If you're in the parks in high season, you almost have to think of it as a competition, or musical chairs. Both Banff and Jasper could easily add a few thousand hotel rooms and fill them without much trouble, but they can't; due to conservation regulations, development is severely restricted in the parks.
The result? Expensive rooms, and not many of them; in tour bus season, many hotels pre-book for their bus tours months in advance, meaning those who don't plan ahead -- or worse, just drop in -- might find themselves out of luck. If you plan to travel in the parks in the high seasons, don't be that haphazard traveler: Plan your accommodation well in advance, especially if you want to stay somewhere special, like the Banff Springs or Jasper Park Lodge.
If you're flexible, last-minute-deal travel websites are a great alternative -- try Priceline, Travelocity, or Expedia, all of which may turn last-minute cancellations into savings of as much as 50% for you. Demand in neighboring Canmore, while high, isn't quite at Banff levels, so the 20-minute drive can often pay off.
In high season, the law of supply and demand truly comes to bear; most hotels seem to be able to ask for, and get, just about any rate they want. You'll sometimes run into the phenomenon, especially in Banff, of a hotel not being able to quote you a rate more than a week in advance, as they'll shuffle prices according to supply and demand (i.e., a rainy week might get you a lower rate; a gorgeous forecast might mean you're paying more).
For the most part, hotels are well kept up in the parks, but few would justify these high prices anywhere else in the world. Knowing that, you have some decisions to make. You can choose to splurge on one of the world-class hotels here, which are usually only a bit more expensive than the midrange competition.
If you are having trouble finding a room, or simply don't want to deal with the hassle, contact Rocky Mountain Reservations (tel. 877/902-9455; www.rockymountainreservations.com) for free hotel and activities booking.
In the off-season, prices drop dramatically -- often as much as 50%. Most hotels offer ski packages in winter, as well as other attractive getaway incentives. Ask about any special rates, especially at the larger hotels.
If you're looking for a B&B there are many options; try the Alberta Bed and Breakfast Association (www.bbalberta.com).
Hostels are probably the most affordable option in Alberta's Rocky Mountain parks, at least if you want a roof over your head and running water. Hostelling International runs a large network of hostels throughout the parks; to find out more about Alberta hostels, check out www.hihostels.ca.
There is a wide variety of campgrounds in Banff National Park, and you can now reserve a spot online at www.pccamping.ca or via telephone at tel. 877/737-3783. Very few last-minute spots are available; you must plan ahead, especially if you want to be near the town of Banff.
You've probably already cottoned on to the fact that Alberta is ranch country; one of the province's unique accommodation options is to book space at what have come to be called guest ranches -- working ranches that welcome tourists for an authentic taste of what western heritage is all about.
Seebe, near the entrance to Banff National Park in Kananaskis Country, has a couple of the oldest and most famous of such ranches: one is The Rafter Six Ranch (tel. 888/267-2624 or 403/673-3691; www.raftersix.com), which has a beautiful old log lodge. The other is the original Brewster homestead (the folks who run all those bus tours). The Brewster family got in on the tourist trade in the region at the ground level: their home was converted in 1923 into the Brewster's Kananaskis Guest Ranch (tel. 800/691-5085 or 403/673-3737; www.kananaskisguestranch.com).
Farther north, east of the Jasper park gates, you'll find the Black Cat Guest Ranch (tel. 800/859-6840 or 403/865-3084; www.blackcatguestranch.ca). It's near Hinton, on the Yellowhead Highway on the way to Edmonton. The Black Cat started out decades ago as a winter horse camp.
All of these guest ranches offer the standard western experience of saddling up and riding range; the length and intensity of this experience depends entirely on your endurance. If you're lucky, a local rodeo might be on the agenda, with barrel racing, roping events, and bull riding among its exhilarating (and terrifying) features. You'll certainly get some exceptional barbecues out of the experience.
Gentler pursuits like fishing, hiking, and lolling by the hot tub are equally possible. Meals are usually served in the lodge; accommodations are either in cabins or the main lodge. A night at a guest ranch usually ranges from C$90 to C$200, depending on what style of room you choose, and includes breakfast. Full bed-and-board packages are available for longer stays. There's usually an additional fee for horseback riding. Home stays at smaller working ranches are also possible. Here you can pitch in and help your ranch-family hosts with their work, or simply relax. For a stay on a real mom-and-pop farm, obtain a list of member ranches from Alberta Country Vacations Association (tel. 403/722-3053; www.albertacountryvacation.com).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.