Once a month, we’ll feature a wildlife hotspot. We want to aid you with getting ‘the shot’ in order to help rekindle your love for nature, to enable you to become inspired by wildlife and to equip you to become an advocate for a wilder world at home.
This month’s focus:
So you’re interested in photographing black bears…
Welcome to the road with a 99% guarantee of at least seeing a black bear and, more than likely, capturing a good photo of one too.
Jasper National Park’s Magline Lake Road is one of the great roads for wildlife photography on the planet. And in every visit I’ve made to the park (about 25 times), I’ve never not seen a black bear on the 44km journey between Highway 16, just east of the Jasper townsite, and Maligne Lake.
Though I favour locations where I can sit in one spot and wait for the perfect shot, Maligne Lake Road is one area where it makes more sense to keep moving.
It’s not unusual to come across five different bears on the drive – and many of the sightings are up close and personal.
In the last few years, black bear cubs have been a big part of the draw for us. One sow in particular seems to give birth to three cubs with each set she has and seems to be amongst the most prolific reproducers of any bear I’ve known. (Bears reproduce once every 3-4 years, whereas this sow has new cubs every 2-3 years.)
Though the road is not on the tourist speedway that is the Icefields Parkway from Banff to Jasper, it is becoming increasingly popular. And with popularity comes people who lose their minds at bear jams.
The good news is that the Jasper rangers are the gold standard in professionalism – they strike the right balance between ensuring people enjoy bear viewing opportunities without crossing the line. There just aren’t enough of them.
The best stretch of the road is between Maligne Canyon and the west end of Medicine Lake; as well as between the east end of Medicine Lake and the Maligne River bridge. That said, I’ve seen bears on basically every part of the road.
For whatever reason, I’ve had far more luck in the evening hours than mornings. Afternoons have even been better to me than early mornings. Go figure.
And if you are exceptionally unlucky, black bears are not the only animal subject to photograph.
One of our best fox sightings came on this road, we frequently see coyote on the first and last 10km of the highway, and in the spring (and occasionally in the summer) wolves are not uncommonly sighted.
A big bull elk and a herd of bighorn sheep are a nightly occurrence around the Watchtower hike trailhead and along the north shore of Medicine Lake, respectively.
Osprey have for years made a nest near Medicine Lake.
And I’ve even seen woodland caribou in the spring and a grizzly near Magline Lake in the summer.
Plus, landscape photography is excellent at almost every turn.
Though Jasper has an abundance of areas to spot wildlife, Maligne Lake Road is the one ‘must drive’ location for black bears.
Just remember to drive slowly, look carefully and be prepared to pass on a sighting if the situation is less than ideal – there will almost certainly be another bear down the road.
Location: Maligne Lake Road, Jasper National Park, Alberta
Accessibility: Maligne Lake Road, just east of Jasper townsite on Highway 16
Primary Photographic Focus: Black Bears
Secondary Photographic Focus: Elk, Bighorn Sheep, Coyote, Fox, Wolf (spring), Caribou (spring)
Best Time: 7-10pm
Season: Spring & Summer
– Though spring and summer is the best season for black bears on this road, berry season is best – usually early August.
– With mostly dense forest abutting the road, the bear sightings are often very close and we strongly encourage you to photograph bears from your car, even if people are outside their vehicles.
– If you see an increasingly out-of-control bear jam, call a ranger: they’re great.
– Stop in at the park’s visitor centre for the latest on bear sightings – they’re happy to share what they know and it can be helpful in narrowing down your search.
– The lighting – and weather – is rarely great on the Maligne Lake Road, so be prepared for fast lenses and high ISO settings.
– While long lenses are useful, the best black bear photos we’ve captured on the road have been with a 70-200mm lens.