Featured writer/photographer: Justin Mier (The Roaming Lama)
I was fortunate enough to take three trips to Banff National Park during 2013 and as a result I have been able to find a number of fantastic viewpoints to take in the amazing landscapes. Banff is located near Calgary in Alberta, Canada and if you haven’t made the trip I’d highly recommend adding it to your life list of places to go because the beauty is well worth it. I’ll organize this post by my favorite spots on various roads throughout the park as that is probably the easiest way to find everything. I took notes of locations during my last trip so hopefully during your visit you’ll be able to take in all of my favorite view points. I s.hould also point out that there are many, many more spots to stop your car and take it all in – there is a reason that Banff is consistently rated as one of the top national parks in the world.
Getting to Banff from Calgary is rather easy as it is just off the Trans Canada Highway (Highway 1) which will also take you right into the Lake Louise area (another treat!). As you enter Banff from Calgary you may be tempted to head right into town but instead of following the signs and taking a left off of the highway take a right and drive along the Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive.
Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive
About 3.5 miles down this scenic drive is the Two Jack Lake Campground. I’ve never camped here but I’ve been told that it is one of the nicest ones in the park. A little farther up the road is the Two Jack Lake Picnic Site and this is where I stop to take photos when I visit. Across Two Jack Lake is one of the most recognizable peaks in the world – Mount Rundle. There are a number of fantastic places to take pictures from the shoreline but my favorite is just to the right of the parking lot with a nice view of Mount Rundle and an island that can be used as the foreground for the image. If you go to the left of the parking lot there is a smaller island can be used as foreground interest as well. Additionally, depending on the water level in the lake during your visit there is a handful of rocks near the shoreline that also make for an interesting composition. The photo below was taken just to the right of the parking lot and near the picnic tables.
This one uses the rocks near the shoreline to create foreground interest.
Around 7.5 miles down this road is an area called Lower Bankhead that is an abandoned coal-mine operation. Unfortunately because of varying issues (closed in the winter and then because of the floods was closed due to bear activity) I haven’t been able to hike down there and take pictures. However, I plan on going back a couple more times in 2014 and will definitely make it a priority to take pictures of the haunting coal carts at the base of Mount Rundle. To access the coal cars and the abandoned buildings you’ll need to hike about a mile or so but the trail didn’t look to steep or difficult to access.
Tunnel Mountain Road
Another of the roads with impressive views is Tunnel Mountain Road which starts right in the heart of the town of Banff. It takes you up (not surprisingly) into the mountains and thus has impressive views all along the way. I’ll list a couple of my favorite stops but there are many others so drive slow and take it all in.
The first view point is at ‘Surprise Corner’ and it is about a mile up the road. There is a parking lot where you can park your car and get out and walk around a bit. This location gives a nice overlook to the historic Banff Springs Hotel and the Bow River. I took the photo below from this location and think the best time to take in the view is just after the sunsets and the lights from the hotel are turning on for the night making it pop from the rest of the mountain.
Farther up the road about 3.5 miles down is the ‘Tunnel Mountain Viewpoint’. There is a parking lot on the right side of the road that leads to a nearby viewpoint which is an easy place to get out and take a couple pictures of Mount Rundle across the Bow Valley.
The next stop on this road before heading back to Banff is the ‘Hoodoos Viewpoint’ which is just a short drive past the Tunnel Mountain Viewpoint. A short trail with ample signage and various informational plaques walks you out to three separate viewpoints. Each platform offers panoramic views of Bow Valley and views down towards the hoodoos. Hoodoos are a rock formation jutting out of the ground and in non-winter months you can take a nice leisurely walk down to them to see them up close. In the winter I found the paved trail to be a little too slick and while I made it down to them the walk up had me slip-sliding and scrambling more often then I would have liked.
About a mile and a half past the Hoodoos Viewpoint parking lot is a small turnout where you can park your car and walk over a ridge to get views of the Trans-Canada Highway with the Fairholme Range in the background. You can also see the tracks of the famous Canadian Pacific Railway down below and trailing off into the distance.
Vermillion Lakes Scenic Drive
My favorite location in Banff and the first one I go to for photographs during each trip is the Vermillion Lakes Scenic Drive. This is one of those locations that is just such a joy to visit and to hike through. There are three Vermillion Lakes along this stretch of road and the great thing is that even in the winter months when all of Banff is frozen over these lakes will have pockets of areas that are snow free which will allow the opportunity to catch reflections of the mountains in the distance.
The road covering all three lakes is around 3 miles and there are some areas where you can hike out – in the winter you may even be able to hike out onto the lakes themselves if the ice is thick enough. But as noted above be careful since portions of the lakes stay thawed even in the depths of the winter months so I wouldn’t be too confident that it would hold.
I’ve often found elk and other animals hanging out near the first Vermillion Lake so if you are hoping to see some wildlife during your trip this may be a good bet early in the morning before they scatter into the trees to hide out for the day. Here are a few of my favorite pictures from this location but I promise you that if you are into photography and want to spend an entire day exploring all that Banff has to offer this is your best bet.
Highway 1A – Bow Valley Parkway
Leaving the town of Banff and driving onto the Lake Louise Area it is best to take Highway 1A (scenic drive called the Bow Valley Parkway) rather than Highway 1 because the scenery is so much better. Along the way you will hit a number of must stop locations – Johnston Canyon and Castle Junction/Castle Mountain Bridge.
About 12 miles outside of Banff is Johnston Canyon (Note – if you don’t like crowds get here early in the day because the tour buses come from both Banff and Lake Louise throughout the day and can make this a really claustrophobic place with the narrow paths and catwalks that lead you through the canyon). Johnston Canyon is one of those amazingly beautiful places that you just have to experience once in your life – it really is like walking into a fantasy world of waterfalls, lakes and rivers. If not for the mobs of tourists that overwhelm this location on most days it would be one of my favorite places in the world.
There are seven waterfalls here and while some freeze over in the winter – two of them ‘upper falls’ and ‘lower falls’ stay strong even throughout the winter months. Below is the lower falls in the winter – some of it frozen over but still running enough to be very noisy.
Here is the upper falls completely iced over – and you can even see an ice climber using pick axes to climb up the wall.
Take your time walking through this place and hopefully you will be there during a time when it is less crowded than it typically is – winter months seem to be less busy but I’ve also been here an hour or so after sunrise in the summer and it isn’t too bad. However, after breakfast time this place will be swarming with at least three or four buses full of people.
Castle Mountain Junction/Bridge
To get to this location you have to turn off of the Bow Valley Parkway – not difficult to spot in the winter since the Bow Valley is typically closed past this point – but in the summer you will have to pay attention to the signs directing you to the Junction/Bridge. Once you turn off the BVP follow the road for about a half mile before reaching the bridge – find a place to park your car on the side of the road before or after the bridge and then hike down towards the river. You will notice there is a fence separating the river area from that of the road. This is typical in Banff as it keeps the animals off the road – periodically there are gates that provide access to the fenced in areas. Don’t be afraid or feel like you are trespassing – the gates are there to help motorists avoid the animals that often crept onto the roads.
Once you are down off of the road this is another location that provides ample photographic opportunity.
I’ve been here in both winter and summer months and the views are spectacular no matter the season.
Here is the view looking back towards the town of Banff.
Lake Louise Area
The next town you will run into is Lake Louise. Lake Louise is much less developed than Banff is – there are only a handful of stores and hotels – unlike Banff which seems to have one of everything you could possibly need. Here the two main attractions are Lake Louise and what is perhaps the most photographed lake in the world – Lake Moraine (it is so beautiful that it also graced the back of Canadian currency for a number of years).
The Lake Louise Chateau is another historical hotel that sits on the shoreline of this pristine lake. If you are able to stay here I highly recommend it. I unfortunately have not had the chance to stay here but it would be ideal to just walk out and be on the shoreline as opposed to having to drive several miles from the Lake Louise hotel area. Additionally, the hotel itself looks very fancy so I’m sure it is an amazing place – as it better be for the cost. Lake Louise is typically ice free from May until October/November but in the winter months it freezes over and is used as an ice rink where adults and kids alike skate, play hockey and enjoy the beauty around them.
Unfortunately, I’ve only been able to visit Lake Moraine once during my three visits – it isn’t that I haven’t wanted to go but rather it is because this area is only open during a limited time of the year (May through October) when the 8-mile road to the lake is accessible. You can of course try to hike (or more likely snowshoe) the road but I’ve yet to brave that trip.
The classic photo of Lake Moraine is taken from the rock pile near the parking lot which provides panoramic views of lake and the Wenkchemna Peaks behind it. That’s where I took the photo below.
Another popular spot is near the canoe dock peering up towards the mountains.
There are a number of great places to hike around Lake Moraine but this area is often restricted due to the active grizzly bear population in the area. If you are with a group of five or more they allow you to hike but less than that and the rangers will levy heavy fines against you and your group.
No matter where you are in Banff or Lake Louise, the scenery is fantastic. I hope the pictures above provide you with some sense of the beauty and peak your interest in visiting. It is not too difficult to get here – especially now as Calgary is booming thanks to the oil industry and as such there are an ample number of flights going in/out on a daily basis unlike some of the other crown jewels in North America (like Yellowstone or the Grand Tetons) which are farther away from a metropolitan area.