The Canadian Rocky Mountains are renowned for their natural beauty: lakes, rivers, peaks, glaciers, trails, waterfalls and other scenic delights… but one of the most mind-blowing parts of a road trip through the Rockies is viewing wildlife.
There’s something so peacefully unexpected about seeing a bear in the distance, a moose out for a morning swim or a herd of elk swarming the side roads all while cruising in the comfort of a vehicle. The Rocky Mountains are also home to bighorn sheep, mountain goats and a range of birds from bald eagles to falcons, blue jays to owls.
These animals roam freely (as nature intended), so there is never a guarantee that you’ll see them, but there are a few ways you can increase your odds of spotting wildlife in the Rockies. I’ll share my best tips at the end of this article, but first thing’s first—no matter what you come across, it’s important to ensure any wildlife encounter is a safe and respectful one.
I chatted with James McCormick, human wildlife conflict supervisor of Jasper National Park, to provide the top advice on the best and safest ways to discover Canada's wild animals.
Let’s dive into some top tips on how to safely view wildlife from your vehicle in the Canadian Rocky Mountains.
When journeying through the Rockies, it’s of the utmost importance to be a responsible driver for the safety of yourself, others and, of course, the wildlife. You never know when an animal could surprise you on the road. Keep the following tips in mind while driving:
- Before your trip, research your destination including speed limits, wildlife hotspots, safety regulations and other aspects to familiarize yourself with the area
- Allow for extra time so you are not in a rush and tempted to speed
- Remain alert while driving and pay attention to the road and traffic
- Abide by the speed limit (which is 90 km/hr or less in Jasper and Banff National Parks)
- Be extra cautious during dawn and dusk, which is when animals are most active
Select a Safe Viewing Spot
If and when (fingers crossed!) you do spot wildlife, you might want to stop for a closer look—but do so mindfully. Here are some tips:
- Always avoid animals. Drive slowly and watch the nearby animals in case they dart onto the road
- Consider not stopping—it will keep traffic flowing and is the least dangerous option—but if you can’t resist, prioritize safety: don’t stop in the middle of the road, on a corner or on top of a hill. Pull over to a safe spot and put your hazard lights on to alert other vehicles
- Do not impede the movement of wildlife with your car. Always give animals the right of way, allow them to cross the road and provide plenty of space
- Ensure you are not blocking the view of oncoming traffic from spotting the wildlife.
- Keep your distance. Parks Canada recommends staying at least 20 metres away from animals when in a vehicle. For those on foot, the guideline is at least 30 metres for ungulates and at least 100 metres for carnivores
Do Not Disturb Wildlife
While observing wildlife on your road trip, there are essential ways to conduct yourself to maintain the safety of everyone involved. Here are some guidelines on how to behave.
- Remain in your vehicle at all times
- Don’t cause a disruption
- Don’t encircle an animal or block its escape route
- Do not feed the animals
- Limit your duration of viewing time and let the animal continue its natural behaviour undisturbed. Stop, take a quick photo, have your moment and move on
Unfortunately, it happens all too often that people get too close to a wild animal for a photo, selfie or closer look. Even if the animal seems harmless, this is a no-go.
“Just like humans, wild animals have an intrinsic right to their personal space,” says James McCormick. “For your safety and the safety of the animal, do not approach a wild animal. Your approach to get a better look may be perceived as threatening by the animal. The animal may become defensive or aggressive to protect itself, its young, its mate or a food source. Or the animal may run away and to an unsafe location like a road or towards other people.”
McCormick says that some people believe that getting close to the wildlife isn’t a big deal. But this is all part of the “cumulative impact,” and all has consequences down the line for wildlife, especially if human actions result in behaviour change or becoming less wild.
"A lot of visitors to national parks mistake wildlife behavior that appears to be tame or calm to be a sign of acceptance or tolerance of people, which is not the case," shares McCormick. "Wildlife are more concerned with grazing and browsing for food but are spatially aware of people being close. Approaching wildlife and being close to them is always unsafe, unnecessary and disrespectful of wildlife. Giving them space and watching from a safe distance demonstrates your respect for wildlife and gives visitors a better viewing experience, watching undisturbed wildlife behavior."
McCormick reveals that the most frequent wildlife encounters in Jasper occur between elk and humans. This is often during the late spring (calving season) or early fall (the rut); however, elk can aggressively defend their space at any time of the year.
“Cow elk will aggressively defend their newborn calves in the spring. Bull elk will defend their harem of cow elk. They will charge people and will also ram vehicles with their antlers,” McCormick says. Even if an animal seems harmless, remember, it is still wild and its behaviour will be unpredictable!
Tips for Spotting Wildlife
iStockNow that we’ve established how to safely view wildlife from your vehicle in the Canadian Rockies, here are some tips to increase your chances of safe and magical encounters.
- Venture out for a drive in the early morning or evening. Animals tend to be more active at dawn and dusk, as the temperature is shifting, and they are relocating for the day or night. Plus, the streets are typically less packed with other vehicles (not to mention the lighting is better for photos!)
- Avoid busy highways; opt for side streets that allow you to observe an animal without other people around so that is safer for you and the animals, allowing them to carry on their natural behaviour without being disturbed or feeling stressed
- In mid-late summer, the aquatic vegetation grows tall enough that moose will seek it out. McCormick shares that he will go to places like Maligne Lake or Moose Lake (in Jasper National Park) and spend some time waiting for moose to show up. If he sees the floor of the lake has been disturbed, it's a sign that moose have been feeding there previously and it is probably a good spot. If on foot, he finds a good spot 100 metres away that he can watch from
- There are many ways to still get a great photo while abiding by these restrictions. Use binoculars, a telephoto or zoom lens to view and photograph animals from a distance, which can all be safely used from your car
For more information, please visit Parks Canada's wildlife safety page.