Banff National Park is one of Canada’s great treasures. Landscape photos from within Banff’s borders are featured in publications across the globe. Four million people visit the park each and every year, all hoping to take photos like those they’ve seen in calendars and books. If you want to get postcard-worthy shots of Banff National Park, then you need to visit the right locations at the right times of the day. Here are the locations you need to visit to emulate Banff’s top five iconic photos, and the best times of day to visit each individual spot.
Photography Equipment You’ll Need
To capture these iconic photos all you really need is a camera with a versatile wide-angle lens. A good quality DSLR or Mirrorless camera is best, but higher end models like the Nikon D850 or the Sony a7R III are pricey. Luckily more budget friendly options are available like the Nikon D3400 and Canon EOS Rebel T6. Both can each be found for under $500USD. Other equipment to consider is a sturdy tripod for longer exposures, and a neutral density filter kit to help even out exposure at sunrise or sunset. Now that you know what equipment you’ll need, let looks at locations.
Castle Mountain is a monolith of a mountain, even when compared to all the surrounding peaks. Castle Mountain is one of the few peaks that looks great no matter the time of day. It does get more spectacular while the sun is setting, but you can skill achieve amazing photos of Castle Mountain at sunrise, or mid-day. The iconic Castle Mountain photo is taken from Castle Junction on the banks of the Bow River, located 32k (20 miles) west on Highway 1 from Banff townsite. Exit right on AB-93S towards Kootenay National Park, and turn right at the stop. Advance and park before the bridge that crosses the Bow River. On the north side of the bridge, take the path down to a gate that provides access to the river’s west bank. There are great spots to setup your tripod along the banks of the Bow with Castle Mountain to the east. Also at this same location is a great opportunity to photograph a family of osprey have built a giant nest on top of the bridge, so keep a longer telephoto lens handy.
Of the five photo locations in this list, Peyto Lake is the furthest away from Banff townsite. To reach this location take highway 1 west. At approximately 55km (34 miles) from Banff Townsite take exit 93 onto Highway 93N and continue another 40km (25 miles) to the Peyto Lake parking area. From here, the viewpoint is an easy ten-minute uphill hike. Peyto Lake is a busy location in summer, so plan accordingly. Like Castle Mountain light is good any time of day, but sunset at Peyto is amazing. You can extend your outing by hiking the Bow Summit trail from the Peyto Lake Lookout. This will make the hour-long drive more worthwhile and provide different views of the lake.
Possibly the most iconic spot in Banff National Park, Lake Louise is on most visitor’s itineraries, and with good reason! The lake’s water can be anywhere from vibrant blue to a breathtaking emerald green depending on the season and sediment in the water. Lake Louise is one of the most visited places in the park. If you want to get that iconic Lake Louise photo, then you are best to arrive early in the morning – as close to sunrise as you can – before the crowds arrive. In the off-seasons, the lake can be captured at sunset to great effect, but sunrise is the best time for Lake Louise. Setup your tripod on the wooden walkway in between the lake and the Chateau Lake Louise.
Rundle Mountain Reflection
Despite the popularity of locations like Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, Rundle Mountain is still probably the most photographed peak in the park, mostly thanks to its close proximity to the town of Banff. There are multiple locations around Banff where you can capture great photos of Rundle Mountain, but when most people think of the peak, they picture Rundle reflected in Vermillion Lakes. This is a spectacular location any time of day. It is also a popular location for astrophotography, so literally, beautiful photos can be created from this location at any hour. My suggestion is to visit Vermillion Lakes for sunset for best results. To reach this location either take the Norquay exit off Highway 1 towards Banff and turn onto Vermillion Lakes Rd. If in Banff, leave town via Lynx Street which will turn into Gopher Street, then Mount Norquay Road. From Mount Norquay Rd, turn onto Vermillion Lakes Rd and drive along the water until you find a spot you like. There are pull-offs for parking and docks all along the lakes’ sides.
The number one iconic photo in Banff National Park is Moraine Lake and the Valley of the Ten Peaks. It was even featured on the Canadian $20 bill from 1969 until 1993. Moraine Lake is the most difficult of these five locations to capture. This is due to the Moraine Lake’s popularity and somewhat remote location. Moraine Lake has only a fraction of the parking of nearby Lake Louise, and Parks Canada closes the road each day once the parking lot is full. The lake can still be accessed via a free shuttle offered by Parks Canada, but this is both time consuming, and restrictive as the buses only run until early evening. Also note that Parks Canada closes the road to Moraine Lake in winter due to avalanche risk. The location for the Moraine Lake photo is on the lakeside near the parking lot, so it is easily reached. Much like Lake Louise, to avoid the crowds and get one of those coveted parking spots, visit Lake Moraine as early as you can muster. With any luck you can enjoy a wonderful sunrise light-show and nail that iconic Moraine Lake photo.
Iconic Photo Weekend Challenge!
So now you know the five locations you need to reach to get the most iconic photos of Banff National Park. Want to get them all in a single weekend trip? Here’s an itinerary to make it happen (this itinerary doesn’t account for weather or season, so adjust accordingly):
– Arrive Friday evening, and photograph Rundle Mountain from Vermillion Lakes.
– Rise early and leave your campsite or hotel an hour before sunrise. Visit Moraine Lake for the Ten Peaks sunrise shot. If the parking lot is already full, go to Lake Louise, and try Moraine Lake again the following morning.
– Grab lunch in Lake Louise and a snack for later, before heading to Peyto Lake. Spend the afternoon hiking the Bow Summit Trail and cap off the day by shooting Peyto Lake during the golden hour.
– Head back to Banff for a late supper. If the light is right, you may want to stop by Castle Junction or Vermillion Lakes on the way.
– Rise early again on Sunday and head to Lake Louise for sunrise (or Moraine Lake if you were unable to get the shot the day before).
– Once you leave Lake Louise, you have a second chance to stop at Castle Junction or Vermillion Lakes to cap off the weekend. This also leaves you the rest of the day for a leisurely drive home, or to tack on an extra adventure in the park.
Banff offers a lot more then these five locations, but if you want to wow your friends and family, then just visiting these locations will get you an A grade. To further explore Banff and Lake Louise, I suggest picking up ebook copies of Lake Louise Hiking Guide and Banff National Park Hiking Guide: A Guide to Day Hikes in Banff National Park, both by Brian Patton and Bart Robinson.