The beauty of the Canadian Rockies is legendary among nature photographers. Not only is the scenery stunning and the wildlife abundant, it’s all easily accessible by highway. To whet your appetite, and for those just passing through, we offer you three scenic drives that we consider the best of the Canadian Rockies. And if you’re looking for more than a quick scout, we have many ‘where to’ guides on these parks for those of you wishing to experience the area in more depth. Watch for the next installment in this topic, Three Amazing Secret Drives in the Canadian Rockies.
The Canadian Rockies form a jagged spine along the western border of the province of Alberta and the eastern border of the province of British Columbia in Canada. For fastest access to the roads described in this article fly into Calgary International Airport in Calgary, Alberta, rent a car and drive west from Calgary on the Trans Canada Highway (highway 1). In just over an hour you’ll be swinging left onto highway 40 which leads you into Kananaskis Country where you’ll find a memory card full of photos.
Highway 40 – Kananaskis Country
International tourists seldom visit Kananaskis Country opting instead to visit nearby Banff National Park. That’s a shame because in many ways Kananaskis Country has more potential for great nature photography than does its more popular neighbor. First, K-country has far fewer visitors. Second, the main highway through K-country, Highway 40, runs north/south through the backbone of the Rockies with peaks on the west side of the road lit by sunrise and peaks on the east side of the road lit by sunset. Finally, I have had much better luck finding animals to photograph in K-country than in Banff National Park. This past spring a friend reported seeing and photographing eight different grizzly bears in a single morning while driving Highway 40! And deer, elk, sheep and moose are always abundant along the road.
Highway 40 begins about one hour west of Calgary, Alberta from a well-marked junction off the Trans Canada Highway (Highway 1). From this intersection to the heights of Highwood Pass some 68 kilometers (42 miles) farther south, Highway 40 traverses through an incredible variety of terrain and wildlife from forested foothills with grazing elk to a high alpine pass with foraging grizzlies. When in this area, be sure to visit at least the following stops (all are well marked or easy to find): Barrier Lake, Mount Lorette Ponds, Wedge Pond, Mount Kidd Reflecting Pools (one km south of the Galatea trailhead parking lot), Upper and Lower Kananaskis Lakes, Spillway Lake, Elbow Pass, and Highwood Pass. Be aware that the section of Highway 40 from Kananaskis Lakes to the Highwood Pass is closed from Dec. 1 to June 15 each year. Stay tuned for our new eBook on Kananaskis Country coming soon!
Vermilion Lakes Scenic Drive – Banff National Park.
Continue west on Highway 1 from Kananaskis country into Banff National Park and take the second highway exit into the town of Banff (the Mount Norquay Road). Take an immediate right (west) onto the Vermilion Lake scenic drive and be prepared for a short, sweet and intense drive. This road is only 4.8 km (3 miles) long yet packed in this short distance are iconic views that often keep photographers busy for days. Here the road hugs the north shore of the three Vermilion Lakes with views south, west, and east across the lakes to the Sundance, Massive, and Fairholme Ranges.
You couldn’t design a more perfect setting for photography with the three Vermilion Lakes running east to west and photography done from the north shoreline giving dramatic sidelight at both sunrise and sunset. Most photographers prefer evening light as the sun drips warm light on the western face of wedge-shaped Mount Rundle.
About an hour or two before sunset, the water often calms to a mirror-like finish making perfect reflection shots possible. Early mornings are also good for reflection shots, and often after a cool evening, ground fog or mist will linger to add drama to the scene. Even mid-day can be productive for photographers especially as the sky begins to load up with the big, white, puffy cumulus clouds that are so common in the spring and summer. We’ll arrive at dawn and photograph to dusk, stopping only at mid-day for a hearty lunch in Banff.
We can’t cover in more detail in this short article our favourite spots on the Vermilion Lakes scenic drive (or all the other wonderful locations in Banff) but it’s all in our Banff National Park eBook if you’re looking for more!
The Icefields Parkway – Banff and Jasper National Park
Your next stop is the famous Icefields Parkway. Drive west of Banff on Highway 1 to just past Lake Louise where highway 93 (the Icefields Parkway) heads north to Jasper, Alberta.
The term, “drive-by shooting” was not born on the streets of L.A., but along the wide shoulders of the Icefields Parkway, where you can literally stop anywhere at random, and shoot memorable images. This 230-kilometer (138 mile) road winds alongside the eastern spine of the Rockies skirting glaciers, turquoise lakes, churning rivers, buttressed peaks, and abundant wildlife. It’s enough to make a photographer dizzy with possibilities. Many people have heralded the Icefields Parkway as one of the most scenic drives in North America and it’s not hard not to see why. There is so much stuff to shoot here that a photographer could easily spend weeks just cataloging all the great scenes along this stretch of pavement.
It’s almost pointless for me to describe the ‘best spots’ along the parkway because everywhere is fantastic. But the beauty here is so overwhelming that first-timers often need a bit of direction to focus their efforts. Here is a list of my favorite spots to check out: Herbert Lake, Mosquito Creek, Bow Lake and Bow Summit, Peyto Lake, Waterfowl Lakes, Mistaya Canyon, Rampart Ponds, the Weeping Wall, Panther Falls, Wilcox Pass, the Columbia Icefields, Beauty Creek, Sunwapta Falls, Athabasca Falls, and Horseshoe Lake.
Be sure to always have your camera ready with a telephoto lens mounted because roadside wildlife sightings are a given. I still chastise myself for having my camera buried deep in the trunk of my vehicle when right beside the highway three wolves nearly took down an elk in the Athabasca River! To learn more about the Icefields Parkway hot spots and secret stops check out our Icefields Parkway Summer and Icefields Parkway Winter eBooks. Oh, and to make sure you don’t miss your chance at photographing the wildlife, oopoomoo contributing author and respected wildlife photographer John Marriott has made it easy for you with the Icefields Parkway-Wildlife Edition eBook!
There you have it — three drives that will let you see the best of the Rockies and do it without breaking a sweat.