Everyone wants to know how they can optimize their chances of spotting the iconic wildlife of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. A lot of it has to do with the luck and being at the right place at the right time. There are certain areas where animals are known to frequent, but part of the magic of visiting the Rocky Mountains is that you never know when you are going to see something. It could be during a hike, while on a scenic drive or right in one of the small towns. What ever animals you are trying to see it is important to follow some basic guidelines for successful and safe wildlife viewing.
The Rocky Mountains are home to an array of mammals and birds. Most commonly seen are elk, bighorn sheep and deer, less frequently spotted are bear, mountain goats, coyotes, wolves and moose and rarer still are lynx, mountain lions (cougars) and wolverine. The birds that are often spotted are Clark’s Nutcrackers, Stellar Jays, ravens, falcons and white-tailed ptarmigan.
With the excitement of seeing the larger mammals it’s easy to forget about the little creatures which are just as fascinating. Porcupine, marmots, pika, pine martens, rabbits, squirrels and chipmunks are some of the smaller wildlife you might come across in various terrains of the mountain parks.
The Best Time Of Day To See Wildlife
Getting up early in the mountains pays off. At dawn or just afterwards presents one of the best opportunities to see wildlife. The next optimal times are in the late afternoon and in the couple of hours prior to sunset. These are the active feeding hours for many of the animals.
The Best Times Of The Year To See Wildlife
Ironically the best time of the year to see wildlife in the Canadian Rockies is during the slower tourist seasons of spring, fall and winter. This is when many of the animals move to lower elevations and near towns for mating rituals or food. During the elk rutting season from mid-September through October the bulls concentrate in the lower elevation meadows to fight over females. Listen for the bugle of the male elk, it’s a high pitched squeal followed by deep grunts. The bulls are extremely aggressive at this time, keep your distance.
Fall is also the time when bears are actively foraging. They need to pack on as much fat as possible before winter. By late October most of the bears have gone back into hibernation.
Female mule deer and bighorn sheep are visible year round, but fall and winter are the best times to spot the males. In the fall bucks are actively searching for mates and in early winter the Bighorn Rams come down from the higher alpine to challenge each. Their head butt competitions can last for hours and the clash of horns is so forceful it can be heard echoing off the mountains.
In the spring as the snow begins to clear in the lower valleys the wild life can be seen foraging for grass along the road sides. Female elk will group together in meadows close to the towns of Banff and Jasper with their new calves. Bighorn sheep and deer start to bring their young to the grassy areas as well.
The odd bear can be seen as early as mid to late March, but most of them start to come out of hibernation in late April and early May.
As summer approaches, the temperatures rise and the tourist activity increases. This causes the wildlife to head higher up into the alpine terrain. If you happen to be a bird watcher the spring and summer are the best viewing seasons.
The Best Places To View Wildlife In The Rocky Mountains
It might surprise visitors to know that the lesser visited Jasper, Yoho and Kootenay National parks can offer some of the best opportunities to see wildlife. These parks have a lower amount of tourist traffic and a more varied viewing habitat than the area of Banff. Regardless of what park you are visiting, the less traveled roads and quieter areas are the best places to try to spot wildlife. Having some basic knowledge of animal habitats and their behaviour can also improve your chances.
The Best Areas To View Wildlife In Banff
- Vermillion Lakes – elk, mule deer and white tail deer in early spring, and elk in the rutting season of Sept/October
- Bow Valley Parkway (Hwy 1A) – a lesser traveled road with better chances to see wildlife such as mule deer, wolves, coyotes, black bear, grizzlies, bighorn sheep and elk. Optimal times are near sunrise and sunset.
- Fenland Trail – a short walking trail in town where elk can be spotted along river during the rutting season.
- Minnewanka Loop – wildlife can often be spotted along the roadside and in the open meadows such as elk, coyotes and wolves. Look up on the cliff sides for bighorn sheep.
- Norquay Road – Bighorn sheep, elk, coyote and mule deer and rare sightings of cougars can occur on this road.
- Fairmont Banff Springs golf course – elk can commonly be seen on the greens, as well as mule deer and white-tailed deer.
- Buffalo Paddock – this is an area along the right hand side of the Trans Canada Hwy just west of the town of Banff, elk can be seen gathered in the grasses.
- Town of Banff – elk and mule deer can be seen in the grass of the town parks, along the river and sitting in residents lawns.
- Bourgeau Lake – if your into a hike this is often a good place to see mountain goats and bighorn sheep on the mountain sides near the lake.
- Tunnel Mountain Drive Or Hike – a scenic drive where elk hang out in the grassy areas along the roadside
- Sulphur Mountain Gondola – bighorn sheep can often be spotted near the area around the top of the gondola.
- The road to Sunshine ski area – cougars and occasionally grizzly bear have been spotted along the road. We saw this grizzly bear on a drive to the ski village. It has a tracking collar which means it is being monitored by Parks Canada staff.
The Best Places To View Wildlife In Lake Louise
- Lake Louise is a prime grizzly bear breeding area. Visitors are often surprised that the campground located in the village of Lake Louise has an electric fence around it to keep the bears out.
- Around the lake – female bears and cubs have often been spotted at the back of the lake in the spring. Pika live in the rocks at the back of the lake, listen for their high pitched squeak. In the summer and fall Porcupine feed on the grassy slopes above the start of the lakes shore trail.
- Plain Of Six Glaciers Trail – grizzlies can often been seen feeding on the grassy slopes in the distance during the summer and early fall. Near the back of the trail keep a lookout on the high cliff sides for Mountain Goats.
- Chateau Hotel Property – In the summer Ground squirrels and chipmunks can be spotted scurrying around the hotel grounds as well as the lake shore walk. Watch for pine martins around the trees. Clarks Nutcrackers, Raven and Stellar Jays are birds commonly seen around the property.
- The road to Lake Louise – on the 4km road that connects the village to Lake Louise you might get lucky and see grizzly bears and their cubs feeding in the grasses.
- Moraine Lake – The hikes that are accessed from this area are frequented by grizzly bears. Restrictions are put in place on certain trails where a minimum party of six is required. Check with the local Parks Canada office or on their website for current notices.
- Lake Louise Gondola – from June through September up the ski hill can be an excellent way to see grizzly bears feeding on the grassy slopes.
Jasper Wildlife Viewing
Wildlife can be spotted year round in Jasper but as with other areas in the Rocky Mountains, March to June or September to November are the months where the most variety of animals can be seen.
- Maligne Lake Road – an excellent drive to spot wildlife. Near Medicine Lake you can often see Bighorn Sheep and black bears. Look for Pika in the rocky area near the shore of the lake. Moose have been spotted along this road, but they are a rare.
- Pyramid Lake Road – possible sightings of moose and bear along the road side and beavers at the lake.
- 93A, a lesser traveled road that branches off the Icefields Parkway approximately 6km’s south of Jasper, it reconnects near the Athabasca Falls.
- Miette Hotsprings – a popular hangout for bighorn sheep
- Black bears are also spotted on hiking trails in Jasper and on higher elevation hikes you can sometimes see a grizzlies.
- The townsite area – Elk are often seen near the town, particularly in the fall rutting season. Mule deer hang out around town as well. The Jasper elk developed a taste for fine accommodation, the grounds of the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge are a favourite hangout.
- Disaster Point, a spot approximately 20 km’s east of Jasper on the Yellowhead Hwy #16, Mountain Goats and Bighorn sheep can often be seen there.
- West of Jasper along the Yellowhead Highway #16 there are often elk, sheep, bear and deer spotted, and the occasional moose. We were lucky to see this pair of young moose in the area.
- Jasper gondola – you are likely to see a hoary marmot. They hang out in areas of higher elevation, usually above the treeline.
Icefields Parkway Wildlife Viewing
- Waterfowl Lakes and Saskatchewan Crossing – Along the icefields parkway it is a rare sighting, but sometimes moose can be seen near lakes and ponds in spring and summer.
- Grizzly bears and more often black bears can be spotted near the roadway at any point along the parkway.
- Wapiti Campground – near the campground and closer to the town of Jasper there are often elk
- Athabasca Falls – just south of the falls there is a spot called the Goat Lick where Mountain Goats can sometimes be seen along the roadside licking the mineral deposits in the rocks.
- Bighorn sheep like to hang out around the Columbia Icefields Center and on the other side of the road where the glacier is.
Canmore And Kananaskis Country Wildlife Viewing
Kananskis County is lesser visited by tourists coming to the Rocky Mountains, but it is an excellent place to see wildlife. Bighorn sheep, whitetail deer, coyotes, and sometimes you may spot a moose while driving around the area.
- Cougars have been spotted on many of the hiking trails around Canmore and on a few occasions right in the town itself.
- Spray Lakes Road goes up past the Nordic Center at the backside of Canmore, you can drive through to Kananskis Country. Within the first few minutes of the drive we have spotted coyotes in the grasses alongside the road.
- Driving along highway 40 when it is open for the season is also a good road for spotting wildlife.
- The Bow Valley Trail heading east from Canmore to Cochrane is a good spot to see the Bighorn Rams in early winter.
Kootenay National Park
On Hwy 93 South that runs from the Banff area to Radium Hotsprings through Kootenay National park there have been rare sightings of Mountain Lions (cougars). Quite often deer are running in the grasses alongside the roadway. This park has one of the largest populations of Bighorn sheep. They are a very common sight around the town of Radium.
Waterton Lakes National Park
Waterton Lakes National Park has an abundance of wildlife. Bighorn sheep and deer are commonly seen. The park also has a healthy population of grizzly bears. .
The deer hardly take notice of people walking past them in town.