If you're a tourist in Alberta, either Banff or Jasper -- and likely both -- is probably why you're here. Along with Waterton to the south, Banff and Jasper complete a network of federal parkland that protects the majestic peaks of the Canadian Rockies in a continuous flow; it's rightly one of the most famous, and most successful, nature preserves on earth.
But if you've come here to see Banff, don't think you're alone in that idea. In high season (June to September) more than 50,000 tourists pass through Banff National Park, meaning that that lovely, protected natural zone all along the Rockies can sometimes have the hectic feel of being in a major city -- albeit a particularly beautiful one.
The crowds flock here for good reason: You'll rarely, if ever, see such jaw-dropping mountain splendor. But some find the parks, and Banff in particular, to be unnervingly commercial. Banff Townsite, plunked down in a stunningly beautiful valley, has, at times, the air of a high-priced mall or theme park; Jasper, while significantly more subdued, still draws its throngs, and has ample ways to separate you from your money.
Still, both places have much more to offer than luxury shopping and dining in a mountain setting. Hiking, biking, rafting, canoeing, kayaking, and fishing, as well as pack trips on horseback, are great ways to leave the crowds behind and experience the parks as nature (and the government) intended. Skiing here is also world-class: the resorts of Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village, and the jewel of the parks, Lake Louise, are among the largest ski areas in the world and the site of many World Cup alpine races; also not to be missed is the excellent but largely under-the-radar (and thus much less crowded) Marmot Basin in Jasper.
One of the principal beauties of these two parks is how you can have one foot in two worlds, almost simultaneously. Set out on one of the hiking trails and you can quickly find yourself in a preternatural setting that suggests a world that man has yet to discover; crave some creature comforts, and some of the most opulent hotels on earth are here to serve you -- particularly the early railway hotels, the Chateau Lake Louise, the Jasper Park Lodge, and the iconic Banff Springs Hotel. All built by the Canadian Pacific Railway, starting in the late 19th century as a way to kick-start tourism, these three hotels are the last word in luxury. The effect has snowballed so that Banff and Jasper parks have an array of luxury options, from hotels to dining, that play off the surrounding wilderness with an urbane, sophisticated feel.
Getting around here is easy. The network of paved roads is excellent, but in high season sheer volume can make it slow going. From Calgary, it's a stunning 1-hour drive up the Bow River to Banff on Hwy. 1, and driving from Edmonton to Jasper on the Yellowhead Highway (Hwy. 16) takes from 3 to 4 hours. Both these roads (which continue over the Rockies into British Columbia), along with the Icefields Parkway between Lake Louise and Jasper, remain open year-round.