The Bow Valley Parkway (or the 1A) is a road that every visitor to Banff National Park should drive on at least once. It’s a great alternative to the Trans-Canada when connecting Banff to Lake Louise. Although it’s much slower than the highway, it allows visitors ample time to get out of the car and enjoy the breathtaking views.
The Bow Valley Parkway runs parallel to the Trans Canada with the Bow River between the two. While both routes are scenic the Parkway offers much more for visitors.
There are some great hiking options along the way, including the famous Johnston Canyon. As well as a few accommodation options and scenic pull-off points. It’s open year-round and honestly never gets old. Besides being one of the most scenic drives in Alberta (only behind the Icefields Parkway), It’s one of the best places to bike in Banff National Park as well. Here’s all you need to know about driving the Bow Valley Parkway and the best stops on it.
How to Access the Bow Valley Parkway
The Bow Valley Parkway (1A) is easily accessible from both Banff and Lake Louise, but if you don’t know it’s there you could miss it and spend all your time driving on the Trans-Canada.
To access the Bow Valley Parkway from Banff you’ll drive on the Trans-Canada passing Vermilion Lakes on your left. About 6 km past the Mt/Norquay Rd you’ll exit on the right for the Bow Valley Parkway
To access the Bow Valley Parkway in Lake Louise, head up towards the Lake Louise Ski Resort. As you’re driving up Whitehorn drive, you’ll see a turn on your right. If you hit the sign for Skoki Lodge, you’ve gone too far.
If you are want to access the Bow Valley Parkway you can get off at Castle Junction while driving on the Trans-Canada. Cross the bridge (pictured above) and continue on in the direction you wish to go.
The Best Stops on the Bow Valley Parkway
From Banff to Lake Louise
The backswamp, which doesn’t sound so pretty, is actually an amazing lookout over Banff. There’s a little pull off area for bikes and cars to step out and snap a photo.
I always stop at Hillsdale Meadows when I’m riding my bike on the parkway. It’s a scenic stop with plenty of wildflowers in the summer and a great view of Pilot Mountain.
Perhaps the most famous and well-known stop on the Bow Valley Parkway is Johnston Canyon. Johnston Canyon is a highlight for many on their trip to Banff. It’s a nice easy hike the whole family can enjoy on a maintained trail. It’s great to walk in both the winter and summer.
In the winter the falls freeze creating the most beautiful scene, and in early summer the falls are absolutely roaring as the snow melts off the surrounding mountains.
Johnston Canyon is a popular stop, and you can expect it to be busy. There’s a gift shop here, as well as a restaurant, cafe, as well as some cabins to stay at. Read all about hiking Johnston Canyon here.
Another large meadow that’s famed for its moose sights, although I’ve never seen a moose here I do believe it happens if you are lucky. In the summer its wildflowers abound, while the winter creates amazing scenery with the snow.
Before you reach Castle Junction there’s a parking area for the trailhead to Rockbound Lake. Rockbound Lake is a beautiful lake that sits under Castle Mountain. To reach them you’ll have to climb 900 meters of elevation as well as 18 km of distance round trip, but it’s well worth it!
Another one of my favorite stops on the Bow Valley Parkway is Castle Junction. Castle Junction marks the halfway point between Banff and Lake Louise. It’s where the Valley connects to the Trans-Canada. It may not sound that exciting, but this is where I find the best views of Castle Mountain are.
Head to the bridge to get photos along the Bow River. There’s also a small convenience store here as well as the Castle Mountain Chalets.
Castle Mountain Lookout
In case you missed the junction there is another designated lookout point right after the junction. It comes up quickly on your right. There’s a small elevated path, with information and amazing views of Castle Cliffs.
Storm Mountain Lookout
This is another fantastic lookout on your left hand side. You get great views of storm mountain here. There are also a few picnic tables to enjoy lunch at, and down below are the train tracks. If you get lucky and time it right you’ll be able to see a train coming through the beautiful Bow Valley.
Internment Camp Memorial
The Castle Mountain Internment Camp was the largest internment facility in the Rockies in the early 1900s. Over 600 prisoners of war were interned here that were of Ukrainian, Austrian, Hungarian and German descent during WWI.
These individuals helped make the infrastructure in Banff National Park what it is today. They were subject to abuse and extreme conditions in the winter. There’s a memorial statue here and some important reading information.
Just before you get to Lake Louise, you’ll pass a spot just before you get to Lake Louise that overlooks the train tracks down an epic valley. This is called Morant’s Curve and is a photo hot spot in the Rockies. It particularly looks ideal in the winter when the mountains and trees are blanketed in snow.
It looks great without a train, but to really nab the shot, you’ll need to hang out in the cold waiting for the Canadian Pacific train to pass by. It requires patience and warm clothes, but it can be done. If you really want to outdoor yourself, you should look up when the Canadian Holiday Train is passing through. See our other favorite photography spots here.
How Much Time Do You Need to Drive the Bow Valley Parkway?
The Bow Valley Parkway is 55km of sheer beauty. If you plan to make all the stops I would allocate 1.5-2 hours to complete the drive at a laid-back pace. If you plan to hike back to Johnston Canyon I would allocate at least half a day.
Wildlife on the Bow Valley Parkway
You’re bound to see some Canadian Rockies wildlife while driving on the Bow Valley Parkway. The most common animals you will see are Bighorn sheep, deer, and elk. If you’re visiting in the winter, you stand a good chance at seeing a bear; I’ve seen a few while riding my bike on the Bow Valley Parkway before. Other animals I’ve spotted on the Parkway are foxes and moose. Cameron has seen a wolf before (or so he says); if this happens to you, I would consider yourself lucky. If you see a wolf or bear, let a Parks Canada staff know by calling when you get service.
When you see these animals, you’ll probably be mesmerized by their beauty and want to stop for a photo. Please pull over safely, do not get out of your car, and do not stop traffic. Also, don’t hog the sighting; stay for a few moments and move on to let others enjoy.
Tips for Driving the Bow Valley Parkway in the Winter
Canadian winters can be extremely harsh and dangerous for driving. If you are not an experienced winter driver and planning a magical Canadian winter trip, you should take caution. The Bow Valley Parkway is plowed in the winter, but conditions are worse than on the Trans-Canada. Read more about renting a car in Banff in the winter here.
Places to Eat on the Bow Valley Parkway
Like most of Banff National Park, there aren’t very many places to eat outside of town. So come prepared with snacks for your epic road trip. There are a few stops you can make on the Bow Valley Parkway, noted below. If you miss these stops there are a few cafes in the Lake Louise Village, and obviously in Downtown Banff.
Places to Stay on the Bow Valley Parkway
- Johnston Canyon Resort
- Castle Mountain Chalets
- Baker Creek Chalets
- HI-Castle Mountain
- Johnson Canyon Campground
- Castle Mountain Campground
- Protection Mountain Campground
Biking on the Bow Valley Parkway
Because of COVID, the Bow Valley Parkway was closed for most of 2020 (and now 2021) to vehicles. This meant cyclists could get out and enjoy the road without cars. We were able to get out many times on the Bow Valley Parkway, and each time I was reminded of what an amazing road it is to bring the bike on.
There are plenty of ups and downs and challenging sections; it’s well-paved and well maintained. If you get the chance to take a bike out on the parkway, I highly recommend it. Make sure to bring a lock if you plan to do some hiking at Johnston Canyon.