Photographing the Canadian Rockies

Just one of Canada’s innumerable peaks, the last light of day shows this one to its best advantage.

Just one of Canada’s innumerable peaks, the last light of day shows this one to its best advantage.

Story and Photos by Jerry Ginsberg

Overview

Our American West is sprinkled with many spectacular national parks. Even a quick glance at the map will reveal that these preserves of nature are just islands in a sea of a burgeoning population surrounded by spreading towns and cities that often press against many of the parks’ very borders.

In sharp contrast, our Canadian neighbors have a nation of almost exactly the same size as the U.S., but with only about one tenth of our population. As a result, they enjoy roughly ten times more elbow room. With the exception of relatively small pockets of people, western Canada enjoys lots of wide open spaces. As long as we bring our passports along, those fine folks will let us share their pristine parks and vast wilderness.

The sharp spine of the rugged Rocky Mountains runs straight through the province of Alberta. Five great national parks of Alberta and one or two more that hug the border with British Columbia comprise over 16,000,000 acres. Gigantic Yellowstone National Park could fit inside that area . . . more than seven times over!

Despite this wide expanse, the area is an easy one to navigate.

When starting from Calgary as the gateway to the Rockies region, you’ll want to use the Icefields Parkway as your Main Street through Canada’s most scenic places. This great road will provide perfect access right through Banff and Jasper National Parks.

Just a short spur crosses the line into B.C. and will lead you to Yoho and Kootenay National Parks.

Being much further south and contiguous to Montana’s Glacier National Park, Waterton Lakes is part of the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park.

Today let’s talk about three National and two provincial parks that straddle the Alberta — British Columbia border and are virtually contiguous.

The sharply carved Valley of the Ten Peaks reflect in Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.

The sharply carved Valley of the Ten Peaks reflect in Moraine Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada.

Banff

Head north from Calgary up to Banff National Park. As the Great Plains begin to rise to meet the mountains, you’ll notice Mt. Bogart and eventually Mt. Rundel as you enter the town of Banff which is inside the park. While you’re here, make some time to enjoy the world class brunch at the Banff Springs Hotel. But enough about me.

Photo highlights of this venerable park (At over 2500 square miles, much larger than Yosemite, but not as big as Yellowstone.) include:

  • Sunrise at Moraine Lake. Climb the easy staircase from the parking lot for the best view. Be there early to get a good spot.
  • Sunrise at Lake Louise. With Mount Victoria in the background, this is a classic scene. The Chateau tower begins disgorging hordes of tourists early. Plan ahead.

Both of these are reached via the same short westbound road just off the Icefields Parkway. Bi-lingual road signs are plentiful.

Continuing north, Herbert Lake and Peyto Lake offer scenes that are just tailor-made for panoramic compositions.

Named for legendary mountain man Bill Peyto, the Unbroken Chain of peaks are seen to the right.

Named for legendary mountain man Bill Peyto, the Unbroken Chain of peaks are seen to the right.

Into British Columbia

Heading into the contiguous park lands of British Columbia (BC) will bring you to the small jewel that is Yoho National Park. The calling card location here is the mid-late afternoon composition of stunning Takakaw Falls. It’s a real thrill just to be here and marvel at how this rushing cascade seems to leap from a solid rock wall. Movie fans may recognize this location from the unique 1995 western “Last of the Dogmen.”

Another great spot in Yoho is sparkling emerald green Lake O’Hara (which can only be reached by a bus, for which advance reservations are required). These northern Rocky Mountain lakes acquire their brilliant hues from ‘rock flour,’ the powdered rock that is plentiful in their waters.

While in BC, take the short detour to Mt. Robson Provincial Park. At virtually 13,000 feet, towering form of Mt. Robson cuts a singular line against the crystalline blue Alpine sky. This big park has lakes, glaciers and a lot to offer. Explore it if you have the time.

Rugged Rocky Mountains reflect in Crystal blue Studfield Lake, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada.

Rugged Rocky Mountains reflect in Crystal blue Studfield Lake, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada.

Mt. Assiniboine

A spectacular highlight of your time in BC, however, is a trip to Mt. Assiniboine Provincial Park. A magnificent peak worthy of any Alpine climber, although hardly the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies, this pyramidal rock rises sharply for a mile above the many lakes that surround it. Compositions of regal Mt. Assiniboine reflecting in these calm tarns abound.

The historic (1928) lodge near the base of the mountain can be reached by either a seventeen-mile hike through bear country or a quick helicopter ride. The choice is yours.

The summer sun tries to break though morning fog high in the Canadian Rockies, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada.

The summer sun tries to break though morning fog high in the Canadian Rockies, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada.

Jasper

Now heading north into Jasper National Park in earnest, you will find the Athabasca Glacier right along the road. This frozen finger of the Columbia Icefield is both the most accessible and most visited glacier in all of North America. In addition to the short ride in a snow coach, try the offered glacier walk – complete with crampons. If you can manage with only a single hiking stick, take just a camera with a short-medium zoom. Maybe a polarizer as well, but once it’s mounted on your lens, you may not have the opportunity to remove it.

It’s an adventure: You’ll be glad that you participated.

Adding at least one stop of exposure compensation is a good idea with most glacier shooting. To be safe, bracket anyway.

Directly across the road from the glacier is the Icefields Chateau (hotel) and Interpretive Center. This is a great spot to make your headquarters when exploring Jasper.

Farther up the road is the turnoff to 11,000 foot Mount Edith Cavell. Its singular form shows best in sunrise and early morning light. Be on the lookout for moose in this area.

Still farther on, you’ll arrive at stunning Athabasca Falls. This wonderful cataract is known not as much for its height, which is not great, as for its great force and unique shapes. A good spot for some abstract afternoon shooting, especially with some broken clouds.

As you cruise these roads, make sure to stay alert for photo opportunities along and near the road. In a place with so much natural splendor, wonderful scenes can appear

at any moment. I have slammed on the brakes dozens of times along the Icefields Parkway when a great scene appeared, often to the frustration of the drivers behind me.

Eventually, you will arrive at Jasper townsite. It’s a comfortable, but rather unremarkable little town.

Amid the grand scenics that abound here, don’t overlook the small details that often yield wonderful fine art images.

Amid the grand scenics that abound here, don’t overlook the small details that often yield wonderful fine art images.

The Logistics

By far, your best choice for a gateway airport is Calgary, Alberta.

The roads that you will be traveling through the Canadian Rockies are paved and well maintained so a standard vehicle should be adequate. That said, you might consider an SUV or crossover, if only for the convenience of working out of a tailgate rather than the rear doors of a sedan.

In addition to the Icefields Chalet recommended above, when in Banff consider staying in one of the small lodges between Lake Moraine and Lake Louise. The Banff Springs Hotel and Lake Louise Chateau are superb world class resorts with price tags to match.

Jerry Ginsberg is a widely-published photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s National Parks with medium format cameras.

His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America, as well as fascinating places in Europe and the Middle East. More of Ginsberg’s images are on display at www.JerryGinsberg.com, or email him at jerry@jerryginsberg.com.