The unique beauty of Banff National Park & the Canadian Rockies is its glaciers. They create the lakes, the waterfalls, the stunning rock cliffs, and the beautiful valleys. The mountains of the Canadian Rockies are not as high as the mountains south in the United States, but they surely look it. The illusion is created by peaks wrapped in glaciers and a lower tree line. Glaciers make the mountains sparkle with blue ice. They fill the lakes with silt giving them a distinctive green color. They are so close to some roadways, that a short walk literally takes you toe to toe with a living glacier. Visit the Canadian Rockies for the sheer grandeur of the scenery created by glaciers.
Although the scenery would be enough to satisfy any photographer, wildlife photographers will be thrilled by the proximity of fairly tame animals. Cute marmots, pikas, and Columbia ground squirrels frequent picnic areas and high trails. Big game animals include wood bison, elk, bighorn sheep, deer, and sometimes mountain goats. Large animals congregate at salt licks and near and even on the parkways. Bears, wolverines, wolves, and woodland caribou are about, but rarely seen.
When to visit the Southern Canadian Rockies
Mid-June to mid-September is the prime season. Unfortunately, many people take advantage of the good weather during this period. The parks are packed, accommodations are hard to come by and expensive, and the trails are crowded. If you can, plan your visit from mid-September to mid-October. There are fewer people, the prices are dramatically lower, the weather is still comfortable, and the fall color will be spectacular. Late spring weather can be unpredictable, but wildlife photographers may find some wonderful opportunities to photograph animals right along the roadways. Roads are salted during the winter to melt the ice and spring runoff of the salt attracts the animals. Waterfalls, too, will be at their peak during late spring and early summer.
The parks are open all year and draw a good ski crowd during the winter months. Crowds and prices peak during the Christmas to New Year period. The main roads are kept open throughout the winter, including the Icefield Parkway. However, be prepared for extensive weather delays. Even during the summer months, some higher elevation areas can have snowfall, and temperatures can be chilly even on a warm day.
Getting There and Touring the Southern Parks
If you are flying in, Calgary will be your destination. If you are driving from points east or west in Canada, you will probably take the Trans-Canada Highway, which runs through both Banff national park and Yoho national park.
From Calgary take the Trans-Canada Highway to Banff Townsite and plan to spent a couple of days there. Then travel up the Bow Valley Parkway to Lake Louise. If you have some spare time, you can include a detour into Kootenay. Stay in the Lake Louise area at least overnight. Again if you have extra time, you might want to include a detour into Yoho National Park. Then I would suggest you take the Icefield Parkway as far as Athabasca Glacier in the Columbia Icefield. You will need at least a full day for this. Then backtrack to the David Thompson Highway (Route 11) and take it to Red Deer. Return to Calgary via Route 2. You can continue to Jasper National Park after the Athabasca Glacier, if you have plenty of time for an extended trip. This is the minimum tour, and the following guide should give you some ideas on where you might want to spend more time.
If you are expecting a quaint little mountain village, you will be disappointed in Banff Townsite. This is a wall to wall tourist area with every imaginable amenity. Here you’ll find motels, hotels, campgrounds, gift shops, photo stores, restaurants, museums, and more. During the summer, Banff Townsite is also packed with people. This is not the place for someone seeking solitude with nature.
Come September and Banff Townsite is another place. Lodging costs plummet to half the price, fall color adds vibrancy to the scenery, elk move down to more accessible winter ranges, and there are fewer visitors. If I were to pick the best time to visit Banff Townsite, it would be in fall.
As is common in Canadian National Parks, nature and civilization are close at hand but each has its own place. Beyond the boundaries of the townsite, you are in the rugged wilderness. Nature, here, is easy to reach. You can comfortably travel to some of the best scenic sites and wildlife locations in your own car, on a short hike, or even on a short gondola ride. Wild couldn’t be easier to get to.
Banff Townsite is on the Trans-Canada Highway (Route 1) and an easy stopover traveling cross country. It is about 75 miles from Calgary, the nearest major city. Banff Townsite is located in the valley formed by the Bow River, surrounded by very spectacular mountains. In the center of the of the valley near the townsite is odd Tunnel Mountain that makes an excellent tripod platform for views of the surrounding valley and the townsite. To the south is Mount Rundle one of the most photographed peaks in the area. It has a distinctive shape with a flat, angled surface to the southwest, while the other side is steeper and more irregular. Also south of town is Sulphur Mountain, a ski area in winter and another good tripod platform. To the northwest is Mount Norquay and to the north Cascade Mountain.
There are several strategies you can use in your explorations. If your time is very short, I would plan a sunrise and/or a sunset at Vermilion Lakes to photograph the first or last light on Mount Rundle. At the lakes or nearby Fenland and Marsh trailsl, I would plan to photograph moose feeding in the marshes at dawn and sunset. Then spend the later part of the morning photographing Bow Falls and Banff Springs Hotel. Late in the morning take the gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain for some outstanding aerial views of the Bow River Valley and the mountains, and to photograph the very tame bighorn sheep, chipmunks and squirrels. You don’t want to go up to the summit of Sulphur Mountain too late in the day if you want good valley views, especially of the Banff Springs Hotel. The mountain casts a shadow on the valley and views to Mount Rundle will have flat lighting. Then drive to the Hoodoos for the afternoon light. A good late afternoon drive would be through the buffalo paddock (also good in the morning) and then return to the Vermilion Lakes area for sunset or a good moose spot.
South of the Townsite
Tunnel Mountain and the Hoodoos
You can hike to the top of Tunnel Mountain from a trail that begins in town at St. Julien Road. Although this is rated as a strenuous climb, most people can make the trek if they take their time. The trail is three miles round-trip with a 900-foot gain in elevation. If you decide to go all the way to the summit, you should allow at least three hours. As you ascend this mountain the trail moves around it affording you different views of the Bow Valley, Vermilion Lakes, the Banff Springs Hotel, Sulphur Mountain, Mount Rundle, and the Spray River Valley. From the top of this mountain you can walk around photographing different views from this vantagepoint in the center of the valley. If you make this hike early (before there are too many people) you might encounter deer along the way.
Tunnel Mountain Drive is an excellent scenic drive and you will want to allow extra time for stopping at various viewpoints along this 5.5-mile route. You can pick it up of the Trans-Canada Highway east of town or from Buffalo Street at the south end of the townsite. The first stop you will want to make is at the Bow Falls Viewpoint. From here you can photograph Bow Falls and the elegant Banff Springs Hotel. The hotel is one of the most photographed structures in the Canadian Rockies and you will have several opportunities to photograph it is from different vantage points throughout the townsite area. Bow Falls can also be photographed from the other side of the river off Golf Course Road.
The road then climbs to a viewpoint on Tunnel Mountain where you have some outstanding views over the Bow River Valley. Tunnel Mountain Drive then becomes Tunnel Mountain Road. Look for two pullovers about a half mile from the Hoodoo Turnoff where you can photograph some excellent views of Mount Rundle.
The next stop is the Hoodoos parking area. The hoodoos are pillars of limestone that have been strangely eroded by wind and water. An easy half-mile paved path takes you to good views of the hoodoos, Mount Rundle and the Bow and Spray river valleys. Near the beginning is a terrific view of Mount Rundle and the Bow River Valley. A little farther on is a good view of the hoodoos with Banff Springs Hotel in the distance. The last viewpoint is another view of the hoodoos with Cascade Mountain in the background.
Banff Springs Hotel and Sulphur Mountain
South of town you cross the Bow River. Glen Avenue takes you to views of Bow Falls from the south side of the river and looking back to Banff Springs Hotel with Sulphur Mountain behind it. Upstream from the falls is an area frequented by elk. You can continue along the circular, seven-mile Golf Course Road (which naturally takes you around the golf course). This is a slow drive, with some excellent views of Mount Rundle. If you happen to be traveling this road early or late in the day, you may see elk feeding outside the golf course fence.
From the Bow River Crossing, take Mountain Avenue to Upper Hot Springs. Park here and take the gondola to the teahouse near the summit. From the teahouse you have magnificent aerial views of the entire valley and the surrounding mountains. Looking north and east is the Bow River Valley. The eastern view includes the townsite and an outstanding view of the Banff Springs Hotel. To the east is the Spray River Valley with Mount Rundle on the other side. Northeast is Tunnel Mountain and behind it is Lake Minnewanka, a large blue lake surrounded by tall peaks. To the north is Cascade Mountain and Mount Norquay, a popular ski area. The westward view is to the Sundance Range. A short, easy half-mile trail will take you to various views and a bunch of very friendly chipmunks, golden-mantled and Columbian squirrels. You will also find bighorn sheep that aren’t very camera shy.
North of the Townsite
Banff is one of the few areas where you can photograph wood bison, a larger version of the well known plains bison you find in the States. The bison are contained in a paddock, but that should not prevent you from taking some very good natural photos-it is a very large enclosure. The paddock is located just north of Banff Townsite. A one-mile loop road winds through the aspen parkland and you must stay in your car. Mornings and evenings are the best time to do this drive and I would plan to do it several times. There are only eight animals in this tiny preserve and they spend most of the day out of sight. Early and late in the day are times when you are more likely to see them near the road. The paddock is open during the summer only.
If you have some extra time, you might consider the 15-mile loop drive to Lake Minnewanka. This is a scenic drive along a winding road, with good mountain and lake views and a short hike to Lower Bankhead, site of an old coal mine. The Bankhead site is a half-mile walk. The most interesting photo subject here is an old train. Mountain goats and bighorn sheep frequent the mountain slopes around Lake Minnewanka but are usually too far away for good photos. Several trails lead out around Lake Minnewanka and around Johnson Lake and Two Jack Lakes for those seeking photos away from the parking areas.
The Mount Norquay drive is high on my list of best scenic drives but pick a clear day for this excursion. A road switchbacks up to the gondola station between Mount Norquay and Stoney Squaw Mountain. Along the way, you are likely to see mule deer and bighorn sheep. Although there are outstanding viewpoints along the drive, the best is the meadow area at the end of the road where you look over the Bow River Valley with Mount Rundle dominating the scene. Columbian ground squirrels obligingly pose for portraits.
Then take the gondola to the top of Mount Norquay (summer only) for some outstanding views south and east over the Bow River Valley. Northeast is Cascade Mountain and to the southeast is familiar Mount Rundle.
Trails leave from this area to Stoney Squaw Mountain and the Cascade Amphitheatre for those of you who are more ambitious hikers than I.
West of the Townsite
Vermilion Lakes Drive
The area west of the Townsite around the Vermilion Lakes is an excellent area for wildlife photography, plus there are some classic views of Mount Rundle. Probably the best time to visit this area is around dawn and early evening. Vermilion Lakes Drive is three-mile dead-end road that runs north of the Vermilion Lakes and parallel with the Trans-Canada-Highway. Vermilion Lakes is a marshy section of the Bow River, making it an ideal habitat for moose, beaver, muskrat and waterfowl. Bald eagles and osprey may also be seen here. Bighorn sheep sometime wander along the gravel slope leading up to the Trans-Canada Highway. April and late May are good times for migrating birds on the lakes including tundra swans, whistling swans, cinnamon teal, grebes, and mergansers. The first two lakes are quite marshy. The third lake is fed by a warm spring and is relatively ice-free in the winter.
One good trail to try for moose, elk, both white-tailed and mule deer, beaver, muskrat, and waterfowl is the Fenland Trail. This trail follows the bow formed by Forty-Mile Creek and it is a marshy habitat. You can reach the trail by driving south from the Trans-Canada Highway along Mount Norquay Road. It is west of the road just after the turnoff to Vermilion Lakes Drive.
Another approach to the Vermilion Lakes area is along the Marsh Trail. Continue south over the Bow River Bridge to the Banff Springs Hotel and then follow Cave Avenue to the parking lot for Cave and Basin. From here you can pick up the Marsh Trail. There are some excellent views overlooking the Marsh. The trail is mainly boardwalk and there is a blind for photographers and birders. In late summer and fall, this is a major staging area for teals, lesser scaups, mallards, and Barrow’s goldeneyes.
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