Travel Tips

How to Stay in the Canadian Rockies on a Budget

Canada's 150th birthday (2017) was a big year for tourism in Canada's national parks. Entry was free of charge that year. Banff and Jasper National Parks are the most visited by far. I remember being in bumper to bumper traffic miles from the Jasper entrance on my first visit. All the sites were packed and campgrounds and parking lots overflowed throughout summer and fall. It was nuts! Free admission led to an increase of over 400,000 visitors. In an average year, a whopping 8.5 million people still visit Canada's 7 Rocky Mountain Parks. That means high demand for accommodation. That also means you have to plan far ahead (even a year or more) in order to get a place to stay in Jasper and Banff during peak summer season.

I've managed to make paying for accommodation in Alberta and British Columbia's mountain parks relatively cheap. I've visited Banff and/or Jasper NP every month for the last 10 months on a tight budget. Here's what I've learned.

Avoid peak season

It's convenient for most people to head to the Canadian Rockies in summer during vacation season and when school is out. It's also the most pleasant time to visit Canada's natural places weather wise. For these reasons, the high season (June, July, and into August) is the most packed. Knowing this, hotels, lodges and Airbnbs all hike their rates to alarmingly high levels. Supply is low and demand is high...it's simple economics really. 

If possible, it's best to visit the Rockies during shoulder seasons like spring and fall. Autumn can still be quite busy as throngs of tourists (and photographers) flock to the mountains for fall foliage, but it's less crowded than the high season. Winter in the mountains is stunningly beautiful. If you love winter outdoor activities, then you'll also enjoy lower hotel rates and having more Airbnbs to choose from. My wife and I once stayed in a very nice modern hotel in downtown Banff for $350 CDN for a weekend getaway....half the summer rate for the same room.

Tourists harassing an elk in Jasper National Park, Summer 2017. I pulled over 30 yards down the road, whipped out my 500mm lens, and had about 30 seconds alone with this elk before about a dozen other cars showed up. At that point I moved on. People should never get this close to wildlife. 

Tourists harassing an elk in Jasper National Park, Summer 2017. I pulled over 30 yards down the road, whipped out my 500mm lens, and had about 30 seconds alone with this elk before about a dozen other cars showed up. At that point I moved on. People should never get this close to wildlife. 

Book weekdays, not weekends

Year-round weekday rates are typically much lower than weekend dates. I once stayed in a great little Airbnb in downtown Jasper mid-week during February for only $58 CDN per night. That same room costs $30 more per night on weekends in winter (double during high season). If you have flexibility with your dates, use it. It can save you hundreds versus choosing "weekend getaways."

book accommodation wayyyy in advance

If you don't have the flexibility to visit the rockies in the low season, you should book your stay as far in advance as possible. The best and most affordable places book up quickest. This is especially true for Airbnbs. They are usually much cheaper than lodges, hotels, or renting RVs (the latter is surprisingly expensive). Many Airbnbs have kitchens, providing guests the ability to save more money by cooking their own meals (eating out in Jasper and Banff is pricy).

Both Airbnbs and hotels begin disappearing as early as a year in advance in the towns of Jasper and Banff. I recommend booking yours at least 6 months in advance in order to take advantage of the more reasonably priced ones. Wait until the spring before, and you'll have to choose accommodation in one of the peripheral mountain towns farther from the parks.

drive more, pay less

Staying in one of the small towns outside of Banff and Jasper isn't necessarily a bad thing. Towns like Golden, BC, Invermere, BC, Hinton, AB, or Canmore, AB have lots of great places to stay as well. Accommodation in these areas is not as expensive as Jasper and Banff and tend to not book up as quickly. They are all located within the beautiful Canadian Rockies, just a bit farther from the National Park entrances. Even though you may drive a little more to get to the sites within the parks, you'll pay a lot less per night to stay. There are awesome things to see and do within these towns as well. If staying on the British Columbia side of the Rockies, you'll have quicker access to lesser known (but no less amazing) Glacier and Kootenay National Parks, as well as Mount Robson Provincial Park. 

Located on the British Columbia side of the Rockies, Glacier National Park of Canada boasts some pretty awesome sites and hikes for those keen on avoiding crowds. (Photo: Bear Creek Falls, Glacier National Park, BC)

Located on the British Columbia side of the Rockies, Glacier National Park of Canada boasts some pretty awesome sites and hikes for those keen on avoiding crowds. (Photo: Bear Creek Falls, Glacier National Park, BC)

Camping - the most budget friendly option

The most affordable way to spend time in the Canadian Rockies by far is to pitch a tent. There are loads of front country campsites, some primitive, and some with basic amenities like showers and electricity (most also have fire pits and picnic tables). Backcountry camping is also an option for more adventurous travelers. Backcountry camping is around $10 CDN a night, while more convenient front country campsites cost between $22 and $32 CDN per night. Note that some campgrounds are first come, first serve, while some may be booked in advance (the earlier, the better).

Sites with sewer and electrical hookups for RVs cost more, but unless you own a camper van or RV, I wouldn't recommend visiting the Rockies this way. Renting an RV in Canada can cost $400-600 per night excluding gas, insurance, and park fees - not exactly budget friendly. You could stay in a hotel in town or lodge within the park boundaries for that price. 

the elephant in the room: car camping (aka sleeping in your vehicle)

There are no official rules or regulations against overnighting in your passenger vehicle (car, SUV, mini-van) within the national parks. I feel, however, that it's only a matter of time before parks officials figure out a way to regulate this practice. At the time of this writing, there is no mention of "car camping" on the Parks Canada site. Doing so is fairly common practice, especially with those traveling through the park alone. Sometimes the campgrounds are simply booked up entirely, and you may have no choice. It is obviously preferred that people pay and use campsites even if not tent camping. Those with camper vans and small RVs must still register for a campsite. 

Discretion should be used. If overnighting in your vehicle (and assuming you have paid your admission fees for the duration or purchased a discovery pass), you must not park in areas which overnight parking is prohibited or in day use only areas. Do not build fires or pitch tents in areas outside of designated campsites. If overnighting in your vehicle, you should not let your "footprint" grow beyond the parking spot. Photographers typically don't sleep for very long, so the practice of overnighting in their car is common. In the summer months, daylight is so long, and nighttime so short that overnighting is really only a 3 to 4 hour nap, and not technically camping. There are no rules against napping in your car during the day, so why would it matter at night? There is a lot of grey area surrounding this topic...just use your head, pay your fees, and respect the park rules, wildlife, and other visitors.

Behind the Image: Mariaberget & Gamla stan, Stockholm

View of Mariaberget from Gamla stan in early morning light. (155mm, f8, 1/500 sec, ISO 400)

View of Mariaberget from Gamla stan in early morning light. (155mm, f8, 1/500 sec, ISO 400)

I must confess something: I could have made much better images of Stockholm. It's normal, as an artist, to be hard on yourself and even put down your own work. It's normal to doubt whether you'll be able to do justice to a scene or even express your vision for an image at all. It's normal, even for the pros, to get a few sucky photos. It's also easy to make excuses and say, "I tried and I'll do better next time." Next time may not come. Try now. Don't be lazy. Laziness was not exactly my reason for coming home from Sweden with quiet images. I had a stroke of rough luck when two foot conditions that I have flared up at once, beginning the day we arrived and ending the day we flew home. I hadn't had flare ups of either of these separate conditions in months. It was the pain with each step that made me lazy about photography in Sweden last June. In a very walkable city like Stockholm, it flat out sucks to have two bad feet when the pressure's on to make stunning images. I'm a lucky guy as far as health goes. I'm a lucky guy as far as everything goes, actually. I'll complain no more.

Behind the Image: Mariaberget, Gamla stan & Södermalm, Stockholm

Usually, I can bet on having lots of "keepers" and a few strong images that really stand out from each shoot. I've found that over the years I actually make fewer exposures and my ratio of "keepers" to "messups" is about nine to one. In Stockholm I shot hundreds of images each day. They're not bad images - just not my best work. I'd like to say that every time I travel I get better at representing the destination in a creative and dynamic way. Though my images of Stockholm are decent for the travel industry (I've sold several images from the trip including the one above), they do not represent me at my best. In my opinion, I came home with a lot of good, but not great, photographs of an amazing and vibrant city. Each time I browse the archive I think of what images I would retake or try to get if I could do it over. Maybe someday I will. I have many other places on my list, but Stockholm may require a second go to get it right.

My favorite area of Stockholm was Gamla stan (Old Town). No history buff can deny its charm. No tourist can leave Stockholm without wandering its narrow cobblestone streets. My wife and I rented an apartment in Södermalm, a more modern and trendy part of town, but made the trip up to Old Town three times. The first was a mess. We arrived at mid-day to swathes of tourists crammed into the tiny streets like herring in a can, all knocking elbows to get the same shot of Hell's Alley. I'd eventually get mine too. What caught my eye even more was the view of Söder MälarstrandMariaberget from Gamla stan. On the first day in Old Town the light was terrible for this particular scene and getting into the right position to frame it nicely while others grazed my arms and back was impossible. Sore feet added much to the difficulties. I had to have one foot on the narrow sidewalk and the other in the street to get the best composition. Passing cars provided a slightly dangerous obstacle. It became clear that we would need to try again later.

I would get this shot on the second trip over to Old Town. We were on the metro as soon as it started running and were on the quiet streets of Gamla stan almost before anyone else. It was perfect. We had the place to ourselves for about an hour before the crowds and commuters showed up. I used my D600 and my ol' trusty 70-300 VR (I have since replaced it with the 70-200 f2.8 VR II). With one achy and blistered foot on the sidewalk and the other achy and blistered foot in the street, I made this image. The long focal length of 155mm allowed the scene to be compressed and simplified. I couldn't be happier with the light that morning. It took several attempts to have the shot framed exactly the way I wanted, but eventually I got there. A tripod would have helped for sure.

I loved the architecture in Stockholm. There's something for everybody's taste, from modern minimalist, to baroque, to art decco, to Victorian. It is impossible to tell from this image, but Mariaberget (the cluster of buildings in the center) and rows of buildings along the side are actually in different parts of the city separated by the Riddarfjärden waterway. Mariaberget is across the water in Södermalm and the rows of older buildings on either side of the frame are in Gamla stan. Within this shot are actually two major parts of the city, separated by water.

Despite feeling that my shots from Stockholm are overall pretty "quiet", this one stands out a little for me. A couple do actually, but none really jump out at me and scream successful photography. My feet kept me from visiting a few parts of Sweden that I really wanted to go to and definitely limited my ability to "chase the light" so to speak. I could make excuses all day. I've received a lot of positive feedback from others on my Stockholm portfolio, but an artist can be his/her own harshest critic. That's a good thing I guess. 

"My life is shaped by the urgent need to wander and observe, and my camera is my passport."

- Steve McCurry

Bear Creek Falls, Glacier National Park (Canada)

There is some confusing information out there regarding Bear Creek Falls in Glacier National Park of Canada. When I was doing research for my recent trip to British Columbia's rocky mountains, I came across websites that suggested that you can't get to the trail head when driving from the north at all. That's not exactly true. You can, but due to construction and high traffic within Glacier NP during my visit, it was difficult to tell where the pull off for the trailhead was. My wife saw it as we drove past (headed south along Trans Canada Highway West from the park entrance), and we simply turned around at the next safe place. There's nothing keeping you from turning left as long as you don't miss it. The sites I visited said there is no left turning lane for the trailhead, but there is no right turning lane either if you're coming from the other direction. The sign is only visible when coming from the south (Trans Canada Highway East). Just be very aware of traffic - I've never seen people drive so unnecessarily fast in all of Canada as they do down the Trans Canada Highway through Glacier NP. 

Bear Creek Falls, Glacier National Park of Canada, British Columbia

Bear Creek Falls, Glacier National Park of Canada, British Columbia

Now that you've found it, simply park in the lot and head down the relatively short and easy downhill trail through damp mossy woods to Connaught Creek. The trailhead is obvious and the trail itself is well-maintained all the way. The main waterfall cannot be missed. It's well worth the 1.7 km round trip hike. Sturdy waterproof footwear is a must for exploring this area, especially in autumn. The waterfall cascades beautifully and powerfully down mossy boulders framed by lush green spruce, firs, and ferns. From about 30-40 feet up, blue waters pool into the large creek below in a few stepped ledges high above the trail. 

Glacier National Park of Canada is a stunning environment and a great option if you're weary of the huge crowds in Banff and Jasper. We only encountered two other couples on our Bear Creek Falls hike, and it's one of the most popular spots in the park. As always, check the conditions on the Parks Canada site before venturing out.

5 Awesome Photo Locations in Banff

5 AWESOME PHOTO LOCATIONS IN BANFF NATIONAL PARK

Banff National Park needs little introduction. It is one of the most popular destinations in North America and is home to some of the most photographed natural scenes in Canada if not on earth. As a travel photographer, there is the constant challenge of dealing with large crowds and attempting to get unique shots of heavily photographed areas. It can be rather exhausting - both the effort and natural beauty. In other words, Banff is one of those iconic places (much like Iceland) that are so naturally stunning that it can be emotionally taxing when taking in all the beautiful landscapes. Crowds or not, it's worth the trip. 

I've visited Banff NP three times now. The most recent trip was with my wife. We also visited a couple of the rocky mountain national parks in British Columbia over a long weekend (Kootenay and Glacier), and saved Banff, Alberta for our last full day. In that one day we experienced three seasons of weather: everything from sunny autumn daylight to rain to dark blizzards. October in Banff was quite a different place from the moderate, sunny days I spent there in mid-summer. Nonetheless, a trip to the rockies is always worth it. Here are some of the top (most popular...well-known, etc) photography locations in Banff National Park and my experiences visiting them. 

LAKE LOUISE

Lake Louise with Snow-capped Mountains, Banff National Park

Lake Louise with Snow-capped Mountains, Banff National Park

Lake Louise is one of the most popular spots in Banff NP. It's easily accessible and surrounded by resorts and lodges. It's a top spot for tour buses and photography workshops. I very much recommend getting there early, especially on holiday weekends. My wife and I first showed up at midday during our Canadian Thanksgiving weekend trip and were surprised to find no parking anywhere near the lake. In fact, there were so many tourists, even the overflow parking 21 kilometers away was almost full and running shuttles to and from Lake Louise! This place is nice, but not worth all that. That's why I say get there early; sunrise on the lake is beautiful, and the trails around Lake Louise will be less trampled earlier in the day. When we showed up again just after sunrise, we managed a parking spot right near the lake. 

I managed to drop my expensive 6-stop neutral density filter into the rocks on the lakeshore while clumsily fiddling with it while wearing gloves. I was trying to soften the movement of the lake surface because the frigid breeze was causing too many ripples for the image I wanted. Unfortunately, the crash resulted in 3 large unfixable scares in the center of the filter...I carried on without it. It's difficult to piss and moan in such awesome surroundings. 

Moraine Lake

Moraine Lake Sunset, Banff National Park

Moraine Lake Sunset, Banff National Park

Moraine Lake is the next most popular spot in Banff NP. It's about 14 kilometers away from Lake Louise and also near popular resorts. Again, get there early. Sunset is nice, but the sun doesn't set directly behind the mountains, so don't count on a full sky of dramatic color. The sun also doesn't  rise directly in front of them, so the first rays of light only skim the highest peaks of the mountain range. Personally, I think morning is best primarily because you'll likely only run into a few photographers and a hand-full of tourists. Like Lake Louise, the parking lots can fill up fast during peak weekends. Unlike Lake Louise, Moraine Lake only has the one trail to the summit overlooking the lake, lodge, and mountain range. Be careful when clambering over boulders on the summit; there can be ice where you don't expect it and rock pica call this area home. 

Peyto Lake

Peyto Lake in Autumn Blizzard, Banff National Park

Peyto Lake in Autumn Blizzard, Banff National Park

The image above of Peyto Lake wasn't made in January. It was shot in early-October on the same morning as the Lake Louise image at the top of this page. That's how much weather can vary in the mountains. When my wife and I came to the overlook of Peyto Lake a huge snow cloud came rolling in, covering the mountains and leading to a short white-out. The hike to the Peyto Lake view point is easy and takes about 10 minutes. On this snowy October day, however, it took quite a bit longer with more effort as ice had formed all over the trail and deep snow blanketed the forest. In the summer weeks, beautiful alpine wildflowers carpet the small meadows tucked away in the forest along the trail. Whether you're there in winter or summer, as always, arrive early for sunrise and avoid the crowds. 

Peyto Lake in Summer, Banff National Park

Peyto Lake in Summer, Banff National Park

To access Peyto Lake, turn at the sign for Bow Summit on the Icefields Parkway and make the next right into the parking area. It's easy to overlook because there is currently no sign indicating Peyto Lake. 

Mistaya Canyon

Sunrise at Mistaya Canyon, Banff National Park

Sunrise at Mistaya Canyon, Banff National Park

We couldn't squeeze Mistaya Canyon into our full day in Banff NP, but on the early morning drive back through the area on our departure day, I could tell a great sunrise was brewing. I stopped at the pull-off for Mistaya Canyon - no one was around...a first for this trip. I had little time because we needed to make it back to Edmonton to pick up our dogs before the boarding facility closed early for Thanksgiving. I grabbed my tripod with the full frame camera and 18-35mm lens with my polarizer attached, leaving all else in the car (including the Missus who was cold and sleepy). Seeing the sign for Mistaya Canyon in 300 meters, I sprinted the whole way down the rocky trail. When I arrived at the canyon I was stunned. It is easily one of the most beautiful spots for morning landscape photography in Banff, and I had it all to myself for a few short minutes. 

I bounded from cliff to cliff and rock to rock gathering as many different compositions as I could before the bright pink light above the mountain faded. In only 10 minutes I had about 30 shots! It was the perfect way to end the trip as far as photography goes. It would have been nice to have my 6-stop ND...but we'll not bring that up again. 

MOUNT RUNDLE

Mount Rundle, Town of Banff

Mount Rundle, Town of Banff

The image above of Mount Rundle is a "reference shot." In other words, I'm going to return during better light (probably sunrise as you might have guessed) and shoot from this same viewpoint. This image was made in the late afternoon on the last full day of our Banff trip. We had gone into the town of Banff for lunch (pancakes, pancakes, and more pancakes) and to explore the town a bit before our drive back to the B.C. side of the mountains and our tiny Airbnb. The town itself is a pretty typical mountain resort town, full of overdressed tourists, t-shirt stores, and expensive outdoor gear shops. The best thing about it is it's surroundings within the beautiful Canadian Rockies. This view of Mount Rundle is easily accessible from downtown Banff via Vermillion Lakes Road. There are various convenient spots to pull over and see the lakes and mountains along the short road, which eventually dead-ends at a cul-du-sac. The autumn color is particularly strong here. Mount Rundle is one of Banff's many iconic scenes and is a popular spot to photograph in winter when the lake is frozen.

 

Map of Banff National Park Area:

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Top 5 Photography Locations in Banff National Park

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