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Banff/Yoho/Jasper advice needed. 9 day trip in late March.

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Hi!
First time to Canada for 9 full days beginning Mar 25. We are a family of 3 with a 15yr old photographer son in tow. Need help with itinerary and winter activities (views, hiking, etc. during this season), please. Looking for spectacular views, wildlife, unique experiences and dining input. We want to "feel" like we are in Canada.

Day 1- fly into Calgary
Drive to Banff
(3 nights in Banff). Lake Louise ice skating, Hot springs, Bow Parkway, Legacy bike trail (weather permitting).

Day 4- Icefield parkway, Glacier (on our own exploration), drive to Jasper (2 nights). Maligne canyon ice walk, see Northern Lights (fingers crossed), Jasper gondola,

Day 6
Yoho/Field (3 nights at a Emerald Lake Lodge). Snowshoe, Natural bridge,

Day 9 Calgary

Day 10 fly home in AM

We are concerned with the unpredicatability of winter activities and driving but will roll with whatever Mother Nature has in store for us!

Thank you!

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    Welcome!

    I think you need to reassess your plans - late March is very much winter here. A number of your planned activities won't be possible at this time of year.

    Firstly, unless you have significant experience driving in the snow and will have a car with full snow tires, I would not suggest driving the Icefields Parkway on your own. March is often the snowiest month of the year and the parkway is not maintained to the standard of other highways in the winter. There are no gas stations/stores/heated facilities, no cell reception, maintainance only during daylight hours and closures can happen at short notice due to avalanches or avalanche control measures.

    It's been fairly clearly lately (mostly), but any snow can mean driving on ice and/or packed snow. Two weeks ago, there was a surprising amount of bare pavement, but a little bit of overnight snow made some sections very slippery and completely hid any lane lines. Full snow tires are required. They are not standard on rentals so must be requested ahead of time and will be an extra charge.

    Also, pullovers are generally not plowed and only a couple of parking lots are plowed with any regularity. So you may or may not be able to actually park or pull over.

    Certainly the glacier is a no go - the tours are shut and it's not safe to venture beyond the parking lot at this time of year. It's all snow covered, so you can't tell where trail ends and glacier begins - the most dangerous time. At most, if they've plowed the lot, you'd be able to park in the lot where the interpretative trail starts and look at the snow covered glacier from a distance.

    In Banff, the Legacy Trail is shut until sometime in May. It's not cleared, so would be under a layer of snow/ice and there won't be any cycle rentals until much later in the year. The only biking would be fat-biking at Canmore Nordic Centre if conditions are good enough. There should probably be ice skating at Lake Louise, but again, condition dependent and if it's warm, the rink may no longer be safe. I think it's stayed open so far, so you may be in luck.

    in Jasper, the Maligne Ice Tours are condition dependent. Given the warm temps and how wet is is on the canyon bottom at the moment, if the weather doesn't get cooler, tours may end early this year. You'd probably want to check in much closer to the date.
    The Jasper gondola is open, and the views are great if the weather is OK. However, in March, you can't really hike from the top because of avalanche risk (March is often the riskiest month).

    To/from Jasper, I'd look into taking the Sundogs shuttle and then either renting a car in Jasper or doing tours/use taxis. You're probably looking at Maligne Canyon, Maligne Lake (which will be frozen), and trails in or around Jasper that are well packed and not in avy risk area. Again, given the warm temps, you'd have to get out of town for any xc skiing or snowshoeing unless we get a good dump of snow. There may be some activities at the Whistlers "winter hub" at Marmot Meadows.

    For Yoho, you will need at least M+S tires as that's a requirement on most inland highways in BC. Emerald Lake is a great place to snowshoe, conditions permitting. Most of the trails go at least partially on the lake, so if the lake is getting iffy, some trails may partially shut. Snowshoes can be rented from the little store/rental kiosk on the lake - note that it's an independent business and has limited hours, so you may need to rent for multiple days if you want to continue past their open hours.

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    If it has to be in March, the easiest way would be to fly to Edmonton and either rent a car there or take the ViaRail Canadian west from Edmonton to Jasper. There are several car rentals within walking distance of the Jasper train station.
    There is a HI Hostel near the north end of the Icefields highway that is open year-round. It is about 5km from downtown Jasper.
    One night on a taxi ride out to the hostel from Jasper I saw the most beautiful Northern Lights of my life. Everyone sleeping at the hostel missed them.

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    I would not suggest Edmonton.

    The drive from Edmonton is very boring, prone to radar speed traps and can be icy/snowy. Train is a better option, though without a car, not necessarily easy to get from the airport to the train station.

    Also don't suggest the Hi Hostel (Whistlers) - other than a couple of private rooms, the only options are very large dorms that aren't well soundproofed. Bathrooms are in poor condition. My least favorite of the Hi Hostels in the Rockies. You're much better off with the new private hostel (though it has no kitchen) or one of the PHAs in town.

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    Appreciate the detailed info and advice.

    1) our flights are booked in/out of Calgary.
    2) We will request the M & S tires and pay extra for snow tires.
    3) There will be a back up plan to Jasper if we are unable to drive it. Or...we will (sadly) nix it altogether which is a last resort. Back plan is to take the shuttle recommended or a tour.
    4) I've seen stunning photos (Instagram this week) from the Athabasca area. Maybe it's not the glacier but the falls region?

    Thank you again for the guidance. Seems like there needs to be 2 guidebooks for Banff/Jasper. Summer and Winter. Drastically different in both seasons!

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    Note that to drive to Jasper you need full snow tires - M+S tires are OK for BC, but the Icefields requires snow tires.

    There may well be some gorgeous photos from the Athabasca Falls & Glacier areas recently. The falls are 20-30 minutes from Jasper, the glacier is another hour or so south on the parkway.

    It's been a below average snowpack, and the glacier area is notoriously windy, so there certainly could be bare spots on the glacial moraine. I seem to remember seeing some striking seracs (chunks of blue glacial ice) and bare spots last time I went by, though I was more focused on getting safely through the drifts on the road!

    The falls would definitely be pretty - not much snow there last time I was in the area, though I'm sure the falls themselves are mostly or all frozen.

    Certainly people are driving the parkway now, given the good weather. But I like to be very cautious when suggesting the drive in the winter/spring given how quickly conditions can change and the lack of facilities/cell reception along the way. Conditions can vary dramatically, so you want to drive only during daylight, and check forecasts/road conditions for the whole parkway. I've had bare road on one end, then drifts by the Columbia Icefields, and snow covered road farther along. Even between Canmore and Lake Louise, I've gone from nearly clearly to heavy snow.

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