The unique beauty of 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.
The full guide covers the four major national parks in the Canadian Rockies including Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, and Yoho. It also coveres Mount Robison Provencial park which geographically is a natural addition to Jasper. You can plan a visit to all these parks since they are located together, or you may wish to concentrate on the north section of Jasper and Mount Robson or the southern cluster of Banff, Kootenay and Yoho. Jasper and Yoho are easily visited on a cross Canada drive along the Trans-Canada Highway.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.