Seattlites go to Canada - what to see?
May 20, 2006 9:41 AM   Subscribe

Driving from Seattle to Canada on vacation - what should we see?

What would you recommend for two adults to see in Canada? We're driving up from Seattle, only want to spend 4 or 5 days, and are planning our visit for mid-August. We're in our early 40s, and love beautiful scenery, easy to moderately difficult hiking, arts and music, shopping (especially books and antiques), and just relaxing. We've looked into Banff (looks gorgeous), Harrison Hotsprings (were told it can be boring), and Lake Loiuse (also looks beautiful). We'd like to avoid big crowds. One possibility involves seeing Victoria, a stop at Butchart Gardens, then heading north to the Banff area; is that too much or not enough for 5 days? Anything we should absolutely not miss? Thanks, travelling MeFites!
posted by TochterAusElysium to Travel & Transportation around Canada (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
The Icefields Parkway, between Banff and Jasper, is astonishing.
posted by LarryC at 9:45 AM on May 20, 2006

Well, aside from the fact that Banff isn't so much north of Victoria...

Anyhow, while you might be able to do so, you have to realize that Vancouver is a good distance from Banff... probably around an 8 hour drive, give or take. Add on an hour-and-a-half long ferry ride from Victoria to Vancouver, and you've got quite a long trip in the middle of that. Not that there's anything wrong with that! There's some lovely scenery along the way, and if the drive is as much the point as anything, I'd definitely reccomened the drive accross southern BC towards Banff. But just realize that it will take quite a bit of your not-so-long trip.
posted by vernondalhart at 9:47 AM on May 20, 2006

I JUST DID THIS DRIVE last summer, its a 13 hour drive from Seattle to Banff. Except for a pass early-mid drive, most of the epic mountain range scenery is late in the drive. But we left at 6am and we didn't miss it. The best part of the trip was the columbia glacier 4WD excursion. Its north in Jasper park, but so worth it to go up a mountain, be transported directly on a huge glacier that seems to come from the heavens. And the whole drive up there is awe-inspiring, best drive of them all, I felt. We saw elk and a bear feet from our car. The best non-drive was the banff gondola which is practically in town, not to be missed. There is an incomparable 360 degree view of the snowy mountain range including the famous glacier scraped mountains. For us it was both sunny with rainbows and snowed within a couple of hours, and we saw goats. Note: there is a shortcut midway that is a toll road, be sure to pay the extra 10 or whatever it saves alot of time and traffic. It is easily missed going up so watch for it. I'll see if I can remember the road number.
posted by uni verse at 10:18 AM on May 20, 2006

So the mid-drive shortcut on way to Banff is Highway 5, a must take. A link to google map below, if you zoom in the center you can see where 1 forks into 1 and 5, take 5 and rejoin 1 later. In fact on the link it recommends it in the text directions.,+alberta&om=1

PS lake louise was full of tourists, but not tacky. I had more fun checking out the old Banff Hotel on the sw side of town in Banff. Visible from Banff gondola, looks like a castle on lower left on the way down.
posted by uni verse at 10:34 AM on May 20, 2006

Some good hikes:

Heather Trail, during bloom season, in Manning Park. Can be done as a day hike. Sensational.

Cathedral Park. There is a ride-in option, last I heard it's about a hundred bucks. Otherwise it's a pretty healthy hike in. Walking the caldera rim is great.

Hedley Mine, on Hwy 3. Never been, but it should be a good one. Pretty incredible stuff, what the miners did.

If you end up on the Jasper-Banff, you could choose to dayhike Mt. Wilcox. Easy hike leading to some of the best views you'll ever experience: 360 panorama of the glaciers, the valley, the next mtn range. OMG, beautiful.

If you go over to Vancouver Island, there's a wonderful coastal hike by name of Juan de Fuca. It may be on a quota system these days.

There's also terrific hiking in the north-center of the island, in Strathcona Park. And, of course, Long Beach is pretty spectacular as well (but camping there is a major ripoff).

And so on and so forth. Really, there's not a spot in BC that isn't fascinating. Heck, head into the Crowsnest Pass and explore all the old mining sites. Hike Turtle Mtn (where the Frank Slide wiped out a mining village. Hint: never build your town under a mountain the natives have named "The Mountain That Moves." Doh.)

Quite simply, 4-5 days isn't nearly long enough!
posted by five fresh fish at 10:39 AM on May 20, 2006

Response by poster: THANK YOU all for these responses! Plese keep them coming! We're now pretty well convinced that 5 days won't be enough, but it's no problem to extend that to 7 or more. Now I'm really excited and looking forward to the trip. Thank you all again. I'll keep checking in for more answers. You are the best!
posted by TochterAusElysium at 10:56 AM on May 20, 2006

Do not go to Banff or Lake Louise. Over-priced tourist traps full of bus-trippers looking to check off the same itinerary of sights.

Instead, stay on the island. It's much less travelled than the Rockies but just as beautiful, IMHO, especially because of the combination of mountains and ocean. Mrs docgonzo -- she's from Lake Cowichan, in the centre of the island -- and I honeymooned there last August. We went up the east coast to Campbell River and then over onto Cortes Island. Very undeveloped, very gorgeous, with lovely people and opportunities to hike, paddle, etc. galore.
posted by docgonzo at 10:57 AM on May 20, 2006

Best answer: I didn't see vancouver in your list of must-sees. Scratch Harrison Hot Springs (it's inside of a hotel!!!) but add Vancouver on your list of things to do. We have fun events indoors (do you like art? Then the Vancouver Art Gallery, and the South Granville art galleries will please you). Do you like history? Then Gastown and Chinatown (both of them downtown) will be worth a visit.

I drove the Crow's Nest Highway to Banff five years ago. It's also known as Highway 3, and hugs the US border. There are beautiful mountain passes - you can stop in Manning Park for a walk on the Heather Trail (fivefreshfish is right, it's a stunner of a hike, and easy too) and have a beer at the Bear's Pub afterwards (at the Manning Park Lodge).

Further down Highway 3 you have Cathedral Park - if you choose to be driven up, it's $75CDN but a good alternative to hoofing it up. there's a lodge up there, and campgrounds too.

Further down Highway 3 you are in the Interior - the Northern tip of the Sonora desert (which starts in Mexico) and beautiful wine country. Beware of cyclists who want to share the road with you in the summer - they are training for the Penticton Ironman later in August.

Make a stop in Oliver, and near Christina Lake. It's beautiful country, and the scenery and types of trees change by the hour.

Further down Highway 3 you turn up to the Kootenays, and the foothills of the Rockies. A few hours later, you are in Banff. Note - I did the drive to Banff with two overnights in campgrounds. A motivated driver could get there in a very long day. We stopped often and took scads of photos.

Big yes to the Icefields Highway. The Columbia Icefield Drive is well before Jasper. Jasper itself is a bit of an eh-h, although students who partied there may disagree. There are some fabulous glaciers and lakes nearby - don't miss Mt Edith Cavell (and the iceberg-ridden little lake underneath. Be careful of grizzlies.

Your return trip could take you on Highway 1 (trans-canada highway) through Field. Beautiful mountain passes, high peaks, vertiginous railroad tracks just hanging onto the sides of mountains. Stop at the ranger station in Field and watch the film about building the railroad across Canada. It's not overly long (15 minutes?) but one heck of a hair-raising experience. Be thankful you are travelling in the summer and not during the winter-spring avalanche season.

Continue along Highway 1 as it returns to flatter land, go past Kamloops then past Shushwap Lake. Drive past Cache Creek and wonder at mining development nearby - you wouldn't know it... then be bold, and return via Lilloet and Pemberton and Whistler instead of through Hells Gate (everyone goes there - it's a canyon over the Fraser River).

Take the mighty Duffy road, and travel through narrow canyons with towering peaks above you. This is where BC mountaineers love to play. Stop at Joffre Lakes for a little stretch - the first lake is 5 minutes away from the parking lot. Allow yourself to be lured to the second, and in particular the third lake - it's an unreal aquamarine blue with glaciers tumbling above you. It takes about 1.5 hours from the trailhead to the third lake.

Then resume your drive to Seattle, stop in Whistler and make a note to visit the resort in the winter - gosh the skiing is great here, and it's not that much further than Baker. Continue down the highway, note the rockclimbers on The Chief at Squamish - might want to stop for a brew at the Howe Sound Brew Pub.

Then, continue on Highway 99... through Vancouver and Surrey...all the way to Peace Arch, our border with the US. And it's there that the 99 becomes I-5. A few hours later you are home.

All the best on your trip.
posted by seawallrunner at 10:57 AM on May 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

OK, some resources:

Tourist info about my town: Where Vancouver

What to do in BC? BC Tourism Site
posted by seawallrunner at 11:03 AM on May 20, 2006

So the mid-drive shortcut on way to Banff is Highway 5, a must take.

If speed is your priority, I agree. But the Coquilhalla (Hwy 5) is bloody boring, and it only cuts about 2 hours off a 11 hour trip. I highly recommend taking either the TransCanada (Hwy 1) or the Crow's Nest (Hwy 3), as seawallrunner suggests. MUCH more to see along the way, and the scenery as far more spectacular.
posted by randomstriker at 11:27 AM on May 20, 2006

Butchart Gardens in Victoria, BC are absolutely stunning. (hi seawallrunner!)
posted by ori at 11:47 AM on May 20, 2006

randomstriker, true, I shouldn't assume speed is the priority. But 2 hours can mean saving your aching back for the next day. But I have taken #1 and I wasn't that impressed, and we had to wait for a cow train to pass! I don't know about Hwy 3.
posted by uni verse at 12:42 PM on May 20, 2006

I used to live in Vancouver, now on Vancouver Island. My wife was a tour guide in Vancouver.

So, I wouldn't try to do both Vancouver and the rockies in the same trip. They're really far apart, and you'll spend a lot of time driving.

Instead, I'd suggest you drive straight to Vancouver (3 hours), and then spend a day or two around the city. Go up to Grouse Mountain and the Capilano Suspension Bridge - there are some great day hikes that start at the top of Grouse Mountain, so you can fulfill the hiking part. You also want to go to Granville Island and Stanley Park.

Catch the ferry from Tsawassen over to Victoria, and spend a day or so there. Butchart Gardens are not to be missed.

Then head up island a bit. You could visit some of the Gulf Islands like Saltspring, or Hornby Island (where that Bald Eagle cam was located). Then head over to the West Coast of Vancouver Island to Pacific Rim National Park. Do some camping, hiking, and surfing. :-)

I'd save the Rockies, etc for a separate tripn - they're wonderful and well worth braving the crouds. You can also take a ferry from Seattle directly to Victoria if you want to save Vancouver for another trip. Since it's so close, you might want to avoid it this time around.
posted by fcain at 2:22 PM on May 20, 2006

I wouldn't try to do both Vancouver and the rockies in the same trip. They're really far apart, and you'll spend a lot of time driving.

Hear hear. Banff is so beautiful, it hurts to look at it, knowing that you cannot stay forever. Banff is too beautiful to scrimp on time.

Vancouver/Victoria is a single trip (check out the lonely drive to Port Renfrew ... a lot of fun). Banff is an epic vacation.
posted by frogan at 2:35 PM on May 20, 2006

I did Vancouver (and Vancouver Island) in the same trip, but it took me several weeks. 5-7 days is not enough. You can do one or the other, but if you try to do both you won't really get to enjoy any of it.

Things I liked:

Rockies: Mount Edith Cavell (allow at least four hours); the Columbia Icefields (both times I've gone it's taken basically the whole day, with time to drive back to Jasper for a meal); the restaurant at Jasper Park Lodge; if you have pets, there's a store on the main drag (or was in 2001) that sold homemade pet treats that was pretty cool.

Vancouver: Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park in Chinatown is very beautiful; the totem poles, which are everywhere; Siwash Rock (Stanley Park); Cypress Provincial Park. Granville Market is pretty, but overpriced, and you've probably seen plenty of that sort of thing where you're from.

Victoria: Thunderbird Park for the fantastic totem poles; the Royal British Columbia Museum; Beacon Hill Park; eat at the Bengal Lounge in the Fairmont Empress; drive up to Port Renfrew to hike out to see the open Pacific, it's amazing (get a map though).

Go to any museum which is advertising an Emily Carr exhibit (somebody is bound to have one). Her work is amazing and while very famous in Canada, is mostly unknown in the US afaik.

I'll risk a self-promo to mention my online diary of the trip, which you may find helpful, though restaurant info and the like will be outdated since that was 5 years ago.
posted by joannemerriam at 4:07 PM on May 20, 2006

That should have said: I did Vancouver (and Vancouver Island) and the Rockies in the same trip...
posted by joannemerriam at 4:11 PM on May 20, 2006

We did the west coast of Vancouver Island about 20 years ago -- Pacific Rim National Park, Tofino, Broken Group Islands... possibly the best of many vacations I've taken in Canada.
posted by lhauser at 5:45 PM on May 20, 2006

The National Gallery in Ottawa is opening a big Emily Carr show soon. The VAG had a good show last summer and probably has a pretty good permanent collection, but much of it will be loaned out.

My feeling about a trip such as you're planning would be to pick either Vancouver Island or the Rockies and do one or the other. Doing both you can't hope to get much out of either one. And having spent some time on Vancouver Island (though not much) and a LOT of time in Banff (lived there), there's a totally different feeling to each area. It's hard to describe, but I wouldn't necessarily want to mix the two together. Plus, what a buzz kill to have a perfectly nice vacation started and then have to sit in the car for the better part of a day on a highway just to continue the vacation.

If you do pick Banff, do it right, which can mean a couple of different things depending on your preferences. First, you can do it all spendy and stay in a super hotel and get reservations at some of the very good restaurants in town. Play golf at the Banff Springs, do little day trips in the car, spend a night at the Chateau Lake Louise, etc. The other option is more appealing to me - find a good utilitarian place to stay and make a good plan in advance of several out-of-town day hikes. Banff is touristy, but if you drive for even half an hour in any direction beyond Banff and Lake Louise all of those tourists are gone - they really stay in the town sites.

If you go to the Island, one word of advice. Don't drive the car off the road while driving over the Malahat. When you notice the Sound WAY down below... totally possible to have an accident.
posted by mikel at 9:36 PM on May 20, 2006 [1 favorite]

I forgot to mention Kokanee Glacier Park. If you ever come within a few hours drive of it, you must go there. You can drive to within a couple hours easy walk, if you just want to ogle the core; or you can do 4x4 access to some of the more remote trailheads, likely not seeing other (or, at least, many other) people during your several days' outing.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:02 AM on May 21, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks again to all - I don't know if anyone will still be reading this, but we decided to limit the trip to Vancouver Island. I appreciate all the input; it made it much easier to plan our trip!
posted by TochterAusElysium at 9:28 AM on May 23, 2006

Don't forget to visit Botanical Beach. It's where three ocean ecosystems meet on a nice shallow expanse, allowing you to see all sorts of wonderous things when the tide is out.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:15 PM on May 23, 2006

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