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Top 10 photogenic highlights in Alberta's winter wonderland
Read time: 7 mins
In spite of temperatures dipping well below freezing, there are fewer places more stunning than Alberta during the winter months; think brilliant blue skies, snow-draped landscapes, and (surprisingly) plenty of sunshine. We visit this much-cherished outdoors playground to seek out the most inspiring places where photographers can step behind the lens.
Gaze at Calgary’s skyline
While there’s plenty worth getting your camera in Calgary, it’s the $24.5 million red-and-white tubular Peace Bridge by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava that’s the city’s much-photographed darling. Hailed as one of the best-looking and most technically-daring bridges on the planet (it has won multiple design awards since opening in March 2012), this 130-metre-long structure spanning the Bow River is a joy to capture on film - especially as the backdrop happens to be the glittering downtown skyline. Further urban icons guaranteed to spark interest include the 191-metre-high Calgary Tower, the intriguing Rundle Ruins, the enigmatic Jaume Plensa-designed Wonderland Sculpture (known locally as “The Head”) in front of the Bow Building, and the historic Bowness Park for its frozen lagoon that attracts skaters in the deep of winter.
Get the shot: Head to 6th Street and 1st Avenue SW for great photos of the Peace Bridge, and don’t miss the Riverwalk, George C. King (Skipping Stone) Bridge, and St. Patrick’s Island for amazing cityscapes. For sunrises, sunsets, and Insta-worthy shots along the river valley to the downtown core and beyond, make a beeline to the upper levels along Edworthy Street.
Spot red barns on the prairie
It may be the country’s energy powerhouse (Alberta is the richest per-capita province in Canada thanks to its oil fields, cowboy culture and long tradition of political conservatism), but the region’s rural side is also crucial to its identity. And nowhere is more symbolic than the resource-rich stretch of rolling plains, forests, and farmland known as the prairie (from the old French word praierie, meaning meadow). In these grasslands, where it’s often impossible to distinguish where the sky ends and the ground begins, you’ll be rewarded with sightings of abandoned red barns - many of which provide shelter to a wealth of wildlife (great horned owls, squirrels, badgers, red foxes, and more). For photographers, these weathered buildings make exciting portfolio fodder, especially in the winter when the fiery red hues add a dramatic element to the frozen landscape.
Get the shot: Prairies are among the hardest landscapes of all to photograph, so the abandoned red barns will make an ideal focus. Shooting in daylight hours is your best bet - so long as you use the “rule of thirds” - a simple principle where you break your photo into three sections to improve composition and balance (ideally the horizon should be along the bottom of the frame).
Any visit to Alberta in the colder months means spending time wearing your camera out on folk hitting trails blanketed with deep snow. Some of the best showshoeing spots are Medicine Lake at Jasper National Park and Chester Lake at Kananaskis Provincial Park - both of which promise stupendous mountain views. Also fabulous is the Canadian Tourism Commission's Sunshine Village Signature Snowshoe Experience at Banff National Park for a jaunt through the white, fluffy, and powdery snow high in the Canadian Rockies on the Alberta/British Columbia border - often without another soul in sight. You’ll get to ride up the Standish Chairlift at Sunshine Village Ski Resort, snowshoe up and down hills and through a meadow or two, try a little cliff jumping, and even grab some epic shots of Mount Assiniboine on a relatively clear day.
Get the shot: Located on the southwest border of Banff National Park, Marvel Pass has long been a favoured spot for its breathtaking vistas. Capture this above on a flight tour that also passes the Three Sisters, the Spray Reservoir, the high ridges to Marvel Lake, and Mount Assiniboine (also known as the “Matterhorn of the Rockies”).
Watch winter sunsets
Alberta’s colourful winter skies will inspire many to grab their camera - especially at sunset when the sun dips behind the horizon. There’s actually a science to the sky’s artistry; mostly that the pinks, oranges, reds are far more vivid in a season when the air is clear and free from the dulling effects of pollution. Some of the best places to capture the last rays of the day include Maligne Canyon for its golden light bathing the icy landscape, Athabasca Falls for its Mount Kerkeslin backdrop, and Johnston Canyon for its magical limestone cliffs (a winter ice walk here is simply magical). Just remember that sunset shots need a point of focus, so aim to incorporate some sort of silhouette into the shot (anything nature-ish will add depth to the scene). Also aim to slightly underexpose the photo by using manual mode and selecting a fast shutter speed.
Get the shot: A network of lush marshlands and expansive lakes in the Bow Valley, the Vermilion Lakes is a brilliant spot to watch the sky fade from a brilliant blue to brush strokes of pink, orange, and yellow, before darkening with striking hues of indigo and violet. Aim to get the reflection of Mount Rundle rippling on the surface of the lake as day becomes twilight.
Make tracks in the snow
Much harder than it looks, fat biking (riding a customised mountain bike fitted with ultra-wide, squishy, and “fat” tires designed for gripping onto packed snow and ice) is a relatively new cycling trend in Alberta - but one that has quickly become a buzzed-about winter sport. One of the best places to watch adventurers tackle trails no longer limited to those with skis or snowboards is at Canmore Nordic Centre Provincial Park, around 65 miles west of Calgary. Here you’ll find designated single-track trails specifically for these high-traction vehicles (known as the 4x4’s of cycling) that provide a high-intensity workout for riders. Probably the best way to photograph these thrillseekers is to rent a fat bike yourself and (literally) follow them in their tracks. As for clothing, a good rule of thumb is to layer up and dress as if you’re going skiing.
Get the shot: From the end of February onwards, you’ll have access to a variety of fat bike trails leading to Maligne Lake - the largest natural lake in the Canadian Rockies at 14 miles in length. Beyond this watery wonder, photo-ops include towering peaks, turquoise-hued glacier lakes, and plenty of wildlife (elk, moose, mountain goats, white-tail deer, and grizzly bears).
Marvel at winter wildlife
Alberta’s five national parks and more than 250 provincial parks protect 587 of wildlife (including 10 species of amphibians, 93 mammals, and 65 fish), so you can expect sporadic sightings of animals big and small in the province’s four climatic regions: alpine, boreal forest, parkland, and prairie. On any given hike, road trip, or organised wildlife safari tour you may spy moose, bison, elk, grizzly and black bears, bighorn sheep, caribou, skunks, beavers, chipmunks, and mountain goats - or get super-lucky and spot an elusive wolf, cougar, lynx, bobcat, or wolverine. For those with a well-trained eye, patience is not so much a virtue as a necessity; especially as your subject is more than likely to bolt as you approach it. Also, very few wild animals will allow you too close, so your tool of choice should be a long zoom lens (ideally the best you can afford).
Get the shot: From the northern forests to the southern badlands, Alberta's range of habitats is home to some 421 species of bird - many of which stick around in the cold weather and deep snow. Most frequent winter sightings include the pileated woodpecker, white-breasted nuthatch, English sparrow, evening grosbeak, black-capped chickadee, snowy owl, and great grey owl.
Be awed by WinSport
Home of the 1988 Olympic Games, the 40,000-square-foot WinSport at Canada Olympic Park is the go-to place for high-performance sports including ski jumping, skiing, snowboarding, hill skating, cross-country skiing, and tubing. There’s also a freestyle aerials and moguls course, an ice house used for bobsleigh, luge and skeleton push-start training, a 22-foot super halfpipe, skiing and snowboarding parks, and a rather famous bobsled track that sees thrillseekers sliding through 14 turns hitting a maximum speed of 120 km-per-hour. Once you’re done photographing daredevils and skilled professionals, warm up in Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame - an award-winning facility featuring 12 interactive galleries, a collection of 100,000 artefacts, and 52 hands-on exhibits like shadow boxing, wheelchair racing, rowing, and 3D hockey.
Get the shot: After a successful inaugural year, the snow-covered Acura Tube Park will operate at WinSport on throughout the winter. You’ll have access to 12 side-by-side groomed lanes (some designated for single riders, some for groups), a dedicated magic carpet hill, a village complete with heated deck and fire pit, and plenty of spots to photograph slip-sliding participants.
Skate on frozen lakes
For a few weeks in the darkest reaches of Alberta’s winter, the lakes become glistening ice rinks that offer beautiful fodder to the adventurous photographer. Some of the best places to capture images of pleasure skaters include Vermilion Lakes, Johnson Lake, Two Jack Lake, Lake Minnewanka, and Lake Louise - the glacier-fed showstopper of Banff National Park (those visiting in January will be awed by the Ice Magic Festival where carvers complete to sculpt elaborate works of art from 300lb blocks of solid ice). For the sure-footed, there’s also a slew of lakes that have been garnering attention for their frozen white bubbles of flammable methane that appear stacked beneath the surface. Whilst favoured by shutterbugs, this phenomenon has a dark side as the burst bubbles do release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
Get the shot: Created in 1972 on the North Saskatchewan River, the man-made Abraham Lake (also known as Bubble Lake) treats camera buffs to a huge expanse of pearl-like bubbles trapped between layers of ice. The lake typically freezes in mid December, with the famous winter jewels at their bubbling best from the middle of January to early February.
Go ice climbing
Typically available from late November until April (the peak season is December to mid-March) ice climbing is the exhilarating sport that requires specialised tools to scale frozen vertical surfaces. Most adventurous souls make a beeline for the Icefields Parkway for its jaw-dropping scenery punctuated by more than 100 ancient glaciers, waterfalls cascading from rock spires, and frozen lakes set in sweeping valleys. Here you’ll find everything from roadside ice lines such as the Weeping Wall and Polar Circus, through to alpine challenges like Slipstream - an 800-metre route riding a beautiful prow of rock. Further ice climbing meccas include The Ghost for its classic routes such as The Sorcerer, Hydrophobia, Cryophobia, and The Real Big Drip, and Bow Valley for lines such as The Professor Falls, The Terminator, and Sea of Vapours.
Get the shot: Kananaskis (or K-Country, as it is commonly known) is the large area south-east of Canmore best known for its reliably good ice climbing routes. Most standout is the Robertson Glacier Hike that rewards with stunning views of Mount Robertson and Mount French (many link this day-long hike with the French/Haig Glacier to make a loop).
See the Northern Lights
Given that Alberta is home to some of the world’s largest dark sky preserves, there’s no shortage of places to see the dazzling Northern Lights (also known as Aurora Boreas after the Roman goddess of dawn and the Greek god of the north wind respectively). With peak viewing from September through to mid-May, must-see spots with zero human light pollution include the iconic Banff and Jasper National Park duo as well as the Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park that spans the southeast corner of Alberta and the southwest corner of Saskatchewan. For the coolest shots of this mesmerising natural anomaly, be prepared to stay up late (the aurora borealis makes an appearance between 10pm and 2am), bring a tripod to wedge into the snow, and remove all lens filters prior to shooting to avoid chromatic aberration (also known as colour fringing).
Get the shot: So powerful was an amateur photographer’s image of the Northern Lights at the vast Wood Buffalo National Park that it was used on a commemorative $10 bill for Canada's 150th anniversary. Head to this dark sky perverse (officially the world’s largest) on a clear night in December, January, or February for some incredible viewing opportunities.