Our original plan for a gap year in North America was to spend six months in the U.S and six months in Canada in a skoolie. I had dreams of weaving our way through Alberta, B.C and the Yukon, eventually reaching Alaska. I wanted bears, Orca and wild salmon leaping. I wanted to camp out in the Denali Park wilderness under the Northern lights and see if it felt as other-worldly as the other end of the Pan-American highway, Southern Patagonia.
Then we looked at the weather.
Unless you are looking for snow, the best-weather months for the Rockies in Canada are June, July and August. Even the shoulder months, May and September, can sometimes be risky the higher you are or the further North you travel. If you are a full-time skoolie family who don’t much like the cold, turning a Canadian-travel dream into reality means starting a trip in Alberta or B.C in April or May. Therein lay the problem.
Planning a trip in a Skoolie to Canada
We had three issues that threatened to scupper our Canadian adventure in a skoolie:
- The start date of our trip. The headteacher at the boys’ primary school advised us to take the children out of mainstream schooling for a complete school year rather than part-way through. This, he told us, would be less disruptive to the boys and their class mates. Unfortunately, in following that advice, it meant there was no way we could get to Canada before mid- July.
- The start point of our trip. If you are spending a year in a skoolie, you start your trip from the place that you pick up your vehicle. A Canadian skoolie-conversion company made sense. We found one based in Saskatoon – Paved to Pines – but although they looked great and were lovely on the phone, they were above our budget. As you will know from previous posts, price ruled our decision and we ended up with a company in Salt Lake City – 960 miles from Banff in Alberta, Canada. We could just have put our foot down and covered the distance but that is NOT a way to engage kids with a road trip. We wouldn’t be able to get there until sometime in August – smooth journey permitting.
- The type of bus we bought. Canada is fussier about skoolies. If you have air brakes on your bus, which many newer models have, you cannot drive in Canada without a special endorsement for air brakes. Hydraulic brakes are not an issue. Americans can take a special test before travelling across the border that provides them with the requisite detail to their American-issue licenses. Although U.K licenses are valid in Canada, U.K drivers cannot do the air brake test – they need to have the comparable qualification on their U.K license. You can’t drive a bus in the U.K without a HGV license, which covers air brakes, so if you have one of those then you are fine. If not, the only route is to pay £2k to do the HGV test or choose a bus that has hydraulic brakes. Someone somewhere was smiling on us as the bus we found had hydraulics. Hurrah!
B2 visitor visas for the U.S – can you cross the border to Canada or Mexico?
One more issue reared its head when we reached America. The B2 visitor visa only actually allows you to go into Canada or Mexico for one month and this time-period is included in your overall ‘stamped-in’ time within the U.S.
The visa small print says that you have to return to the U.S before your I-94 (the stamped final date of your stay) expires. This, as we’ve mentioned earlier, is only given six-months on from the date of entry. If you want to extend your I-94 date for a further six months, you need to apply for an extension and that costs a crazy amount (it’s going to clock in at around $800 for us!!!). It seems silly to waste your time granted in the U.S by going to Canada.
I know what you are thinking – we have multiple-entry visas, valid for the next 10 years, why not do six months then go to Canada, returning to get a new six months. That would be ideal (and much cheaper) but unfortunately you can’t reset your visa by visiting other countries in North America. You have to fly further afield before they will stamp you in again for six months. That said, it can be done. We met a couple who have let their i-94 expire whilst in Canada and then returned to get a new six months. They did warn that you are at the mercy of the customs officer and, as a rule, they are not super-enthusiastic about rule-breakers!
The best laid plans
Knowing that we had just one month and it would need to be well planned, it seemed like a good idea to set a date and arrange to meet my mum and her partner for their three-week holiday. They were desperate to book a trip out to meet us but we had been struggling to commit to a destination because we didn’t know how well we would all travel and where we would be.
They couldn’t leave the UK before mid-September, but this meant we had time to get to know the bus and cover the miles north. The weather in September was cold, but not that cold. It all looked perfect – a holiday within a holiday. We would go to Canada in a skoolie!
Planning a trip from the comforts of the sofa, with the internet at your fingertips and a massive map full of wonderful possibilities, is one thing. Travelling on the roads and chatting to other rv’ers is another. By late-August we started to notice a trend in travellers heading out of the campground and driving away in the opposite direction to us. “You’re going North??? Good luck!!”
The Skoolie rule: follow the sun!
Don’t get me wrong, we had a great time in Yellowstone and the month we had in the wilds of Montana, watching bears, swinging in hammocks and fishing in rivers, was incredible. We knew nothing about the state before we got there and would have just raced through if we hadn’t been delayed by our mid-September date with the family. It’s just a fact – the rule for most other skoolies and RV full-timer’s is to follow the sun. By the end of August it’s time to start the pilgrimage south.
You could feel the Montanan mood switch from summer-relaxing to winter ‘battening-down’. People stopped sitting outside and we noticed more warm jackets. It got too chilly to sit on the roof deck and we had to stop at thrift stores to swap our flip flops for trainers and slippers, then again to buy extra blankets.
The cooler weather started to affect where we stayed and travelled: Glacier National Park, on the border with Canada, offered only reduced services from September 1st; Campsites had signs saying ‘see you next year!’ and several of the Boondockers Welcome hosts homes were ‘unavailable’ because they are only Montanan’s in summer – they head back to homes in Texas or Arizona for winter.
The glorious weather that we had enjoyed was also going crazy – Yellowstone was in the news because of forest fires (which follow a hot summer) and then, just a couple of weeks later, early snows. We had a definite sense that the weather was closing in on us but it was too late to change the plans. We were going to Canada come rain or snow.
A brief note on customs – travelling in a Skoolie across the U.S border with Canada
If you read all the forums and watch the millions of YouTube videos on border crossings between America and Canada in a skoolie, you could work yourself up into a state of panic. It all sounds incredibly difficult and scary, with customs officials rifling through your belongings, dogs sniffing every crevice of your bus and hundreds of dollars of food and ‘weapons’ (bear-spray, penknives… etc.) getting confiscated. We got ourselves prepared and listed all our food, put all of our dangerous items together and made sure we were not wearing sunglasses or headphones. We put on our best British accents and the kids smiled like angels.
Our experience leaving the U.S went like this
U.S Border Control: I like your bus, it’s cool.
U.S Border Control: How long are you guys travelling for?
Guy: A year hopefully.
U.S Border Control: I wish I could do that but I’m too old (he was at least ten years younger than we were)! Can I see your passports? How long are you guys travelling to Canada for?
Guy: About a month.
U.S Border Control: Great. Have a nice time! Enjoy your bus!
The end. I don’t even think they looked at me and the kids in the back, just waved us on through.
On the way back in it was a bit more detailed. We travelled by ferry into Washington State. This time they actually got on the bus and asked us our plans and wanted to know what foodstuffs we had on board. The shades stayed on as the border guy skimmed through page 1 of my list of food. He could see we put the effort in and so just asked us about fresh fruit and vegetables, we told him about a tomato salad in the fridge and some other salady bits – he said we seemed like good people and just to make sure we ate the salad shortly after we arrived. Jobs a good’un and we were on our way. It took less than five-minutes.
A (cold) holiday within a (supposedly hot) holiday
As we headed up through the prairie-land on our way toward the Rockies, the temperature continued to drop. Thankfully groceries seemed cheaper though (and they even had cheese that tasted a bit like cheese!), so we were able to counter-balance all the woollen purchases we needed to buy from thrift stores!
Top tip – if you love a thrift store, go to Crossway Thrift in Canmore. The shop assistant said that people go to the town for winter sports, buy extra stuff in the boutiques and then just donate it (or the stuff they have sacrificed to make way for the new stuff in their cases) before they leave to go home. We bought some immaculate, expensive-brand clothing for just a few dollars.
Canmore is worth a stop anyway – it’s like Banff, it just doesn’t have the slick reputation. Perhaps at one point it was considered grittier, and I would testify that it did feel a bit grimy camped in a free spot down by the rail tracks, but it has a new leisure centre and some nice bars and pop-up food places (including a double-decker bus). It has even gone some way to counter the rough edges, albeit accidentally, by covering them in bunnies. Literally. Canmore has a rabbit problem. It started with a few escaped domestic rabbits and, as rabbits tend to do, multiplied magnificently so that there are cute, cuddly bunnies on every patch of green space.
They don’t look like wild rabbits, they are very much domestic, soft-looking bunnies that you want to scoop up and stroke the silky ears of. It’s bizarre! Many of the locals hate them though – they bring bigger predators. Eek!
A Canadian holiday – when 4 become 6
And so we embarked on 3 weeks of holidaying, sharing our bus with 2 more people and 2 more people’s luggage. It had its challenges but they were mostly space-related. The downturn in weather meant that we had to spend more time inside the bus. More warm clothes and blankets were needed and we had to deal with 6 people’s wet clothes and towels. There was people and stuff everywhere – it was chaos!
I genuinely don’t know how families of 6+ live in buses like ours full time – they must be way more tolerant than our family is! That said, once we all settled into it all, we had a great time laughing, exploring and reaching opinions on all of the places below…
The yays and nays of Banff, Lake Louise, Jasper and the Icefields Parkway
The Icefields Parkway is one of the ‘must-do’ things in Canada in a skoolie (according to every list ever written!) and is full of epic scenery, amazing hikes and wildlife galore. So did it live up to expectations?
First up some myth busting!
I had also read, whilst in the U.K, that large R.V’s could not travel on the Icefields Parkway so I came up with an elaborate plan for my mum to hire a six-seater car in Calgary airport, drive to Banff to meet us and for us to leave the bus behind. We even booked an Airbnb in Jasper, which was pricey when you are used to bus-life.
Large R.V’s are NOT banned from the Icefields Parkway – they are banned from Glacier National Park’s ‘Going to the Sun’ Road. I, of course, had never heard of the latter and so when I was looking at the route to plan the trip with my mum, Google combined info from both parks because they both ban heavy vehicles. The difference is that the Icefields Parkway ban is for commercial vehicles, not R.V’s. The Banff tourist office confirmed the mistake.
As we had the car by then, we asked where we could park it whilst away. “You can’t in Banff, you have to book it into a campground for the regular camp price“. Ouch.
As soon as we got to Lake Louise we saw a place for R.V’s to park overnight – overflow parking $10 a night. We could have left it there and saved ourselves $20 a night. Grrrrr.
We left Banff feeling like it had all been an expensive mistake but, as it turned out, it was better in a car – the car parks on the Icefields Parkway are quite tight. If you want to explore, cars are better than R.V’s.
Junior Ranger Programme – is it the same as the American version?
Whilst in the Visitor Centre, we picked up some details on the Canadian version of the U.S Junior Ranger program. The kids have loved the U.S booklets and badges and so we made a beeline for the Banff visitor centre to pick up the details. It was the same kind of activity book and there were five centres. Rather than badges you got dog tags. It was looking good.
When we did get the Banff booklet completed, we were well past the town and weren’t going back, so we stopped at the Icefields Parkway centre. It seems that you are supposed to return the Banff one to Banff though – strangely they haven’t really thought about the fact that most people are travelling up and down the parkway and so might not be in the same area twice. Icefields have their own dog tag, as do three other locations (none of which were very clear). In the end (to combat the famous Soren sad face) he gave him a dog tag for the Icefields Parkway and Jasper National Park instead, which meant he was not at all engaged with the idea of filling in those booklets as he already had the badges. Ranger fail!
Banff was much like a posher version of Canmore. It had a good brewery pub, some tasty beaver-tails and an Irish bar in which my mother endeared herself to staff by nearly giving one of them a heart-attack. Oh how we all laughed at the waitress who screamed when she opened the toilet door and found a 70 year old woman lying face down on the floor, “I was just trying to squeeze under the door because the lock was stuck!”. Day one of their holiday and already a drama!
The best bit of Banff was the forest campsite. It was close to the Banff hoodoos, which were a tad over-rated as far as incredible views go. The forest site had roomy spaces and plenty of free wood for campires. It was a big thumbs up for Banff from the team!
We left Banff via the Bow Valley Parkway. It is the route you will need to take if you want to do any of the Johnstone Canyon trails, but it is also better if you want to spot wildlife. Apparently that is. We didn’t see the merest hint of a bear or elk or moose or anything! Still, I’d recommend it because it is quieter than the main road to Lake Louise and there are some good trailheads if you have the time to go and explore.
Icefields Parkway – Wilcox Pass
The road is beautiful but it is long – it takes a good few hours to drive it – so we decided to do Lake Louise once we had collected the bus and could stay overnight. We motored on to join the Parkway and drove about half way before we made our first stop, a few km from the Icefields Parkway Visitor Centre where most people stop to see the Columbia Icefields, taking buses that actually drive on to the ice, and the Athabasca Glacier via a glass-bottomed walkway. Our plan was to view the glacier from a different vantage point and save the mega bucks that these two activities cost. This wasn’t just because we were being budget-concious, closer research uncovered that there is an element of tourist baloney involved in both of their leaflets.
Myth busters back in action!
Myth 1: The glass walkway is not over the glacier and doesn’t actually go very far out from the road. Even the kids didn’t seem bothered about missing it.
Myth 2: The trip to the Columbia Icefields is not a trip to the actual icefields, you just drive onto the surface of the edge of the glacier and get out for a few photos. I’m sure it’s great to stand on glacier but we watched them herding people on and off, bus after bus – it’s a factory line operation.
Myth 3: The non-bus / free option they promote is a short hike to the face of the glacier. It’s only 1.4 km but it is super-busy and you end up some way away from the face of the glacier. I imagine there are lots of selfies of people standing in front of a pile of muddy rocks.
By far the cheaper option with the most impressive view, in my opinion, is to walk up to Wilcox Pass – about 4km (8km round trip). This is one of the highest passes in the park and there is a lovely climb through the forest before you emerge onto a wide plain. It ascends gradually onto the pass, where you are surrounded by peaks. For those looking to get that mountain-top feeling, you can continue 1 to 2km up to a point which gives some amazing 360 degree panoramas (and yes you can look down smugly at the folk walking in procession to the glacier face and the buses queuing to get on the glacier’s edge!).
The remaining drive to Jasper was lovely but perhaps not quite as dramatic as the curves and passes of the first half. That may have been because we were a bit exhausted with the drive by then.
Jasper is the main centre for the far end of the Icefields Parkway and Jasper National Park. From here you can connect to Edmonton or Vancouver. It was nice enough – it had plenty of restaurants and shops to look around if you like that kind of thing. I’m not sure it really warrants the popularity it has. We really struggled to find accommodation even though we were out of season and I would say it was over-priced. We also struggled to find places to eat that weren’t booked up. Moral of the story – if you want to go Jasper, book your food and bed early and don’t expect too much!
Maligne Canyon – Jasper National Park
We gave ourselves an extra day to enjoy Jasper National Park. Maligne Lake is supposed to be lovely but we could not face an hour drive to get there. Instead we took the shorter route to Maligne Canyon – about 20 minutes from Jasper. It was a great walk following a series of waterfalls across a number of different bridges. It was impressive and educational, signs throughout explained how the canyon formed and how the crossings were built. It was also beautiful.
Sunwapta and Athabasca
We returned to the Parkway on day three of our trip. This time we stopped at Sunwapta and Athabasca Falls. They were both impressive but are so close to the roadside car parks they were swarming with people. We followed the advice of some blog I’d read that recommended walking to the lower Sunwapta Falls – just 2km down a trail. Predictably this was deserted and the Falls were much more enjoyable as a result. Not as lovely as Maligne Canyon though – more just a break in the journey.
As we continued down the Parkway, past the halfway point, the scenery became more engaging. Perhaps it was the different time of day or the angle, but the trees seemed to have embraced Fall in the day we were away. The mountain-sides were a mix of golden yellow, amber and red – it was stunning.
We went back to Banff and swapped the car for the bus again (yay bus!). Then we headed back to Lake Louise and stayed in the overflow parking site I mentioned earlier. From here you can pay $4 for a shuttle to Lakeside, which makes total sense as the car parks at Lake Louise village or near the lake are rammed. The shuttle stop also has connecting shuttles to Moraine Lake if you want to try and do that too. We didn’t have time but it is meant to be just as, if not more, picturesque.
Of all the places we visited, Lake Louise was the busiest. It really is spectacular though. We lucked out with a glorious, sunny day – the impossibly turquoise-blue water was shimmering, the mountains surrounding them were golden with autumnal larch trees and the snow capped peaks were a stark white against the blue skies.
The crowds were thick as we reached the water’s edge but even the shortest hike clears the way considerably. It’s a 2km walk to the other end of the lake and, by then, most of the lazy legs, bride and grooms, parent’s shepherding toddlers and the selfie-stick brigade had given up, preferring instead to pose for a dollar with a man dressed as an Indian Chief before going back to their vehicle.
We were riding on the grandparents wave and left the kids for the first time in 2 months to go on a proper hike. We headed past the beach at the far end of the Lake and followed the valley up to the Plain of Six Glaciers tea house. From there it was a steep-ish trail to view the Plain of Six Glaciers themselves, where we had lunch.
We had to double-back a short distance but then we picked up the Highline trail and joined the Little Beehive trail, climbing the steep slope for some phenomenal views over Lake Louise below on one side and on the other, Emerald Lake, which is clear and green and provides a sharp contrast to the cloudy, glacial waters of it’s famous neighbour. There is another tea house – Lake Agnes – sitting in the shores of, you guessed it, Lake Agnes, so we hiked down the switchbacks expecting the basics but the staff hike up with new food every day and cakes are baked on site. We had a cup of Darjeeling and a slice of chocolate cake. We made our way back to Lake Louise, sun-kissed, wind-swept and feeling a little bit guilty about the great day we had had.
As it turned out, the parents weren’t at all jealous. They’d had a lovely day on the Lake Louise gondola – the kind of treat the kids always want to do and that we always say no to because of our budget. They had great views (although no sightings of bears despite it being bear-season and a blurb that said almost all rides spot a grizzly) and thoroughly recommended it.
Recommendations for the Icefields Parkway, Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise
This might be a bit controversial but if you are a family travelling, I don’t think you need to drive the whole Icefields Parkway to see the best bits. Unless you have time to spend in Jasper or are continuing on from there, my recommendation is to drive as far as Wilcox Pass to do the hike, then return to Lake Louise. It’s a loooong time in a car otherwise – particularly with kids – and though the stops are beautiful, they are busy.
If you are not with kids, the best way to explore is with a back-country permit and camping gear. This, I think, is perhaps the way to get out into the remote Rockies wilderness.
In terms of timing, I would consider Autumn. It may be a but cold but if you are lucky with the weather, you might get some of the glorious Fall colours that we experienced.
From Mountains to Coast
The second leg of our trip in Canada was Vancouver and Vancouver Island. We spent a week travelling from Lake Louise through Yoho National Park, Golden, Merritt and Dewdney, fishing and wine-tasting and biking, before reaching Vancouver. An old friend of mine has lived here for years and so we upped our budget for an RV park, stayed at the Capillano River RV park, close to the centre, and played the grandparent card again so that we could go out and party.
Yay, hanging out with young people again in a city! Let’s drink beer and cocktails and shots!
Boo, first hangover for the trip. Let’s leave the city and never drink again!
Of course the rest of the fam had a good time. They visited the Vancouver Aquarium in Stanley Park, which was excellent. We joined them for a stroll around the Gas Light district and then the harbour promenade – it’s a lovely city.
The big draw for us was Vancouver Island to see whales. The two main centres are Victoria and Tofino. I had been to the former 20 years ago and had perhaps my all-time favourite nature experience: Orca breaching in front of the boat and then swimming underneath us. I really wanted this for the boys and had been told Tofino was an even better place to go, so that’s where we headed.
We caught the ferry from Horseshoe Bay. It was pricey taking a bus but hey-ho we are kind of attached to it!
Again, the weather felt like it was on the turn – chasing us. Not long after we left Banff we heard that Banff and Calgary had had their first snow of the season. By now it was the end of September and there were signs on the highways saying vehicles had to carry snow chains. Quite by chance we realised that the clinking chains under the bus were not to deflect stones etc, as we thought, but were ‘automatically deployed snow chains’, controlled by a special button in the drivers area. Cool!
We broke the drive to Tofino at English Man River Falls – a State Park that had a campground open until October 1st. We had 1 night before it closed down for winter. Lovely site with some kind of kids biking trail that has made this campsite the favourite of our whole trip so far. It was also close to a shop with goats on the roof – that sealed the deal for them!
Pacific Rim National Park
The sites were expensive in Tofino and although we nearly booked Bella Pacifica, there were several reviews saying it was cramped and had bad service. There were much better reviews for a site 20 minutes outside of Tofino – Green Point Pacific Rim Long Beach Unit – so I booked in there.
It was incredible – right in the heart of the old forest – each site had Douglas Firs and Red Cedars all around, the forest floor densely packed with fallen logs, ferns and fungi, tiny creatures and earthy smells. I loved it. We had both just read The Overstory, which is set against a theme of trees, so it meant something different to be surrounded by temperate, ancient rainforest. To make it even better, a short path led to a huge beach – miles of crashing waves and yellow sand covered with twisted driftwood and long ropes of seaweed, bulbous at the end.
If you are driving to Tofino I would also recommend the scenic rainforest trail – two easy trails through rainforest, some of which is on boardwalks. There are lots of information boards and more life around you than you can ever believe. One fallen tree, at the peak of it’s decay, can host billions of living organisms.
The arty town of Tofino has lots of galleries and coffee shops etc. It’s main offering is whale watching and hot springs trips. A few people had told us that it made sense to book the latter as although a bit more expensive, it was 6 hours rather than 2 and, as the skippers are all in contact, if there is a whale you still go and see it. We had rubbish rainy weather though, with just a small break in the clouds due at 3pm. We almost didn’t go but at the last minute booked a 2-hour slot and were the only people on the boat.
It was a fun, surprisingly dry 2 hours. The scenery was rugged and wild – there is not much civilisation in the west of Vancouver Island. We saw several grey whales surface in the waves, although disappointingly greys don’t seem to flick their flukes in the air before going under, so it was just a grey shape in the water and you couldn’t really gauge the size. I’d hoped for Orca but there are no resident pods, just visitors, and none appeared. We did see a few sea lions and sea otters though, some of which were floating together in a raft. That was pretty special.
Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park
Our last few days with the grandparents were on the East Coast. We chose Rathtrevor Beach because it was a State Park close-ish to Nanaimo and the Vancouver ferry. It was lovely – forest again, next to beach. Perhaps the best bit though was its proximity to an ‘English pub’. The Black Goose Inn was the closest we had seen to a pub from home and we spent a wonderful afternoon by the fire, eating pies and drinking beers. It seemed a fitting end to a fabulous Canadian holiday.