It’s a 6 day trip (including travel) a day longer than normal. We have a select, small group of folks on this adventure, longtime clients who enjoy dramatic scenery and a bit of adventure. The Rockies are one of the most dramatic mountain ranges in the world and in winter, they are even more incredible to see and too photograph. Most of the below shots are iPhone shots as I haven’t processed many of my pics yet, so I do apologize.
From Portland, I flew to Seattle and caught a flight to Calgary. Flying in to Calgary, what struck me was how flat this area is. Yes, I could see the Rockies off in the distance, but the area immediately around Calgary was flat as a billiard table. I believe there is a lot of farming (wheat) up in this area (I was sitting next to someone who had a glossy color magazine titled Soil Future…a farming magazine I guess)
Upon arrival in Calgary airport, you have to walk FOREVER from the gate to the customs check in. They thankfully have self-serve kiosks for customs and using one of these I had processed my entry in under 5 minutes. I still had to pass through two other human checkpoints before I was allowed to officially enter Canada.
Because we were coming from different parts of the country, we planned to all meet up and spend the night at the Marriott that is literally in the Calgary airport. It’s a short walk from baggage claim to the hotel and once inside you wouldn’t know you were at the airport. Well, not totally true. I got an upgraded room which affords me a view of the runway. I’m sitting here watching airplanes taxi to gates and leave again. It’s kind of cool to have this view…..I just don’t know what it’s gonna be like when I want to go to sleep!!!
As a group we met at the reception desk at 6pm to meet everyone, review the itinerary as well as talk about what to expect in the coming days. We grabbed some dinner (chicken fried chicken lol) and soon retired to our rooms to get ready for the coming day.
Picked up our two rental SUVs at 8:00am in the morning at the Calgary airport. I had specifically requested (and paid extra for) winter tires to be installed. This is a must do up in this country. Tires are key to getting where you want to go.
We left town and headed north. Our first stop was in Canmore to visit the Visitors Center. They have great maps, restroom and can buy park passes there. It’s the rule to have park passes to be in Banff National Park and we had to buy daily passes for our 5 days spent in the park. We left Canmore and headed a short distance up to Banff.
We drove through the main part of Banff and headed immediately to our first location to check out. A place called Surprise Corner, which is an amazing viewpoint of the Fairmont Hotel with the mountains in the background. We were a bit surprised (ha) by not that much snow on the trees, but we did our best to make a few images at this classic location.
From there we headed through town again towards Vermillion Lakes. This is another classic location in the area. Since this was primarily a scouting visit, we didn’t work too hard at capturing images, plus, the weather wasn’t the best for images. Low clouds obscured the majestic peaks and we didn’t have a decent foreground. But, we clicked the shutter a few times. From there we grabbed some lunch in town and then headed out to Two Jack Lake and Lake Minnewanka. Both are amazing locations!!!! Alpine lakes nestled between incredible peaks. We walked out on to the frozen lake and shot some frames as snow gently fell on us. We spent about 45 minutes there and then gradually worked our way back to the highway, stopping at a few pullouts for some quick shots.
Once we reached the Trans-Canada highway we headed north past Banff and after a few miles came to the exit for the Bow Valley Parkway. This is a scenic road that runs alongside the highway and it has many fine shooting locations. Because we were running a bit short of time, we didn’t stop at too many locations, using this as a scouting/familiarization drive. However, we couldn’t pass up stopping at Morants Curve and capturing a few images. Such an iconic location!!! From there it was just a couple miles to our hotel.
We checked in at the Lake Louise Inn and found our rooms, unpacked and then met again for a nice dinner in the restaurant. We retired early to our rooms to backup images, finish unpacking and get a good nights sleep for our full day of shooting tomorrow!
This was our first full day in Banff National Park and we awoke to clouds and light snow falling. I knew there wasn’t going to be a sunrise, but I wanted to take the group to a place that I hoped would be good for creating some images.
Our first stop was at Bow Lake. We pulled in to a road to access Num Ti Ja lodge that is nestled in the trees on the north side of the lake. Unfortunately there was less than ¼ mile visibility so any views of the surrounding mountains was swallowed up in clouds. We managed to find a few comps in the area; a lone stand of trees and then a quaint creek running through the forest. We quickly learned to stay on the trampled path….if we ventured off the path, we would sink up to our knees in the soft snow. Trying to be a good leader, I spotted a great shot of the creek further in to the forest and had the great idea to try and stomp a path for the clients to follow. Well, I got about 10 yards before it became painfully clear I wasn’t going to make it through the deep snow. I was sinking in to my waist! So I turned around and tried to get out, but that too proved to be very difficult. At one point I was “walking” on my knees and hands across the snow to try and stay near the surface.
We left that area and headed north. Since it was overcast I wanted to try Mistaya Canyon which is a wonderful little gem towards the north end of the valley. Well, there was no parking and the trail hadn’t been worn in yet, so we decided we had had enough adventure and went in search of slightly easier shots. We went down to Waterfowl Lake and shot at two different pullouts. The clouds had lifted enough that we could see the mountains in the near and far distance, though still not epic mountain shots. After we finished we headed back to Lake Louise for a bite of lunch and to swing by our rooms.
After lunch the plan was to shoot Abraham Lake during late afternoon and through sunset. I wanted to the group to see the area in the light so they could get familiarized with it before we did a sunrise shoot there later in the week. Abraham Lake is about 1 ½ hours away from Lake Louise and we had a leisurely drive up there, stopping at various places when views of the mountains screamed at us to take some photos. Also along the way we stopped and watched a group of bighorn sheep feeding on the grass poking up from the snow. Eventually we made it to our chosen location at Abraham Lake. Ice cleats here are basically mandatory if you plan on exploring the area and photographing the methane bubbles encased in the ice. We geared up and then walked down a small(ish) slope to the river bed. At this location the ice is typically fairly safe to be out on, not so at other locations along the lake. It didn’t take us long to find the bubbles and our cameras were out of our bags. Along with bubbles there are amazing fissures and upheavals in the ice to photograph. We spent the next two hours photographing wide landscapes, details and abstracts until the sun started dipping below the horizon. We all found our “sunset comps” and shot until it was dark (about 5:30pm). Everyone was ecstatic with what they had captured and we started our long drive back to the hotel. We enjoyed a late dinner and talked about the incredible day we just had.
Wanting a slightly easier day, I planned to spend the day along the Bow Valley Parkway. This is a gem of a road, it parallels the Trans-Canada highway and it’s a curving, forested road that is amazing.
We heading to Morants Curve, even though the weather wasn’t forecast to be any good. After sitting there for 30 minutes, we headed south along the road and right when we got to another pullout, the clouds parted and we could see the mountains across the Bow Valley. We quickly pulled in and got our gear out. We spent a good 45 minutes there photographing from several vantage points. The train tracks, that are famous at Morants, also run along this stretch and we could get a “quasi”-Morants type of shot.
When we left the pullout, we headed past Castle Junction and on to Johnston Canyon. This is an incredible place! Thankfully we arrived plenty early before many of the tourist show up. This is perhaps the most visited location in Banff National Park. You begin the adventure by walking along a forested trail in to the canyon. Pretty soon the walls close in and the trail is now along catwalks affixed to the canyon walls. Wearing ice cleats or traction devices makes life so much easier here! We stopped many times along the trail to photograph the water below and ice clinging to the canyon walls. After ½ mile of ups and downs, we came to the Lower Falls. This is a beautiful waterfall that has a perfect plunge pool at the bottom. There are a couple of vantage points to shoot as you first come upon the falls, then there is a bridge spanning the creek. If you take the bridge across the trail disappears into a small tunnel, it sort of felt like Disneyland. Emerging from the tunnel you are face to face with the waterfall and ice wall. Superb wide angle shots here!!!!
Eventually we decided it was time to leave and also decided not to walk the additional mile to the Upper Falls. It’s a workout, especially in winter clothes. We slowly made our way back to the parking lot and packed up. We headed back to Lake Louise for lunch and a couple of souvenirs.
After a late lunch we headed back south again and our destination was Castle Junction. Here there is a bridge across the Bow River. Parking at the west end of the bridge we took the trail down to the rivers edge. This can be an incredible location to photograph the amazing Castle Mountain. But on this day, the clouds remained low and the mountain was perpetually shrouded. Still, everyone slowed down and found some detail shots to work, plus some nice monochrome images of the stormy mountain.
Leaving there at sunset (no color) we headed back to our hotel for a quick change of clothes and then headed to Chateau Lake Louise for dinner. What a magnificent hotel!!!! First off it’s HUGE! Walking to the lake, the grounds were dotted with amazing ice sculptures. When you get to the lake, you can see the ice rink that they clear off for visitors to skate on. Since it was dark, and stormy, we couldn’t see the mountains surrounding the lake. We enjoyed a nice dinner and as everyone was getting tired from the long days in the field, we made it an early night and retired to our room. Backing up images and other clean up chores complete, I finally settled down to read in bed. We have an early wake up call and super long day ahead of us tomorrow.
We had an early departure because we wanted to shoot sunrise at Abraham Lake, which is about 1.5 hour drive from our hotel, with decent weather and roads. When I walked out of the hotel, I saw stars above and had an inkling it was going to be a great day! The weather had said partly to mostly cloudy, so seeing stars in the morning was a relief and filled me with optimism.
Our drive was uneventful and we arrived at our location with plenty of time to spare. As we were gearing up, putting on ice cleats and loading camera bags, a few more cars started pulling in to the parking lot. We rushed to an area that we had scoped out a couple of nights ago which had good bubbles. For the next hour we shot the pre-sunrise landscape with bubbles and each person was nailing some good shots. We eventually ventured further across the river to where some other photographers were and found some more methane bubbles and fissures and upheavals to shoot. I had found these two wonderful cracks and just started photographing them when the sun crested the far ridge. My lens was stopped down to f/29 and I immediately had an amazing sun star to go along with my cracks and mountains. It was a glorious morning!!!!
After a couple hours we packed up and continued heading north. Since we hadn’t seen the full mountains much since it has been so cloudy, we were overjoyed to drive along and see the massive granite mountains jutting up. We stopped a couple of times to get some mountain shots. My next planned destination was Windy Point but before we got there, we saw cars parked along the road and people down on the ice. Making a snap decision, we stopped and got geared up and headed down. Now, it was only about 26 degrees, but the WIND WAS BLOWING at least 20mph. Wind chill was chilly and the biting wind was something to deal with. Plus, when we got down to the ice, we didn’t dare set anything down because it would blow away! I found these old pilings encrusted with ice which I shot for a while, then ventured on to abstracts in the ice. We could have spent hours here there were so many subjects. But eventually I tore everyone away and we loaded up and continued heading north. We scouted a few more locations, but people were running low on energy and we needed a break, so we headed to the only place remotely close for some food, a small town called Nordegg. We found the one restaurant open and had a nice lunch and relaxing time before going back out.
Nordegg was our northernmost destination, so we started heading south again. Knowing we might have a sunset, I tried to plan the afternoon to land us in a worth sunset location on time. We stopped at several overlooks to photograph the landscape and mountains, including a non-descript overlook near the North Saskatchewan river. This turned out to be a total gem of a stop as the angle and color temp of the light were amazing on the mountains. We all got several solid keepers from this location. Continuing to head south we finally landed at a lake just north of Bow Lake called Waterfowl Lake. Surrounded by high mountains, the lake was frozen and snow covered. Now, trying to shoot sunset in the mountains is a difficult task because the setting sun is oftentimes behind the mountains, as it was in this case. Still, we made the best of it and got some great cloud and mountain shots and enjoyed a sprinkling of color in the sky.
After an epic and grueling day, we finally made our way back to our hotel to eat and pack for our departure the next day.
This was our departure day but before we left we had one more stop to make. Rising early, we checked out of the hotel and headed south towards Banff. We were headed to Vermillion Lakes, which is a renowned sunrise spot in the area. We arrived just a few minutes before the color started to happen in the sky and we quickly found a location to photograph from. Other photographers had already staked out one of the cleanest bits of open water to catch a reflection and we found the second best, which also had some other visual interest around for more than one comp.
We set up and waited just a short time for the light to happen and it was good. Not epic, but compared to the often overcast skies you get in this area during winter, it was pretty dang good. We shot the reflection in the water, the snow covered frozen lake and then this cool pattern of “fingers” in the ice that acted as a fantastic leading line towards the mountains. Once sunrise happened, we packed up and hopped in the cars headed towards Calgary.
Getting to the airport our little group posed for a group pic before we all went our separate ways. Checking in and clearing customs, we happened to reconnect on the other side for a quick bite of food before heading to our gates. I flew to Seattle and then on to Portland and home.
This was one incredible trip! We had a great group of folks who all got along and enjoyed each other’s company. Plus, we enjoyed some of the most epic scenery you will ever see!!!! The Canadian Rocky Mountains are a must visit!!!!!
About Me: I am a full time photographer, workshop leader and creative educator based in Portland Oregon. I lead group and 1×1 workshops in the US and abroad. For more information please visit www.johnpedersenphoto.com