Three Killer Drives in the Canadian Rockies

Posted by on May 7, 2013 in Fave Photos, Free Articles | 12 Comments

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.

©Darwin Wiggett - Highway 40 in Kananaskis Country

©Darwin Wiggett – Highway 40 in Kananaskis Country

Getting There 

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.

©Darwin Wiggett - Wedge Pond, Kananaskis

©Darwin Wiggett – Wedge Pond, Kananaskis

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.

©Darwin Wiggett - Grizzly

©Darwin Wiggett – Grizzly

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!

©Darwin Wiggett - Lorette Ponds

©Darwin Wiggett – Lorette Ponds

©Darwin Wigett - Spillway Lake

©Darwin Wigett – Spillway Lake

©Darwin Wiggett - Highway 40 at Highwaood Pass

©Darwin Wiggett – Highway 40 at Highwaood Pass

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.

©Samantha Chrysanthou - Vermilion Lake detail

©Samantha Chrysanthou – Vermilion Lake detail

©Samantha Chrysanthou - Vermilion Lake reflection

©Samantha Chrysanthou – Vermilion Lake reflection

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.

©Darwin Wiggett - The second Vermilion Lake at sunset in winter

©Darwin Wiggett – The second Vermilion Lake at sunset in winter

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. 

©Darwin Wiggett - Mount Rundle at sunset in summer

©Darwin Wiggett – Mount Rundle at sunset in summer

©Darwin Wiggett - mid-day at the third Vermilion Lake

©Darwin Wiggett – mid-day at the third Vermilion Lake

©Darwin Wiggett - sunrise over the first Vermilion Lake

©Darwin Wiggett – sunrise over the first Vermilion Lake 

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.

©Darwin Wiggett - Graveyard Flats

©Darwin Wiggett – Graveyard Flats

©Darwin Wiggett - Mount Chephren and the Mistaya River

©Darwin Wiggett – Mount Chephren and the Mistaya River

©Samantha Chrysanthou - Bow Lake abstract

©Samantha Chrysanthou – Bow Lake abstract

©Darwin Wiggett - The Columbia Icefields

©Darwin Wiggett – The Columbia Icefields

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.

©Samantha Chrysanthou - Waterfowl Lake

©Samantha Chrysanthou – Waterfowl Lake

©Samantha Chrysanthou - Forest Fire Haze Layers

©Samantha Chrysanthou – Layers of haze from forest fires along the parkway

©Darwin Wiggett - Horseshoe Lake

©Darwin Wiggett – 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!

©Darwin Wiggett - the shot that almost got away!

©Darwin Wiggett – the shot that almost got away!

©Darwin Wiggett - Hawk Owl at Bow Summit

©Darwin Wiggett – Hawk Owl at Bow Summit

There you have it — three drives that will let you see the best of the Rockies and do it without breaking a sweat.

©Darwin Wiggett - The Icefields Parkway

©Darwin Wiggett – The Icefields Parkway 

About the Author

I am a Canadian landscape and outdoor photographer who loves long hikes in the woods, yummy food, hairy dogs, good company and a good guitar jam.

12 Comments

  1. Jane Chesebrough
    May 7, 2013

    I am just itching to get to the mountains-fantastic shots, both of you!

  2. Jeffrey Wu
    May 7, 2013

    I’ll be there on Nov for Fire and Ice,can’t hardly wait!

  3. Boob Perry
    May 7, 2013

    Great pics…I have all of the icefield books plus most of your other books…money well spent…keep up the good work both of you

  4. Scott Flaherty
    May 7, 2013

    I’m glad I saw this post, because my family wanted to go to Banff for Christmas this year. I just downloaded your Banff National Park eBook and it’s giving me some good ideas as to what I might be able to plan for this December. Thanks . . .

  5. Anne Jutras
    May 7, 2013

    Hi Darwin and Sam! Some gorgeous shots you got there. So exquisite and beautifully compose. I dream of the day who I’ll be able to hunt such breathtaking pictures!

  6. Bobby Scott
    May 7, 2013

    I can’t WAIT to hit up these places this spring/summer. Like always, incredible vision :)

  7. Jan Zwilling
    May 8, 2013

    Damn, now you got me dreaming away from my work. I got hooked three years ago when I visited the Rockies with my wife. The memories are incredibly vivid, but at the same time I often realize how much we missed on our trip. Time to come back! Maybe next year in September.

  8. Fran Gallogly
    May 8, 2013

    So gorgeous. Wish I could go there.

  9. Guy
    May 9, 2013

    This country of ours is so wonderful. We are lucky and this post reeeeeeaaaallllyyyyy reenforces that.

  10. Karen
    June 4, 2013

    Hi Darwin, did you know you are a genius? :)
    All the photos are just sooooo beautiful!
    And you are so nice to tell us where to take these photos!

    THANKS!

  11. Kananaskis Country Closed But We Can Help John Marriott! | oopoomoo
    June 27, 2013

    [...] venturing into Alberta this year, be aware that Kananaskis Country just west of Calgary, home of one of the premiere drives in the Canadian Rockies, will likely be closed all summer due to bridge washouts. Right now both [...]

  12. Jane Chesebrough
    June 28, 2013

    Awesome photos! Thanks for taking me on a drive through some of my favourite country.Happy Canada Day Darwin and Sam!

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