Travel Guides

Exploring Canmore & Kananaskis

Exploring Canmore & Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada

We took the scenic route through the foothills, through Rocky Mountain House and Kootenay Plains and the Cline River area, and passed beautiful Abraham Lake. In doing so, we completely bypassed Calgary. I don’t like driving around Calgary. Calgary is smog and traffic and treeless sprawling subdivisions as far as the eye can see. Rolling hills of prairie in the shadow of the mountains it might have been once, but the sprawl of cheaply-built, cookie-cutter, single-family homes is all you can see in either direction along the bypass. I imagine bison and pronghorn once dotted the landscape; now, it’s just new construction, a vast field of tightly packed subdivision homes built on speculation with seemingly no consideration for proper city planning. It makes me physically ill to see it, and makes me appreciate the parks and green spaces of Edmonton a little more. But enough about Calgary…

The Scenic Route Through Banff

We turned south on the Icefields Parkway toward Lake Louise and Banff at Saskatchewan River Crossing. Now within the Banff National Park boundary, we immediately saw several bighorn sheep, including mothers with new lambs, beside the road. A flock of tourists had pulled to the side to see them, many people were getting out of their vehicles holding their phones in front of their faces. Many were getting too close. This is not how I like my wildlife experiences. I don’t stop if others are stopped. I don’t photograph wildlife on busy roads. I don’t get out of the car and put pressure on the animals, potentially putting wildlife and myself in danger.

It was late June, so I knew Banff would be extremely busy with visitors. Alison and I were lucky to find an affordable, last-minute hotel room in Canmore. Banff and Jasper were 90% booked with only the priciest hotels and Airbnbs available. We had a bit of a struggle with the elements during last summer’s camping trip in the Rockies, so Alison wasn’t up for tenting again.

Driving though dramatic mountain scenery along the Icefields Parkway, we encountered lots of traffic. I wanted to take Alison to Peyto Lake. She had only seen the iconic vista in snow and low-hanging clouds a couple years before. On this day the weather was pleasant. Arriving at the Peyto Lake trailhead, we barely found a parking spot. There might have been as many as 100 people…maybe even more. I can’t blame them. This is an amazing spot.

Peyto Lake, Banff National Park

Peyto Lake, Banff National Park

Traffic thinned out considerably once we passed the town of Banff and reached Canmore. Last time I was in Canmore it was March and bitterly cold with loads of snow. This time we enjoyed warmth and sun and only a few light showers. Canmore is my favourite little mountain town in the Rockies. It’s pretty new- developed only in the last 20 or so years to accommodate the tourism spill over from Banff. It’s got everything you need without too many tourists. It’s a stunningly beautiful setting with the surrounding mountains and Bow River flowing right through downtown. Walking trails criss-cross the townsite’s wooded areas, elk graze along the river banks. There are grocery stores, excellent restaurants, and reasonable accommodation (last-minute in summer). It was a great base for our excursions.

Sunset at Two Jack Lake

After checking into our room, we decided to head back north to visit Two Jack Lake for sunset that first night. On the lakeside, there were already several photographers set up for that very typical composition of Mount Rundle. Each one of them were positioned only a foot apart, all with their tripods extended to eye-level….they were all trying to get the same shot. That both bores and annoys me.

I found the spot less photographed and positioned my tripod and wide-angle lens down close to the water to include a few interesting rocks in the foreground. The light did not disappoint.

Two Jack Lake, Banff National Park

Two Jack Lake, Banff National Park

With a couple Banff locations out of the way, we headed back south. Instead of spending a lot of time in Banff National Park, this trip we explored some lesser-known, but no less spectacular, areas south of Canmore.

Kananaskis & Alberta’s Mountain Provincial Parks

Though there was bumper to bumper traffic and great migrating herds of tourists in the Banff/Lake Louise area, we barely saw another person at any of our stops and hikes in Kananaskis, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, or Spray Valley Provincial Park. The sun rises very early in Canada during June, so we were up and out before 5AM in search of landscapes and mountain light. We continued cruising along Spray Lakes Road/Smith Dorrien Trail (note: this is a long and windy gravel road) for most of the day looking for wildlife. We had some good encounters. A small black bear crossed the road several yards ahead while I was photographing a waterfall. We took in the spectacular beauty of Kananaskis Lakes. With no one around, we were able to take our time observing a grizzly grazing in a field of dandelions (in the safety of the car with a very long lens). We enjoyed a lunch river-side surrounded by literally dozens of prairie dogs! It was a good day.

Grizzly bear feeding on dandelions, Spray Valley Provincial Park, Alberta

Grizzly bear feeding on dandelions, Spray Valley Provincial Park, Alberta

One of our favourite spots was near Mount Engadine Lodge. We’d love to stay at the lodge, but can’t afford it at $500/night. The Days Inn in Canmore will have to do! The road behind the lodge offers views of Moose Meadows, a lush valley with winding streams surrounded by epic mountains. I waited patiently for the morning fog to clear from the peaks. This is definitely a spot to return to.

I don’t know if this is Mount Engadine, The Tower, The Fist, or Mount Shark…My map research has yielded little as far as mountain identification in the area…we’ll just call it, “Mount Epic”, Spray Valley Provincial Park, Alberta

I don’t know if this is Mount Engadine, The Tower, The Fist, or Mount Shark…My map research has yielded little as far as mountain identification in the area…we’ll just call it, “Mount Epic”, Spray Valley Provincial Park, Alberta

Spray Valley Provincial Park, Alberta

Spray Valley Provincial Park, Alberta

Our original plan was to hike the Ptarmigan Cirque trail for sweeping mountain vistas and alpine meadows of wildflowers. We were disappointed to find neither. At such a high elevation, the clouds were dense and rain threatened to pour down at any moment. There would also be no flowers. A recent late snowfall had cloaked the landscape. The conditions were still icy, too icy for such a steep climb.

We decided to go with Elbow Lake nearby. The hike was snowy and slick as well, but we pushed through it with calves burning and yak-trax packed with wet snow. We arrived at Elbow Lake underwhelmed and cranky. I made a panorama and we hiked back down, stopping at a rock slide to watch a pica gathering mouthfuls of grass. Alison loves little furry critters. I think seeing the pica revived the experience for her.

Elbow Lake, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Alberta

Elbow Lake, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, Alberta

Canmore & Three Sisters

Our last evening was spent in the solitude of nature. We were fortunate to have the Policeman’s Creek area with views of the peaks of Three Sisters all to ourselves for sunset. Well, almost. For two hours we waited for sunset in the woods by the creek. We were visited by a beaver and a mother duck with her tiny fluffy ducklings. A coyote trotted passed us with a look of embarrassment on its face once it noticed we were watching. It was a colourful sunset, but I had positioned my camera to the west, thinking that dark clouds would block out any light that tried to shine on the peaks of Three Sisters to the east. The colourful light breaking through the clouds over Ha Ling Peak was dramatic, so I shot away. Alison tapped me on the shoulder at one point. It startled me, and my first thought was “is it a bear?!” She pointed over to Three Sisters. All three peaks were brightly lit with alpenglow! I never expected with all these clouds in the west for it to be so dramatic on those peaks….they had been in shadow for hours.

I picked up my tripod with camera still mounted and ran through the mud and brush, crossing a thin log over the water, to get to the other side so I could include the creek in my shot. I only got a few images before the light faded away. It was magical -the perfect end to the trip.

Alpenglow on the peaks of Three Sisters, Canmore, Alberta

Alpenglow on the peaks of Three Sisters, Canmore, Alberta

But it wasn’t over. On our hike out along a dry stream bed I heard a rustle in the trees behind me. Looking back nervously, I spotted a fluffy grey owl sitting in a large spruce. The longest lens I had on me was a 70-200mm. I popped it on my camera quickly and took a few shots. It was a juvenile Great Horned Owl. We soon noticed one of the parents sitting in a tree on the other side of the creek bed. Unfortunately, it was in too much darkness to photograph, the sun had been down for 15 minutes or so. The fledgling was perched in just enough light. Soon another juvenile joined the adult on it’s branch. Apparently, we had stumbled upon this family of owls when the young were learning to fly from the nest. They watched us as well, but seemed unhindered by our presence. Eventually, they all flew deeper into the forest.

Fledgling Great-Horned Owl, Canmore, Alberta

Fledgling Great-Horned Owl, Canmore, Alberta

The last morning was spent walking the trails in and around the Canmore townsite. We watched an elk graze by the river and dreamed of being able to afford one of those nice houses by the river with views of the mountains. For now, the Days Inn will have to do.

5 More Awesome Photo Locations in Banff

Photographers are getting ever more stingy with their “secret” spots lately. It’s for good reason. The impact of tourism (including us serious photographers) on the land has become a burdon for our natural areas and wildlife. It’s ironic that in an effort to spend time in, and gain greater appreciation for, the great outdoors we’ve actually been causing loads of damage. The instagram culture of “influencers” has spawned a new kind of 21st century gold rush. Instead of searching for valuable metals and gems, people now flock to National Parks for pictures and likes and attention. For serious nature photographers, the crowds of selfie-stick wielding tourists are annoying, but we are responsible for much of the damage too.

The locations I mention in this post are well-known and easy to get to from the Banff townsite. No secrets here. Like many, I reserve some special places for myself, but I believe in sharing locations that are less vulnerable and can handle the foot traffic. Make sure that if you visit these amazing places, you leave no trace of your presence, respect wildlife and give them space, and take nothing but pictures.

1. Castle Mountain

Reflection of the peaks of Castle Mountain in the Bow River

Reflection of the peaks of Castle Mountain in the Bow River

Castle Mountain towers over the Bow River Valley. If you’re driving along the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1) near Banff you can’t miss it’s looming spires. It’s a great subject year-round. My favourite spots to photograph it from are along the rocky banks of the Bow River. A popular access point is Castle Junction, located at the intersection of Highway 1 and the Bow Valley Parkway just north of Banff. There’s a fence to block wildlife from getting onto the road. Visitors are allowed to open the gate and enter at the bridge over the Bow River at Castle Junction, but make sure you close it behind you after entering and exiting.

2. banff viewpoint

Banff Townsite from Banff Viewpoint

Banff Townsite from Banff Viewpoint

Want that epic postcard-ass shot of Banff townsite from above? Banff Viewpoint is an official “park and peek” along Mt. Norquay Road just north of Banff. It takes only 10 minutes to reach this spot from downtown. Just know that the road is steep and windy. It can be very slippery in winter. The view is one of the best in the Banff area (without having to hike half a day up a mountain). This point provides great views of the town, surrounding mountains, and Vermillion Lakes.

Vermillion Lakes from Banff Viewpoint in Autumn

Vermillion Lakes from Banff Viewpoint in Autumn

3. two jack lake

Two Jack Lake at Sunrise

Two Jack Lake at Sunrise

Two Jack lake is a popular spot for landscape photographers. When I was there, I was the first to arrive at twilight. Soon there were several others sharing the same small stretch of lakeshore. It’s popular because it’s very close to downtown Banff and provides excellent (and relatively easy) compositional opportunities for photographers. There is an island of spruce trees that gives much needed visual interest when framing Mount Rundle on the horizon. On clear winter mornings, expect a bit of alpenglow on Mount Rundle’s peaks. In summer the mountain can glow from base to peak when the sun is very low. This is great spot at either sunrise or sunset.

4. bow valley parkway

Elk in deep snow, Bow Valley Parkway

Elk in deep snow, Bow Valley Parkway

The Bow Valley Parkway runs parallel to the Trans-Canada Highway north of Banff heading in the direction of Lake Louise. I suggest taking it to Castle Junction. Drive slowly and keep your eyes peeled; this is a great area to spot wildlife. There are several road-side pull-offs where you can watch wildlife like elk, moose, and deer graze. Occasional grizzly and wolf sightings are also reported along this route in spring and fall. Wildlife often use the road as their own highway for convenience, so make sure to drive the speed limit or less.

The Bow Valley Parkway also holds opportunities for landscape photographers. There are several spots along the route that provide great views of the surrounding mountain ranges as well as the railroad, which runs along the Bow River. In early autumn, birches and aspens can be photographed in full golden colour.

5. waterfowl lakes

Waterfowl Lakes Sunrise

Waterfowl Lakes Sunrise

The Icefields Parkway is famous for awesome scenery. One of the most convenient stops is Waterfowl Lakes, which is a few large iridescent blue lakes surrounded by epic mountains. The pull-off is right by the road, no hiking in, which makes this a convenient stop for sunrise or sunset.

I photographed this scene on a whim. I was leaving Banff with my wife, and we happened to be passing Waterfowl Lakes around sunrise. For a few brief minutes a pink column of cloud lit up the otherwise monochrome sky. I pulled over, hopped out of the car, and took two quick shots by the lakeside before the light faded. Sometimes things just come together.

To read the original post, 5 Awesome Photo Locations in Banff, click here.

5 Awesome Photo Locations in Jasper

5 Awesome Photo Locations in Jasper National Park

Jasper National Park is a amazing place filled with inspiring landscapes and abundant wildlife. I dreamed about visiting the area since childhood; it is a privilege to live so close. This short list is in no way comprehensive - the information here barely scratches the surface. There is so much left to explore beyond any guide or blog post. You should use this article as a jumping-off-point for planning your shot list for your Jasper adventure. For the sake of simplicity and convenience, I've selected a few easy-to-find and iconic photo spots that I often visit. Don't be afraid to leave the beaten path; some of Jasper's hidden gems can take days by trail or canoe to reach. 

Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies is a great place to visit year-round. Spring and Fall are best for wildlife sightings, Summer is great for wildflowers (but is to be avoided if you don't like crowds), and Winter is very peaceful and provides opportunities to wander the parks trails (in snowshoes or crampons) in relative solitude. As long as you book in advance, the options for overnight stay are as simple and cheap as camping or as extravagant as luxury lodges or five-star hotels. In between are hostels, rental cabins, and Airbnb's. Be sure to book early- finding accommodation in the Canadian Rockies can be nearly impossible on a whim.

Those are subjects for another time, however. Let's get down to the reason you're here, fellow traveling photographer. Below are 5 awesome photo locations in Jasper National Park.

1. Talbot Lake

Talbot Lake sunrise in Autumn, Jasper National Park

Talbot Lake sunrise in Autumn, Jasper National Park

Talbot Lake is located along Alberta Highway 16 (aka the Yellowhead Highway) not far from the park entrance. It's nestled between two high mountain ranges. Because I come from Edmonton, this is usually the first and last location for my trips to Jasper. Weather permitting, Talbot Lake is an excellent place for sunrise and sunset photography as well as wildlife sightings. I've photographed elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and eagles all in this easy-to-access area. 

The down-sides to this location are that it's often very windy and semi trucks are constantly buzzing up and down the highway. Even if you take one of the trails that lead up the sandy banks of Talbot Lake for an amazing view, you still have to listen to loud traffic. It really messes up the mood. I avoid stopping along the side of Highway 16 even if I see wildlife I'd like to photograph. Because of the trucks, it's easy to put yourself and the wildlife at risk by pulling over. I've seen bighorn sheep narrowly escape being plowed over while being pressured by both the speeding trucks and tourists vehicles. Instead of taking the risk along the roadsides, I look for wildlife in the hills off the road after pulling into the lot at Talbot Lake. 

2. Pyramid Mountain

Pyramid Mountain sunrise at Patricia Lake, Jasper National Park

Pyramid Mountain sunrise at Patricia Lake, Jasper National Park

Pyramid Mountain is one of those iconic mountains that photographers flock to year-round. The more popular spots to photograph from are Patricia Lake and Pyramid Lake - that's where you can capture the reflection of the mountain in the water. To access these areas, simply drive a few kilometers from the town of Jasper along winding Pyramid Lake Road. There are parking lots for the lakes....easy, peasy. Sunrise provides the best light in these locations (in my opinion). It is also far less crowded in the summer first thing in the morning. 

3. Athabasca Falls

Athabasca Falls, Jasper National Park

Athabasca Falls, Jasper National Park

Athabasca Falls is located just off the famous Icefields Parkway (93). A short paved trail takes visitors straight to the main waterfall with great views into the canyon. Mount Kerkeslin towers over the falls.

Both sunset and sunrise can be shot here. Finding a composition that doesn't include Parks Canada signage, railings, or fencing, is a bit of a challenge. Don't be tempted to jump the barriers- a slip into the canyon below the falls is certain death. The shot above was made one spring evening on a weekday from the safety of the designated viewing area. I was lucky that there was only one other photographer to share the scene with. A few weekends before I captured this image, on my first trip to Jasper, there wasn't even enough room at this spot to set up a tripod due to the crowds.

4. Goats & Glaciers

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"Goats and Glaciers" is the name of a pull-off along the Icefields Parkway. It provides visitors a panoramic a view of several iconic mountain peaks with the teal-blue Athabasca River flowing below. There are a few glaciers tucked into the creases of some of these mountains, and as the name implies, mountain goats can be seen in this area. The goats come down from the high slopes to eat juniper berries and nibble at nearby salt licks. 

I've made some of my favorite images of the Canadian Rockies near this overlook. Mount Christie and Brussels Peak (center of the image above) tower over the glacial river and are kissed by the glow of pink light during sunrise and sunset. 

Mountain Goat overlooking the Athabasca River, Jasper National Park

Mountain Goat overlooking the Athabasca River, Jasper National Park

Be respectful of the wildlife. Never approach the goats directly or put pressure on them as they often have kids, and male goats can be aggressive. I prefer to let wildlife come close to me- rather than pursuing them. Serious wildlife photographers know that patience and respect yield the best wildlife images. Running up to a goat with a cell-phone will, at best, get you blurry images of a goat running off or, at worst, a couple sharp horns in the ass.

5. Sunwapta Falls

Sunwapta Falls, Jasper National Park

Sunwapta Falls, Jasper National Park

Sunwapta Falls is one of the most photographed locations in Jasper. There is actually a lodge and restaurant at the entrance. For this reason, serious photographers need to show up as early as possible and preferably during the shoulder seasons. The trails around Sunwapta Falls are worth exploring for the peaceful forest that lines them. The waterfall is breathtaking. A milky blue river winds around a small island and then plummets into a deep canyon.

Much like Athabasca Falls, this can be a dangerous place for photographers looking for unique compositions. The cliffs above the canyon are spongy, and the rock ledges brittle. I always give at least 8 feet of solid ground between me and the edge. There is, as usual, the added annoyance of having to work your frame around black chain link fencing that is meant to keep visitors from falling into the water and being swept away. This makes getting a wide view of the scene without that man-made object impossible. Most of my images of Sunwapta Falls are made around the 50mm focal length in order to eliminate the fencing and tourists that line up against it. 

Map of Jasper National Park Area:

The map above includes the locations listed in this article. Again, feel free to explore other locations like Medicine Lake and Maligne Canyon among others. Thanks for reading, best of light, and safe travels!

A Winter Weekend in Banff

I've received lots of emails lately from folks who want to visit Banff National Park this year. I hope I've provided them with useful information. To expand on that information, I thought I'd write about my most recent trip to Banff and lace it with even more useful info as well as the general experience. The Canadian Rockies are an amazing place in every season, and I love sharing my experiences with people who care. When someone reads this blog or views my photos on social media and decides they want to experience that place, too...well that's what Maps & Cameras is all about! 

Day One: Friday Afternoon

My wife and I took a trip to Banff a couple weekends ago. Partly, so she could experience some non-urban winter scenery, and partly, of course, so I could get some nature images. 

On the snowiest day that Edmonton had seen this winter, we drove down to Calgary and then over to Banff via the Trans-Canada Highway. Arriving in the town of Banff just before sunset, we took Vermillion Lakes Road in hopes of capturing a stunning sunset over Mount Rundle. Unfortunately, I hiked across the frozen lake in two feet of snow for little more than a few seconds of pink light that was snuffed out by a huge dark cloud in the west. After the 4 hour drive, I was beat anyway and ready to check in and relax.

We got a great deal on a room at Canalta Lodge - a relatively new hotel with hipster-modern decorating and a decent breakfast. We then had the worst and most expensive "Chinese" food ever at an establishment we'll just call Me No Wonton Soup or Thai a Rope Around My Neck if I Ever Choose to Eat Here Again. I actually walked over to McDonald's afterwards (my first Micky D's since moving to Canada last June). 

Day Two: Saturday

The following morning we were up early and driving along the Trans-Canada Highway through Banff National Park. Just before sunrise we reached Castle Junction. It's the premier spot from which to photograph Castle Mountain and Eisenhower Peak. I pulled over behind a few other vehicles- both photography workshops. We entered through the gate at the bridge that connects the Trans-Canada to the Bow Valley Parkway and quickly began looking for a composition. 

Sunrise over the Bow River and Castle Mountain, Banff National Park

Sunrise over the Bow River and Castle Mountain, Banff National Park

There were several other photographers walking around, but I managed to find clear shot of the mountain with the river below and an unspoiled snow bank that created a nice leading line. The bright pink morning light came in just minutes and lasted only minutes. Just as I was about to take my image during the apex of the light, a little man in a bright orange jacket popped up from behind the snow bank! He was right in the middle of my shot! He didn't speak english, but I was able to coax him into kneeling out of the way with some internationally recognized hand gestures...(something that looked like picking up a small child and placing it out of the way). 

I got my shots and we moved up the river after the light faded. The other photo workshop was packing up, so I decided  to make a few more exposures even though the light was gone. Castle Mountain is an amazing scene.

Snow and ice on the Bow River with Castle Mountain, Banff National Park

Snow and ice on the Bow River with Castle Mountain, Banff National Park

A short distance later along the Bow Valley Parkway, we spotted two bull elk in Moose Meadow. The snow was deep, so the elk were having to dig through it with their hooves to get to the grass beneath. I spent about a half an hour photographing the closer elk with my 200-500mm lens while standing knee deep in snow. 

Elk in snow, Banff National Park

Elk in snow, Banff National Park

The next stop was Johnston Canyon. We hiked on hard-packed snow in crampons to the falls, but I didn't take any shots. It was beautiful in the winter woods and the frozen waters in the canyon were stunning and irridescent blue, but by mid-morning there were just too many people. 

Pretty tuckered from a morning spent hiking in the snow, we drove over to Moose Meadow to have lunch. The elk were gone and it was beginning to snow harder. I got out my little Primus camp stove, set it up on a level spot in the snow, and boiled water for tea outside while watching the snow fall on evergreens. Not a bad spot to have lunch!

We decided against visiting Lake Louise. Visibility was low due to the snowstorm and we could see traffic backed up at the off-ramp to Lake Louise. In winter you can rent ice skates and skate on the lake, but the crowds and weather made that a much less desirable activity for us. 

Despite the weather, we continued on to Yoho National Park on the British Columbia side of the Rockies. We managed to find the Natural Bridge and followed the tracks of other hikers to the stone arches. The river was frozen so we could easily enter underneath the bridge. The waterfall within it had frozen solid, but we could still hear the roaring of rushing waters behind the thick wall of ice. The rock formations made for interesting photography. 

Alison inspecting a frozen waterfall, Natural Bridge, Yoho National Park

Alison inspecting a frozen waterfall, Natural Bridge, Yoho National Park

Natural Bridge, Yoho National Park

Natural Bridge, Yoho National Park

A short drive down snow-covered Emerald Lake Road brought us to Emerald Lake. Snow and cloud cover provided little to no visibility of mountains, and the lake itself was covered with snow. There were also lots of tourists and cross-country skiers. I didn't expect so many tour buses. We hung around until most of the buses left, then I was finally able to get a few shots of the pristine snow-covered forests. They would be my last shots of the short trip. Due to worsening weather conditions it was obvious there would be no sunset that evening. We drove back to the town of Banff for a nap and had our first good meal of the trip at Magpie & Stump

Emerald Lake Winter, Yoho National Park

Emerald Lake Winter, Yoho National Park

Day Three: Sunday Morning

We woke early. Peaking out the window I could see that the weather had still not let up. Snow covered the streets of Banff, and a few poor souls without proper winter tires were sliding through stop signs. The potential for capturing a colorful sunrise looked pretty low, so we took our time in the breakfast room at the hotel and headed back up to Edmonton in much better weather. 

One short weekend in Banff is not enough. I managed several good images, but winter (or any other season) in the Rockies is too beautiful for short trips. I can't wait to return for longer and include Jasper National park in the mix as well. Thanks for reading and happy travels!

Read more on Banff National Park here.