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After we finally arrived in Alberta on the VIA Rail, Brendan and I were given a 2014 Volkswagen Touareg and put up in the beautiful Buffalo Mountain Lodge for a project to explore and photograph the best spots in Banff National Park. Since we could only spend three days in the park, we had to plan thoroughly to get to the incredible landscapes at the right time of day in the blue and golden hours and still get enough sleep to go wildlife watching and see some other cool attractions during the day. Our days were packed tight with activities, but we managed to see what we wanted, take great photos and still get enough sleep.
If you have limited time, maybe just want to go to Banff National Park on a long weekend or just want some inspiration on what to see and what to do, this article is for you. Here’s how we did it:
Day 1: Drive to Banff, Exploring Johnston Canyon and Shooting Morant’s Curve
Before I get into telling you what amazing locations we visited on our first day in Banff National Park, I want to introduce you a bit more to our car and accommodation – both were great for a road trip into the mountains.
The Ride: It’s Important to Find a Car with Great Fuel Economy
Oh how I wish we had been able to drive this car on our road trip in Iceland, where our cheap rental car ended up costing us a fortune in fuel.
As I mentioned before, we were given an awesome 2014 Volkswagen Touareg for our short road trip and the execline style car that arrived on our doorstep turned out to be the perfect ride. It looking pretty sleek and sexy was nice, but what I liked best about the Touareg was the great fuel economy – an important factor to consider on every road trip! We left Calgary in our diesel vehicle with a full tank, drove all the way to Banff National Park, cruised around a lot for three days and came back to Calgary and still had about a quarter tank left. We were comfortably able to drive over 700 kilometers without having to worry about fuel – pretty impressive for a 240 horse power car that pulls 406 pounds of torque.
The navigation system was definitely a bonus and so was the big sunroof that ran along almost the entire length of the car – perfect for a panoramic view of the Rockies! The heated seats, steering wheel and windshield were amazing for all our frosty, early morning sunrise shoots and all in all, the Volkswagen Touareg seems to be made for cold climates and mountainous roads.
The Lodging: Choose a Quiet Lodge for that Mountain Retreat Feeling
To a road trip into the mountains belongs an accommodation with lots of wood, fireplaces, fluffy comforters and preferably a steamy hot tub. Whenever I visit Banff, I personally find the hotels right in town to be too touristy and loud and instead, I prefer to find an escape that is wilder, more secluded and has a quiet feel to it. When I look out the window in the morning, I want to see the sun rising behind thick forests, admire the rugged mountains and feel like there is nothing but me and the wilderness out there. Having crowds of tourists roam along Banff Avenue and noisy tour busses pull up at all times of day and night just takes away from the experience.
There is a whole selection of lodges and hotels that offer just that, among them the Buffalo Mountain Lodge. The lodge is a great base for further explorations through Banff National park, it’s quiet and located up on the slopes of Tunnel Mountain, away from the crowds of Banff, but still close enough to take advantage of the town’s amenities. It offers all the cozy details I am looking for on a road trip to Banff National Park, right down to the fireplaces and the hot tub. We originally planned to eat our meals in town, but after indulging in an incredible platter of elk salami, duck, buffalo and a couple other select cuts, we followed that up the following few days with salmon cooked to absolute perfection, vegetable quiche and some classic Alberta beef. I seriously tip my hat to the chef at the Buffalo Mountain Lodge, the food was so incredibly delicious that he managed to keep us eating there the whole time.
So after driving from Calgary to Banff and dropping off our luggage, we headed out again to do some light hiking. Johnston Canyon is a pretty popular day hike in Banff National Park, with the trail leading to the lower waterfalls (1.1km), further on to the upper falls (an additional 1.5 km) and onwards to the Ink Pots (another 3 km), a collection of emerald green pools. Since we didn’t have enough time to do the complete hike, we decided to just hike to the two waterfalls, a trip that took us about 2.5 hours including plenty of photo stops.
As it was fall, the winding trail through the forest and the catwalks along the canyon walls were pleasantly quiet with only a few ground squirrels and the occasional other hiker for company.
Morant’s Curve, located on the western end of the Bow Valley Parkway just before getting to Lake Louise, is the location where the famous photographer Nicholas Morant took many of his well known photographs for the Canadian Pacific Railway. In the middle of the 20th century, these promotional photos of trains blowing steam in front of the dramatic mountain backdrop went around the world and we decided to come to this exact place, to channel our inner Morant and attempt to shoot some train photos of our own.
There is quite a bit of patience involved with hopefully seeing a train – preferably an eastbound one – coming through the bend in the tracks right next to the Bow River. We got lucky though and while being there for roughly two hours around sunset, three of them passed through and proved to be great photo opportunities.
Day 2: Early Morning at Moraine Lake, Sulfur Mountain, Wildlife Watching and sunset at Vermillion Lakes
Moraine Lake is up there with my favourite spots in the whole world and definitely one of the best places to shoot sunrise. Located in the valley of ten peaks, the jagged summits surround the still water and below, the bright blue color of the lake reflects the snow dusted peaks. We got to the famous alpine lake in pitch black darkness and watched as the rising sun slowly illuminated the mountain scenery around us. And, while the place gets insanely busy during the day, we had it all to ourselves early in the morning.
After driving back to Banff for breakfast, we decided to ride up Sulfur Mountain with the Banff Gondola to be able to admire the national park from above as well. On the summit walk we were able to get a birdseye view of the mountain landscape and see the town of Banff, the Banff Springs Hotel and a golf course along the Bow River spread out below us. Definitely a fun little excursion, but it didn’t take us long to get back to town for lunch and some relaxing after not getting too much sleep.
Later in the afternoon, during the active feeding hour of the animals, we headed out with our 70-200mm lenses to try and find some of that famous wildlife. One of the best spots to see in Banff National Park is along the Bow Valley Parkway, but we finally found that elusive bear and elk at Vermillion Lakes, the place were we planned on staying for sunset anyway and another spot that is famous for the many wildlife sightings.
The bear was busy munching on the last berries of the season and didn’t care much about us snapping away. The elk on the other hand seemed like he just came back from a rough fight with another male and looked a little banged up. He quickly disappeard back into the forest.
We decided to photograph Vermillion Lakes for sunset, as it is one of the most iconic views of Banff National Park and the bodies of water just happen to be located only minutes outside of Banff. Honestly, it was the perfect spot to end the day after getting up so early and being on our legs all day long.
When the winds are low and the water is still, Rundle Mountain reflects beautifully in the mirror-like surface. The wetlands around the lakes are great for seeing wildlife, but more difficult for setting up tripods and not getting your feet soaked. All the resulting photos of the illuminated mountain, the perfect reflections in the water and the lovely scenery are more than worth it though.
Day 3: Early Morning at Lake Louise, Canoeing and drive back to Calgary
In addition to Moraine Lake, Lake Louise is the second great spot for sunrise in Banff National Park. Once again we got up in pitch black darkness to catch the rising sun illuminating the mountain tops and Queen Victoria Glacier in golden and orange hues. Lake Louise is also another glacial lake that due to the rock flour in the water reflecting the light, amazes visitors with its saturated emerald colour. The turquoise water proved to be a stunning contrast to the orange mountain tips and the lit up canoe rental place on the shore.
Before heading back to Calgary, we used the opportunity to partake in a famous, although very pricey activity: canoeing on Lake Louise. Forking over 45 Dollars hurt, but in the end it was money well spent and paddling around on the canoe for half an hour gave us a whole new vantage point of the lake.