If you’ve never seen the Canadian Rockies at Banff National Park or Yoho, you are in for a treat!
I’ve been to Jasper once, and went on and ON about the light and the amazing mountain landscapes. I knew I had to go back. This time to Banff and Yoho.
We ventured out from Vancouver Island in early-mid September and headed east.
As an amateur photographer, I spent some time planning shots in Banff and Yoho. My Guide below is the result of my planning. I hope it helps you plan a great first photography trip.
The mountains are calling….
My Photography Guide for Noobs: Banff and Yoho National Parks
Road Trip Map for My Readers
Here is the handy Google Map that I created for our trip to Banff and Yoho National Parks. I pinned all the places we wanted to go. We had time for most and some were closed. Please share and use my map to plan your own trip. Check out my images from this trip in my Rockies Gallery.
Yoho National Park
Nestled in the Canadian Rockies close to the Alberta/B.C border is this beautiful gem, with its blue glacier fed lakes, waterfalls, and immense landscapes. A photographer’s paradise!
Parks Canada website states that Yoho National park is:
Named for a Cree expression of awe and wonder, Yoho lies on the western slopes of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Vertical rock walls, waterfalls and dizzying peaks draw visitors from around the world. With exceptional hiking and sightseeing, the park offers a unique glimpse of Canada’s natural wonders, from the secrets of ancient ocean life to the power of ice and water.Parks Canada
Yoho National Park Map
Check out this link here to get a map of Yoho National Park and the natural wonders within.
Yoho National Park Camping
While we didn’t camp in Yoho National Park, there are plenty of options for you to camp there and use that as your base for exploring the area. Parks Canada has a fully detailed list on their website of over 150 different frontcountry campsites at 4 different campgrounds where you can stay in Yoho National Park. The prices are super reasonable, probably because you already paid for a Parks pass! If you plan on having a fire at any of the campgrounds, the wood is WET, bring plenty of firestarter and chop up your wood into SMALL pieces so it burns.
Be sure to abide by LNT (Leave No Trace) principles and follow the direction from the camp host about protecting wildlife from humans.
There were 4 must get shots for me in Yoho National Park: Wapta Falls, Emerald Lake, Natural Bridge, and Takkakaw Falls.
Wapta Falls is located just off the Trans Canada Highway, or Highway #1 on the right hand side. The road down to the trailhead is gravel, but doable in a 2WD. We got to the Wapta Falls trailhead at 4pm and the parking lot was full, so we parked on the road. There are bathrooms and picnic tables at the trailhead if you need them. The hike to the falls is mostly flat and easy.
My favorite image above was taken at a flat spot down the path to the bottom of the falls. Walk passed the first area where everyone stops to look at the falls and follow the path down. The hike down to the bottom of the falls is, of course, all downhill, and it can be a bit sketchy with loose little rocks.
There was a TON of spray of this giant waterfall, I was constantly wiping off my lens between shots. All of that spray plus sunlight means you can find rainbows to include in your composition. You will get the full effect of the spray by climbing up the hill right in front of the falls.
Check out my Rockies Gallery for More Shots of our Trip
The 7 kms (4 mile) drive up to Emerald Lake is filled with beautiful mountains and forest scenery. Emerald Lake and the Emerald Lake Lodge are at the very end of the road. The parking lot for day visitors isn’t very big, so if you plan on catching some of that early sunrise light, get there early and definitely before 8am. You can park on the side of the street here if the lot is full BUT there are so many cars, it will be a loooooong walk.
We went to Emerald Lake on a Sunday at 5am and Monday at 830am. The difference in the conditions was huge because once the sunlight hit the lake after 8am, it finally blessed us with its infamous turquoise color.
Peaceful pond was so cool, and not another person in sight, you just hike down the little path to the right of the main walkway to Emerald Lodge and it takes you on a beautiful little journey next to the river and down to the Pond. Mount Burgess is in the background of your images and there are lots of different compositions here with rocks, a tiny ‘beach’, turquoise water, and logs as your foreground.
I personally found it difficult to get a composition I liked at Emerald Lake, due to inexperience, not knowing the area, and unfavorable light. Unpopular Opinion?….I honestly preferred Moraine Lake and Lake Louise for compositions. We will be revisiting this location during the Winter, to see how some snow changes the landscape (and maybe my opinion!)
I did like the light being cast on the mountains to the left of the lake, so I cranked out a number of shots with my 75-200mm and my 18-135mm of the mountain tops. The light was filtered through the cloud cover and left as fast as it came.
One thing I enjoyed was how the light lent itself to black and white, emphasizing the textures on the mountain sides.
Pretending I’m a Black and White Mountain Whisperer
Natural bridge is just that, a natural bridge that formed as the Kicking Horse River beat and cut through the rocks. Because it’s fairly wide, you can safely walk right across the top and look down at the rushing water.
You get to Natural Bridge by driving up the same road you take to Emerald Lake. It will be on your left hand side and the turn off comes up pretty fast once you start your way up to Emerald Lake. This is a quick stop, we maybe spent 45 mins here.
We stopped at the nice picnic tables and cooked eggs and bacon for breakfast on our Coleman Camp Stove. We were getting lots of hungry looks from other people as the smell of cooking bacon wafted their way. Some people need coffee, I NEED eggs and bacon in the morning, or I will go postal.
You can also do the Natural Bridge Hike. It’s a very short loop trail that goes over the man-made bridge. If you follow it, it will take you to another viewpoint of Natural Bridge. You can even walk back over the Natural Bridge to the parking lot, which completes the loop. I’ve heard the Kicking Horse River freezes in the winter, when temps get low enough, for long enough. Apparently you can walk right under the bridge! I’ll stick to the trail…for now.
There is a bathroom, garbage cans, and some picnic tables for people to use when visiting this site. There is pretty limited parking (maybe 15 spots), but we never saw it fill up.
The Takkakaw Falls Road up to the Falls is amazing. It’s an awesome road to drive along with a couple of pretty crazy switch backs. The switchbacks reminded us of the Forest Service Roads that we drive on Vancouver Island. The switchbacks are pretty sharp and for that reason, cars and trucks can do it, but trailers are not permitted to drive the road.
You can see the falls from a distance as you approach the first parking area along the road. We didn’t park in the actual parking lot, instead opting to park before the parking lot on the road and walk in to enjoy the alpine scenery a bit more. It was maybe a 1km walk in, if not less. The Takkakaw Falls Trail was easy to follow, slight uphill but nothing unmanageable if you are able bodied.
I loved seeing the tiny wildflowers along the way and walking amongst the trees. There are some cool views of Takkakaw Falls as you approach from the trail. There are some cool red chairs that you can sit in with the Falls in the background: perfect for a selfie.
The trail next to the river and up to the Falls is easy to navigate. Be ready, the Falls generate a ton of wind. The massive amounts of spray that day, and the direction of the wind, was right along the river/trail leading up to the Falls. There are plenty of little side trails to get right down to the river and take some pictures out of the way of other waterfall enthusiasts.
It was a juggling act trying to get shots, wiping down the lens constantly and shielding it from spray. Even though it was a cloudy day, I used my 10 stop ND filter for a quick long exposure to get the silky looking water, and then ventured downstream for images to reduce the amount of spray.
You can also climb right up next to the Falls. It looked like fun but quite the effort to get up there, and we had many stops to do that day so opted out of climbing next to the Falls.
I also snapped off a few images from the alpine field next to the road where we parked, just for a different perspective.
Top Tips for Visiting Yoho & Banff National Parks
Yoho National Park to Banff National Park (Lake Louise)
These two natural areas are so close to each other, it only took us about 20 mins to drive from Yoho to Lake Louise. We drove down the Trans Canada Highway #1 and enjoyed the sites along the way. We were eager to get to Lake Louise and try to get to Moraine Lake before the crowds, so we didn’t stop along the way.
Subscribe to the Newsletter
Exclusive and up to date content straight to your inbox!
Banff National Park Photography
I think there are enough places, things and seasons to photograph in Banff that you could spend your lifetime capturing its glory and not even have a complete collection. Banff National Park is glorious and I am so happy that we were able to see it this year. When in Banff, since it was our first time, we were truly tourists, sticking to the main attractions like Lake Louise and Moraine Lake. We also visited Castle Mountains and Bow Lake and really are grateful for being able to experience its beauty.
We went here a few times, it was so awesome and every time there was parking available in the two huge parking lots. The 1st day we went it was snowing, which made for neat photos and the tops of the mountains in the background were shrouded in snow clouds.
The second time we went, we hiked up to the Fairview lookout, its not an easy hike, all uphill, but never fear, I admit we took so many breaks! We’re into coastal hiking, which is mostly flat and filled with mud so up hills are a bit of a challenge.
Take some time here to explore the trail around the lake. There are also many hiking trails that head up into the mountains that we didn’t explore this time.
I love this place! I think everyone does. It’s THE iconic Banff photography spot. Saw a black bear on the side of the road on the way up munching on berries. I’ve seen a ton of black bears in the wilderness of Vancouver Island (and one in my front yard) but never this close. The 11 km drive up to Moraine is so scenic, it’s nice to get to experience this type of scenery that we don’t get on Vancouver Island.
The turquoise waters with the snow capped mountains in the background is too perfect!
The one and only time we got to go up to Moraine Lake was at 1130am. The parking is super limited so staff block off the road at the bottom when it gets full. We tried to go back 2 more times and there was never any parking. I’m so happy we just chanced it and went to check it out on a lark. If we hadn’t gone on that day, at that specific time, we never would have gotten to see it!
There is tons of spaces to take images with no people in them and find good compositions, either up and around the rockpile, or along the shoreline trail. Plenty of logs, rocks etc. to use as foreground interest.
I even tried my first panorama in the parking lot!
Since we came close to noon, there was wind over the lake and the sun was peeking out from behind the clouds making everything quite bright. I exposed for the highlights and chose not to try any long exposures with my 10 stop ND Filter.
The rockpile is amazing, there are so many areas that you can climb around and just have a private space to yourself, maybe to have a snack or take some images. There are lots of stairs and a climb up to get to the top of the rockpile. We saw some cute chipmunks, love those little devils!
Don’t forget to turn around! The scenery of sweeping mountain and forest vistas is equally amazing when you’re looking away from Moraine Lake!
The best compositions of Castle Mountain, BC are from the Old Highway, which was closed for maintenance when we visited. This image was taken from a viewpoint along Highway 1. We parked along the side of the new highway (near the Kokanee Park Sign), and climbed down an embankment.
I took these pictures through a wire fence. Because of the weird embankment we were on, and the lack of clouds and character in the sky, I decide to just shot hand held, focusing on the light shining on the mountain side. I also managed to get a neat shot of the tree line during golden hour.
No real clouds to reflect the Mid September light, and the alpine glow was negligible. I had 20 mins during golden hour while the sunset was shining on the face of Castle Mountain. Not the best conditions I could have gotten, but such is landscape photography. The sun went down quickly behind, Mount Temple to the West (I believe).
We will be returning to Castle Mountain for some wintery shots along the Old Highway in 2021.
Peyto and Bow Lake Summit
Closed until 2021, total bummer! Next time.
The Bow Lake area has tons of parking both down by the Lodge and up near the road. The Bow Lake Trail is right along the shores of the lake so it’s easy to follow. We just walked around Bow Lake until we found a decent spot for a reflection. We were also in a hurry, since the wind could pick up at any second as it did at Herbert Lake Recreation Site, which ruined any chance of a reflection there.
We got to Bow Lake at around 9am under a cloudy sky. There was only a very, very brief light show on the mountain side as pictured above. There is a Lodge at the Lake called Num Ti Jah Lodge, but they are apparently closed. We didn’t stay her, so please read the review before you book.
Mount Temple was a BONUS. We had never planned any shots here. We drove and walked by it at LEAST 10 times before I finally noticed it off in the distance. You can capture these images right by the Lake Louise Campground. From the tenting campsites, you walk across the access bridge and you will see, on the right hand side (closest to the road) a tiny trail that leads down to the river. Follow this tiny path for less than a minute and you will come across random pools of water where the river once ran.
Mount Temple in all its glory, from the bridge into Lake Louise Campground
Banff National Park Camping
There are many places to camp in Banff National Park. Please visit Banff Campgrounds for a complete listing of campsites you can book. We chose to camp at the Lake Louise Campground when we were visiting Banff. The location of the campground was so central to Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, and all of the natural wonders that it was pretty obvious.
To cut down on costs, we try our best to boondock and stay in free campsites, cheap campsites, and cheap hotels. Then we have more money to spend on doing fun things!
We got a custom fit memory foam mattress made for the back of our Tahoe and removed the back seats, which let’s us stretch right out at night. We also added a bumper hitch with a metal carrier that holds up to 400lbs. We put a ton of our stuff on the hitch while we drive like our coolers, camp chairs, etc.. To also save cash, we buy our food at the grocery store and cook for ourselves. I can’t stand spending money on eating out during a vacation, it costs so much!
On the way to Golden and eventually Yoho National Park, we camped overnight in Salmon Arm at the Hidden Valley RV and Camping Park. This place was one of the nicest parks I have ever seen. Super clean, like even the firepits were cleaned between campers. They had a small store where they sell random things including firewood, the spots are affordable, and the Host was helpful.
They have WIFI and some of the camping spots (the ones at the bottom of the valley) are next to this tiny creek. The bathrooms were WOW, the most decked out bathrooms, I’ve ever seen in a campsite. The only con at this place was that it wasn’t super private for tenters. You can even hear the highway from the sites at the bottom of the small valley. Listening to Jack Brakes from big rigs isn’t the best noise in a natural setting. I slept with ear plugs and it was fine.
This was our home base when we visited Yoho. We are the type of travellers that don’t care where we sleep, since we aren’t spending much time there anyways. As long as it’s not too creepy, you know? 3 stars is our lowest bar for accommodations.
We usually pick a middle of the road hotel/motel to stay in, and mix it in with some reserved camping and free backcountry camping. This helps keep the cost of our travels lower.
We choose to spend our cash on experiences instead of accommodations.
Random Things Along the Way to See
This little gem is run by a nice family that moved from Winnipeg many years ago. The rooms are clean and a decent size, with a little kitchenette that included dishes, pots, pans, sink, fridge/freezer, oven and stove top, plus a coffee maker and microwave. It has an amazing view of the lake and mountains; sunrise/sunset over the lake was beautiful.
There is a great lawn with a BBQ, tables, and chairs for you to enjoy your time outdoors. Conveniently located close to Kokanee Provincial Park, you can get your hike on easy peasy, after a 20 min drive to the start of the forest service road that leads up to the trailheads.
Kokanee Lake Hike
The road up is all gravel. You can make it most of the way in a 2wd or AWD, but there is one washed out section, where you will get caught up. You can technically park there and walk the rest of the way, but ew. OUr 4×4 easily made it, but it’s got low clearance. We stuck to the very right-hand side of the wash out, because there is a perfect track there to follow, an AWD could make it as well.
If you decide you can’t do it, there is the rainforest trail a few kms back down the road. We didn’t explore this trail because we were too pooped after hiking up to the lake.
The hike up to Kokanee Lake was a 9 km out and back with an uphill grade most of the way. There was so many little streams and beautiful views for miles and miles. Once we got up to the lake, we stopped and had lunch before heading back down. The lake was so green and transparent, you could see straight to the bottom. We only brought 2 liters of water and I freaking drank it on the way up. It was almost 30C that day, and we didn’t bring enough water for my thirsty ass. We filled up our water bottles at the large stream before the lake. Best tasting water I ever drank and no beaver fever to report (thank god!).
Seeing the Rockies in Banff National Park was amazing and we only scratched the surface of all the amazing sites to see. Hopefully you found this Guide useful in planning you next trip! Don’t forget to check out my Rockies Gallery for images from our trip.
Subscribe to the Newsletter
Exclusive and up to date content straight to your inbox!