Between 1857 and 1860, John Palliser, an Irish sportsman and adventurer, led a group of scientists on an expedition to explore, study and map the virtually unknown area of western Canada between the North Saskatchewan River on the north, the American border on the south and the Rocky Mountains on the west. Palliser, whose family were among the land-holding aristocracy of Ireland, preferred to wander on his own in foreign lands rather than participate in the pretentious business and social life of his peers in Great Britain. From 1847 to 1849 he wandered on a prolonged hunting and exploring adventure across the American Great Plains. His book, Solitary Rambles and Adventures of a Hunter in the Prairies, was published in 1853 and was a great success.

Between 1853 and 1856 the United States conducted a series of explorations for transcontinental railroad routes. Palliser, learning about them, thought Great Britain needed to undertake similar exploration of its western territory. Despite his financial means, Palliser could not pay for such an expedition on his own. He was nominated for membership in the Royal Geographical Society and, after being accepted, proposed his western expedition and applied for funding. After careful review, the Society agreed and also assigned several prominent scientists of the day to accompany him. Sir John Simpson, then Governor-in-Chief of the Hudson's Bay Company, who had traveled extensively in the American and Canadian Northwest, advised Palliser and also arranged for canoes, horses and equipment.

The three-year expedition resulted in an extensive compilation of data regarding the wildlife, climate, geography, Indian cultures and languages, and other information. This took three years to publish and was presented to the British Parliament in 1863.

The Palliser expedition included forays into the Columbia River Basin, including explorations of Kootenay Pass and the upper Kootenay River; the Waterton Lakes area north of present-day Glacier National Park in Montana; Kicking Horse Pass on the Kicking Horse River, the present route of the Trans-Canada Highway and the Canadian Pacific Railroad; and Howse Pass in the northern Canadian Columbia basin where David Thompson pioneered a route over the Rockies in 1807. Many prominent mountains, passes and rivers were named by Palliser and his four associates.