When I made the decision to relocate from Chicago to Seattle, I knew I had a golden road trip opportunity in front of me. It was time for a Chicago to Banff road trip!
With glaciers, mountain peaks, and impossibly blue lakes, Banff and Jasper are two of the most stunning national parks in North America. It’s no wonder so many Americans want to road trip to these Canadian parks during the summer.
There are a few different routes you can take to get from the Midwest to the Canadian Rockies. Two involve driving through the Dakotas. I prefer the less-obvious third route that winds up through Michigan, Minnesota, and goes through a huge chunk of the Canadian prairies and cities like Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, and Calgary.
If you’re interested in making a similar drive from the U.S. to Banff and Jasper National Parks, read on for everything you need to know about the journey, including the three main possible routes, how long the drive will take, and what to see and do along the way!
Note: Given the current public health situation, be sure to check the requirements for entering Canada.
Road Trip Route #1: Through South Dakota
Drive time: 29 hours
Highlights: Mount Rushmore, Badlands & Glacier National Parks (U.S.), Calgary, Banff and Jasper National Parks (Canada)
Here’s the obvious route that folks from Chicago will think of when it comes to planning a trip to Banff and Jasper. Start in the Windy City, where you can find lots of cool neighborhoods and numerous tourist attractions. You can simply follow I-90 all the way into Montana.
Madison and House on the Rock, Wisconsin
The highway first heads into Wisconsin. If you’ve got the time, spend a few hours in the capital city of Madison, which has some cool shops and restaurants. If you love quirky spots like me, be sure to visit the House on the Rock, a strange collection of antique items formerly owned by an eccentric guy in the town of Spring Green.
Moving into southern Minnesota, find one of the few attractions in this part of the state: The Jolly Green Giant, a 55-foot statue of the famous canned vegetable company mascot.
Mount Rushmore and Badlands National Park, South Dakota
The drive from Chicago to Mount Rushmore is about 13 hours, and you gain an hour along the way due to a time zone change. So you could do that entire portion of the drive in a single day if you really want.
Make sure to visit Badlands National Park, where you can see lots of bighorn sheep and prairie dogs. If you’re into camping, the Badlands are a great place to do it.
Billings and Glacier National Park, Montana
From there, it’s an 11-hour drive to Glacier National Park, so expect to do a lot of driving through Montana. Billings is a good place to stop for a night. The emerging city has fun breweries and cool shops.
If you’re really ambitious, you could make a detour down to Yellowstone, America’s first national park. Otherwise, head straight to Glacier, one of the best national parks in the U.S. for hiking and wildlife. Drive Going-to-the-Sun Road and look for mountain goats on the Hidden Lake Trail.
During my hike down to Hidden Lake, I saw more than 20 goats, at least a dozen from extreme up-close range. They walked right on the trail, they allowed humans to pass within three feet of them. I spent a good hour just sitting and observing them.
I also saw bighorn sheep on the same hike from close range and saw moose on the Grinnell Glacier hike.
The Grinnell hike was one of two long ranger-led hikes I participated in. Hiking alone at this time of year in heavy grizzly country is not ideal, but Glacier offers free hikes with rangers, so I took advantage. These weren’t casual strolls; they were strenuous 12 mile treks that took most of the day. I had never been on a hike that long, but they were so much fun, now I’m hooked.
I also did the famous Highline trail that hugs the cliff wall for a bit before opening into meadows and winding over to the Granite Park Chalet.
The less-busy eastern side of Glacier NP has fun hikes as well, and a chance to kayak Swiftcurrent Lake. What an incredible park!
Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta
Crossing the border into Canada, Waterton Lakes National Park actually borders Glacier NP. It sees fewer visitors but has the same mountains, lakes, and scenery. I hung out in the Red Rocks Canyon area.
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Alberta
Proceeding north into the Alberta province, make a point to visit Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site which has a museum explaining how, for thousands of years, the native people of the area lured buffalo over this small cliff so they could be collected for their meat and their hides.
It was a genius method of hunting. This site was still in use for that purpose as recently as the 1800s. Visitors can walk a short trail above the jump and then another down below. It’s overwhelming to think about the amount of history at this location.
Interesting footnote: The cliff used to be 20m high but is now only 10m high, because of the buildup up rocks and bone fragments at the bottom over time.
Calgary and Torrington, Alberta
And then it’s onto Calgary, a fun city with attractions like Calgary Tower and the Glenbow Museum.
I recommend taking a short detour to Torrington to see one of the quirkiest attractions in North America. The Gopher Hole Museum consists of more than 30 dioramas in which stuffed gophers are dressed up in various silly scenes. For no apparent reason. Amazing!
Back in Calgary, I had to visit a burger restaurant called Regrub. I wasn’t there for the beef; I was there for the dessert.
Regrub’s bizarrely decadent milkshakes are known for having crazy toppings. I got a red velvet milkshake topped with a rainbow rice krispie treat and other goodies. Other shakes were even more bizarre – one was topped with a donut, another with a slice of cheesecake, and another featured a stack of pancakes on top!
Banff National Park, Alberta
Finally, we’ve made it to Banff!
Banff and Jasper are Canada’s iconic national parks. I couldn’t possibly recap all the glaciers, rivers, waterfalls, and wildlife I saw during my week there. I’m pairing them together because they border each other, and because you will definitely want to experience both. It makes no sense to drive from Chicago to Banff and not continue north to visit Jasper as well!
Jasper’s glaciers were pretty amazing. You can walk almost right up to Athabasca Glacier.
While driving the Icefields Parkway, every time I looked over at a mountain, I saw another glacier on the peak. It was a stunning visual scene. So were the wildflowers, the forests, and the lakes. Peyto Lake is one of the lakes with impossibly bright turquoise-colored water. It stays that color from the glacial silt that flows into it regularly.
In Jasper you can ride the Skytram halfway up a mountain, and then hike the rest of the way, as I did to reach Whistler’s Summit.
In terms of wildlife, I saw a couple of berry-eating black bears which caused a traffic jam on the side of the road.
Yoho National Park, British Columbia
Banff and Jasper were as beautiful as advertised. But for some reason you never hear a word about the other two national parks that border them: Yoho and Kootenay.
Yoho is right across the provincial border in British Columbia. I popped into Yoho one afternoon to see Natural Bridge, a stunning formation where jagged rocks intercept a river and form a natural bridge across it.
The river is forced under the rocks via a waterfall. You can walk right up to the water and get a sense of how incredibly powerful the rushing water really is.
And that’s it for Route #1 from Chicago to Banff and Jasper! You can drive back home the same way you came, or choose one of these other routes as you make your way back to the Windy City.
Chicago to Banff Road Trip Route #2: Via North Dakota
Drive time: 27 hours
Highlights: Minneapolis, Theodore Roosevelt & Glacier National Parks (U.S.), Calgary, Banff and Jasper National Parks (Canada)
This route through North Dakota isn’t as popular as the one through South Dakota. That’s because SD has more famous attractions, such as Mount Rushmore. But North Dakota has some cool stuff too, so maybe you’ll want to come back using this route.
This path goes through Wisconsin just like Route #1, so stop in Madison and at the House on the Rock. Where I-90 and I-94 split, you’ll want to stay on I-94 to follow this northern road trip.
Chicago to Minneapolis is a 6-hour drive, so it’s an easy day trip on the first day of the voyage. Minneapolis attractions include Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, home of the famous cherry on a spoon sculpture.
Eastern North Dakota
We’ve written before about a short North Dakota road trip through the Sheyenne River Valley National Scenic Byway. You can see small towns and historic sites on this drive.
Don’t overlook Fargo, North Dakota. The city has some cool stuff, including the wood chipper from the movie Fargo. now located in the city’s visitor center. The “Mario Wall” is also a fun selfie spot.
And don’t miss the World’s Largest Buffalo in Jamestown. It’s right off the highway!
Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Dakota)
Here’s the main reason for taking this route. Theodore Roosevelt National Park is one of the most underrated national parks in the country. The wildlife here is really unique. There are wild horses, wild turkeys, bison, prairie dogs, rattlesnakes, and more.
The hiking in Roosevelt NP is great, because you can wander around off-trail. There’s no telling what you might run into. I came upon a few snakes (watch your step!), and a few horses lounging around.
You will definitely see the ubiquitous bison. They will be near the road, on the road, sometimes even in the parking lots. Lots of great photo opportunities!
After Roosevelt NP, this route has a lot of driving through Montana. A lot of it isn’t particularly exciting, but eventually you’ll make your way to Glacier NP to experience all the sights written about earlier in the article.
Calgary, Banff, and Jasper
After Glacier, you’re on the way to Calgary and the national parks. Scroll up for our list of recommended activities once you reach Banff and Jasper National Parks.
Road Trip Route #3: Through Isle Royale, Voyageurs, and Canadian Cities
Distance: 2136 miles
Drive time: 36 hours
Highlights: Isle Royale and Voyageurs National Parks (U.S.), Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Calgary, Banff & Jasper National Parks (Canada)
When I did my Chicago to Banff road trip, I decided that since I’d already seen all 50 states, I wanted to take a voyage on four wheels up through central Canada. A Canada summer road trip was the perfect solution!
This is the route I recommend if you’re a national park lover and want to see as much of Canada as possible. This route takes you straight north from Chicago to Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park, then west into Minnesota’s Voyageurs National Park, and then north though Manitoba and the Canadian prairies of Saskatchewan.
It was such a memorable trip, driving through mountains and canola fields and open prairies. I visited three national parks in the U.S. and four more in Canada, seeing a ton of wildlife along the way (bears! mountain goats! bighorn sheep! moose!)
Here are the highlights on this particular driving route.
Chicago, Illinois to Wisconsin
Leaving the Windy City, drive through Wisconsin toward the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. This route allows for pit stops in Kenosha, where you can see the Jelly Belly Warehouse; Milwaukee, where you can visit the Harley Davidson Museum and the Bronze Fonz statue; and Green Bay, where you can tour the Packers’ famous Lambeau Field.
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
I’ve wanted to visit Isle Royale for a long time. It’s a secluded island way up north between Canada and the upper peninsula of Michigan. The island is 45 miles long and 9 miles wide, and the only way to get there is by ferry or seaplane.
I took the ferry and decided to camp there for a couple nights. Isle Royale is famous for its moose and its wolves. Over the years, the populations of both have fluctuated, but as of last summer there were only 2 wolves left, due to a lack of genetic diversity and the inability of new wolves to get to the island.
More than 1600 moose live here, but you typically have to hike really far into the interior of the island to catch a glimpse of one. I got lucky. While sitting my tent at Rock Harbor campground, I heard the crashing of twigs and branches nearby and the thundering of feet. There are no bears on Isle Royale, so I knew it had to be a moose.
I looked up just in time to see a huge mother moose and her baby running on a trail through the woods about 15 feet from my tent. In less than two seconds they were gone. Such a fleeting but memorable wildlife sighting!
Upper Peninsula of Michigan
On the way to my next stop, I spent the night in a random roadside motel. They didn’t accept credit cards, so I had to pay with a personal check. In this day and age!
This place was straight out of the ’70s with its wooden paneling. I loved it. Fortunately, I survived the night. I wrote a whole in-depth recap of my night in this crazy motel since it was such a strange place.
Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
Also way up north by the Canadian border, Voyageurs consists mostly of islands and waterways. Since I don’t have a boat, the best way to see the park was again via ferry.
A tour boat took us to a few islands in the park. They explained the history of the area – it was a popular trading route between native people and French-Canadian fur traders. They also kept an eye out for wildlife, which consisted mostly of bald eagles.
We saw around 10 bald eagles high in the trees. The coolest moment was seeing a baby eagle in its nest and then seeing the mother or father fly in with a food delivery. You don’t get to witness a moment like that in person very often.
Voyageurs is a very overlooked park with a lot to offer. It’s actually one of the least-visited national parks in the country.
After crossing the border and convincing a skeptical Canadian border official that I wasn’t planning to become an illegal alien in her country (the fact that my car was packed with all my belongings didn’t help my argument), I headed for Winnipeg.
On the way, I encountered the exact longitudinal center of Canada. It’s a cool roadside stop for geography geeks.
It was great to be back in a city after spending the previous week camping in nature and driving through small towns. I found some fun stuff to do in Winnipeg by heading for the Forks area. This area at the meeting of two rivers is where native people met for centuries. Now, it has a riverwalk, restaurants, and shops.
My top recommendation in Winnipeg is the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. It’s a massive, modern facility that tells the story of the genocides around the world throughout the past few centuries (there were far more than I realized), as well as spotlighting those working for the rights of minority groups and all humans.
The museum also has a lookout elevator tower. I met up with a local and wandered through the hipster neighborhoods, grabbed a couple drinks, and walked along the riverfront path. Winnipeg was a nice spot – I’d go back again.
You could drive from directly west from Winnipeg to Regina, Saskatchewan, but the adventurous road tripper should head all the way north to Saskatoon. It’s an emerging city with some cool sights.
I never imaged finding myself in Saskatoon, but that’s why I love travel. It opens doors to new worlds! I made the drive up because my friend Kat now lives here, so it was great having a familiar face to show me around and discover the fun things to do in Saskatoon.
We found some of the city’s nicer food spots, including a pizza place that tops the pie with a maple syrup drizzle. Only in Canada!
In Saskatchewan there are a ton of golden yellow canola fields. You must get your picture taken with one when you visit.
I found a ton of quirky in Saskatoon, including some interesting street art, a nude beach on the river informally known as Bare Ass Beach, and an old-timey museum (the Western Development Museum) that recreates a main street from 1910.
Oh, and “the worst store ever,” which is the tagline Glitch Gifts and Novelties uses to refer to itself. Think of them as the old mall store Spencer’s, taken to an extreme degree. Look at the names of these liquid soap brands!
I happened to show up in Edmonton during a busy festival weekend. Taste of Edmonton was in its final days, so I headed downtown to check out some of the tasty offerings.
I ended up trying beef spare ribs & mashed potatoes, a Thai noodle dish, maple bacon mac & cheese, spinach & artichoke dip, and mango cheesecake.
Then it was time for K-Days, a multi-day event with carnival rides, fried foods, and live concerts. One night, I saw ’90s hitmaker CeCe Peniston (finally it has happened to me!) on stage. A couple days later, I returned to see Alessia Cara, one of the most talented and promising of today’s young female pop stars.
Jasper and Banff National Parks
Edmonton isn’t far from Jasper National Park. If you travel from Chicago to Banff using this route via Edmonton, you’ll enter Jasper first, and then Banff.
See above for suggestions on what to do while you’re in these parks. They are unforgettable.
These are my recommended routes for a Chicago to Banff or Jasper road trip drive. Do you have any other suggestions for things to see along the way?