Canadian Rockies

Winter in Canmore, Alberta

I never gave Canmore a chance before. It was always just a small area I stopped in to fill up the gas tank on my way to Banff. A couple weekends ago, I decided there had to be more to it. I booked an affordable last minute hotel in Canmore on booking.com deciding it was close enough to Banff to be a base for a long weekend photo trip/getaway for my wife and me. I was surprised to find that beyond the Trans-Canada Highway and behind the trees was a nice little mountain town nestled along the Bow River with all the necessities, and even a few good restaurants and decent shopping.

It was bloody cold. We had been experiencing an extended deep freeze up in Edmonton with high temps hovering around 0°F and below. The Rockies southwest of Edmonton are actually a bit warmer on average, but this weekend the temps in the Banff/Canmore areas dropped significantly below average. Each morning we went out for sunrise at -20°F or below with mid-day highs not much warmer. The sky was 100% cloudless the whole time. That might seem nice to most, but for photographers, it means almost colourless skies for sunrise and sunset. Of course, the temps rose back up into the 20s and 30s just after we left. My fingers froze with two pairs of insulated gloves on. My wife faired a bit better- she doesn’t have to take her hands out of the pockets of her parka to fiddle with cameras like I do. No frost-bite developed, though, I’m sure it came close.

The Problem with Canmore

I had a few locations I wanted to visit in and around town. Scouting them out on the first day, I found that, though Canmore is surrounded by beautiful dramatic mountain scenery (and has several large parks and lakes with mountain views), town planners had no interest in preserving the views. Every view of iconic peaks like Three Sisters and Ha Ling Peak along Canmore’s trails was blocked by crisscrossing power lines. It was frustrating; Banff and Jasper don’t really have this issue. I assume that’s why I don’t really see much landscape photography from the Canmore area despite it’s dramatic setting. Thankfully, you don’t have to go that far outside of the town’s boundaries to get to pristine natural areas.

One of the few views of Three Sisters (two of the three) in Canmore free of power lines. Shot from a bridge in town centre.

One of the few views of Three Sisters (two of the three) in Canmore free of power lines. Shot from a bridge in town centre.

Photographing Three Sisters

The best spot to shoot Canmore’s well-known mountains unobstructed is along Policeman Creek. It’s no secret. Though, it’s not the easiest location to get to, especially in deep winter in a couple feet of snow. This location is so frequented by photographers, however, that several trails had been worn into the snow already. Because most of the creeks and streams were frozen, it may have actually have been a bit easier to hike around in late winter than spring and summer.

The Peaks of Three Sisters at Sunrise, Canmore, Alberta

The Peaks of Three Sisters at Sunrise, Canmore, Alberta

This is not an official area with any sort of infrastructure for pedestrians. It’s not an official trail. You have to park at the small gravel lot for the off-leash dog area on the Bow Valley Trail (1A), walk across the road (often there’s lots of traffic), and then walk underneath the railroad tracks following the stream until you get to Policeman Creek and eventually the Bow River. The reward is unobstructed views of Three Sisters in a natural willow and evergreen forest. In winter at really low temps, mist rises off the Bow River and frosts the trees. It’s magical, but bitterly cold.

Mist rising from the Bow River at -30°F, Canmore, Alberta

Mist rising from the Bow River at -30°F, Canmore, Alberta

The snow was so tracked out it was difficult to find good foreground compositions, so I did my best framing tighter compositions to exclude human footprints. Had there been fresh snow, this would have been less of an issue.

Ha Ling Peak and the Bow River at Sunrise, Canmore, Alberta

Ha Ling Peak and the Bow River at Sunrise, Canmore, Alberta

Outside Canmore: Castle Mountain and Grotto Canyon

During our weekend in the Rockies the Bow Valley Parkway was closed for maintenance. It is one of my favourite drives in the Canadian Rockies, so it was unfortunate, but we were still able to visit Castle Junction near Banff for a sunset shoot. The light was good, but it was very windy on the Bow River. This was the coldest I’ve ever felt in my life! My hands have still not fully recovered.

Castle Mountain Sunset, Banff, Alberta

Castle Mountain Sunset, Banff, Alberta

Grotto Canyon is located along the Bow Valley Trail south of Canmore. It was a beautiful hike through dense snow covered evergreens that eventually opened up into a deep canyon with high vertical walls. The only issue is that there’s a magnesite plant located right next to the trail. For the first 1/2 hour of the hike, it’s loud and annoying. Once you reach the canyon, you can’t hear anything but nature- thank goodness. The best part of this hike for me was seeing the 500-1000 year old pictographs painted on the canyon walls. They’re eroding away with time and most aren’t easy to make out (people also like to rub them for good luck, or to posses shamanistic powers, or because they’re gluten free…I don’t know why people need to touch them…). A few are still pretty visible. Being alone in the canyon by the pictographs is like stepping back in time.

Pictographs in Grotto Canyon, Alberta

Pictographs in Grotto Canyon, Alberta

Close-up of 500-1000 year-old Pictograph, Grotto Canyon, Alberta

Close-up of 500-1000 year-old Pictograph, Grotto Canyon, Alberta

On our way farther down the Bow Valley Trail, we came across bighorn sheep grazing on a hillside with a dramatic mountain backdrop. There are few places to pull over on this road. We found a trailhead parking lot and managed to get close enough photograph the sheep (all female) with a long lens without disturbing them. I’m always hoping for a good wildlife encounter on these trips, so I’m glad I at least got to spend time watching these sheep.

Rocky Mountain Bighorns, Canmore, Alberta

Rocky Mountain Bighorns, Canmore, Alberta

A Photographer’s Gotta Eat

Despite nearly freezing to death each day, we did eat well and warm ourselves in some very cozy restaurants. My favourite thing about Canmore is actually the food. I’ve never been impressed with Banff’s pricey restaurants, and Jasper practically has none (I’m exaggerating…it has very few). We ate at the Famous Chinese Restaurant twice because it’s the best (American-style) Chinese we’ve had since moving to Canada. There are things on their menu I haven’t eaten since leaving the U.S. We loved it, and it’s cheap. We also enjoyed amazing bagel sandwiches and coffee at Rocky Mountain Bagel Co. After our frigid sunrise hike around Policeman Creek, we stuffed ourselves with a nice hot breakfast at Craig’s Way Station. Those pancakes sure hit the spot!

Overall it was an excellent weekend, and I came away with few decent images and ideas for summer and fall shoots. I plan on staying in Canmore again as an alternative to pricey and touristy Banff, if not for the nature, then for my new favourite restaurants.

B-Roll:

Thanks for reading and happy shooting!

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.