Exploring the Icefields Parkway, Part I, Jasper National Park

 Elk with velvet antlers, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

Elk with velvet antlers, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

I'm still very much in the process of getting settled in since the move from North Carolina to Alberta earlier this month, but I've made sure to spend a little time out west in the Canadian Rockies. So far I've visited Jasper National Park twice; once for an evening with my wife and our dog and once alone while car camping at Honeymoon Lake. The scenery is breathtaking, and opportunities for both wildlife and landscape photography are abundant.

The Icefields Parkway winds and dips through the craggy rocky mountains mostly following the course of the Athabasca River all the way to Banff NP in the south. I have yet to make it to Banff, but it won't be long until I do. Jasper NP is located just over 3 hours west of Edmonton, AB via the Yellowhead Highway (16 West). Exit onto Alberta Highway 93 headed south at the town of Jasper to drive the Icefields Parkway, which is a 268 kilometer drive through stunning mountain vistas peppered with blue lakes and dense spruce forests. It can also be accessed from Banff, AB simply by driving north. 

This year (2017) Canadian National Parks are free admission in celebration of Canada's 150th birthday. This does not include fees for overnight stays. There are various types of campsites available ranging from backcountry to fully serviced RV camping and even rental cabins. Some campsites can be booked online, but most front country sites are first come, first serve and you simply pay at the campground when you arrive. For more info about fees, regulations, and safety information, visit the Canada Parks website

EXPLORING THE ICEFIELDS PARKWAY

After my brief initial visit to Jasper NP (and a handful of decent images in the bag) I had to return as soon I could for a longer stay. As a photographer, it's hard to stay away with such amazing wilderness a short distance from my home. I decided to drive up on the longest day of the year, shoot sunset at Athabasca Falls, camp in my Jeep at beautiful Honeymoon Lake, and photograph sunrise at the lake shore a few steps from my campsite. Of course, all plans for photography in nature are at the mercy of the weather. Though the forecast was clear to partly cloudy, I experienced lots of wind and intermittent rain over the course of my two day stay. 

Iconic Waterfalls & Wildlife

After securing my campsite at Honeymoon Lake, I decided to start my photographic journey a few kilometers south of there and work my way back up to the town of Jasper the next morning. My first stop was Sunwapta Falls, a must when traveling through Jasper NP. It's an iconic waterfall along the Athabasca River. Fed by glacial runoff, the waters practically glow iridescent blue. An island of tall spruce sits in the center of the river and the waters rush around it soon falling several meters into a gorge.

Getting this image was not easy. Because admission is free, Japser was particularly crowded even though it was Wednesday. The wooden bridge that crosses the gorge in front of Sunwapta Falls vibrated as tourists came and went in large family groups. This made getting a sharp photo with a slow shutter speed impossible. The view from there isn't actually that great anyway. To protect visitors from falling to their death, there is an ugly chain link fence that follows along the cliff's edge in both directions. Achieving a composition that does not include this obstruction is difficult. I walked along the fence until I found the end of it and what do know!? A photographer's path! I would not advise people to climb the fences or go to the edge of the cliff. It's dangerous for sure. Because there was no barricade or sign warning otherwise, I decided to follow the narrow footpath through dense forest until I arrived near enough to the edge that I had an unobstructed view of the waterfall, but wasn't so close that it was risky. Light rain had been falling, but the clouds cleared a bit as I was approaching the falls. The sun came out and a mysterious haze formed over the mountains providing the scene with a bit more visual interest. I set up my gear, using a polarizer, 6-stop ND, and 3 stop ND grad, and took a few shots. Happy with the results, I moved on up the Icefields Parkway. 

 Sunwapta Falls, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

Sunwapta Falls, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

Driving north I spotted a cinnamon-colored black bear eating dandelions by the road. I slowly pulled over close enough to use my 70-200mm, but not so close that the bear even glanced up at me. I waited a moment for the bear to step out into the open- it was moving casually toward me as calm as can be- but just as it did, several cars pulled up out of nowhere in front of me. Some less than intelligent lifeforms popped out of their vehicles to snap pics with their phones only a few meters away from the large bear. The bear immediately became agitated and lumbered off into the woods. I was agitated to say the least. Little angers me more than having a potential shot ruined by irresponsible and disrespectful tourists. Luckily, I had already photographed this same bear a few days before on my first trip to Jasper. 

 Cinnamon Colored Black Bear Eating Dandelions, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

Cinnamon Colored Black Bear Eating Dandelions, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

After my less than ideal bear encounter, I continued on to Athabasca Falls, another iconic waterfall along the Icefields Parkway. It's a bit easier to photograph and has fewer obstructions than Sunwapta Falls. The blue waters plunge into a deep gorge just like Sunwapta, but the river is wider and there is a much better view of the mountains. I arrived an hour before sunset in hopes of getting vivid dramatic color over the mountain; it was raining, of course. A few other photographers and I waited patiently for the clouds to part. For a brief moment, they did. At first, the sun lit only the strip of trees below the mountain, a beautiful scene, but less than ideal for a picture as the rest of the frame was very dark in contrast. A few more minutes of waiting and the light finally made it up the mountain. I was hoping the entire mountain from base to peak would be golden, but the clouds wouldn't allow it. I had to settle for the peak. The light soon faded, and instead of dramatic color, the scene turned dark again as the light was snuffed out by dark rain clouds. I waited in the car nearby for conditions to change, but they didn't improve. I watched a pine marten fiddle about at the forest edge for a moment, then drove back to my campsite in hopes that I would be able to capture an epic sunrise in the early morning. 

 Athabasca Falls, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

Athabasca Falls, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

After 4 hours of sleep, I woke before sunrise to light drizzle tapping the glass on the sunroof. I stepped out and walked over to the bank of Honeymoon Lake to find that low hanging clouds were completely blocking the mountains. No views at all! A little discouraged, I prepared my equipment and camera settings for potential wildlife shooting as I made my way north and out of the park. I didn't have to drive far. Only 5 minutes from the entrance to the Honeymoon Lake campground stood two bull elk grazing beside the road. I drove past several hundred feet, made a u-turn, then parked near enough to photograph them, but not so close as to bother them. It was around 5 am and barely bright enough to take pictures. I waited as they peacefully grazed, occasionally looking up at me to make sure I was up to no funny business. It gradually became brighter, and I shot away using my 70-200 2.8 and 1.7x teleconverter. This time no tourists upset the encounter. No one but me was on the road that morning. Just me and two impressive creatures of the northwest. 

 Elk Black & White, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

Elk Black & White, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

I had a good half hour with the elk before they faded off into the dark woods. Feeling much better about the morning, I headed north toward home, stopping once for one last image of tall spruce trees leaning over the Athabasca River with Pyramid Mountain in the foggy background. Now satisfied with the experience, I headed back to Edmonton to real food, a warm shower, and comfy bed. I will not be away from Jasper National Park for long.

 Leaning Spruce, Athabasca River, and Pyramid Mountain, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

Leaning Spruce, Athabasca River, and Pyramid Mountain, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

To find out what's in my camera bag, click here!

 

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