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, and Yoho and Kootenay to the west (in British Columbia), Banff and Jasper complete a network of federal parkland that protects the majestic peaks of the Canadian Rockies in a continuous flow of staggering size and beauty. A UNESCO World Heritage Site reaching more than 20,000 sq. km (7,722 sq. miles), 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. More than 3 million tourists pass through Banff National Park each year, meaning that that lovely, protected natural zone all along the Rockies can sometimes have the hectic feel of being in a city -- albeit a particularly beautiful one. Visitors tend to cluster in a few key areas: the Banff townsite, the shores of Lake Louise, and the Columbia Icefield.
The crowds flock here for good reason: You'll rarely, if ever, see such jaw-dropping mountain splendor. But the town of Banff, 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, with ample ways to separate you from your money.
Still, both places have so much more to offer than luxury shopping and dining in a mountain setting. So, get out of the car and get into the mountains. 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. Many of these adventures are just steps away from your hotel. Skiing here is also world-class: the resorts of Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village, and the jewel of the parks, Lake Louise (the site of annual World Cup races), are among the largest ski areas in the world; also not to be missed is the excellent but largely under-the-radar (and thus much less crowded) Marmot Basin in Jasper.