Table of contents
- The journey north
- Our first look at the Canadian Rockies
- A good first day in Banff
- East End of Rundle
- Be prepared…
- View from the Top
- Snapping away
- Famous Lakes of Banff
- Lake Louise
- Oh look! He’s Flying!
- Canadian Rockies mainstay?
- Lake Agnes Tea House
- Almost there…
- Bow Valley Parkway
- Maybe Maybe Maybe
- The Icefields Parkway
- You can’t win ’em all.
- Jasper National Park
- Spirit Island
- The Shitty Beatles
- Light at the end of the tunnel
- The Emerald Lake Lodge
- Fun fact: Winter is Cold
- Goodbye to the Canadian Rockies
Visiting the Canadian Rockies is an absolutele privilege. There is to photograph between the wildlife and landscapes that you could go crazy. Years of planning will barely scratch the surface. Grizzly bears, wolves, turquoise glacial lakes, jagged mountains capped in reddish sunlight, a lonely island 8 miles out in an isolated lake; this place has it all.
The journey north
Flying from New Jersey to Calgary, Alberta took roughly five hours. The weather was colder as it was late September and winter was on the verge of setting in. We would have to acclimatize a bit before we were ready for our more strenuous hikes that we had planned, so we tried our best to hit the ground running.
Our first look at the Canadian Rockies
Once we arrived in the Canmore/Banff area, I checked the weather and saw that there was no breeze near Moraine Lake. From a photographer’s standpoint, that was great. It meant that there would be a very strong mirror-like reflection on the surface of the lake and would be excellent to take pictures of. We drove passed the town of Canmore and headed north to get what would be our first set of snapshots.
A good first day in Banff
The lakes’ surface was smooth and we began snapping away as soon as we got there. Cold air burned in our lungs as we sprinted up the rock pile to get a good angle of the lake. We were both made aware of our lack of acclimatization, we were winded! No matter, the two of us powered through. Our Canadian Rockies party was getting started and we were exceited!
East End of Rundle
The next day, it was time to get our legs burning. We spent the morning preparing ourselves for an intimidating hike: The East End of Rundle. The 5-mile trip up a steady 45 degree incline of jagged rocks sounded bad enough. Factor in potential grizzly bear encounters and wild Canadian weather, and we were sold. Heather and I didn’t have much experience in bear country at that point. We were expecting one to pop out from behind every tree and rock.
We had our bear spray at the ready and so did two of our friends who accompanied us on the hike. Micah and Hazel are a couple I know from Hawaii who happened to be in the area. The group decided it would be better to summit the mountain together, so everyone met at the trailhead.
The trail is unmarked–which is unusual in the Canadian Rockies– so it wasn’t east to find. About 30 minutes west of Canmore, you start your trip upwards. At first, you’re in a dense pine forest and the path is well-defined. After a painful mile or so which also feels like a mile upward, you find yourself above the treeline. There, you take your first glance of a view that only gets better as you continue.
View from the Top
Ha Ling Peak and a turquoise lake below juts out into the sky across the valley. The air was cold but we built up a lot of body heat on the hike. No one complained about the cold. We stopped every so often to take photos and catch our breath. Before long, we were at the top! We continued on for what seemed like another hour until we got to the place we wanted to shoot from. After a bit of a break, it was time we started playing with our cameras.
The view across the valley was so beautiful that it was an easy shot. Hiking down was just as painful as the walk up and my knees were shaking by the time we made it back to the car. Five miles round trip and 2500 vertical feet later, we were done. And not a single grizzly bear in sight.
Famous Lakes of Banff
The next day, Heather and I were pretty sore so we decided to have a late morning. Once we came out of our coma, we headed back up highway to Banff to visit Lake Louise. Our agenda included taking a light walk near the Lake. Later on, we’d be going on horseback up the nearby mountain to a peak called the Little Beehive. Also on the list was the famed Lake Agnes Tea House!
The walking portion of the morning was a lot of fun. We got to see the lake’s beautiful blue water for the first time together! After a little bit of a stroll, it was time to head over to the stable to get on our horses and gain more altitude. Heather had no issue getting on her horse, but my story has a few more ups and downs. In quick succession.
Oh look! He’s Flying!
My horse’s name was Chester and he wasn’t in the mood to carry me up the mountain. As soon as I mounted, he went totally wild and started bucking hard. It took me a few seconds to get loose of the stirrups. Then, I was launched ten feet in the air in a horizontal fashion. Luckily, a giant mud puddle broke my fall and I landed flat on my back. It was a scary experience, but we had planned a trip up a mountain and I was going to get there. Period. Now, I was a bit shaken, but my adrenaline was still pumping it was enough for me to get back on another horse.
Until that day, I had been seeing a chiropractor for back pain. After the fall, I was totally fine! The stable owners exchanged my coat for another and my horse as well. Tom was a bit more laid back and we got along well. The view from the top wasn’t all we had hoped for. Clouds and snow had moved in and the peaks were hidden. The Larch trees were turning yellow and the combination of snow and autumn colors looked beautiful.
Canadian Rockies mainstay?
On the way back down, we made a stop at a small cafe that is only accessible on foot (or horseback) called the Lake Agnes Tea House. As the name suggests, it is a small house built next to a gorgeous mountain pond named Lake Agnes. They serve tea and small lunch items like sandwiches and scones. If you don’t mind potentially hazardous wildlife interactions with your food (we saw a chipmunk drinking out of one of the milk containers set aside on each table) or high prices, this is the place for you.
Lake Agnes Tea House
Overall, we were not thrilled with what we saw but you have to manage your expectations. After all, they are miles from the nearest road and everything has the be hiked or carried up the mountain to them. It’s not meant to be a five-star experience.
I was still a bit tense from my “being thrown off an angry horse” episode, so the trip down the mountain was a little bit nerve-wracking. Once we dismounted and returned our horses to the stable, I collected my now spotless coat from the owners (tin cloth is easy to clean off and awesome in a lot of ways) and we got back into the car. As soon as we did, we turned to each other and laughed/cried hysterically. Did that really just happen? I guess I was pretty close to dying or being paralyzed.
Bow Valley Parkway
After a wild ride the day before, we decided it was time for an easy Friday. We would take our rental for a long drive up and down the Bow Valley Parkway and try to spot wildlife instead of going on any hikes or exposing ourselves to the elements. Our bodies were already pretty sore, maybe we would get lucky and see some bears! The weather was a bit dreary and the overcast sky gave us a moody backdrop to work with.
Maybe Maybe Maybe
We were driving along a narrow backroad when we came across a clearing teeming with elk! It was the peak of their mating season and the gigantic males were all battling it out for the affection of the ladies. We saw 4 of them fighting at once! At one point, an enormous figure with giant antlers emerged from the woods right next to our vehicle. We froze at the awesome sight that passed right in front of our eyes before joining the fight 100 yards away. Truly something special.
The Icefields Parkway
We spent a few more days exploring Banff before the next leg of our journey in the Canadian Rockies: The Icefields Parkway. We were keeping an eye on the weather because a big part of our plan was taking a canoe out to a place called Spirit Island. The island is a small piece of land that juts out into the water roughly 8 miles from the Maligne Lake Boathouse and can only be accessed by kayak or canoe.
You can’t win ’em all.
Unfortunately, our weather window slammed shut as weather windows usually do. Two of the possible days we had to make the journey were hit with the elusive “wintery mix.” One could barely see 100 yards down the road, let alone across a lake. We decided to do more driving in search of wildlife and cut our losses. Not the end of the world!
Jasper National Park
On the second day in the Jasper area, we had a small amount of clear sky so we decided to drive to a spot called Athabasca Falls. It’s a commonly photographed place on Instagram, so we were expecting a crowd. While driving, I noticed a large, furry animal lumbering around on the side of the road. “BEAR!” I yelled out as I hit the brakes and made a U-turn on the desolate mountain road.
In the time it took for us circle back around, another vehicle had spotted him as well. They had already stopped right next to him to start snapping photos. It was a beautiful ~350 lb black bear, as evidenced not only by its fur but by its rounded ears and lack of a large shoulder hump. He didn’t seem to mind the small crowd gathering to watch him munch on berries. The bear was probably somewhat used to human presence near him anyway. What shocked us was the amount of people who got out of the their vehicles to take photos of the animal which was no more than 20 yards away. Despite the stupidity and entitlement of our fellow humans, we enjoyed the glimpse of our first wild bear together.
We did our best to enjoy our last day in Jasper by seeing as much of the park as we could. We took a tour boat out to spirit island instead of fight out our way there ourselves, and it certainly was a beautiful place. The photos that I hoped to take didn’t come out all that great because of the low cloud cover, but I was still happy to have finally been there after years of waiting.
The Shitty Beatles
Sadly, the trees in the area are all being killed by an invasive species of beetle, so it may have been our last chance to ever lay eyes on it. We also stopped at a restaurant in the town of Jasper called the Fiddle River, and wow. We ordered seafood dishes and they brought us a mountain of shrimp and lobster. To this day, it was the best restaurant experience we’ve ever had.
Light at the end of the tunnel
The third act of our journey into the Canadian Rockies was to drive south on the Icefields Parkway and then make our way through BC into Yoho National Park. Our destination was the Emerald Lake Lodge, a small cabin complex nestled on a piece of land in the middle of the gorgeous Emerald Lake.
The Emerald Lake Lodge
Since we showed up off-season, we were upgraded to an huge lakeside cabin with a fireplace, living room, bedroom and two baths. The porch wrapped all the way around the cabin and had stunning views of the surrounding lake and mountains. I was shocked at the beauty of it all. We spent the night hanging out in our room and keeping the fire going, but the next morning, I snuck outside to catch the sunrise while Heather caught up on her sleep.
Fun fact: Winter is Cold
It was a beautiful morning with a clear sky and a thick layer of low-hanging fog. The alpenglow on the peaks around us provided me with a beautiful backdrop to photograph and I was once again in my element. Despite the freezing cold, I snapped some of my favorite photos of the entire trip. At that point, I was happy enough with the results to go back inside and try to sleep a little more in our comparatively warm cabin. Although getting our luggage back to our vehicle was a bit of a pain, we left the lodge in a good mood and prepared to begin the last leg of our trip.
The drive to Calgary was bittersweet. We were definitely tired and ready to go home, but we did not want to say goodbye to the mountains that we were now thoroughly in love with. While we were busy checking out some tourist destinations in Calgary, we were both daydreaming of the blue water and snow-covered peaks that we had just gotten to know so well. Our final sendoff was a thick snowstorm that made our journey from the hotel just difficult enough to be remembered.
Goodbye to the Canadian Rockies
The plane ride home wasn’t anything remarkable, but the memories of that place will last a lifetime. To this day, it remains one of our favorite trips we’ve ever taken and the both of us have traveled fairly extensively. We can’t wait to return one day.