Travel Guides

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.

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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.

Elk Island National Park - Mini Guide

Elk Island National Park, located just east of Edmonton, Alberta, was the first place I visited outside the city after the move from North Carolina. From metropolitan Edmonton (population 1,000,000) it only takes about 35-40 minutes to arrive at this wild gem where forests meet prairie. This protected area is home to a variety of amazing wildlife, pristine lakes, and is an excellent place to view and photograph the northern lights. 

Location & Terrain:

Elk Island National Park is located approx. 50 km (35-40 minute drive depending on city traffic) east of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada just off Alberta Highway 16 (the Yellowhead Highway). The highway divides the park in two and is lined on both sides with high wire fences to keep bison and other wildlife from walking into traffic. This separation also keeps the herd of wood bison on the south side and the plains bison on the north side to keep them from interbreeding.

The terrain within the park boundaries varies, but is generally flat and partially wooded with birch and spruce groves. There are several large lakes and countless smaller ones, making this park perfect for canoeing and kayaking. There are various well-maintained (though often muddy) hiking trails at Elk Island and well-kept washrooms and camp grounds as well. The only major downside to this park is the mosquitos, which can be extremely frustrating to deal with during the summer months (bring plenty of strong bug spray for the love of pete!). 

Recreational Opportunities:

Elk Island provides nature lovers with loads of opportunities for recreation. In addition to hiking trails of various lengths, the park boasts excellent kayaking, paddle boarding, and canoeing opportunities (rentals are available seasonally). The most popular area in Elk Island is Astotin Lake, the second largest lake in the park and the most accessible with paved parking. This area is often really packed in the summer, but it's worth the visit. There is actually a sandy beach area and a few small floating docks. There are good trails around the lakeside, and several small islands within the lake that can be reached by your trusty non-motarized vessel. 

Camping in the nearby RV or primitive campsites is popular. People also come to spend the long summer evenings and enjoy the sunsets over the lake. There are picnic tables, covered picnic areas for larger groups, washrooms, and grills for grilling. There are also a few fire pits that are often already in use no matter how early you arrive. 

 Canoeing on Astotin Lake, Elk Island National Park, Canada

Canoeing on Astotin Lake, Elk Island National Park, Canada

Wildlife & NighT Sky:

What drew me to Elk Island initially was the opportunity to see and photograph wild bison. I had, until June of this year, never seen bison in the wild. That first summer trip to Elk Island provided me with lots of great photo opportunities with this iconic North American species. I've been back several times over the last few months, and seeing these majestic creatures never gets old. 

Bison can generally be found grazing in the open fields, but occasionally make their way into the woods and even into the parking lot at Astotin Lake. There are hundreds of bison at Elk Island, and as I mentioned before, the two species are separated by fences along either side of Highway 16. The wood bison to the south can often be seen along the fence near the highway. There is a hiking trail through the woods (Wood Bison Trail), but I've yet to see bison along it and haven't completed the trail due to mosquitos, so I can't provide details for wood bison sightings. 

The best places to see plains bison (including their adorable calves) are along the Bison Loop Road (see map above) and from a new gravel lot across from Bison Loop Road. The latter is not yet marked on google maps, but you can't miss it. When driving north into the park, Bison Loop is on the right and the new gravel lot is on the left. My best experiences with the large herd have been at this new (yet to be named) pull off. Use caution when in bison country. Never approach bison, especially large bulls in the fall. They can charge suddenly and without warning. Always give them adequate space and use a long lens for pictures. 

 Bison Portrait, Elk Island National Park, Canada (500mm lens)

Bison Portrait, Elk Island National Park, Canada (500mm lens)

 Bison calf in spring, Elk Island National Park, Canada

Bison calf in spring, Elk Island National Park, Canada

I have yet to see Elk Island's elk. A park ranger told me there was actually an overpopulation of elk in the area, but they are rarely seen because they keep to the woods away from the park roads. I have, however, heard elk bugle on an autumn night as I watched the northern lights dance above - that was a magical experience I'll never forget.

In addition to bison and elk, Elk Island is home to dozens of waterfowl species, song birds, hawks, beaver, deer, moose, fox, and the occasional black bear...just to name a few.

Elk Island is a popular spot for northern lights (aurora borealis) viewing as well. It's far enough away from the city lights that the sky is clear of light pollution. It's also easily accessible from town, so when the aurora forecast is strong and the skies are clear, the parking lots can fill up with folks hoping to get a glimpse of the north's most famous celestial phenomena. Unlike in Scandinavia or even farther north in Canada, you don't have to wait until long winter nights to see the northern lights. I photographed the aurora for the first time in mid-July! See my article on how to photograph the northern lights here

Go. Do. See.

Elk Island National Park is one of the lesser known natural gems of Canada, but it definitely deserves to be on your list. I've had some of my most memorable nature experiences there on my own terms without having to go hundreds of kilometers from home. It's great to have such an amazing natural place so close to the city...it's my "escape room" you might say ; ) For more information on Elk Island National Park, including regulations and park rules, visit the Parks Canada website

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Elk Island National Park, Canada Mini-Guide