A Guide to Winter Photography in Banff National Park

It’s hard to pick a favorite season here in the Canadian Rockies. In spring, the skies get bluer, the days longer and ephemerals like orchids and glacier lilies make their fleeting appearance. In summer, everything’s lush, colorful wildflowers blanket the alpine meadows, and the glacial lakes are at their most vibrant. In fall, gilded larches bathe an otherwise stark landscape in various shades of bronze and gold. And then there’s winter. Winter in the Rockies has just got something magical about it. The mountains feel more epic under a fresh fall of snow, and everything seems to stand still… frozen in ice and in time.

For the last two years (2022 and 2023), we’ve spent the earliest days of winter in the Southern Rockies – from November into mid-December. November may seem like the tail end of fall to most; but in the Rockies, winter starts to take a firm hold and as lakes freeze solid and ski resorts gradually open their slopes.

There’s something special about this time of year. The excitement of the first few snowfalls. The anticipation of that one dreamlike wild ice skate. The quiet that comes with a significant drop in visitors. Temperatures cold enough to make you reach for some warm socks and a hot cocoa, but lacking in the unyielding bitterness that comes with January and February.

As such, the transition to winter is the perfect time for some winter photography. In the summer, Stephan and I usually spend every second we can scrambling summits and crisscrossing the backcountry. Consequently, winter presents a unique opportunity to slow things down, pull out the gear we don’t normally haul around on forty-kilometer outings, and simply shoot with intention. If you too are looking for some beautiful spots for winter photography in and around Banff National Park, we’re sharing some our favorites.


While this 232-kilometer (144-mile) stretch of scenic highway makes for a stunning road trip for much of the year, our favorite time to drive the parkway is after one of the first few snowfalls of the season. Provided driving conditions are safe, there’s nothing like being surrounded by peaks dusted with a flawless fresh powder.

Bow Lake

Over the course of many visits since our first in 2014, Bow Lake has unexpectedly become one of our favorite spots in Banff National Park. Sanchez absolutely loves it here and we especially enjoy visiting for some winter photography.

About forty kilometers north of Lake Louise, Bow Lake sits just east of the Continental Divide. The glacial pool is surrounded by peaks including Crowfoot Mountain, The Onion, Saint Nicholas Peak, Mount Thompson and Jimmy Simpson. On the southwest side of the lake, Bow Glacier falls tumbles some 500 feet (150 meters) down a sheer headwall where it forms the headwaters of the Bow River. The spot is as unique as it is beautiful.

While the lake is striking year-round, we love nothing more than a quiet morning in winter when the crowds have long left and the landscape is frozen and still. One frigid morning this November, we arrived just as the sun had emerged from behind Bow Peak, and just in time to enjoy a ribbon of frosty morning fog floating at the base of Crowfoot Mountain.

One of our favorite things to do when winter starts to take hold is to check out the ice patterns as the lakes start to freeze. The lakes never freeze the same way twice, which makes every outing a fun surprise. Last year, Bow Lake’s first ice was flawless and flecked with delicate frost flowers. This year, the surface was laden with jagged shards of fragmented ice. The two scenes were worlds apart in appearance, but unparalleled in beauty.

Know before you go: The trail to Bow Glacier Falls is exposed to avalanche hazards, so it’s best not to travel here during the winter months. If you do hike or snowshoe part of the trail, Avalanche Skills Training (AST) is required. That said, if you’re into photography, you don’t have to venture far from the parking lot to get great images. The lakeshore near Num-Ti-Jah Lodge is perfect for capturing some stunning winter scenes.

Peyto Lake

Peyto Lake is probably one of the most photographed features in Banff National Park and it’s easy to see why. Sitting about 500 feet (150 meters) above the lake, a viewpoint offers visitors a bird’s-eye view of the striking, glacier-fed lake. Despite having visited at least half a dozen times, the Peyto Lake Viewpoint doesn’t get old. It’s by no means off the beaten path, but it’s an undeniably gorgeous spot.

The lake’s jewel-toned hues are the result of glacial silt (rock flour) – a mixture of ultra-fine particles that become suspended in the water as glacial meltwaters increase. Like other glacial lakes, Peyto Lake’s color changes throughout the year. The shades can shift as the concentration or composition of particulates changes, and can also vary depending on the angle of the sun, which affects how the mineral-rich granules refract light. Depending on what time of year – or even what time of day – you visit, Peyto Lake may not look exactly the same twice.

In 2023, we were lucky enough to have the most magical day of wild ice skating at Peyto Lake. Wild ice season is fleeting and notoriously unpredictable, requiring the perfect combination of bitter temperatures, low winds, and absence of snow. Once in a blue moon, conditions come together perfectly, offering skating enthusiasts the opportunity of a lifetime. This year’s window lasted about 72 hours. While I’m not sure I’ll ever have another day like it in my lifetime, the few hours I did get were some of the best of my life.

Know before you go: Peyto Lake Viewpoint is accessed via a 1.5-mile (2.5 km) roundtrip walk with a modest 300 feet (100 meters) of elevation gain. The pathway is paved, but it’s a good idea to bring traction if walking up in the winter. Given the regular foot traffic, the trail can get packed down and slippery quite quickly.


You don’t have to venture far from the Town of Banff for some gorgeous winter photo ops. In fact, with roads beginning to close, avalanche danger on the rise, and temperatures dipping to sometimes dangerous lows, you often can’t venture too far from town. Luckily, many of the most scenic spots are just a short drive from downtown.

Morant’s Curve

Morant’s Curve is a scenic spot along the Bow Valley Parkway, about 10 km east of Lake Louise. Here, Mount Temple and the peaks of the Lake Louise group create a dramatic backdrop for a winding stretch of railroad track that parallels the Bow River.

The viewpoint was named for Nicholas Morant, a staff photographer for the Canadian Pacific Railway. Morant’s career spanned more than half of the 20th century, and his photographs were used to promote tourism in the Canadian Rockies as well as the railway itself. Some of Morant’s images were even featured on Canadian currency and postage stamps as well as in prestigious publications such as National Geographic, Time, and Life magazines.

Today, Morant’s Curve remains a favorite spot for many photographers. While you don’t have to venture far from your car to get there, capturing one of the iconic red locomotives rounding the bend will likely require a bit of patience. While freight trains pass through about every fifty minutes, there’s no published timetable to use as guidance. Hoping to catch one of the eye-catching red engine cars against a dusting of fresh snow, we hung around for about forty minutes in bone-chilling -21C (-6F) temps for these shots.

Cascade Ponds

Just outside the town of Banff, Cascade Ponds are a lovely spot for enjoying a sunny stroll and some winter photography. Wooden footbridges allow you to cross the small pools, and the views of Mount Inglismaldie and Cascade Mountain are incredible.

The day we visited a thin veil of frost flowers had formed on the ice, making the shimmering ponds look like something out of a fairytale. Frost flowers (a type of hoar frost) are crystals that look like feathery fronds or delicate petals. The crystals form immediately on surfaces that are already frozen, and grow in size when there is more water vapor in the air. The fragile flowers are typically found on thin lake ice when winds are calm, and can exist as single crystals or multi-petaled ‘blooms.’

Between the frost flowers on the ponds and hoar frost coating the woody vegetation around the shoreline, the unassuming crystals kind of stole the show from the grander mountains. Like snowflakes, each piece of ice is unique and transient, making each one distinct in beauty. If you’re out and about in winter, investigate the things that seem unexciting and ordinary, like a desiccated flower head or tangled branch. You never know what you’ll find that turns out to be unexpected and extraordinary.

Cascade Meadows

Just down the road from Cascade Ponds, Cascade Meadows is also a great spot for photography. Cascade Mountain is impressive from this angle, and the meadows can be a hot spot for wildlife. One afternoon as we were driving out from Lake Minnewanka, we spotted a herd of nine elk lounging in the meadows.

While most of the herd were content to simply graze or relax as the sun retreated for the day, a pair of playful bachelors enjoyed several rounds of sparring. For male elk, sparring is a bit of a sport for much of the year – and quite different than the violent fights of the fall rut when males compete for breeding opportunities. With sparring, bulls test their strength in friendly matchups. Both parties agree to the challenge by slowly presenting and linking antlers, then wrestle gently in what looks like a choreographed dance. There are no winners and no losers, and both parties simply return to grazing when they feel the contest is over.

We watched for over an hour as afternoon faded to dusk, and were so enthralled we forgot just how cold -7C felt as we stood around like a couple of awestruck statues.

Be wildlife aware. If you want to shoot wildlife, you need to invest in a telephoto lens (we have a 70–300 mm, 500mm and teleconverter). There is absolutely no alternative. It is imperative that wildlife have their space, both for their success and your safety. The general guideline for safe wildlife viewing is 30 meters for herbivores and 100 meters for carnivores. Please, please don’t be that idiot with a cell phone inching closer and closer to a wild animal. It’s dangerous for you and can jeopardize the survival of these precious species.

Lake Minnewanka

At 13 miles (21 kilometers) in length and 466 feet (142 meters) deep, Lake Minnewanka is the largest lake in Banff National Park and second longest in Canada’s mountain parks (the longest is Jasper’s Maligne Lake at just over 23 kilometers). The name Minnewanka comes from the Stoney (Nakoda) First Nations people and means ‘lake of the spirits.’ Minnewanka has been sacred to local indigenous tribes for thousands of years, with artifacts evidencing the lake’s 13,000 years of uninterrupted use.

Today, Lake Minnewanka serves a reservoir, providing hydroelectric power to the nearby town of Banff. Its current footprint is the result of a series of dams built between 1895 and 1941. When the last dam was constructed in 1941, the lake’s water level rose by nearly a hundred feet (30 meters), flooding neighboring Minnewanka Landing, a resort village that was popular in the 1890s. The remnants of Minnewanka Landing now form an underwater ghost town with many of the original structures lying intact far below the lake’s crystalline waters.

Above the surface, Lake Minnewanka’s waters bend beneath the summits of Mounts Inglismaldie and Girouard. The peaks make a dramatic backdrop for the lake and, in winter, you can find logs with cool ice features littering the small beaches. If you’re keen to take a little lakeside stroll, you can make the three-kilometer (two-mile) roundtrip out to Stewart Canyon where the Cascade River enters the lake. There’s minimal elevation gain, although you’ll likely need cleats in winter for traction on the ice and hardpacked snow. While the path is accessible in winter, you’ll still want to check the trail conditions before heading out.

Vermilion Lakes

The Vermilion Lakes are beautiful any time of year, and winter is no exception. The small pools are formed by the Bow River and are nestled between the bases of Mount Norquay and Sulphur Mountain. Easily accessible from the Trans-Canada Highway and just minutes from Banff’s town center, the lakes make a great spot for photography or even a little ice skating in winter. The view of Mount Rundle is breathtaking from here, with a look at the slanted western side of the multi-summited massif.

Pro tip: If you want the best opportunities for photographs, visit later in the afternoon or around sunset. In the morning, the southeast views face directly into the sun.

In Search of Christmas Spirit

After a day of photographing wintry landscapes, consider an evening stroll around Banff’s Cascade Gardens to enjoy the festive story, In Search of Christmas Spirit.

This immersive experience is a collaboration between local indigenous artist, Jason Carter, and creative director and performer, Bridget Ryan. Each year for the holiday season, their imaginative celebration transforms the town’s Cascade of Time Garden into an enchanting world of lights and sounds as the native wildlife inspires visitors to find the true meaning of Christmas.

The peaceful stroll through the snowy park, adorned with twinkling lights and glowing animal sculptures, was one of the most magical and joyful Christmas experiences we’ve ever had. If you find yourself in the area from mid-November through New Year’s, we’d highly recommend making a reservation (tickets are free, but you must reserve your time slot in advance). We’ll be headed back to Canmore in 2024, and can’t wait for another festive night out at the live Christmas tale.


While the next few spots aren’t technically in Banff, they’re also not too far away. The first is about an hour west in Yoho National Park, while the other two are 45 minutes to an hour southeast in Kananaskis Country. If you’ve already been tootling around Banff, your Discovery Pass can also be used in Yoho. If you decide to head to K Country, however, you will need to purchase a Conservation Pass (daily and annual passes available online).

Emerald Lake

One of Yoho’s gems, this turquoise lake is home to the historic Emerald Lake Lodge. Originally built in 1902 by the Canadian Pacific Railway, the rustic accommodations remain a favorite of visitors more than a century later.

Emerald Lake is another fantastic spot for photography, with the pool nestled beneath the soaring summits of Mount Burgess, Wapta Mountain and The Presidents. There are great photo ops in the area immediately adjacent to Emerald Lake Lodge, as well as from various points around the lake. The western and northern ends of the lake are more open, though there are a couple good peek-a-boo glimpses from the wooded eastern side of the lake.

To explore the lakeshore in full, consider hiking the Emerald Lake Loop – a 5-kilometer (3-mile) trail with very little elevation gain. In early winter, the trail follows the perimeter of the lake. Later in the season when the lake freezes, however, the trail is rerouted to cross a short section of lake in order to avoid an avalanche path on the western side of the lake along the slopes of Emerald Peak. As always in winter, check conditions and adhere to all signage.

Add on: If you’re visiting the lake, pop by the Natural Bridge on the way in. The limestone formation was created by the pounding flow of the Kicking Horse River. While the water is a vibrant turquoise in the summer, with a much higher volume rushing through, winter provides the chance to check out some cool ice formations.

Spray Lakes

Similar to Lake Minnewanka, Spray Lakes is a large reservoir in Kananaskis Country that is used to provide hydroelectric power to the town of Canmore, a town about 25 kilometers southeast of Banff. The reservoir is the largest lake in K Country, stretching nine miles (14.5 km) long and a mile (1.6 km) wide along the base of Old Goat Mountain and Mount Nestor.

Like its more famous neighbor to the north, Abraham Lake, Spray Lakes can be a great spot for observing methane bubbles. The bubbles are the result of decaying vegetation and other organic matter that has settled along the lakebed. As microbes break down the carbon-rich debris, methane gas is released. The gas bubbles slowly rise to the surface of the lake and become trapped as the water freezes. As the water continues to freeze and ice becomes thicker, the bubbles form vertical stacks in the frozen mantle.

Because reservoirs were flooded rapidly to store water, there is typically a lot of organic material at the bottom, making them especially prone to methane bubble formation. With reservoir methane emissions on the rise due to the warming climate and nutrient runoff, scientists are studying the potential to harness the gas as another possible power source.

With the south end of Abraham Lake (Preacher’s Point) not yet frozen when we visited, we decided to seek out bubbles at Spray Lakes a few days later. It was insanely blustery the day we went out, which made skating and photography slightly challenging, but the bubbles were primo. The ice here was nice and thick (5 to 7 inches) and in decent shape, and we found some really cool areas rife with bubbles. The geometric patterns were like little works of art, and it almost felt like skating through an icy gallery as we hunted for and admired nature’s masterpieces.

If conditions had been calmer, we could have stayed out there for hours. However, the biting 50 to 60 kph gusts were wild. Skating south into the headwind was a killer workout. Skating north, you kind of felt like a rocket blasting off with the insane tailwind. You didn’t even need to push off to gain enough momentum that you felt slightly out of control.

Despite the imperfect conditions, it was still a fun outing. If you’re keen to listen to those biting gusts we were contending with, turn up the sound in the video. Even the swirling snow made its own little transient work of art as it rushed across the surface of the ice.

Barrier Lake

Yet another manmade reservoir, Barrier Lake sits at the northern end of Kananaskis Country, just off Highway 40 at the base of Mount Baldy. Similar to Spray Lakes, Barrier Lake also has the potential to put on a pretty good display of methane bubbles. Additionally, the lake is known for its particularly vibrant turquoise water, making it a stunning piece of glass when it freezes over.

I made my first winter trip to Barrier Lake after reading reports of some nice ice the first week in December. Excited for another day of floating around on an aquamarine window to the world below, I headed over on a chilly Monday morning.

The outing ended up being a great example of why you should bring your own tool to measure the ice and trust your own assessments rather than relying on the judgment of others. After venturing not far from shore and measuring just two and a half to three inches in several places, all while hearing the creaking and cracking of the ice, I returned to the beach. I was not at all comfortable with conditions and, quite honestly, winced at the handful of people that had skated much further out without taking any measurements and with no visible safety gear, including one with an off-leash pup.

After quickly exchanging my skates and life jacket for camera and wide-angle lens, I turned the botched skating attempt into a shoreline photography session instead. While I may not have gotten my fix of skating or bubbles, there were some beautiful ice sculptures to be found hidden amongst the driftwood that peppered the shoreline. Lesson for the day: never be bummed about having to resort to Plan B. There’s usually still plenty of magic to be found.

Know before you go: Because Barrier Lake is a reservoir (like others mentioned here), water levels can be manually raised or lowered. This can significantly affect the ice thickness. Be especially careful when scoping out conditions for skating. Early season can be particularly precarious, so remember to always take your own measurements, bring the appropriate gear to keep yourself safe, and never be ashamed to turn around if you’re unsure.


If you get super lucky while you’re in the Rockies, you may catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights). The natural light displays occur nearly every day at the polar regions along the Arctic and Antarctic Circles, but can creep further south/north depending on the level of solar activity. Given the latitude of Banff National Park – around fifty-one degrees north of the equator – auroral activity is not uncommon in the region.

Auroras occur when charged particles (ions) from solar winds collide with nitrogen and oxygen atoms in Earth’s atmosphere. These collisions release energy in the form of light, and the color of the light depends on which gas is being excited by the solar-borne ions/electrons. When excited, oxygen emits a greenish light (the most common color of the aurora), while collisions with nitrogen yield shades of blue and purple. The aurora’s color also depends on the altitude of the particles that are being excited. Most auroras form in the ionosphere, which is anywhere between 60 and 600 miles above Earth’s surface. Red auroras, which are less common and associated with strong solar activity, occur when oxygen atoms are excited at higher altitudes (180 to 250 miles above Earth’s surface). Conversely, the more typical green auroras form much lower – between 60 and 190 miles above Earth’s surface – where oxygen concentrations are greater.

While auroras can occur at any time of year, skies need to be very dark for auroras to visible (the light emitted is much dimmer than sunlight). As such, winter is the best time for viewing these magical light displays. After not seeing the Northern Lights at all during our six-month stay in the Rockies in 2022, we were really hoping for a show in 2023.

As I sat around mourning the premature darkness that came with the official end of daylight savings time on that first Sunday in November, the Kp value unexpectedly spiked. Stephan stepped outside briefly and returned screaming for me to get out there, not knowing how long the lights would last. With tripod in hand and bare feet slipped quickly into sneakers, we raced into the darkness. Clearly the universe was trying to get me to see the silver lining of shorter days, as we stood in awe for well over an hour while shimmering waves of green and a subtle splash of purple light danced across the sky. It was one of the most amazing things either of us has seen, and we have our fingers, toes and eyes crossed for a repeat performance in 2024.

Aurora forecast resources

While there are a number of forecasting apps and websites to choose from, Stephan and I have been using the My Aurora Forecast app on our phones. You can set up an alert to be notified if/when the Kp value is high enough for auroral activity; just be prepared to be woken up during the night. The Kp index is used to measure geomagnetic activity and ranges from 0 to 9 (weak to strong). A higher Kp value means there is greater likelihood of seeing the aurora further away from the poles. If you’re not located in the northernmost (or southernmost) latitudes, you’re typically looking for a Kp value of 5 or higher for the best chance of seeing the aurora. My Aurora Forecast also provides more obvious metrics, including cloud coverage (lower is better) and overall viewing probability given your geographical location. SpaceWeatherLive is another really good resource.

Predicting auroras

While more aurora chasers are familiar with the Kp value, it’s not necessarily the best predictor of an aurora. The Kp value is a three-hour average of global activity, so it does lack some precision. However, there are four other predictors of auroral activity that can be even more useful: (1) solar wind speed, (2) solar wind density, (3) Bt value and (4) Bz value. Both the My Aurora Forecast app and SpaceWeatherLive provide graphs for all four predictors. For the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights, you want the first three indicators to all be high.

High solar wind speed and density equate to more charged particles and harder collisions with Earth’s ionosphere. The average solar wind speed is around 300 km/s. For an aurora to be bright and colorful, you’d like to see the wind speed reach between 500-800 km/s.

The Bt and Bz values refer to the strength and direction of the interplanetary magnetic field (IMF), respectively, and are measured in nanoTesla (nT). A Bt value of 6 nT is average, while a Bt value at or above 10 nT is ideal for aurora viewing. Finally, the Bz value is perhaps the most important factor for auroral activity. When the IMF points northward, in the same direction as Earth’s magnetic field, the Bz value is positive. When the IMF is oriented southward, opposite Earth’s magnetic field, the Bz value is negative. When the IMF points southward, more solar winds enter Earth’s magnetosphere. For an aurora to appear, the Bz value should be negative. The more negative the value (-10 nT), the stronger the aurora. While an aurora is possible with a positive Bz value, it’s quite unlikely.


  • Be avalanche aware. Avalanches are one of the biggest risks in winter in the Rockies, with deaths occurring every year. While public avalanche forecasts are published by all of Canada’s Mountain National Parks, it’s important to remember that you are responsible for your own safety. Stay safe when venturing into the backcountry by taking an Avalanche Skills Training (AST) course. If you’re skiing, snowshoeing or hiking around avalanche terrain, an AST1 or AST2 course is required. Yamnuska Mountain Adventures offers both AST1 and AST2 courses in Canmore and Calgary.
  • While the Icefields Parkway is open to passenger vehicles year-round, take proper precautions if driving in winter. Road crews do plow the highway; however conditions can be slick and unpredictable. Additionally, there is little to no cell service along the full stretch of roadway. Make sure you’ve got an emergency kit with you, a shovel, as well as extra supplies (food, water, extra layers, blankets). Since we do a fair bit of off-road travel, we always travel with a shovel, tow straps, and recovery boards. Importantly, be aware that winter tires (and/or chains) are mandatory by law if driving along Highway 93 from November 1 to April 1 of each year.
  • If planning a trip in winter, it’s also important to be aware that Parks Canada occasionally closes the Icefields Parkway, parts of the Trans-Canada Highway, and other secondary roads due to avalanche risk or for avalanche control. Closures are typically brief, but are not always predictable. Current road conditions can be checked here: https://511.alberta.ca/.
  • A number of roads in the Canadian Rockies close for the winter season. Closures include popular routes such as Moraine Lake Road, the Highwood Pass section of Highway 40 through Kananaskis, and the western side of the Lake Minnewanka Loop. Parks Canada provides a list of seasonal closures for Banff and Jasper National Parks.
  • While wild ice skating is an incredible treat, there is inherent risk involved with venturing onto any lake or pond. Read some of our tips for staying safe on the ice and always do your research before heading out.
  • Be wildlife aware. While bears do hibernate during the winter months, this doesn’t mean they will remain in their dens 100% of the time. Bears remain in a state of torpor, where their metabolism and physical activity slows. However, the animals will venture out if disturbed, so it’s important to carry bear spray even in winter.
  • While some animals enter torpor, many others remain active during the winter. Animals like elk, sheep and caribou move to higher elevations in winter to evade predators such as wolves that can’t move around in the deep snow. Consequently, certain areas within the parks close annually to protect wildlife as they move around. Please respect all wildlife closures for the safety of the animals as well as your own. Caribou are protected under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, and winter closures are imperative to the survival of the last remaining herds. Parks Canada provides links for weekly bear reports and wildlife warnings and closures.


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