Travelers of the Victorian age called the hundreds of snowcapped peaks of the Canadian Rocky Mountains "50 Switzerlands in One," and they couldn't have been more accurate. The Tetons are molehills next to the Canadian Rockies, with hundreds of peaks over 6,000 feet tall. They harbor the Banff, Kootenay, Yoho, and Jasper national parks. The awesome phenomenon now attracts more than four million annual visitors, making the area's centerpiece, Banff, and the surrounding region the most popular tourist attraction in Canada. Once there, you'll find pure lakes made electric blue by glacial runoff "rock flour"; an array of wildlife such as elks, cougars, and grizzlies; and dreamlike mountain landscapes taken straight out of a Maxfield Parrish painting. This is truly one of the last huge, untarnished wildernesses, and thanks to the excellent exchange rate and low winter prices, it's all yours for a song.
You start in Calgary
The first place most visitors to the Canadian Rockies see is the city of Calgary, Alberta (population: nearly one million), just about an hour's drive from Banff. It's an oil-boom location, buttoned-down and conservative, but with lovely, lush river parks meandering through its corporate heart. Its most famous attraction is the enormous annual Stampede festival (calgarystampede.com) in summer, with rodeos, concerts, and lots of parties. Cheap flights to Calgary can be had from Air Canada's Jazz Airlines (888/247-2262, flyjazz.ca), a low-cost carrier flying from many American cities (even as far south as Atlanta and Dallas), while Jetsgo (866/448-5888, jetsgo.net) offers cheap flights from New York/Newark, and Horizon Air (800/252-7522, horizonair.com) has well-priced service from the West Coast.
It's worth a day or two to poke around Calgary's clean streets and chic bars and restaurants, where prices are quite reasonable throughout the year. A must-stop, even if you're just passing through, is the Glenbow Museum (130 9th Ave. SE, 403/268-4100, glenbow.org; admission CAD$11/US$7.85), the largest in western Canada and housing thousands of impressive artifacts from Canada's "First Nation" native peoples. Also have a look at the impressive Olympic Park (88 Canada Olympic Rd. SW, 403/247-5452, coda.ab.ca), where the '88 winter games were held and top athletes still train. Self-guided tours are CAD$10/US$7.15. Duck in for an authentic Irish meal for under CAD$14/US$10 at the James Joyce Irish Pub (403/262-0708) on the pleasant pedestrian-only Stephen Avenue Walk in downtown, lined with cafZs and bookstores. Find budget digs at "Motel Village," near the intersection of Crowchild Trail and Highway 1, where the rates of Econo Lodge (800/553-2666), hovering around CAD$70/US$50 a room, are typical of any number of other privately owned, low-cost motels in the immediate area.
Then hop on to the famously scenic Trans-Canada Highway (transcanadahighway.com) for the roughly one-hour ride to Banff, passing otherworldly mountains and jagged peaks.
Grizzly towns and buffalo nations
Banff's main street is dwarfed by towering mountains on all sides. A town before the national park around it was formed, wildlife still dominates here-one year a grizzly bear strolled through downtown!
Although you'll want to rush out into the wilderness, don't leave town without stopping by two important museums. The Whyte Museum (111 Bear St., 403/762-2291, whyte.org; admission CAD$6/US$4.30) has outstanding paintings and historical displays on early exploration and tourism. The Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum (403/762-2388, http://collections.ic.gc.ca/luxton; admission CAD$8/US$5.70) is housed in a log fort along the Bow River and presents collections of stuffed wildlife, life-size dioramas of Native American culture, and awesome quillwork and beadwork.
Most of Banff's cheaper lodgings can be found just at the entrance to town, strung along Banff Avenue. The very least expensive is the 100-plus-bed Global Village Backpackers (449 Banff Ave., 888/844-7875, globalbackpackers.com), a "five-star hostel" that attracts a young, social crowd and includes an Internet lounge, game room, hot tub, and outdoor patio; its beds start at a mere CAD$23/US$16, and self-contained private apartments go for CAD$89/US$64. A more standard motel close by, the Red Carpet Inn (425 Banff Ave., 800/563-4609) offers doubles starting at CAD$75/US$54 and operates two restaurants, underground parking, and whirlpools.
But even at a higher price, Brewster's Mountain Lodge (208 Caribou St., 888/762-2900, brewstermountainlodge.com) is arguably the best value in town (around CAD$100/US$85), with its large rooms featuring pine furniture, and granite and tile bathrooms. And check out the Timberline Inn (off Hwy. 1 at Banff, 877/762-2281, banfftimberline.com) on a scenic perch above the town, with panoramic views of the surrounding Bow Valley. Doubles start at CAD$88/US$63, and even if you don't stay there, have a meal at its panoramic Big Horn Steak House, where New York striploin steaks are just CAD$20/US$14, and most meals cost less than CAD$14/US$10.
The non-budget hotels are led by the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel (403/762-2211, fairmont.com), called "the castle" by locals. Built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1888 to attract rich travelers, it's a stunning piece of architecture framed by a green carpet of forests. You can wander about and poke through the rock-wall lobby and grounds free of charge. Nearby are the Banff Upper Hot Springs (403/762-1515, hotspring.ca), where visitors can soak outdoors amid the scenery for just CAD$7.50/US$5.35.
Diamond in the rough outdoors
Banff Springs Hotel's sister, the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise (403/522-3511, fairmont.com), is another must-see. About a half-hour drive north of Banff, it's called the Diamond in the Wilderness and sits on the edge of the peacock-blue-colored lake, gazing up at the dramatic cliffs. Eating at the swanky hotel's bar under huge windows is a real treat and not too expensive-just CAD$13/US$9.30 for the chicken Caesar salad or CAD$11/US$7.85 for the tempura prawn satay. Afterward, rent a canoe and paddle on the lake for CAD$32/US$23. Or take the (free) three-hour round-trip hike from the hotel to Lake Agnes, a pristine alpine pond with stunning views and an old-fashioned log teahouse where you can munch on sandwiches (CAD$6/US$4.30) and sip tea (CAD$3/US$2.15) outside on the terrace.
Banff was regarded as a summer-only destination for years (the Banff Springs Hotel only opened year-round in 1969), but now with the nearby Ski Banff at Norquay, Sunshine Village, and Lake Louise ski resorts (877/754-7080, skibig3.com), the area is busy in winter, too. Considerable renovations have taken place at each (Sunshine Village now has the fastest eight-person gondola in the world), and a three-day lift pass good for all three resorts is only CAD$186/US$132. The above Web site offers cheap packages as well.
The road to Jasper
A great many tourists turn around and head back to Calgary after Banff and Lake Louise, but this is a mistake. Banff is just the tip of the iceberg; the less-visited Jasper National Park to the north is arguably even more of an attraction than Banff National Park, with miles of hiking, tons of fishing, cross-country skiing, and other outdoor pursuits. The magnificent three-hour drive along the Columbia Icefield Parkway (columbiaicefield.com) to Jasper takes you through the highest section of the Canadian Rockies. Be sure to stop to gaze at the ultra-green Peyto Lake and Bow Lake. The latter is site of the red-roofed, cabin-style Num-Ti-Jah Lodge (403/522-2167, num-ti-jah.com), filled with fireplaces, historical photos, mounted animal heads, and live piano music. Dine on its large buffet breakfasts for CAD$15/US$11 or sandwich lunches, which cost even less. You can stay cheaper about halfway between Banff and Jasper at The Crossing Resort (403/761-7000, thecrossingresort.com), where rooms start at CAD$55/US$39 in winter and CAD$95/US$68 in summer.
The highlight of the drive to Jasper is the Athabasca Glacier, one tongue of the huge Columbia Icefields. Stop by the visitor's center (877/423-7433) at the base of the glacier for free displays on geology and history, or opt for the special shuttle tours to the top of the ice from mid-April to mid-October for CAD$30/US$21.
Jasper, the friendly host Jasper is a quaint town that, like Banff, existed before its surrounding national park, with friendly folk who make visitors feel right at home. Stay at the historic (1929) brick Athabasca Hotel (510 Patricia St., 780/852-3386, athabascahotel.com) in the center of town for CAD$59/US$42 in winter, CAD$109/US$78 in summer. Or e-mail the Jasper Home Accommodation Association (stayinjasper.com), which can set you up with stays in private homes and B&Bs for as little as CAD$35/US$25 per couple per night.
Jasper is wilder and emptier than Banff and Lake Louise, perfect for solitude. Be sure to make a trip out to Maligne Lake, undiscovered by Europeans until 1908 and home to a string of extraordinary mountain peaks. The 90-minute, CAD$35/US$25 boat trip (780/852-3370, malignelake.com/cruises.html) to Spirit Island is worth the splurge. Another side trip is to the Miette Hot Springs (780/866-3939, hotspring.ca) in Fiddle Valley, where you can hike along the heavenly Sulphur Skyline without seeing another soul and then finish your day with a long soak in the clean, modern pools for CAD$6.25/US$4.50.