Winter photography in Kootenay Plains, Alberta

Posted by on 12. March 2012 in Blog / Journal, Photography | 5 comments

At the end of February I had a chance to spend two days photographing in Kotenay Plains near Nordegg, Alberta. This unique wilderness is one of the last undeveloped areas on the easterly slopes of Canadian Rockies, half-way between Jasper and Banff National Parks.

Frozen lake in snow blizzard, Kootenay Plains, Alberta

Frozen lake in snow blizzard, Kootenay Plains. Panorama composite of two horizontal images.

Because of the rain shadow effect caused by the Rockies to the west, there is much less moisture compared to other places just an hour drive away. You can see the climate effect on the vegetation – the semi-arid plains rich in plants and animals, and conifer forests that are much thinner compared to forests in the Rockies. Because of moderate temperatures and very little snow in winter, the Kootenay Plains provide a very productive winter range for grazing animals.  A portion of the area is preserved as the Kootenay Plains Ecological Reserve, to provide secure grazing ranges for elk,  bighorn sheep, and mountain goats. There is even a herd of wild horses that hang out near Nordegg. Bears, wolves and cougars are frequent in the area so take reasonable precaution. I was hoping to photograph bighorn sheep. However, the only large mammals that I saw was a group of elk grazing in forest clearing west of Nordegg.

A small group of female elk in winter, Kootenay Plains near Nordegg, Alberta

A small group of female elk, Kootenay Plains west of Nordegg

You can reach the Kootenay Plains via David Thompson Highway (Hwy #11). Take the only route available going west from the Rocky Mountain House. The next major town is Nordegg, 100 km down the road. Going additional 90 or 100 km west will take you into the Banff National Park at Saskatchewan River Crossing. Make sure that you have enough fuel for your vehicle as the gas station at Sask. River Crossing is closed in winter. The next available fuel station is in Lake Luise 75 km further south, or Jasper about 150 km to the north. Avoid buying gas in Lake Louise as it is very expensive.

I discovered several interesting spots for photography along the highway. Twenty kilometres west of Nordegg is a small gas station where you can refuel and pick up a few treats for the road. Look for a highway sign pointing right (north-west) to the Crescent Falls Provincial Recreation Area. The sign is right after the gas station. Take the gravel road and after 6 kilometres you will reach the recreation area. A short walk down a steep hill will take you to the falls. A real photography treat can be found about half way between the Hwy #11 and the falls. Pay attention to a small parking area to your left. There is a concrete observation platform above a spectacular canyon carved by the Bighorn River. The platform provides a good view over the canyon. A short walk along the canyon rim will take you to another observation platform, with even better view. Take special precaution and do not wander too close to the rim of the canyon. There is no railing to prevent a keen photographer from slipping over the edge. And it is a long way down.

Bighorn River canyon, Kootenay Plains, Alberta

Bighorn River canyon, Kootenay Plains. Panorama composite of five vertical images.

Continuing on the Hwy #11 west you will pass several lodges and a base station for the Icefield Helicopter Tours. If you feel adventurous, a helicopter tour of the Plains and northern end of the Banff National Park will provide an unforgettable experience. Large Abraham Lake on you left was created after construction of the Bighorn Hydroelectric Dam. The lake is a great place to photograph amazing ice formations and trapped air bubbles made famous by the Canadian photographer Darwin Wiggett. High mountains that surround the lake produce a tunnel effect, with strong winds usually removing the snow cover and exposing the ice patterns beneath. There was a nasty snow blizzard during my visit, and I did not feel comfortable wandering on the lake. It is a dangerous place, requiring extra precaution and use of specialized equipment.

Frozen lake in snow blizzard, Kootenay Plains, Alberta

Frozen lake in snow blizzard, Kootenay Plains

Continuing along David Thompson Highway, you will enter the Kootenay Plains Ecological Reserve. You do not even need to read the signs to notice that the landscape is different here – open forest and grassland along the river providing rich grazing for the ungulates. A great place for elk and sheep, but I did not see any the weekend I visited. Continuing on, look for a highway sign marking the Siffleur Falls staging area on your left. A 4 kilometre hike from the parking lot leads to the falls, and further on into the Siffleur Wilderness Area. Just a few kilometres further down the highway, there is an area impacted by a forest fire. I made a short stop by the road to take a few images of elaborate patterns on the scarred trees left by the forest fire.

Forest burn, Kootenay Plains Ecological Reserve, Alberta

Forest burn, Kootenay Plains Ecological Reserve

There are many campgrounds in the area, but I suspect that the place is very busy over the summer. I met several groups of people who told me that they love coming here year after year, to experience the true wilderness and solitude away from the commercialized hustle and bustle of Banff National Park.

If you are interested in exploring this area, there are a lot of photography possibilities awaiting.  I recommend a very useful winter photography guide to Kootenay Plains and Abraham Lake produced by Darwin Wiggett and Samantha Chrysanthou (pdf format eBook). A list of hikes close to Nordegg can be found on the Goldeye Centre web site.


  1. I love the fact the you have a narrative besides images. For me, it adds value to the images, and that is a good thing.

    I was there any, many years ago in the summer and found it to be a magical place. Your photo of Bighorn River Canyon is a damn site better than any I took (way back in the slide film days).

    Web site looks god, works well and quickly. Kudos to you for all the hard work. Lets hope it gets you some image sales.

  2. I quite like the image of the forest burn, the way it demonstrates how even a single pale colour, in an otherwise black and white scene becomes colourful.

  3. I enjoyed exploring this site, then the photo archive. To get back to this site I had to click on my browser’s go back arrow. After getting back to this site I couldn’t find a comment page and again used the go back arrow to get here to comment.

    • Hi Larry
      If you browse the Photo Archive site and want to come back here, just follow the link marked “Blog”. A page with truncated blog posts will show up. To see a full blog post including the comments section, just click on the “Read More” button; the complete post will be displayed. Hope this helps.

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