Canadian Rockies Photo Adventure Guide
There comes a time in everyone’s life when you have to go all in. For me, that time is now and has been for a while. Since I began my journey a little over a year and a half ago as a landscape photographer, I have found myself more at home in the outdoors than under a solid roof. This is a story about one of my favorite trips to date and an experience I will remember for the rest of my life. I learned so much about how amazing the world is, how kind people can be, and how inspiring nature really is that I want to share that experience with you.
An area stretching more than 3,000 miles across Canada and the United States, the ‘Rockies’ are where adventures and memories that last a lifetime are made. They are home to North America’s highest peaks and some of the world’s most captivating mountain scenery, including massive Redwoods and stunning alpine lakes, as well spectacular wildlife like deer, grizzly bears, black bears, moose, bald eagles, golden eagles and marmots. It is a place where you can drive for hundreds of miles and be surrounded by glaciers, alpine lakes, and endless mountains as far as the eye can see. For landscape photographers, the Rocky Mountains are overflowing with potential and during this three week expedition we were only going to scratch the surface. But let me start from the beginning.
A smoked out start
Our adventure started on July 4 with my husband and me loading into our Jeep and making the long drive north to the Canadian border. We crossed over, only to discover that British Columbia had been smoked out by more than 200 active wildfires. While we jokingly wished we had packed a massive fire extinguisher, our first impression of Canada was that we may have picked the wrong time to visit and were on the brink of turning around. But we had downloaded a KMZ file from BC Wildfires to Google Earth that provided us with a continually updated list and location of active wildfires, including how big they where and when/how they started, and with this info we were able to adjust our route and carry on.
The fires did, however, put a serious damper on most of our planned hikes north of Vancouver, so we set forth for Mount Rundle, set within Alberta’s magnificent Banff National Park. After spending the night in the smoked out region of British Columbia we decided to pull an all-day of driving to the Banff/Jasper area to get away from the active wildfires. This was a great decision and we made it in time to shoot sunset from the shore of Vermillion Lakes with the clouds ignited from the last rays of light reflected in the perfectly still waters. The only drawback of sunset shooting is hiking back in the dark, and in Banff we encountered our first bear run-in, a (not so long) 150 yards away! Perhaps it was deterred by the music coming from out lightweight portable Bluetooth speaker (which clips nicely right onto your backpack), but we weren’t taking any risks when it came to bears and were prepared with bear mace and a bear whistle for any threatening situations. Luckily, we were able to get back to the vehicle without a scratch, but it was at that moment we realized the adventure had truly begun!
Getting lucky at Lake O’Hara
The stunning alpine Lake O’Hara was our next stop, set within BC’s Yoho National Park. Without having pre booked anything, we weren’t sure we were even going to be able to get the lake, but a chance encounter with some photographers that had been going to Lake O’Hara for many years changed all that. They gifted us not only a bus run by Parks Canada (saving us a 5 hour hike loaded down with gear) but also a night at the Lake O’Hara hut that was within shooting distance of all the goodies and hidden gems we were hoping to get too. These huts have been built all across the Rockies’ back country, equipped with beds and stoves, meaning you don’t have to lug all your own gear in and out and you get to enjoy the area a little longer. The down side is that they are often booked out months in advance, particularly during the summer high season, so you have to be organized (or get lucky with cancellations).
Once off the bus and at our hut, we dumped our extra food and sleeping gear and headed straight out, trekking to a spectacular headland cliff that overlooks Lake O’Hara known as Opabin Prospect. We hiked 13 miles that day, climbing over two thousand feet as we were pounded by pouring rain and dodging lightning for the last 2 miles of the trek, as well as beating off swarms of mosquitoes that relentlessly attacked us from all sides (although our full head mosquito nets provided some protection). The breathtaking views from this elevated ridge across the mountainous peaks of Yoho National Park, amazing clouds and light rays, and the reflection in the turquoise waters of Lake O’Hara made the long day all worthwhile.
Despite the challenges Mother Nature was dealing us, we were revelling in the adventure and, saying goodbye to our new friends, headed out to Mount Robson in an area of Canada we hadn’t explored before. Here we had pre-booked our backcountry campsites, but with wildfires blowing smoke across the region I decided the photographic potential was not there and it was time to re-strategize. We checked into a hotel (a nice change from wet camp grounds and the back of the Jeep) and with our map sprawled out across the floor we planned a new route. It would be nice to say that we could easily venture where we felt each day or change plans on a whim, but the truth is that travelling through the Rockies during the peak summer season doesn’t allow for that. It’s not just back-country camp sites that get booked out but transport and permits also, and while we had a helicopter flight booked into our next destination, Mount Assiniboine, the wildfires had resulted in us turning up a week early!
Braving the weather at North America’s ‘Matterhorn’
Luckily we were able to reschedule and get on an earlier flight to the ‘Matterhorn of the Rockies’, Mount Assiniboine, which rises dramatically above Lake Magog on the border between BC and Alberta. Unfortunately, we weren’t so lucky with the weather, enduring five days of rain, sleet, hail and snow (all in the middle of summer). Each time I saw the weather looking like it was going to clear and a small window of opportunity to head out of the tent, the skies would re-open. I ended up giving in and slogging through rain and sleet to a spot known as ‘The Nub’ from where all-encompassing views across the Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park can be found. With 40 mile per hour winds thrashing around me on the cliffs, I spent four hours shooting (thankfully within a snug Arc’teryx GORE-TEX jacket I bought especially for the trip) and managed to capture some dramatic fast-moving storm clouds with rays of light igniting Mount Assiniboine itself. Renegotiating the trip proved to be one of the best decisions we made thus far as we were blessed with endless fields of wildflowers and breathtaking views from all angles. This was one of my favorite places during the expedition and I could have easily stayed there for the remainder of the trip. But as we all know, all good things come to an end and we had to keep the show moving.
Shooting the wildflowers of Jumbo Pass
After a few hours of driving to Invermere, we set off for our next destination along the steep, 4-mile climb to Jumbo Pass. The track rises from the forest below Bastille Mountain’s ramparts before the incredible panorama opens out across Jumbo and Karnak Mountains to one side and the stunning Horseshoe Glacier tumbling from the Cauldron Mountain to the other. The only way I could describe the hike is like slogging up a set of stairs, loaded down with kg of camping and photography gear. We decided to spend the night here, shooting both sunset and sunrise with stunning fields of wildflowers juxtaposed against the rugged peaks.
One of the reasons I had opted to do this trip during summer (rather than fall when most photographers head to The Rockies to capture the larches in full color) was because of the wildflowers in bloom. But this was not without its challenges. First, the high wind in the mountains makes shooting difficult, especially as I like to get in close so the wildflowers really fill the frame. To compensate for the wind you have to bump up your ISO so that you have a faster shutter speed and still (rather than blurry) flowers. But that also leads to increased ‘noise’. Second, I wanted my images to be sharp from the front all the way back to the mountains – something that’s not possible in a single image. This means I have to take multiple shots of exactly the same composition with different focal points (and ISO) and ‘stack’ them during post-processing – something that takes patience and a good eye.
After taking in the views across the Purcell Mountains to the north of the campsite we hiked out the following morning, using my Garmin 650 GPS to guide us back. It not only stops you from getting lost, but also saves all the data from your hikes if you want to analyze it later and put accurate GPS locations on your photographs. My solar charger was also an essential accessory to keep the GPS fully powered throughout the treks. We hadn’t been equipped with lightweight back-country gear before this trip so we had splurged on a few new items before we left, including a Bear food canister that could hold a surprising amount of sustenance. We packed it full of all high calorie, energy-giving supplies. We had also bought a heap of instant organic ‘Adventure Samplers’, both light and quick to prepare with our Jet Boil. We managed to get some great deals on all the back country gear through ProMotive.com and Kelty who both offer heavily discounted rates for military family members, including current year model camping and climbing equipment, Nat Geo waterproof maps and dehydrated foods. Something I always use on long journeys that also definitely saved us a few dollars was a phone app called ‘Gas Buddy’. It shows you gas prices in the surrounding area and helps you to find the cheapest available stations, making it ideal for anyone driving long distances.
A change of plans in Glacier National Park
I had my heart set on photographing Logan Pass next, set within the beautiful Glacier National Park that straddles the US and Canada border, but again wildfires had both the Logan and St Mary’s Pass closed, as well as “The Road to the Sun” that cut through the middle of the park. Instead we had to enter the park from the east into the Many Glacier region and were luckily rewarded with a magnificent sunrise at Swiftcurrent Lake. I decided to shoot my composition low, down at the lake’s waters, using a slow shutter speed to soften the water movement, and the first rays of sun bathed the peaks and clouds above a rich pink hue. Surprisingly, this was the first and best sunrise we had to date since embarking on our adventure and was really exciting to watch unfold.
The following day we hiked 17 miles with all our gear, enduring rain, high winds (and a spot of sunshine) to both Iceberg Lake and the Ptarmigan Tunnel. The 4.5 mile Iceberg Lake Trail offers incredible views across the Many Glacier Valley in every direction with fields of wildflowers that make for incredibly colorful compositions. Floating ‘icebergs’ dotted the lake, fed by permanent ice fields and maintained by the shadow of the towering Mount Wilbur behind, while random light rays sprinkled themselves in at will. We continued on to Ptarmigan Tunnel, built in 1930 between the Many Glacier and adjacent Belly River Valleys and an impressive feat of engineering. It was cut directly through the sheer mountain wall so hikers didn’t have to attempt the difficult climb over after the challenging uphill trek to get there. The highlight was a large Golden Eagle soaring above us in search of a meal to feed its family.
With bad weather forecast and almost three weeks on the road travelling more than 4,500 miles and hiking over 100 (tracked by our handheld Garmin), it was time to start heading back to California. We stopped en-route at the Palouse Hills which disperse across Washington and Idaho and is the heart of wheat-growing country in the United States. Many photographers opt to shoot in the spring when the hills are a lush green, but I took the opportunity to capture something different during the annual harvest. Beautiful light rays and scatter rainstorms dispersed through the clouds above and warm shades patterned the rural landscape. This brought both color and depth to my composition as I chased rays of light sporadically lighting up the fields below.
We continued driving to California, stopping for a couple of nights at the Redwood parks to photograph these ancient, sky-reaching trees. Here groves of magnificent Redwoods, scattered with Douglas fir, stood shrouded in a layer of fog that drifts over from the Pacific Ocean – a famed photographic phenomenon! These trees are so amazing, with the bark of each completely unique from the next. We were having no luck with shooting conditions until just as we were heading out of the region, we saw fog rolling in and rushed back to the famed Damnation Creek Trail. If that wasn’t amazing enough, we also witnessed herds of Elk feasting on the fields as we traveled through – simply breathtaking!
We returned home the last day of July – exhausted (and me 6 pounds lighter), but with memory cards loaded with some of North America’s most spectacular landscapes, infused with the spirit of ‘The Rockies’. I was truly blessed to have such a supportive team, great gear, and the ability to capture these amazing moments in time. I hope that you enjoy the resulting photos and I look forward to sharing both my stories and images with you in the future!