A Photographer’s Guide to the Canadian Rockies

Copyright © Howe Sim

Moraine Lake

It was my fourth visit to Canada’s immensely popular Banff and Jasper National Parks, but in a way, it felt like my first. My earlier trips took place before I became interested in photography, when I went on leisurely six-to-eight-hour hikes with few expectations of what I might see and even less regard for time constraints.

On this trip, I had just over a week to capture the natural beauty and essence of the Canadian Rockies with my cameras.

This goal took advance planning, including detailed itineraries and rainy day contingencies. The focus of our daily outings would be photographically rich hikes and trails that were not too time-consuming or physically demanding.

Our previous visits happened in the late spring/early summer when days are at their longest and roadside wildlife is plentiful. This time, we decided to visit at the end of September with its brilliant fall colors, thinning crowds, and foggy mornings. (Should we return again, I would consider the mid-winter months of January through March, when days are short but snow and low-angled lighting make crisp winter landscapes.

That said, I believe there is no bad time to visit these beautiful parks, since experienced photographers know how to make the most of what they have to work with.)

Copyright © Howe Sim
Copyright © Howe Sim


Based on past experience, I packed items I could wear in layers–layers that could easily be removed when the temperature was too warm or thrown on when it cooled down. When you’re packing, remember to bring outerwear for inclement weather conditions–both rain and snow.

You may find yourself at several thousand feet above sea level on some of your hikes, where snowfall can occur almost any time of the year.

In terms of camera gear, include only what you expect to use. There’s little point in bringing along a heavy, full-size tripod if you don’t plan on taking it with you everyday. In fact, keep your backpack as light as possible, especially if you plan on tackling longer hikes.

Pack at least one extra set of fully charged batteries for your camera, particularly during the winter months when cool temperatures can dramatically reduce battery life. And if you’re shooting digitally, buy a couple of extra memory cards to minimize the possibility that you might run out of space during an intensive day of shooting.

Copyright © Howe Sim Johnston Canyon



Since our flight landed in Calgary, our first stop was Banff National Park, less than two hours west on the Trans-Canada Highway. Canada’s oldest national park attracts over five million visitors per year.

Because its popularity seems to run year-round, book your accommodations well in advance. We’ve stayed at various hotels in Banff Townsite, but suggest Banff’s cheaper and less touristy neighbor Canmore.

A mere five minute drive from Banff Park’s eastern gate, this former coal-mining town offers a more authentic “mountain community” feel, as well as many fine restaurants, shops, and accommodations.

Here are several of my favorite photo ops in the park:



1. Sulphur Mountain. Ride the Banff Gondola to the mountain summit in just over seven minutes. From the upper gondola terminal, take the one kilometer boardwalk to the stone weather observatory atop Sanson Peak. There, you’ll enjoy unobstructed panoramas of Banff Townsite, Lake Minnewanka, the Bow Valley, and the surrounding mountain ranges.

2. Johnston Canyon. This is one of the best places in the Rockies to appreciate a limestone canyon. Try to arrive early in the morning before the parking lot fills up.

The canyon is approximately 20 km west of Banff Townsite and consists of both a paved walkway and a suspended catwalk that takes you up Johnston Creek past two waterfalls. Along the way, you’ll see sheer cliffs, gnarled trees, and the effect of swirling cascades of water on canyon walls.

This canyon also happens to be one of the few hiking trails that remains open in the winter in Banff, so don’t miss the opportunity for some unique snow and ice-based photography.

3. Lake Louise. One of the most popular stops on virtually every photographer’s itinerary, Lake Louise is just under an hour by car from Banff Townsite. The glacier-fed lake measures 2.4 km in length and 500 meters in width, and has at its doorstep the imposing Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise.

It’s always teeming with tourists, except at the crack of dawn when the rising sun paints warm hues on Mount Victoria. Popular spots for photographers are the outlet stream and the boat dock, which is often encircled by bright red canoes.

4. Moraine Lake. Just south of Lake Louise is the equally popular but more austere Moraine Lake. You can rent canoes or hike the interpretive trail to the top of the Moraine Lake rock pile.

From the top of the rock pile, you’ll be treated to a panoramic view of the lake with the imposing cliffs of the Wenkchemna Peaks in the background. (This view once graced Canada’s twenty-dollar bill.) Around mid- to late- morning, when the sun is up, you’ll see a nice, deep emerald color in the lake. Popular foreground options include the outlet stream and the canoe dock.


Just north of Lake Louise, the Trans-Canada Highway heads west into British Columbia. If, instead, you continue northward towards Jasper, you’ll find yourself on the stunning Highway 93, also known as the Icefields Parkway.

This 230 km stretch of road snakes through the eastern portion of the Rockies, alongside fast-flowing rivers, turquoise-colored lakes, and glacier-topped peaks. Take at least a half-day to slowly traverse this seemingly extra-terrestrial terrain, and make use of the many turnoffs that dot the highway to look for bighorn rams and other wildlife. (Most of these popular viewpoints are best photographed before mid-morning.)

1. Peyto Lake. This turquoise-colored lake is approximately 40 km north of Lake Louise. The main viewing platform is always teeming with tourists jostling for a photo op.

Fortunately, you can take one of several different footpaths that run up the open side of the mountain to less crowded rocky outcroppings. However, don’t venture too close to the edge of the rock piles as you try to the capture the Mistaya Valley with your wide-angle lens or the adorable resident hoary marmots with your telephoto zoom.

2. Columbia Icefields. This is the largest ice field in the Rockies and consists of six main glaciers, some up to 350 meters deep. Conditions here are much the same as they were during the last ice age and will help you appreciate the natural history and geology of the Rockies.

The most accessible glacier is the Athabasca, which sits directly across the road from the Columbia Ice Fields Information Center. Several hundred thousand tourists come here every summer to take a Brewster Ice Explorer-guided tour onto the glacier.

Tours leave every fifteen minutes, and your best bet is to arrive early in the morning or late in the afternoon. Alternatively, you can drive up to a parking lot located a kilometer from the foot of the glacier, then hike up a rocky moraine to its lowermost point.

You’ll come across markers indicating how far the glacier has retreated since they first measured its extent 120 years ago. Avoid walking onto the glacier itself, though, as deadly crevasses are impossible to spot and can be located just meters from the glacier’s edge.

Copyright © Howe Sim Peyto Lake
Copyright © Howe Sim Columbia Ice fields


The second half of our trip was spent in Jasper National Park. Despite its larger total area, it draws half as many tourists as its southerly neighbor. The town of Jasper is similarly less touristy and commercial than Banff. For new arrivals, here’s where to start:

1. Athabasca Falls. A short drive south of the Town of Jasper, this popular stop affords nice views of the thundering 23-meter-high waterfall with Mount Kerkeslin in the background. Don’t miss the short walk down to the Innukshuk-ridden beach alongside the emerald-hued Athabasca River.

2. Mount Edith Cavell. One of the best interpretive trails in Jasper National Park, access to the base of Mount Edith Cavell is via a 14 km winding, narrow, and pothole-filled road. After you get to the main parking lot, hike the one kilometer Path of the Glacier Loop Trail, which will take you to the base of Angel Glacier.

There are signs posted here warning against moving too close to the base of the glacier. Heed their warnings. Just below the edge of the Angel Glacier lies Cavell Pond, usually filled with photographically interesting icebergs of various sizes and shapes. In the spring, you’ll be rewarded with a fantastically colorful wildflower foreground, particularly on the longer Cavell Meadows hiking trail.

Copyright © Howe Sim Athabasca River

Copyright © Howe Sim
Athabasca – Glacier

Sign warning not to hike below the glacier.

Copyright © Howe Sim
Lake Louise

Hopefully, my suggestions will give you a starting point for a trip to Banff and Jasper. They aren’t intended to be a comprehensive list of the sights worthy of your camera. Those visitors who are fortunate enough to have more than a couple weeks in the Canadian Rockies will quickly realize that they can point their camera lenses in almost any direction and capture memorable images.

Toronto photographer Howe Sim,  specializes in nature and travel photography, but also invests much time in infant and pet portraiture. His website is  howesimphotography.zenfolio.com

Howe’s work has found its way into many private homes and corporations, and has appeared in numerous media publications and promotional materials. He has authored two books featuring some of his best-selling and most popular photographs, with more books in the works.

by Howe Sim

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

1 Comment on A Photographer’s Guide to the Canadian Rockies

  1. Thanks, Howe, there was some very helpful and good advice in there, which I shall save for the time when I finally make it out to Alberta. Kind regards, Sarah

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