Wildlife Hotspot: Banff’s Highway 1A
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:
Banff National Park’s 1A
First, a disclaimer: Banff’s 1a highway through the Bow Valley has long been considered one of the best roads for wildlife anywhere in the world. And though it has yielded many good sightings for me over the years, for whatever reason, we haven’t dedicated the kind of time to region that we should.
One reason we’ve shied away from Banff is the extraordinary death toll of wildlife at the hands of speeding motorists and, more alarmingly, the railway tracks. And the sheer volume of people who visit Banff and travel its few roadways (at least in comparison to the network in Yellowstone) can create for aggravating jams.
That being said, like anywhere, it’s all about the timing.
I hear the road is sensational in the winter and I can say it’s hard to beat it in the fall and spring. But during the summer, when Jill and I hit the mountains, it really is a road that should be limited to the early mornings. Like pre-dawn. Like before coffee and gas stations open early.
No matter how many times people are told, most refuse to wake early to better their odds of seeing wildlife. If you’re the exception to the rule, you will be rewarded with having the two lane park road almost to yourself, along with the many inhabitants that use it as the path of least resistance for getting from point a to b.
Point and case: Our summer of black wolf adventures. What might have been part Jill voodoo, our luck equally emanated from being on the road extremely early, without many others being around, and being in an area where animals are forced to utilize whatever path they can.
Banff’s 1a is the old TransCanada Highway through the Bow Valley. The new version of the TransCanade is a multi-lane divided beast, thankfully inaccessible (or mostly) to wildlife as a result of an innovative fencing program that has created over and under passes for the animals that allow the animals to roam without going (mostly) on the roadway. But the valley is small and it is the most critical east-west wildlife corridor in the park.
When animals aren’t walking over or under the TransCanada (or still finding a way to get hit on Highway 1 regardless of the fencing), they’re navigating around ski resorts, townsites and golf courses. I bring this up because logic suggests the 1a, as a result of the other obstacles, becomes almost the last, best path for animals – and that’s what makes it an ideal location to observe wildlife.
The other aspect that makes the 1a at hotspot is that it follows the Canadian Pacific Railway line.
Unfortunately, too many animals will also use the rail line to get around – and in the case of bears, they use it to feed on spilled grain. Where the 1a runs parallel to the train tracks, your chances of seeing bears and wolves increases. So does the chance of watching one get killed. Fourteen grizzlies have been killed on the tracks since 2000.
But it is an interesting study in adaptation and it’s an even better opportunity to photograph animals such as grizzlies, black bears, wolves and coyotes, along with ungulates such as bighorn sheep and elk.
In fact, the 1a might produce some of the most high quality locations for bull elk photography anywhere.
And certainly we’ve seen osprey, owls and a fleeting (of course) pine marten.
From beginning to end, you have a chance of bears and wolves, yet be sure to check recent sightings and pay careful attention to large opening, the railway line and areas closer to Lake Louise.
Yet we can’t stress it enough though: it’s all about the early morning. In two decades of driving the road (albeit rather sporadically), I can count on one hand the number of decent sightings I’ve had after 8am.
Location: Banff National Park, Alberta
Accessibility: The 1a can be accessed from the TransCanada at Lake Louise, the Highway 93 South junction and just west of the Banff townsite.
Photographic Focus: Wolves, Grizzlies, Coyotes, Black Bears & Bull Elk
Best Time: Before 8am; After 7pm
Season: Year Round
– It’s hard to think of a great wildlife hotspot where the light is great and the 1a is no exception: It’s bad. We’ve found ourselves shooting with high ISO settings late into the mornings due to the dense forest and the road’s closeness to the surrounding peaks.
– From March 1st until June 1st, Banff’s 1a is closed to vehicle traffic between 8pm and 8am to protect wildlife. We say: hurray!
– Early, early mornings mean considerably less traffic on the road. Get up before sunrise to patrol this road in the summer months. Trust us.
– I don’t pretend to spend the kind of time on the 1a that I spend in areas like Sedge Bay or Highwood Pass, so if I seem vague on specific locations along the highway, it is because I don’t want to steer you in the wrong direction. As with anywhere, take the time to meet the locals and learn the latest trends before deciding that one section is better than another on the 1a.
Tags: 1a, alberta, banff, canada, ghost bear photography, grizzly bear, national parks, simon jackson, wildlife hotspots, wildlife photography, wolf