The best spots to view Canmore wildlife
Have you ever seen a bighorn sheep in the wild? How about a moose? Or even a bear?
If not, then you’ve never been to Canmore! The Bow Valley region is home to some of the best spots for wildlife viewing in the entire country. It’s one of the main reasons why these two communities lure millions of visitors every year.
This abundance of wildlife, especially big mammals, is a defining feature of the Canadian Rocky Mountains; it’s one of the key things that really make this region special.
There are few other places in the world where you can spot black bears, elk and moose all during a one-hour drive down the highway.
Banff National Park alone is home to 56 different mammal species, including cougars, wolverines, wolves and grizzlies. In fact, there are more grizzly bears in Banff than there are black bears, which continue to be threatened. And with Canmore being just beyond Banff National Park’s gates, it’s ideally located for seeing some amazing species.
Here are our top spots for viewing Canmore wildlife:
1. Spray Lakes Road
This is probably the most popular wildlife-viewing drive in the Canmore area.
Spray Lakes Road, which winds up past the Nordic Centre, offers plenty of chances to see wildlife, including coyotes, grizzly bears and cougars. Bighorn sheep are also usually seen along this route, as well as large male elk and moose.
It is a well-maintained gravel road that offers access to the backcountry for hikers, mountain bikers and campers. As you ascend in elevation, you will be able to look down at the town of Canmore. The best time to drive the road is at sunrise or right before sunset, which is when the wildlife will be most active.
If you spot large animals such as elk, moose or bear, remain in your vehicle while viewing them as they can be dangerous.
To access the road, drive past the Canmore Nordic Centre that lies alongside the town’s reservoir. Continue further up the Smith Dorrien Highway for a while until you encounter Spray Lake.
It is possible to make a circular loop wildlife spotting day trip by continuing on to Highway 40 at Lower Kananaskis Lake.
2. Bow Valley Trail
The Bow Valley Trail that heads east from the town of Canmore to Cochrane is known for being a great spot to see Bighorn sheep, especially in early winter.
These curly-horned creatures come down from the high alpine meadows and are often spotted perched on the cliffs and hillsides on either side of the trail, giving you a good chance of seeing them on a wildlife drive.
To spot the sheep, keep your eyes focused on the side of the road, on the mountain slopes and the cliffs that loom above the road as it passes north of Lac des Arcs. Of course, make sure to bring a friend along so that the driver can focus on the road while the wildlife-spotter looks out for these incredible creatures.
Other animals have been spotted along this route, such as grizzly bears, mountain goats, elk and deer.
The Bow Valley Trail connects Canmore with the small town of Exshaw.
The best time of year to see the bighorn sheep is the winter months, because the cold will cause them to come down to lower elevations.
3. Policeman’s Creek Trail
If you are a passionate birder looking to spot some of the winged inhabitants of the Rocky Mountains, Policeman’s Creek Trail is a great place to start.
This easy and level pathway is known for its excellent bird watching opportunities, so make sure that you bring your best binoculars and a camera with a zoom lens.
In the forested section of the trail there are song birds singing in the trees and along the boardwalk section above the wetlands you will see plenty of waterfowl. Owls, woodpeckers and chickadees as well as many other species can easily be spotted. Bring a birding guide so that you can identify and count the various species that you see on your hike.
Start in Canmore and walk down Main Street in the centre of the village to the Railway Avenue intersection. You will see the trailhead entrance just before the lights, near a sculpture that looks like a human head.
Bikes are not permitted on the wetland boardwalk portion of the trail.
Spring and early summer are the most productive seasons to go bird watching in this region. The ideal time is between sunrise and 9 or 10am, when the birds are most active.
4. Highway 40
Highway 40 is one of the most scenic roads in the area and driving along it is the perfect mountain day trip.
Plus, there are plenty of picnic areas and viewpoints along the way. A wildlife sanctuary was created along this highway in the 1990s in order to protect the caribou population from poachers. This means that this stretch of road is an excellent place to spot creatures of all shapes and sizes – from caribou and deer to mountain goats and bighorn sheep.
The highway weaves through such an excellent area for wildlife watching that its nickname is the “Bighorn Highway” and an image of a bighorn sheep appears on the highway signs. There is a good chance that you will see some type of animal, as well as some truly spectacular mountain views.
The full road will take about 45 minutes to drive from the TransCanada turnoff. You can also follow the Kananaskis Circle Route which will take approximately four hours.
Instead of getting out of your car, use a zoom lens to take photos of wildlife. Wild animals can charge and attack when they feel threatened.
5. Canmore Townsite
You might not think of the town of Canmore as the ideal area to spot wildlife, but this is one of the best places to catch a glimpse of a fascinating winged creature – the hummingbird.
European visitors are often very excited when seeing their first hummingbird, as these are rare in Europe. Hummingbirds are particular to Southern Alberta, however there are regulations against feeing them in national parks so you will not see many in Banff itself – which is why you will need to head to the Canmore townsite instead. Also, the growing of ornamental flowers in Banff is discouraged, but not in Canmore – another reason why hummingbirds prefer this town.
There are two different species nesting around the area, the Calliope and Rufous, and many people have a hummingbird feeder in their yard. Take a walk through the older residential neighbourhoods of Canmore and look for yards and parks with plenty of yellow and red flowers so you can spot these remarkable creatures.
Keep your camera on a very high shutter speed, otherwise the quickly moving hummingbird wings will appear as a blur.
You can tell the difference between a Rufous and a Calliope hummingbird by the reddish brown colour on the face of the male Rufous and the fact that the Calliope is smaller.
Be safe while wildlife watching
It’s an incredible thrill to see a bear munching on berries or to watch a pair of elk slam their antlers together in the rutting season. But wander too close to these creatures and you’re in trouble.
Wild animals get stressed when they are crowded by humans, which can make their behaviour unpredictable. Parks Canada advises visitors to stay at least 100 metres away from bears at all times and 30 metres away from all other large species.
Drop by the Parks Canada website for more tips on responsible wildlife viewing.