Living in the Rockies is many people's dream. Inside the national parks (primarily the towns of Banff and Jasper), all land is owned by the government and all buildings (residential and commercial) are given fixed-term leases.
Recent government housing and population limitations by Parks Canada have forced tough rules based on "need-to-reside". This means that property owners have to prove they need to live in the Park in order to maintain their leases. If you own a business (if you are an active owner) or have a job inside the Park you are probably ok.
Those wishing seasonal housing (for weekends, or for a summer or winter vacation), are better to own outside the Parks (like in Canmore or Bragg Creek), but even those communities have imposed its own growth and population limits.
There are several smaller cities on the British Columbia side of the Rockies that have much fewer restrictions on development, since they are not inside national parks. However the pricing of homes, even modest ones, is tempered by the cost of shipping manufactured components to the area as well as by the robust Vancouver housing market. In those communities with a resort atmosphere, the prices are competitive with those on the Alberta side of the Rockies.
The Rockies are most likely the most beautiful part of the Trans-Canada Highway. The mountains are unique for a number of reasons. They managed to evade the flattening effect of the past several ice ages that covered most of the rest of North America. This makes the peaks very sharp and rugged, and they rise over a mile above the valley floor.
The northerly position of the Banff also means that the snowcover stays on the mountain tops and the glaciers through the summer (its not snowy in the valleys!). The stunning beauty of the mountains here, the glaciers and the aqua blue-green lakes are the reason the Canadian Pacific Railway guilt a series of castle-like mountain hotels around the turn of the century.
Banff is the magnet of the Canadian Rockies and is the largest mountain community in the stunningly beautiful Rockies. To its north is the smaller town of Lake Louise, and to its east, just outside the national Park gates, is the town of Canmore. These three form the heart of tourism in the Alberta Rockies.
Coming from the East, you approach Canmore first, just 5 kilometres east of the Banff National Park Gates, as the highway winds its way through the first range of mountains. Canmore is best known for the Canmore Nordic Centre, the host of the cross country and biathlon events in the 1988 Winter Olympic games.
The town is also on the northern entrance to Kananaskis Country, a large mountainous provincial park. It is also known for the cheapest gas between Calgary and Vancouver (no BC sales taxes, no National Parks rents) and lots of hotels close to the Trans-Canada Highway and close to Banff's natural beauty. Canmore is a very relaxed town with many fine restaurants, small non-touristy shops,and lots to see and do in and around town.
More about Canmore
The town of Banff was established in 1883 when the trans-continental railway was built through the Bow River valley. The town is the centre of recreation, tourism, and dining in the Canadian Rockies and has an elevation of 1,395 m (4,580 ft), but is cradled by mountains that tower a mile above.
Tourists are always surprised by the variety and proximity of wild animals around town: you'll often find elk, mountain goats, moose, and sometimes bears foraging on lawns and gardens around the town site. Many visitors stop and swim in the natural hot springs above the town, or take a ride up the Sulphur Mountain Gondola for an aerial view of the area.
More about Banff
Lake Louise is just a 40 minute drive northwest of Banff, and is much cozier and less commercial than Banff. It feels like the doorway to the ruggedness of the Rockies on both sides of the Albert-British Columbia border, as well as the Icefields Parkway to the north which winds past several stunning glaciers.
Lake Louise itself has two parts: the town site in the Bow River Valley, and the famous Lake itself on a plateau up the road. Be sure to enjoy both parts of Lake Louise.
More about Lake Louise