Icefields Parkway

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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Exploring the Icefields Parkway, Part II, Jasper & Banff National Park

EXPLORING THE ICEFIELDS PARKWAY, PART II, JASPER & BANFF NATIONAL PARK

I drove into the Canadian Rockies last week in hopes of photographing a particular species: Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep. I grew up watching Marty Stauffer's Wild America, and big horns were sort of the trademark animal of the series, celebrated in various episodes. I always dreamed of visiting the rocky mountains and seeing large rams butt heads on high mountain meadows - or at least standing proudly on a cliff overlooking snow-capped peaks. Alas, no rams on the way into Jasper National Park, just a few ewes high up on craggy ledges. I stopped for a few shots and moved on, later exiting onto the Icefields Parkway on one of the hottest and haziest days of the summer. 

It must have been too hot for wildlife that day. I expected to see more elk, as I had photographed them each time I'd driven down the Icefields Parkway before, but no elk, no bears, not even a raven for miles. I stopped at the "Goat Overlook" (the sign reads "Goats and Glaciers", but I didn't see any goats or glaciers...) and walked the short trail to the edge of the cliff overlooking the Athabasca River with Mount Christie and Brussels Peak on the horizon. I saw the potential for an image there, so I decided that would be my sunset location. I was hoping for goats; the sign implies that they hang out there after all, but nothing was stirring but a few Canada Geese at the edge of the river. 

Mount Christie and Brussels Peak from the Banks of the Athabasca River, Jasper National Park

Mount Christie and Brussels Peak from the Banks of the Athabasca River, Jasper National Park

Happy Little Trees

As the sun got lower, I set up for a some exposures at "Goats and Glaciers." I framed the river and mountains and decided that wasn't enough, so I then added two wiggly spruce trees to the left of the frame (thinking, "let's put a happy little tree right over here and give him a little friend"), which added a much needed foreground element. The sunset didn't quite create the dramatic sky I was hoping for. After taking those shots, I drove down to the next overlook by the river bank, stepped out into the river on some stones and framed a simple shot of a few whispy pink clouds over the mountains with the cool glacial river flowing by. All campsites nearby were full, so I went back to "Goats and Glaciers" and set up camp in the back of my Jeep. I didn't sleep much. The park was so busy with folks trying to get campsites at nearby Honeymoon Lake, it was like sleeping next to a highway. Not quite the peaceful night I was hoping for after a day trekking around the mountains in the heat. 

Athabasca River and Rocky Mountains, Jasper National Park

Athabasca River and Rocky Mountains, Jasper National Park

Sunset over Athabasca River, Jasper National Park

Sunset over Athabasca River, Jasper National Park

Saskatchewan River Crossing & Peyto Lake

I awoke literally one minute before my alarm went off at 4:29 AM. My research suggested that it would take me 1 hour to drive to Peyto Lake in Banff National Park from my "campsite." I hit the road 1 1/2 hours before sunrise time, excited by the prospect of visiting Banff for the first time and capturing sunrise at iconic Peyto Lake. Things didn't quite go according to plan... When I arrived at the mid-point of my journey, Saskatchewan Crossing, sunrise was already in peak color. It was a great one, much better than last evening's sunset. I realized I wasn't going to make it to Peyto Lake, so I pulled over at the bridge and took a few shots just before the light faded away. It wasn't what I had planned, but it was a great location and all the elements came together in a few photographs I'm proud of. It would take another 45 minutes to arrive at Peyto Lake, plus the 10 minute hike into the woods to get to the best location. 

Saskatchewan River Crossing at Sunrise, Banff National Park

Saskatchewan River Crossing at Sunrise, Banff National Park

There was no color left in the sky when I arrived at Peyto Lake. I wasn't that disappointed; this was one of the best vistas I've ever seen anywhere! Other than one artist sitting on the wooden deck painting the scene, I had the place to myself. It was early enough no one else was out. I took a few shots. The sky had some puffy white clouds rolling across the blue sky, but the mountains were dark as the sun had not yet emerged from behind one of the eastern mountains. I went back to the car for breakfast and waited until the the sun's rays began to light the peaks of the mountains to the west. I grabbed my gear and ran out through the woods to the overlook to find a couple dozen people crowding the edge (and a drone buzzing overhead sounding like a pissed-off honey bee). I wedged my way through and shot several images from different locations all along the sandy bank high above the emerald colored lake. Golden light hit the mountains and clouds rolled quickly across the sky. I shot away, then opted to go for a time-lapse video. I would've liked to have been there for the colorful sunrise earlier, but I'm not disappointed in the images I did get. It's a magical place. I won't stay away long. 

Peyto Lake Time-lapse, Banff National Park, Canada

Return to Goats & Glaciers

I made two stops on my way back north along the Icefields Parkway at Rampart Creek and Tangle Falls. I had Rampart Creek all to myself. It was a peaceful location. I made several long exposures of water rushing over colorful stones with a glorious mountain in the background using a 6 stop neutral density filter. I sat at the edge watching a golden mantled ground squirrel gather seeds for about a half hour. 

Tangle Falls was a different experience all together. It's a famous waterfall that cascades dramatically down a few cliffside steps around 100-150 feet in all. I arrived to find several others climbing around the falls. I took two long exposures with the 6 stop ND to try and blur the people out of the scene with no luck. The sun came out and dappled the scene in harsh flat light. I decided to save Tangle Falls for another time. 

Rampart Creek, Banff National Park

Rampart Creek, Banff National Park

I arrived at "Goats and Glaciers" around mid-day to find a family of Mountain Goats grazing by the road. They lumbered off into the woods toward the overlook where I had been the evening before as a few tourists approached them for selfies (this drives me insane - please do not approach wildlife). I parked and went into the woods behind them indirectly and from a generous distance with nothing but my Nikon D7100 and 70-200 f2.8 lens. I followed their fresh tracks in the sand until I reached the steep banks of the Athabasca. I looked over the cliff and scanned the river's edge, but saw no goats. They had a hiding spot. A few minutes of scanning, and a goat popped up, then another. I took a few shots. They saw me and went back into hiding. I knew they would have to come back up sooner or later. I sat in the woods in between some juniper bushes for only a few moments when they emerged. If I remember correctly, there were six total. One billy, a few nannies, and two kids, all fluffy and white. I did the "looking for my wallet" routine so they didn't think I was out to get them. When they relaxed, they came closer, and I fired off several shots as they meandered through the bush only feet away from me at a slow pace, eventually disappearing into the woods. Though I saw no big horn rams this trip, I'm happy to have a had a few peaceful moments with this family of mountain goats! 

Go. Do. See.

I'm lucky to live near so much amazing nature and wildlife here in western Canada. I'm getting to spend time with animals I'd dreamed of seeing my whole life. Every time I go out into the rockies, it's harder to leave. I encourage all to visit the amazing natural places in North America, just do so with respect. Don't approach wildlife directly, give them plenty of space. Take time to observe and learn things instead of snapping a quick cell phone pic and moving on. The wonders of the natural world are delicate and fleeting, so are we, enjoy it while it lasts. 

To read Part I of Exploring the Icefields Parkway, click here! To find out what's in my camera bag, click here!

Exploring the Icefields Parkway, Part I, Jasper National Park

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

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

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

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

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

EXPLORING THE ICEFIELDS PARKWAY

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

Iconic Waterfalls & Wildlife

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

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

Sunwapta Falls, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

Sunwapta Falls, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

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

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

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

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

Athabasca Falls, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

Athabasca Falls, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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