Mountains

Behind the Image: Autumn on Grandfather Mountain

BEHIND THE IMAGE:
Autumn on Grandfather Mountain,
Blue Ridge Mountains, NC

As we near the first official days of the fall season, it seems that winter may have come early here in Alberta. It’s already below freezing and snowing out! In the spirit of Autumn, I thought I’d share an experience from 2 years ago in the Blue Ridge Mountains…

Autumn is a fleeting time of year. One day the humid forest is thick and green, and seemingly the next day, it is chilly and blanketed in vibrant shades of red, yellow, and orange. This "peak" in color usually comes in mid-October and lasts only a day or two before the leaves turn brown or are blown off the trees by heavy winds, leaving a forest of grey skeletons. Those winds, along with a sharp drop in temperatures, signal the coming of winter. Autumn triggers a hurried response from wildlife and humans alike to prepare for the long cold months ahead.

I was buried in images from my October 2016 trip to Iceland when I realized I only had a couple days left to photograph the fall colors in the Blue Ridge. I decided to take a break and drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway and hike up the steep and craggy trail at Rough Ridge just before sunset. I knew it would be crowded with visitors even though it was a random weekday evening. I envisioned an image of the golden light of sunset blanketing the lower mountains below Rough Ridge to the east, but every possibly decent spot to set up had several selfie-taking tourists already hunkered down for what was clearly going to be an amazing sunset. I suppressed my irritation. I have no more right to be there than them, and who could blame anyone for wanting to see this spectacular Fall foliage at sunset?

Autumn colors on Grandfather Mountain from Rough Ridge Trail, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina. (Nikon D600, Nikkor 18-35G Lens, Gitzo Tripod, Circular Polarizer, 3-stop ND filter) © Jon Reaves Photography

Autumn colors on Grandfather Mountain from Rough Ridge Trail, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina. (Nikon D600, Nikkor 18-35G Lens, Gitzo Tripod, Circular Polarizer, 3-stop ND filter) © Jon Reaves Photography

I abandoned my original plan and set up on the only rocky outcrop that was vacant. It pointed toward the eastern face of Grandfather Mountain- opposite of where I had planned to point my camera. The sun was about to set behind the mountain. I set up, composed, and waited for a few minutes for the sunset colors to intensify. It was a tricky scene to meter; high contrast scenes always are. I used a polarizer to help intensify the colors and darken the sky a bit and used the lightest edge of my graduated neutral density filter to balance out the sky with the dark mountain.

I usually shoot with my white balance set to "daylight", but chose to shoot this scene in "cloudy" to further intensify the warm colors in both the sky and forest (though, because I shoot in RAW format this is easily changeable in post). I bracketed several exposures to make sure my histogram was balanced and I hadn't plunged the shadows and blown the highlights. A tripod was completely necessary for stability. This shot required a narrow aperture for increased depth of field, a low ISO for decreased noise, and so a long shutter speed was the result. No hand-holding this shot! I used the camera's two-second timer to reduce the likelihood of blur. Only a slight levels and contrast adjustment was required in post to bring this image back to life the way I remembered it.

I'm glad I took that evening off and hiked up Rough Ridge for this shot during peak Autumn color. Only a few days later, the trees on Grandfather Mountain became brown and nearly bare. Soon after, the landscape was virtually colorless for 6 months until spring.

“I stand for what I stand on.” - Edward Abbey

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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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!