Matt and Mel,
Congratulations on planning such a great trip. I am from the area, and a driving vacation is the only way to do it.
Since you like nature, I will try and help you out that way. Just a note, though. You said that you will be renting a car, "something with guts to tackle the mighty Rockies". Although it is true that the Rockies are quite rugged, the roads are not. Really, any vehicle that can get you around comfortably is all that you need.
For "private accommodation", I am very fond of Bed & Breakfasts in the area (Zimmers, to the German I believe). The majority of Bed & Breakfast owners are on the website at bbcanada.com
and I have always had good luck dealing with that website. The B&B owners pay a small annual fee to be listed on the website, so it is not restricted to chains or certain B&B affiliations or anything like that.
It will be difficult for me to indicate the length of time that you should be in any one place, as it ultimately will depend on what you want to do. As well, I am not as familiar with the coast of BC and the island as I am with the mountainous interior. Regardless, here is a rough sketch of what I would recommend that you do for your travel.
From Vancouver, take the ferry to Victoria on Vancouver Island. Drive north along the coast towards Nanaimo - I would recommend looking to stay around Parksville, which is just north of there. From there, drive west across the island to the Tofino/Ucluelet area, on the west-most side of Vancouver island.
Drive back to Nanaimo, and take the ferry from there back towards Vancouver. As you are approaching the very cold winter at that point, I will have you take the southernmost area first to see what remains of the nice weather to enjoy the milder parts of BC. Drive out to Kelowna, where you can enjoy seeing vineyards and the majestic lake. After, head south through Summerland to Osoyoos (don't really need to stay there, just nice to see) and continue east along the US border and then up towards Nelson. Just north of Nelson is the amazing Ainsworth Hot Springs
, which is in a small but natural horseshoe-shaped cave. Also, between Nelson and the hot springs, there is a small park that has been established to protect an important salmon-spawning area... just be careful of bears.
Take the world's longest free-of-charge ferry from Balfour to Kootnay Bay (schedule can be found here
- look at the winter times for when you'll be there). On the way through Creston, you might want to look at getting a free tour at the Creston Brewery (free beer!). You can head to Cranbrook to stay - they have a couple very nice B&B's, though it primarily is a logging town.
Just north of Cranbrook, you will come to Fort Steele
, which is an excellent historical site. Although it will have closed down all of their guided sights and exhibitions, at that time of the year entrance will be by donation only, and you can still wander the old reconstructed town.
Up until now, I have largely been avoiding talking about the natural things to do... largely because I forget. I will try and be a little more helpful with that going forward from here, but still make sure that you check what is available around there.
On your way north towards highway 1 and Banff, you will come across the Fairmont hot springs, and the Radium hot springs. Although both are nice, they are nothing compared to the Ainsworth hot springs, or the ones in Banff. Your choice if you wish to enjoy them there.
You will now be entering the first of the mountain national parks for your visit, in this case Kootenay National Park. You will need to purchase a park pass as you enter. There is no charge for people who are just driving through, but as you will be stopping make sure you stop and pay. Rates are at Parks Canada's website
and look at purchasing a multi-day pass for all the parks you will be in.
You will meet highway 1 (the Trans-Canada Highway) at Castle Junction in Banff National Park. From there, head east to Banff. In the area, you can see Johnston Canyon, the Upper Banff Hot Springs, the Lower Banff Springs (which is just a historical site, but a good one), and numerous lakes. If you want to do some hikes, take a look at buying some Gemtrek Hiking Maps
, which are absolutely the best for the Rockies - Alberta and British Columbia. I will recommend the Lake Louise area on your return trip.
I know you mentioned the mountains, but it would be a shame if you do not consider Drumheller and the Royal Tyrrell Museum
. If you are interested, drive east from Banff to Calgary, and then Drumheller is northeast of there by about 1.5 hours. In Calgary there is the great Glenbow Museum
, and make sure you stop off to eat at Peter's Drive-in
Still out of the Rockies, consider heading north to Edmonton. It has the most parkland of any city on earth, and the world-renowned West Edmonton Mall
, where you can ride a roller-coaster or play in a water park, even if it's -30 outside.
From Edmonton, drive west again to the rockies, towards Jasper - there is plenty of hiking and general nature in the area with beautiful lakes. Then head south towards Lake Louise. On the way, you will pass by such amazing sites as the Athabasca Falls
, the must-see Columbia Icefield
- unfortunately the guided tours onto the Athabasca glacier ends October 17. Further south, you will get to the unforgettable Peyto Lake
. WARNING - These sites may be closed if snowed-in by this time of the year.
Finish up around Lake Louise
and enjoy a meal in the reasonably-priced Poppy Room at Chateau Lake Louise
(or stay at the hotel and eat at their more expensive restaurants, if you've got the money). If the road is still open (and it should be until November 1, weather depending), make sure you see Moraine Lake
. Midday is the best time if you can be there, as the sun will reflect off the water, giving it the beautiful turquoise colour.
From there, head back west towards Revelstoke along Highway 1. There is plenty to see along the way, including the rugged Rogers Pass, and plenty of hiking to do around Revelstoke. From there, continue on to Kamloops. Stay on Highway 1, but make a small detour to see Marble Canyon Provincial Park in BC. I do not know if the trail has been re-opened yet (it had been closed due to a forest fire) but if it is make sure you go. If not, the nearby trail to the ink pots is also a memorable hike.
From there, cut off and take highway 99 southwest towards Whistler. After that, you can drive south to Vancouver, completing your loop.
Remember that you will be travelling in low season as the summer tourists are gone, and the skiing season is waiting to begin. As a result, accommodations should be the lowest-priced that you will find year-round.
Come to think of it, you might want to do this trip in reverse... if you are able to make it to the icefield parkway in time, it might be worth it... and you probably want to do all the more northern mountains before it gets too cold, as it will be getting at that time.
Have a great trip!