Canadian Rockies During Fall – Trip Report

November 30th, 2015 by Adrian Klein

Late last year we were out as a Photo Cascadia group along the Oregon Coast when the idea was brought up to head to the Canadian Rockies for fall 2015. I was in! I had not been there while it sat on my list of must see places to visit for too long. Fast forward to the last week of September 2015 and we were off for a one week trip.

Day 1
After the first 6 hour leg from my house in Portland, Oregon I met up with Chip in Spokane, Washington to finish out the next 6+ hours to our destination and meet up with Sean and Zack who had already been there a day.  After a long day we arrived at Lake Louise Campground shortly after sunset. No sunset photos that night. We pulled in. Hung out with Zack and Sean for a bit while eating dinner then off to catch zzz’s for sunrise.

Day 2
Getting up this time of year for sunrise feels like a treat after the droopy tired eyes of summer. We made our way to our first photo stop, sunrise at Moraine Lake. I expected busy. It was a little more than I expected. Far and away the most crowded location on this trip photographing with 100+ of my closest friends. Amazing to see yet it loses the appeal a little for me with that many photographers all jockeying for limited space. I kept setting up high in the trees, in the dark, only to find someone else eventually moving around already setup in my shot. One gal was getting aggressive when a photog got too close and he wasn’t moving. I was waiting for a fight but he eventually moved. I left the main viewing area on the top to join my peeps along the shore where I had a great rest of the morning with this splendid view!

No Escape

Along the shore of Moraine Lake. Colorful rocks allow for different photo opps from the usual and well known viewpoint above.

This trip would not involve lollygagging around the same campsite for multiple nights. We had breakfast in town, back to camp to pick up Chip’s trailer and then off to the next location, Yoho National Park. A rather short drive away (~ 20 kilometers) we checked in at Kicking Horse Campground which was a good location in the middle of Yoho Park.
We spent the afternoon checking out Takakkaw Falls, walking part of Emerald Lake shoreline and then finishing with sunset at Emerald Lake. It’s only seconds after arriving here to know how it got it’s name. “Hiking” around the lake is more like an extended nature hike. At least the section we did was pretty flat yet very scenic. As we all know not all great scenic photos require long bouts of strenuous activity.

Turquoise Reflections

Sunset along Emerald Lake in Yoho National Park of British Columbia.

Takakkaw Falls

The wind blows the water on Takakkaw Falls in Yoho National Park of Canadian Rockies during a daytime long exposure photo.

 

Day 3
Up plenty before daylight and off to Bow Lake for sunrise. The drive was about 50 kilometers. The wind was whipping pretty good. I was not happy with any of my images from this morning yet we had a fun time regardless. The clouds rolled in and we could tell things would get wet later in the day. Back to Kicking Horse for breakfast at camp, fill up on water and off to the next campsite closer to the Bow Lake area.

Our next stop was Mosquito Creek Campground on Ice Fields Parkway. We filled up on water before arriving as this time of year it’s a dry campground because overnight lows dip below freezing. By the time we arrived the rain had already started dropping. We spent the afternoon chilling in our campers reading, listening to podcasts and napping. Having warm dry shelter was very welcome at that moment.

After getting bored we decided to drive and see if could find a place to have a beer. First stop was Bow Lake restaurant. The lady at the desk was indirectly kind in trying to say the restaurant was for guests only yet suggested we head a ways down the road for a bar. Mind you this is National Park with few places to stop and all tree lined roads. After driving another 40 km in the pouring rain at dusk we arrive at the mildly depressing oasis called Saskatchewan River Crossing. We were happy to have this place pretty much to ourselves sitting on couches drinking a beer and snacking on mediocre wings. Out into the rain and 50 km later we are back at camp. Rain still pouring outside we eat dinner in the camper then hit the hay.

Day 4
I wake up shortly before dawn. I step outside the camper and can see nothing but endless grey with rain still coming down. Feels like home. We decide to bag sunrise and go back to bed.  What seemed like 5 min later, in reality over an hour, I wake up and look out the window to see a huge patch of blue sky. Shorter than the click of a shutter I yell for Chip to wake up and jump out the camper. No courteous knock, I whip open the door to Sean’s camper and say “get up now, we need to leave!” Minutes later we are on the road. It did not take long to see this was going to be a fantastic morning. The snowline went down low overnight but only brought a dusting. With the sun coming over the horizon and quickly clearing skies we had to act fast. After pulling into Peyto Lake we made a short hike to an area with a perfect view and away from the main viewpoint.

Snowline

Just above the snowline after a fresh dusting of fall season snow. Looking down on Peyto Lake in Banff National Park of Alberta Canada.

While still on a morning high from the scene at Peyto Lake we make our way down to wander around Waterfowl Lakes. After breakfast back at camp we decide very early tomorrow is the time to make it up into Lake O’Hara with the slowly clearing weather pattern.

Bear 1, Moose 0

A reminder that we are visiting the land of wild animals and you never know what is waiting around the next bend. A skull and antlers from a moose left with scars, a likely lost battle between bear and moose. Canadain Rockies of Alberta.

Soaking It All Up

Self portrait soaking up an amazing morning view as we scout for the best spots and compositions.

Midday we head back into Lake Louise Village for supplies. Mainly the $6 dollar bear spray rental since I left mine back home. I know now I can take it across the border next trip. As the kid in the store weighs the bear spray he proceeds to tell me that if I end up using it and the weight is not the same upon return I will have to buy it. My response “if I have to use this I have much bigger concerns than the retail price of a can of bear spray!”

Multiple Views

Friend and fellow Photo Cascadia team member Chip Phillips photographing in the Canadian Rockies at Waterfowl Lakes.

That night we photographed sunset along Waterfowl Lakes. The partly cloudy skies made for a really nice scene. We don’t stick around long as we need to hit the sack early since wake up will be 3:15! No time for s’mores or kumbaya this trip.

Day 5
My soothing alarm ring goes off at 3:15 am. Surprisingly I slept better than expected and feel pretty good. We eat a quick breakfast, as much as my body wants to eat this early in the morning and out into the morning cold crisp air we head as we start our trek to Lake O’Hara.

Spots in and around Lake O’Hara are amazingly scenic like out of Lord of the Rings or where you truly might find that pot of gold with a leprechaun. This is the reason it’s not easy to get there. For most normal people there are two options; camping or the lodge. Both options book up months in advance. Our plan would be to hike the 11 km gravel road in the dark to make it by sunrise. You can see why I rented bear spray. Although we were a group of four it’s prime bear country. With our head lamps moving around like the light in a lighthouse and plenty of “hey bear” shout outs we arrive at Lake O’Hara shortly before sunrise. I would not necessarily recommend this approach yet it worked for us.

Rocky Mountain High

After hiking in the dark for about 9 miles and about 2,000 feet we arrived for sunrise. It was a high to see this scene unfold out of the darkness. Near Lake O’Hara in Yoho National Park of Alberta Canada.

Mountain Shapes

The edge of the lake forms a perfect inverted mountain. Above Lake O’Hara in Yoho National Park of Alberta Canada during fall season with golden larches.

We quickly find out the hiking is not over. We have at least a few more kilometers of all steep terrain to make it where we want to go. I am on a high and power through the next part. The sky starts getting lighter to slowly reveal this magical landscape. We spend a couple hours hiking around and taking photos. Honestly it’s a place you could stay all day with the perfect conditions we had yet we needed to ensure we could get a bus out. We leave it behind taking our photos as constant reminders for years to come.

We decide our next stop is Kananaskis. Kananskis Country is known for large photogenic groves of aspens. After the 160 km drive (about 2 hrs) we were pretty wiped considering the early morning wakeup call and long hike.  We pull into a campground in Kananaskis area and take a long nap.

Golden Line

Aspens in full fall season glow along the shore of Wedge Lake in Kananaskis area of Alberta, Canada. Mount Kidd in the background.

We decided on Wedge Pond for sunset, a short jaunt from camp. The golden aspens line the pond and do not disappoint. Not only did we have a beautiful view yet on the other side of the pond were what appeared to be two female yoga instructors doing poses in a wildly colorful yoga pants while a male photographer taking the shots was cheering them on. They were the only people there besides us.

Day 6
Up the next morning and fortunately another not too far away drive which allowed for a more normal wake up time. It was a nice little marshy pond area not far from the road with a perfect view of Mount Kidd. A thin layer of ice continued growing on the small ponds as we photographed which was all we needed to tell us the temperature outside.

Intersection

Several smaller ponds merge into a larger with a view of Mount Kidd in Kananaskis area of Alberta Canada during fall. The morning was cold with thin ice on the ponds and frost on the foliage.

Aspen Dreaming

Aspen trees glow yellow in the bright early morning sunshine. Kananaskis Country. A little different processing than my usual with a high key approach.

Aspen Freeze

The ground was covered in a dense frost enhancing an already beautiful scene. Kananaskis area of Alberta, Canada.

After that we spent the next few hours chasing around different aspen groves before the light got too harsh. Daytime photos are beautiful with golden aspens mixed with blue skies yet we had other plans in mind given it was our last day.

A late breakfast and on the road to the town Banff we go. There is a campground just outside of town where we setup camp. After “roughing” it for the week we decide an evening on the town is in order to finish this phenomenal trip. I highly recommend a soak in Banff Hot Springs and grabbing a beer with dinner at Banff Brewing Company.  The next morning before dawn we head home.

Summary
If you have not been it’s a must add to your bucket list. In my home state of Oregon I feel lucky to live near mountains to play and photograph yet in all honesty they feel less dramatic in scale and size when comparing the endless large mountains around every turn in the Canadian Rockies.

Timing: The first part of any fall color foliage trip is timing. We all had it Sharpied in our calendars many months in advance and while peak fall colors certainly change every year none of us had much wiggle room. Fortunately our timing could not have been better. Normal peak for this area is middle to late September. As a side note you can easily spend a couple weeks in the Canadian Rockies and still feel like you are only scratching the surface.

Transportation: Living in the Pacific Northwest we are in reasonable driving distance. I only lug all my camping or backpacking equipment at 30,000 feet when necessary. The drive was about 12 hours, pushing the envelope to do it one day. Flying you will likely need to come through Calgary, the closest International airport at 120 kilometers from Banff.

Weather: This time of year you need everything from t-shirts to thick down jackets.  We experienced snow, rain, wind and bright blue sky mild days. Be prepared for it all. Our coldest morning was about -3 degrees and our sunny warmest day about 15 degrees Celsius.

Lodging: There are plenty of options from budget camping to deluxe pampering hotels. We would be camping the whole time which made it very cost effective. Campgrounds we stayed at in Yoho and Banff ranged from $18 to $27 Canadian a night with additional $8 if you want to have a campfire. Beautiful Lake O’Hara I mentioned, lodging is a mere $600 to $900 CA a night for two.

Locations: Overall there many different parks and places that are part of Canadian Rockies yet we had no problem filling the days with our focus on three of them…Kananaskis, Banff and Yoho National Parks.

Physical Activity Level: You can make it as adventurous as you want from photographing out the window of your resort room to backpacking deep into the mountains. If money is no object then the best of both by staying at mountain lodges in the back country. Given we had only a week most of our locations were short hikes to nature walks with one long strenuous hike.

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  • Michael Lim

    Great article Adrian. Really loved reading about the group’s adventure in Banff. Fabulous shots.

    Just a few quick notes…. 🙂

    Your first photo is actually of Moraine Lake not Lake Lousie. Also, Yoho National Park is located in British Columbia not Alberta.

    Hope you don’t mind this Canuck bringing these 2 minor points up. 🙂

    • Thank you Michael. I do appreciate you calling out my typos, I don’t mind at all. They should be fixed now.