The Highwood Pass in Kananaskis Country - Alberta
January 10, 2011
Alpine Flowers by Neil Jolly ©
Imagine yourself standing in a field of alpine wild flowers, while a Grizzly digs for ground squirrels a few hundred meters away. You're surrounded by glorious peaks, a high mountain stream gurgling past winds down the valley into the distance. You're in a photographers paradise miles from anywhere right? Wrong! You're at the edge of the parking lot in The Highwood Pass a mere two hours, by paved roads, away from Calgary, Alberta!
Grizzly bear in the Highwood Pass area feeding on dandelions by Neil Jolly ©
At an elevation of 2210 meters above sea level the Highwood Pass is one of the highest points in Canada reachable by paved roads making it an ideal destination for photographers laden with heavy gear. Situated in Alberta's Kananaskis Country, Highwood Pass has it all: the rugged peaks of the Rocky Mountains, a wealth of interesting geology, abundant wildlife, magnificent flora, and it's ribboned with freshwater streams, rivers, and lakes.
Highwood Pass by Neil Jolly ©
While there is plenty to photograph from the Highwood Pass parking lot it is also an ideal starting point to access some of the spectacular alpine areas surrounding the Pass and Highway 40. Areas like Little Elbow Pass are the gateways to some incredibly scenic locations for those that don't mind hiking to get their photographs. Hikes in the Highwood Pass region range anywhere from a few minutes walk to multi-day backpacks. Hike all these areas with caution as you share the area with many species of wildlife!
Upper Elbow River by Neil Jolly ©
The two kilometre walk to Elbow Lake is almost all uphill, but has numerous rewards once the initial uphill section is dealt with. The first attraction for the photographer, or overheated hiker, is Elbow Lake - a lovely little sub-alpine lake beautifully situated in a high valley. This valley is the gateway to Tombstone Lake, Piper Pass, and the Upper Sheep River valley. Once the initial elevation gain has been dealt with the going gets easy along the main valley trails. Following the beginnings of the Elbow River as it exits Elbow Lake will lead you through Elbow Pass to a gorgeous little water fall accessed by a small side trail. The entire upper Elbow River valley is highly photogenic. I could easily spend several days in this location alone without exhausting the myriad of compositions available. Be prepared for horses on this route as this is a primary access trail for equestrians heading for the backcountry areas.
Another area of interest for photographers is Pocaterra Cirque. Less than an hours walk from the parking lot at Highwood Pass Pocaterra Cirque has it all: an alpine lake, open alpine meadows, waterfalls, Moose, Bighorn Sheep, Grizzly Bears, Larch Forests, and at the right time of year numerous species of Alpine Flowers. The hike to Pocaterra Cirque has a multitude of options such as climbing to Pocaterra Ridge where spectacular views of the Highwood valley, and some of the smaller valleys that feed the main Highwood Valley, can be had. Here you're hiking alongside the backbone of the Canadian Rockies - The Great Divide.
Pocaterra Ridge by Neil Jolly ©
As a landscape photographer I'm always on the lookout for unique compositions of the surrounding environs. Pocaterra Cirque, and it's various options, provide many different points of view for photographing the surrounding meadows, peaks, and valleys. Simply altering your point of view can dramatically alter the image you're creating. Photographing the same subject matter from the valley floor yields a substantially different image than photographing the same subject from a high ridge. Neither choice is necessarily better - just different.
Storm Mountain by Neil Jolly ©
Storm Mountain and Valley by Neil Jolly ©
Highway Forty is closed from December 1st through June 14th to protect wildlife grazing areas during the winter months. Some superb photographic opportunities present themselves during the periods immediately prior to, and after, the road closure. One can go from early fall to full on winter conditions during the drive up to Highwood Pass. Snowshoes, or skis are often required to access areas away from the highway during the early winter/late fall periods. June is also a fabulous time to photograph the region, as the different climatic conditions can result in considerably different images. Spring flowers are abundant as the snow melts up in the meadows of the Highwood.
Highwood Pass in November by Neil Jolly ©
Despite having Highway 40 passing through the area the Highwood Pass is a wild area. When entering wild places like this always be prepared for emergencies, respect wildlife, and be aware of avalanche danger. Never approach wildlife to photograph them| Using telephoto lenses when photographing wildlife allows the photographer to stay out of the subject's personal space while still having the opportunity to get excellent images. Enjoy the area, but not at the expense of wildlife, or your own safety.