Banff

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.

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.

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.