD each way or $4 all day to your hotel and back. Otherwise, if you stay at Fairmont Hotel, it is about a 15 minute walk.
There are a plethora of hotels and Bed and Breakfasts’ in Banff and the surrounding area. You can even stay at BackCountry Lodges, which are unique experiences off the beaten path. They literally are off the beaten path and are only accessible via hiking trails, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing. The Fairmont Hotel and RimRock Hotels are a little bit more secluded up in the mountains, but still not too far from downtown. The Fairmont is made of dark gray stone and feels as though you truly are staying in a castle.
There are lots of great options in Banff Springs for food. Restaurants range from Fine Canadian, Canadian, International, Pubs, and Steakhouses. We enjoyed Waldhaus Restaurant and Pub for German beer and appetizers, Park Distillery for cocktails with a view and some dinner on their upper level patio, Block Kitchen and Bar (Mediterranean- Asian), and Rundle Lounge and The Lookout Patio at the Fairmont for outdoor views of the Rockies.
Close to the Fairmont and RimRock Hotels is the Gondola up Sulphur Mountain. Sulphur Mountain offers scenic views of the river valley and panoramic sights of the Rockies. The Brewster Bus line gives tours to other scenic destinations. The tour drivers are hit or miss in terms of their knowledge of the area, but in general, you’ll get your monies worth in the sights you visit instead.
We made stops at Bow Falls, Hoodoos Lookout of Mount Rundle, Lake Minnewanka, and Two Jack Lake. Lake Minnewanka offered boat tours and hiking trails. Despite the hot weather, there was still a pile of remnant snow at the base of an avalanche zone that you could walk to. The area was very family friendly and offered Nature tables with bear skins and bear footprint molds for tourists trekking along the walking trail. Two Jack Lake was populated with SUPers (stand-up paddle boarders), kayakers, and others in boats.
The Rocky Mountaineer
Banff Spring —> Kamloops —> Vancouver
The next leg of our trip through the Rockies was on board the Rocky Mountaineer. The Rocky Mountaineer was a 2 day train ride through Alberta and British Columbia with an overnight stay in Kamloops.
At the train station, we were greeted by a violinist playing Country Western music as the train approached. Red carpets were unraveled for all passengers as they boarded the coaches. Once onboard, we took our seats in the upper deck with glass windows that surrounded us. After a few hours, we were invited downstairs for a sit-down breakfast (and later lunch) on white clothed tables with chef prepared entrees. To say the experience was exceptional would be an understatement! The staff was impeccable, professional, and knowledgable, and the food was beyond tasty!
DON’T: Forget to anticipate bringing cash for Tips. When traveling on tour buses, trains, or guided excursions, it is polite to have some cash handy for the tour guide and drivers. We did well with $200 throughout our 3+ week trip (we tipped generously on the Rocky Mountaineer).
After a full day of traveling through the Rockies, we pulled into our train station in the rural town of Kamloops. It was apparent that Kamloops was fairly dependent on the seasonal traffic provided by the Rocky Mountaineer, but still offered a range of cafes, restaurants, bars, and coffee shops in addition to a local park with live evening music.
A few days prior, a large fire had broken out in the surrounding area that had raged through parts of the Rockies. As we woke from a well-rested night at our hotel, we could see the smoke from the extinguished fire, blanketed thickly across the sky. While it hid the mountains from our view, the morning sun still shone through and gave an eery context to the beginning of our second day journey.
A few hours into our journey on the Rocky Mountaineer, the smoke cleared and we quickly re-emerged into the bright and grandiose sights of the Rocky Mountains. We even saw a few bald eagles perched on branches alongside the Thompson River!
The night was short in Vancouver. We wished we had more time to explore the city before heading off to Anchorage. Fun facts we learned about Vancouver: the top five languages spoken, in order of prevalence, are Cantonese, Punjabi, German, French, and English. Vancouver is trying to accomplish a net-zero carbon emission footprint with buildings in all direction decorated with green rooftops; covered in grass, shrubbery, and trees. The city emphasizes public transportation and offers extensive number of bike lanes, sidewalks, and the sans-driver SkyTrain.
DO: Ensure you travel with your Passport at all times.
We flew Air Canada into Anchorage and enjoyed the cozy, small feel to the airport. We were greeted by a Celebrity Cruise Representative who shuttled us to the Marriott Hotel in downtown Anchorage. Upon arrival, we took an opportunity to do laundry. We made the mistake of finding a local laundromat on our own without our Hotel’s input. We went to “K-Speed” a few blocks again. Without detailing our experience, we highly recommend NOT going there…
The downtown city of Anchorage is relatively walkable. Uber and taxis are available for longer distances. If you have a rental car, I highly recommend driving along the Glen Highway. Parallel to the train tracks, the Glen Highway snakes along the mountain range with up-close views of waterfalls, snow-capped mountains, Dall Sheep (white sheep perched high on the tips of the mountains), and glaciers.
There are plenty of hotels in the area, as well as (-I’m sure-) options through AirBNB and VRBO.
One morning, we did a coffee tour at a local shop called Steam Dot and listened to the owner passionately discuss the sourcing and roasting of his coffee beans. I recommend the nitro cold brew coffee for those who enjoy coffee. They also have grab-and-go breakfast sandwiches if you’re on the run.
A tasty lunch spot we enjoyed was Snow City Cafe. I tried the kale sweet potato salad with a strawberry vinaigrette (delicious), while others in my group enjoyed hummus avocado veggie wraps, fruit smoothies, and salmon sandwiches (my dad stated it was the “best sandwich he’s ever tasted in his life”).
We enjoyed 49th State Brewery for dinner one night. The restaurant was large with two floors and a patio overlooking the water. We enjoyed fried cauliflower and a soft pretzel for appetizers. The pizza was delicious as was the Yak burger.
6. Denali National Park
We did a bus tour from Anchorage to Denali (Destination Denali). At this point in our tour-we were roughly 1 week into our vacation- we were getting exhausted from the bus trips and train rides.
DON’T: Bother with the bus tour. If we had to do it again, we would have taken a flight to Denali to avoid a lot of the driving.
Once we entered the Park, we drove roughly 1.5 hours to the turn-around point before driving back to the main entrance. We were envious of the hikers walking the trails along our route. However, with the bus ride, we were able to cover the majority of the park in decent time and were lucky enough to spot a moose on the way.
DON’T: Do the bus tour if you’re looking for an authentic and active perspective of the park.
We stayed overnight in Denali Park Village. The hotel was cabin-like and felt like you were away at summer-camp. Miner’s Plaza offered small convenience store and food options. We enjoyed dinner down in the “town” which was a 5 minute shuttle away ($3 each passenger roundtrip) at the Overlook at Crows Neck. The view on their patio offered sights of Sugarloaf Mountain in the distance.
On our route, we stopped in a small colonial town called Palmer, enjoyed a short tour of a Birch Syrup business (the Alaskan version of Maple Syrup), and a historical demonstration in the National Park about the early years of the Alaskan settlers.
On our return drive from Denali, we stayed overnight in Talkeetna at “The Lodge.” The hotel was quite beautiful with a log cabin feel and multiple main lobbies. They had beautiful outdoor patios across their property with views of the distant mountains and waterfront. There were also multiple tall fireplaces scattered both inside and outside on the property that you could settle around with a good book or cup of coffee.
We took advantage of a local brewery called Denali Brewery Co. We sampled some IPAs, homemade mead (from fermented honey), and a sour ale (my favorite!). At the moment, they’re in the process of Gin production and incorporating a winery.
DO: Keep your eyes peeled for wildlife during your time in Alaska. We saw a mother moose and her two babies right alongside the highway during our drive toward Anchorage.
DO: Bring a small pair of binoculars.
Celebrity Millennium Cruise
(Anchorage, Juneau, Skagway, Icy Straight, Ketchikan)
We finally made it to the cruise dock in Anchorage! Prior to boarding, we met with the owner of a local Salmon Hatchery for a final pit-stop at the end of our bus tour.
DO: Buy “Wild caught Alaskan Salmon” whenever possible. Wild Caught +/- Alaskan > farmed >……”hot dogs” (the Salmon Hatchery owner said with a laugh). If you happen to buy canned salmon, on either the top or bottom of the can is a series of printed numbers. If the serial number starts with “55”, the salmon was caught in the Alaskan hatchery we visited!
Once onboard our Celebrity Cruise line, we had an opportunity to stand out on the Helicopter Pad view the Hubbard Glacier up close.
DO: When booking your room onboard the cruise, try to book a room with a patio if possible.
DO: Bring warm clothes for the ship: warm fleece, rain coat, hat, gloves, long underwear, wool socks, waterproof shoes/ hiking boots, and sunglasses. Better yet, bring two sets since the weather in Alaska tends to be damp and rainy.
Let the excursions begin!
Our first excursion was exploring the capital city of Alaska. The city is a cute collection of tourist, coffee, and seafood shops. There is a Sky Tram gondola in the heart of the city.
After we had our fix of downtown, we headed onboard a 20 minute shuttle to Mendelhall Glacier for a kayaking trip. The kayak trip was 2 hours roundtrip.
DON’T: Worry about footwear. Our kayak team provided waterproof boots and overalls for us to use so we wouldn’t get wet in the kayaks. The kayaks had hand guards attached to the paddles for added insulation against the glacier chill. They weren’t guaranteed to keep your hands warm, but they did a decent job keeping them dry.
DO: Bring your binoculars and phone in a waterproof case/ sealable gallon bag to keep handy while on the kayak.
Our family was very excited to experience a helicopter direct to the summit of a mountain to go dog sledding with my 2 year old nephew. Sadly, the weather conditions weren’t cooperating and the excursion was canceled.
DON’T: Be surprised if this happens to you if you book through Shore Excursions. Apparently 3/7 days, this excursion is canceled.
However, we found an alternative way to spend our day. The cute downtown is littered with trekking trails. We decided on the Lower Loop hike. This hike is 4 miles long and took us a leisurely 2.5 hours. I’d rate it as Moderate in intensity.
DO: Bring hiking boots. The trails tend to get muddy in some areas.
For those looking for more strenuous hikes, the Upper Lake hike is apparently quite steep. If you have a full day to kill, it takes roughly 6 hours to complete.
DON’T: Do this hike if the weather is cloudy. You’ll be in the cloud-line and won’t have any decent views of below.
If you decide on this hike, you can take the train back to town. However, be mindful of the train schedule. If you miss the last train back, the cruise will leave without you.
DO: The Alaska Excursions; Dog Mushing Camp. The tour starts with a 30 minute drive on (mostly) unpaved roads, so be prepared for a bumpy commute. However, once you arrive, you are greeted with breathtaking Alaskan scenery, a cozy tourist / coffee shop, ~300 bred mushing dogs, and a kennel full of husky puppies. Yes! You do get plenty of time to play with the puppies!
The mushing camp is truly just that- essentially summer camp for mushing teams that compete in the annual Iditarod. You spend ~15 minutes on a 3-rowed chariot cart being pulled by a team of ~20 dogs. Most dog sledding excursions only give you 30 seconds or so of the experience, so I highly recommend this company! They are rated the best in Skagway.
DO: Try the local crab legs. The seafood in Alaska is exceptional!
DON’T: Bother with the gold mining excursion. Half of my family did it and said it was tacky and a waste of money.
10. Icy Strait
For those who have fished, and those who are virgin fishermen/women, I highly recommend the Salmon Fish Streaming excursion.
After a very bumpy 1 hour van ride, you arrive at an exclusive stream with soothing views of the water and Alaskan mountains. Directly in front of you are schools of salmon literally jumping before your eyes.
As a group, we caught 24 Wild Alaskan Pink Salmon and a bunch of trout. Unfortunately, we had to return the fish back to the water, but we had a blast reeling them in.
DO: Bring a raincoat, $25 for a Non-Resident Alaskan fishing license, and binoculars. On the drive home, we caught sight of a mama bear and her two baby cubs.
DO: Bring laundry detergent for those hard fish stains that can settle into your clothes!
We appreciated the population of 12,000 in Ketchikan with all of the shops and small downtown buzz it had to offer.
Ketchikan is known for their Totem Poles, so if you have time, take an opportunity to see the Poles and listen to the folktale stories behind them.
If you’re up for another excursion, do the Canopy and Zipline Tour. Aside from high school “Outdoor Adventures” zip-lining, I had never zip-lined before. Get ready for a racing heart beat, sweaty palms, and fighting your fears. (I may or may not have cried over their final “surprise” …). This excursion is for the adventurous. Let’s just say they give you a medal at the end for completing the excursion.
So there you have it! 11 sensational stops in the Rockies you shouldn’t miss.
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I’d love to hear your comments and am happy to answer any of your questions if you plan on traveling to these destinations!