Jasper, Banff and Waterton Lakes National Parks are located in south western Alberta, nestled along the spine of the Rocky Mountains. In our opinion, they are late Spring or early fall locations. Our preference is fall, although June is a good month for Black Bear in Jasper as they feed at much lower elevations than later in the year. Ungulates such as Elk, Bighorn Sheep and Mule Deer look their best in the fall as this is breeding season. Fall also finds large numbers of waterfowl migrating through the area. However, from a wildlife photography perspective, each area is different, having distinct advantages and disadvantages.
The town of Jasper and environs is the hub for camping and easy access to the many great locations housed in Jasper National Park. It resides in the Rocky Mountains at the cusp of the Yellowhead Highway and the Icefields Parkway (which run roughly east-west and north-south respectively). We won't spend any time describing the grandeur of the area. It's a given that the backdrops are breathtaking, the wildlife abundant and for the most part readily accessible if you exercise common sense and follow the park rules.
Wildlife photography, however, requires a word of caution. Many animals are encountered at or near roadside, causing hazzardous congestion as viewers slow down or try to park and commercial traffic continues to push through. It shouldn't take much to visualize photography under these conditions as it simply compounds your ability to position for light and backdrop as you risk life and limb from motorists anxious to move on. Although this is hard to avoid at times, we visited many locations where you can mitigate most of these conditions, especially if you enjoy a short walk or alpine hike. Generally the mountain backdrops we encountered off the beaten track were far superior to any we experienced at roadside.
Late May and June still finds most wildlife concentrated at lower elevations, enjoying warm temperatures and early Spring growth. Mountain Goat visit the hill sides and cliffs near the Mount Fryatt pull off south of Athabaska Falls, making an appearance in early afternoon on most days. Here they top up on essential minerals at roadside and offer good opportunities as they rest with young in tow. The tram up Whistlers Mountain is worthwhile as Columbian Ground Squirrel abound in the upper meadows. The trail to the right of the tram summit leads down into the valley where large piles of rocks house Hoary Marmot, a target species that has eluded us for some time. In contrast, late September produces the first vestiges of Winter with the rut in full swing. Early snow combines with vivid fall colors, creating superb conditions for natural landscape opportunities.
We visited in early October when the rut was largely over, the autumn colors had turned and the drop in temperature was signalling the onset of winter. Although we didn't encounter a few of our target species close up, what we did find were in prime condition in cooperative weather. We used a combination of lenses but found anything from 300mm to 500mm appropriate for most subject size and background. We recommend either a 70-200mm or 24-105mm for pano shots as it is relatively easy to isolate subjects with mountain backdrops, especially Bighorn Sheep in alpine habitat.
For a quick start to this area, we have segmented locations according to where specific animals tend to hang out. A good site for Pika are the rocks below Maligne Lake Road at the Medicine Lake information pull off. Moose can be seen at the Cottonwood Slough, on Palisades Road or near the Maligne Lake Lodge. A good place for Black Bear is on the Marmot Basin Road. Mule Deer are everywhere but seem to favour the roads bordering Maligne Lake, Pyramid Lake or the Snaring River.
Elk and Bighorn Sheep predominantly congregate anywhere within a 20 kilometer radius of town, usually either on or a short distance from the highways. Sheep tend to be east of Jasper either on the Yellowhead Highway or on the cliffs and meadows within a short distance from the road. Trails are easy to find and usually well marked. We encountered three herds, the first at the Maligne Road junction and the other two roughly 10 and 20 Kilometers farther on. Our favorite locations for Elk were the Wapiti Campground or just off the Maligne Lake Road roughly 1 kilometer from the left turn after crossing the bridge.
Finally, the heart of the Canadian Rockies! So, where's all the wildlife? We've driven through this area twice and have sighted very little. Moreover, the town is a conclave, bordered by high wire fences and cattle guards, leaving a paucity of wildlife populating the interior. Traffic jams quickly as tourists vie for position to view and photograph whatever has strayed near roadside, especially along the Bow Valley Parkway. This is combat "picture taking" at its worst and not worth the effort to stop and participate. The Two Jacks Lakes loop and Bow Valley Parkway offer good opportunities to sight wildlife albiet in dense terrain with little hope of isolating pleasing backdrops. If you're lucky, Elk and Bighorn Sheep populate the former location as late fall begins to yeild colder temperatures and mornings are crisp but sunny. The best bet is to get off the beaten path and choose a target species that is prevalent in the area. Moose are out as Banff has experienced a significant decline since the late 1960's due to liver parasites and predation. A great day is Sunshine Meadows just north of town where alpine trails offer the opportunity to capture smaller indiginous species such as Columbian Ground Squirrel. This is a great walk amid alpine lakes, lush fields of wild flowers and resplendent vegetation. The Laryx Lake, Grizzley Lake loop is 5.4 kilometers and well worth the effort. Although getting off the trail is discouraged, either a 100-400mm or longer lens is more than sufficient for most encounters. A good location for Hoary Marmot is the Stanley Peak Glacier. It's a day hike from the trailhead which is west of Castle Junction on Highway 93 in the Kootenay National Forest. Although it's a relatively easy climb with moderate switchbacks, poor weather kept us from completing the assent. Dogs need to be kept on lead as bears do enjoy berries at middle climb! If this is a target species for you (it constantly eludes us), Park Wardens also recommend Helen Lake although it is a much longer walk. The drive to Radium is a definite for roadside photography as the landscape is wide, traffic is light and no fence barriers exist. Before you head up the highway, check out the bridge over the Bow River at Castle Junction as Osprey nest on the upper spans. It's a tight squeeze, but we stood on the canopy of our truck with a long lens and tripod to try and maximize the line of sight. The young fledge near the end of August, alighting on nearby trees or hovering above the nest, creating good opportunities for flight and habitat composition. Otherwise, Banff is great for scenery but short on wildlife! If you stay, Tunnel Mountain has good campgrounds but don't expect anything short of difficult photography. Jasper is a haven in comparison, especially in the fall!
Highway 40 leads through Kananaskis Country and the Highwood Wildlife Sanctuary. Here there are no high fence enclosures, mountain scenery is breathtaking and ample opportunity exists for Rocky Mountain Sheep and Bighorn Sheep along the highway. The approach to Waterton Lakes is typical rolling Alberta foothills. As you enter the park, it is evident that Black Bear and Mule Deer are prevalent, making for an exciting first impression. The Akamina Parkway leads to Cameron Lake where we found migrating passerines in abundance, including White-Winged Crossbill, Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher and American Pipit. If you're lucky, there may be Moose at Akamina Lake which has great backdrops but is difficult to position for light as there is little room to manoeuvre. The Red Rock Parkway offers open hillside meadows where it's easy to sight Black Bear enjoying late season berries. The town site is a haven for Mule Deer, requiring nothing more than a 70-200mm lens and some patience to isolate decent backdrops.
To complete any trip to this area, we recommend you travel through Glacier National Park as Mountain Goat are prevalent at Logan Pass. Unfortunately, we couldn't visit on this trip as a 21 foot vehicle length restriction limits most trailers and other recreation vehicles from passing through the park.
The results from our trip to this area are published in Galleries 32 and 42.