The Canadian Rockies are protected by a string of parks and wilderness reserves, but none are as scenic or well-known as Banff and Jasper National Parks. Encompassing some of the world’s most magnificent mountain scenery, snowcapped peaks form a spectacular backdrop for glacial lakes, fast-flowing rivers, endless forests, and three famous resort towns, Banff , Lake Louise , and Jasper .
The 6,641 square kilometers (2,564 square miles) protected by Banff National Park and the 10,900 square kilometers (4,208 square miles) protected by Jasper is only one component of a complex geological and natural area consisting of four adjacent national parks that together have been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (the others are Kootenay  and Yoho  to the west in British Columbia).
The parks’ vast wilderness is home to deer, moose, elk, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, black and grizzly bears, wolves, and cougars. Many of these species are commonly sighted from the highway, others forage within the towns, and some remain deep in the backcountry.
The human species is concentrated in the picture-postcard town of Banff, located near Banff National Park’s southeast gate, 128 kilometers (80 miles) west of Calgary . Northwest of Banff, along the TransCanada Highway, is Lake Louise, regarded as one of the seven natural wonders of the world, rivaled for sheer beauty only by Moraine Lake , just down the road.
Just north of Lake Louise, the Icefields Parkway  begins its spectacular course alongside the Continental Divide to Jasper National Park and natural wonders such as the Columbia Icefield . Continuing north, the town of Jasper is a smaller, less commercial version of Banff.
One of the Canadian Rockies’ greatest draws is the accessibility of its natural wonders. Most highlights are close to the road system. For more adventurous travelers, an excellent system of hiking trails leads to alpine lakes, along glacial valleys, and to spectacular viewpoints where crowds are scarce and human impact has been minimal. Also popular within the parks is fishing, boating, downhill skiing, golfing, horseback riding, and white-water rafting.
Summer in the park is busy. In fact, the parks receive nearly half of their four million annual visitors in just two months—July and August. The rest of the year, crowds are minimal. In winter, four world-class alpine resorts—Ski Norquay , Sunshine Village , Lake Louise , and Marmot Basin —crank up their lifts. Since it’s low-season, hotel rates are reasonable. And if you tire of downhill skiing or snowboarding, you can try cross-country skiing, ice-skating, or snowshoeing; take a sleigh ride; soak in a hot spring; or go heli-skiing across the mountains in British Columbia.
Permits are required for entry into Banff and Jasper National Parks. A National Parks Day Pass is adult $9.80, senior $8.30, child $4.90 to a maximum of $20 per vehicle. It is interchangeable between parks and is valid until 4 p.m. the day following its purchase. If you’ll be traveling in the parks extensively, consider an annual National Parks of Canada Pass, good for entry into national parks across Canada, for adult $53, senior $45, child $27, to a maximum of $107 per vehicle. Passes can be bought at all park entrances, park information centers, and at campground kiosks. For more information, check online at the Parks Canada website (www.pc.gc.ca ).