Nestled amongst the Canadian Rockies, Banff is a landscape lovers dream. We visited last October / November, spending two weeks going between Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper. Millions of visitors are drawn to this part of Canada each year, hoping to see the mountain wildlife.
We opted to visit in the colder Autumn / early Winter, which meant bears would be going into hibernation but it would be rutting season for the elk. This also meant we avoided crowds, often being the only people at a location.
The entire town of Banff is a little bit like a mountain safari. Elk and deer regularly wander around the town and just a few minutes drive away you can find 53 types of mammals who call the national parks home. To protect the wildlife from Alberta’s busy highways, there are lots of wildlife corridors throughout Banff. These are speed restricted roads without fences or barriers, so the animals can pass safely through. And in addition to the wildlife corridors, there are a number of scenic drives which are well-signposted and show off some of the surrounding natural beauty.
Bow Valley Parkway
I had seen the Bow Valley Parkway mentioned a lot whilst planning our time in Banff, but had no idea how heavily it would feature in our time in Alberta. I couldn’t even guess how many times we drove it, but at least twice a day.
Just off the Trans-Canada Highway, the Bow Valley Parkway connects Banff with Lake Louise, running parallel to the highway.
The Bow Valley Parkway is speed restricted for the safety of the animals and there are no fences on either side of the road. Whilst driving along the Trans-Canada highway you can see enclosed bridges coming from the Bow Valley Parkway and over the highway, designed to allow wildlife to cross safely.
The Bow Valley Parkway takes longer to use due to the speed restriction but got us to Lake Louise in around an hour and a half. That’s including pulling over frequently to look at animals. We tended to opt for taking the slower, scenic route for all of our journeys in that direction.
We didn’t expect to see bears, but were lucky enough to spot a lot of wildlife whilst driving the Bow Valley Parkway. Including a moose (which I initially mistook for a hitchhiker), a coyote, a fox, plus countless elk, deer and caribou.
Whatever season you visit Banff in, make sure you factor in a drive down the Bow Valley Parkway and check out the stops along the way like Johnson Canyon, Muleshoe and the Sawback prescribed burn.
Canmore Kananaskis Wildlife Drive
Canmore is a neighbouring town to Banff and somewhere that had cropped up whilst looking for accommodation and things to do near by. We had intended to check it out, but had no fixed plans until we met a couple of locals at the Banff Halloween bonfire. They told us about the Kananaskis wildlife drive–and amazing bagels–which was another wildlife corridor, similar to the Bow Valley Parkway.
We added it to our itinerary for the next day, having by then realised that the scenic drives and wildlife corridors of Alberta were the highlight of our trip.
The Kananaskis wildlife drive is one of the longer routes, taking around 3 hours to complete the 96 mile round trip. Starting and finishing in Canmore, the drive took us through incredible mountain scenery amongst the Rockies where we saw elk and big horn sheep.
In the middle of the Kananaskis scenic drive you abruptly come out of the rockies and are suddenly in a very flat town. It felt so American, as though we had crossed the border. Honky Tonk bars, American flags and nothing but farms in the distance. The signs changed from warning us about bears and possible moose on the road, to cows roaming free.
This is the only civilisation you will encounter shops wise so it’s worth stopping for food (I opted for nachos from a petrol garage, so wrong, but so right) before heading back into the Rockies for the second leg of the drive. The same thing thing goes for phone signal, so bring a map or sync one offline.
Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive
The Lake Minnewanka route is a short one, just a few minutes drive from Banff. The start of which is situated next to the Vermillion lakes drive. These shorter scenic drives were our favourites to do in the evening, just as it was getting dark.
Twilight was a good time to spot wildlife, which would be coming out under the cover of darkness. Anytime we returned to our accommodation in Banff at this time, we would do a quick tour of the scenic drives near the town centre.
We saw countless elk, caribou and energetic red squirrels. A highlight was watching the elk rutting in the evening as the sun set behind them.
The Lake Minnewanka route takes you around Cascade Ponds, Two Jack lake, Johnson Lake and Lake Minnewanka itself.
Tunnel Mountain Scenic Drive
The Tunnel Mountain route is a quick one right from Banff, which takes you up Tunnel Mountain where you can see Banff from above and the hoodoos. This route was great for finding elk at any time of day, often happily munching their way through someone’s lawn.
Another short drive starting just on the outskirts of the town in Banff, Vermillion Lakes is a must-do for anyone visiting. We were lucky enough to see it looking entirely different before and after the snow came. Once the lakes freeze over they’re famous for their methane bubbles in the ice.
Vermillion Lakes is less of a scenic drive and more of a pitstop, given it takes about 5 minutes to do. But we treated it as any of the other scenic drives, slowly crawling along looking for wildlife. And we weren’t disappointed! I couldn’t believe my eyes when just a few metres in-front of us I saw a large animal weaving through the long grass. I initially mistook it for a wolf, but managed to snap a blurry photo and could see he was actually a coyote.
As with the other scenic drives, early evening and morning are the best times to spot wildlife. Although Mount Rundle towering in the background tends to attract a lot of photographers come sunset and sunrise.
The Icefields Parkway is a World famous route associated with this part of Canada. Connecting Lake Louise and Jasper, the Icefields Parkway is a 232km highway which takes you through both Banff and Jasper national parks. Passing glaciers, waterfalls, lakes and countless stop offs along the way.
Typically there would be enough to see and do on the Icefields Parkway to warrant a post of its own, but as we visited in Winter a lot of the stops were closed. The road conditions were bad and daylight more limited, so our focus was on getting through it. With no phone signal or park vehicles past 3pm, you really do not want to get stuck here.
On the day we drove down towards Jasper, the road conditions were poor and the visibility meant there was little point stopping off at the Columbia icefields. So we stopped off at a few of the lakes but otherwise headed straight to Jasper.
On the drive back towards Banff, we were really lucky. The sun was shining and whilst it was very cold (-15°C) from inside the car it was incredibly beautiful. At every turn we could have stopped to take in the mountain scenery. I would love to come back at a different time of year to do the Icefields Parkway properly, but have to admit I loved the tranquility of it in Winter. Just us and the crows for most of the 4 hour drive.
Driving The Icefields Parkway In Winter
I’m going to post about the benefits of visiting when we did and the closures to be aware of before you go. We had to cut our time in Jasper short by a day to get back to Banff before the heavy snow set in and temperatures plummeted whilst we were there, making the driving conditions difficult. I’d recommend keeping a close eye on the weather before you go, ensuring you’ve got all the relevant safety information and know the road condition status before setting off. Our car was fitted with ice tyres so we could drive on the snowy roads. The Icefields Parkway was gritted but on one leg of the trip we set out before gritting and ploughing had started, so the road conditions varied a lot.
The underneath of our car froze whilst driving back and as it was dark we didn’t realise that was the issue until the following morning. I guess all that sludgy snow spray stuck and froze in the sub freezing temperatures. So we started our next day eating bagels and kicking ice off the wheels in -11°C … Only in Canada.
As the lay-bys and pull ins were unplowed, we dared not stop often for fear of getting stuck on our return journey. I didn’t get any photos but did try to film some of the amazing views. We didn’t see much wildlife besides a herd of mountain goats we came across twice who were happily licking the salt from the roads. But the incredible views made this scenic drive one not to miss.