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Banff and Jasper National Parks -- from a visit in 2006

Warning:  There are no bargains!  When we visited in 2006, the US dollar and the Canadian dollar were approaching parity for the first time in years, and all the prices seemed expensive.  There are plenty of high-end hotels and expensive restaurants in the region; the trick is how to find reasonably-priced accomodations and a quick bite.
Guidebook recommendation:  Andrew Hempstead, Canadian Rockies Handbook (Moon Travel Handbooks).  Excellent advice for both the casual and the experienced hiker.
Planning your trip to Banff, Lake Louise, Jasper:  If you have time for only one brief stay, choose Lake Louise.  The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is one of the world's great hotels, and the setting on the lake is unsurpassed.
If you want to explore, there is more to do in the area of Jasper than in the area of Banff and Lake Louise, but the Jasper area will take a few days.
We did not stay in Banff, but we visited it for shopping.  It is better-equipped than Lake Louise Village or Jasper.
At least once on your drive between Banff and Lake Louise, get off the main highway, and take the Bow Valley Parkway.  (Highway 1A.) It will take a little more time, but, like Icefields Parkway but a lot less travelled, it is a very memorable drive through beautiful country that you will not be able to see from the main road, including the very dramatic Castle Mountain. 
The drive from Calgary to Banff is 90 minutes; between Banff and Lake Louise, 40 minutes; and between Lake Louise and Jasper, via the Icefields Parkway, at least 3 hours, depending on how often you stop.
On your return from Jasper, you absolutely need to retrace your steps and drive south on the Icefields Parkway.  The perspective is very different, driving in the opposite direction.  If anything, we enjoyed the return drive the best, because we were unhurried, and unambitious to see certain sights.  We stopped whenever we felt like it, and got some great photos.
We made a brief visit to Calgary, but did not visit Edmonton.
Lake Louise Hiking Tips:  The walk to Lake Agnes and the Teahouse takes half a day and is very rewarding.  The Plain of Six Glaciers, which reaches another teahouse, is a full day.  On either hike, you will quickly leave the crowds behind.  These and others begin at the hotel, but there is public parking for those who are not hotel guests.
Moraine Lake, in its own way, is as special as Lake Louise, even though it is half the size.  We suggest seeing it in the very early morning, before it gets overrun with tourists.  There also are accomodations at Moraine Lake, but we did not stay there. 
Lake Louise dining tips:  There are high-end restaurants in the Chateau Lake Louise.  The hotel's 24-hour deli was a great way to get a quick bite or a sandwich to take along on a hike.  In Lake Louise Village, the options are few, but there is a restaurant in an old train station.  Great atmosphere, with trains passing by.  We did not try it, but the dining car built by the Canadian Pacific Railroad is a separate restaurant, with finer dining.  Reservations essential for the private car are essential.  Lake Louise Station.
Icefields Parkway Tips:  The drive from Lake Louise to Jasper is spectacular.  Allow a full day, so that you can stop when you like.  Simpson's Num-Ti-Jah Lodge  on Bow Lake is a uniquely rustic one-night stay in an historic setting.  This lake is one of the most beautiful in its green-tinted color, which is a product of the glacier that feeds it.  Allow time for a walk to the waterfalls.  You will feel that you have escaped the crowds of Lake Louise and Banff.
Some of our favorite places to stop along the way:  View of Peyto Lake from the short hike to Bow Summit.  Yes, visit Columbia Icefields.  The Columbia Icefields tour is a big production and the ride itself on special-built trucks to the glacier will take 1-1/2 hours.  It will allow you 15 minutes on the glacier itself, but for most people, that's enough.  It is very cold, and always windy and always windy.  No reservations are required, but you may need to wait for a bus on a busy day.  There are those who rent special equipment and walk it, but that will take even more time and requires a special dedication.  There is a busy cafeteria at the Columbia Icefields Center.
Closer to Jasper, Athabasca Falls is a must-stop.
Mt. Edith Cavell, which is near Jasper, is such a wonderful and important destination, that you will want to dedicate a half-day of your visit in Jasper to the mountain.  It is too much to visit during your drive between Lake Louise and Jasper.
Jasper Tips:  The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge is the sister to the one in Lake Louise, but is a must-stay only for those who are interested in golf or other resort activities.  It is on a lake, but there is nothing as beautiful as Lake Louise.  It has fine views of surrounding mountains, including Mount Edith Clavel.  There are many other hotels in and around town that can be used as a base for exploring the area.  We did not stay there, but Tekarra is historic and well-located, just outside of town.  Tekarra Lodge.
Must-do activities around Jasper:  Mount Edith Clavel is at the top of the list (see below).   Maligne Canyon.  The canyon has six bridges, which all can be viewed in a long hike, but the best and most dramatic are bridges one and two, which can be accessed easily from a parking lot off Maligne Lake Road and are not to be missed.  Bridges five and six are easily accessible from the road, as well.  Finally, Scenic Boat Cruises to Spirit Island in Maligne Lake.  Plan ahead by getting your ticket in Jasper at the ticket office:  780-852-3370.  The drive to Maligne Lake is a beautiful one, but allow extra time because of traffic stoppages due to wildlife on the road.  The narrated boat ride takes about 1-1/2 hours and was very good.  There also are trails around this beautiful lake.
Mount Edith Cavel is outstanding.  The 12-km road from the Icefields Parkway has many switchbacks and cannot be used by trailers.  The trail takes about two hours and is not difficult.  We followed the advice of a local to walk up the dried creek bed and down the paved trail, which is the reverse flow of the usual hike.  There also is a separate hike to what is described as a beautiful Alpine meadow from the top of the paved path, but this involves more time and more climbing.  The main hike is through a lunar landscape along the face of this dramatic mountain.  It reaches a beautiful glacier-fed lake, filled with ice.
Jasper Dining:  We became tired of the wonderful but expensive meals in the Jasper Lodge, particularly after the stay in Lake Louise.  There are some good choices in time for less formal dining.  One of these is Papa George, which has been in the area for over 30 years.  404 Connaught Drive, 852-3351.  Very informal is Earl's, which is a chain originating in Calgary.  Both hip -- and family-friendly!  600 Patricia Street.
Bear's Paw Bakery is a Jasper institution.  At 6 am, the customers are lined up at the door, seven days a week.  Excellent espresso drinks and a wide range of baked goods, from breads to sweetrolls.  4 Cedar Avenue near Connaught Drive.
Calgary Tips:  How can any city stand up to a visit in the mountains?  This is particularly hard for Calgary to do, despite the fact that it is a lovely city, with parks and rivers.  The Glenbow Museum, which is built into the Convention Centre, is a fine history and art museum, including a focus on Native American cultures.  A must see.  We were delighted with the one Chinese restaurant that everyone recommends in Chinatown:  Silver Dragon.  Reservations are absolutely essential, and early-evening reservations are best.  Most of the tables are round, with the food served family-style.  Call 403-264-5326.  It is located at 106 - 3rd Ave., a few short blocks from most of the downtown hotels.