Where to View Wildlife in Canmore
Everybody wants to know where the best chances of seeing big wildlife through-out the Canadian Rocky Mountains are. A little luck and location, location, location really helps. We can help you with some tips on where to view wildlife in Canmore!
The town of Canmore, Alberta and area (Kananaskis Country), could very well be the best location in Canada for wildlife viewing, with or without leaving your vehicle. For that matter in the town of Canmore itself, there’s a chance you’ll witness wildlife.
On a good day in your vehicle though, there’s a chance of seeing a grizzly, moose, elk and a flock of bighorn sheep – all within an hour’s drive!
At the right time with the right weather, it is a wild-Canadian-Safari, and you’re driving.
Bring your best cameras and binoculars, have a little patience and respect animal habitats.
There is an impressive array of animal species in the Canadian Rockies, from the biggest grizzly bear to the wee squirrels and chipmunks.
Bighorn sheep, elk, moose, foxes, coyotes, mule and white-tailed deer, are the most commonly seen animals just driving the main highways in and around Canmore.
Grizzly and black bears are what most want to see. The Grizzly and the black bear do prefer different surroundings. The grizzly can be found in more open spaces and a black bear would rather be closer to the woods. But, they do go to where the food is.
There are more bear sightings than some of the other carnivores of the Rockies, such as the cougar, lynx and wolf. They are out there, and you should feel a little luckier if you happen to run across one (from your car, of course).
From the vehicle, what to look for:
Grizzly bear – the larger humped-shoulders give away a grizzly. Could be silver or black/brown.
Black bear – black or brown in colour, no humps.
Elk – brown body, darker neck, large tan rump patch, back-slanting antlers.
Male elk have the huge antler rack and are even more dangerous in the rutting season from September to October.
Moose – long legs, shoulder hump, shovel-like antlers, built like a horse with a long snout.
White-tailed deer – white tail and underside, tan colour, up erect when listening.
Mule deer – black-tipped tail, white rump, large ears, grey colour.
Bighorn sheep – white rump, light brown fur and horns. Male has thick-curled horns while the female has short narrow curved horns.
Mountain Goat – long white hair, narrow black horns, beard.
Wolf – built like a large German Shepherd with larger legs, Colors vary from white to black.
Coyote – like a medium-sized dog, a thick bushy tail, greyish to light brown in colour.
Cougar – a big cat, very long tail, rare, tan to dark brown in colour, hunts from higher places
Lynx – larger than a domestic cat, very short tail, larger pointed ears.
Spray Lakes Road/Smith-Dorrien Trail
The most popular destination for wildlife viewing.
You are in the midst of a Rocky Mountain-safari when taking the time to travel through the Spray Lakes Road/Smith-Dorrien Trail. This well-maintained dirt road goes from the top of Canmore, heading south through Spray Valley Provincial Park to Upper Kananaskis Lakes (approx. 74 km/46mi). Depending on how fast you travel, this route can take a little more than an hour to a couple of hours, to get to the Upper Kananaskis Lakes area in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park.
Even if you don’t see much wildlife, this is one of the most scenic drives through the mountain terrain. You’ll load up your camera with not only animals but the vistas as well.
Along the Smith-Dorrien Trail, there are many accesses available to the backcountry for hiking, biking, or picnicking.
Early-morning and early-evening are the best chance to see the most wildlife on this bucket-list drive. Grizzly bear, black bear, moose, elk, bighorn sheep, coyotes are the most common sightings making for great photographs and video.
Even though this is also cougar, lynx, wolverine, and wolf habitat, some animals are a little more hesitant to make themselves known. Keep your eyes peeled and the camera ready.
Where to start in Canmore for the Smith-Dorrien Trail?
Go past the Canmore Nordic Centre that lies along the town’s western reservoir, continue up the Smith-Dorrien Trail as you come upon Spray Lake, continue south.
*It is possible to make a full-day-loop of wildlife viewing, as once you arrive at Upper Kananaskis Lakes, you can take Highway 40 north to the TransCanada #1 Hwy, then a short hop back to Canmore.
Bow Valley Trail
Heading east from Canmore, the Bow Valley Trail winds through the foothills towards Cochrane, just outside of Calgary.
The beauty of this drive is one of its draws, but the chance to see and photograph or video bighorn sheep, mountain goats, moose, elk and possible grizzly or black bear, is what makes the Bow Valley Trail exciting.
Keeping an eye along the hillsides and cliffs gives great photo opportunities (zoom lens’ make a big difference here).
Highway 40 Kananaskis Trail
One of the most appreciated drives through the Rocky Mountains, Highway 40 has everything on this drive including paved roads all the way. Many chances to stop and watch, picnic or photograph, as the scenery even without wildlife, is truly spectacular.
From June to December, at the junction of Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, you can choose to turn into Upper Kananaskis Lakes area or continue south on Hwy 40 to the town of Longview.
You can take the Smith-Dorrien Trail to Canmore from Upper Kananaskis Lakes, to complete the circle route, or go back northbound on Hwy 40 to Hwy 1 (about 45 minutes from Upper Kananaskis to the Trans-Canada Hwy 1, east of Canmore).
Grizzly and black bears, moose, elk, bighorn sheep are some of the larger animals to see, again near early morning or early evening are best viewing times.
*From December 1 to June 15, Hwy 40 is closed to south traffic for at the boundary to Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, while access to Upper Kananaskis Lakes is all-year-round.
Policeman’s Creek Trail
This level and easy to navigate trail is an excellent location for bird watching. The click of zoom cameras have nabbed many an award-winning shot along this route.
There are far too many species of birds to single out anyone that you may run across on this trail. Birds are just some of the wildlife along the Policeman’s Creek Trail. The smaller animals like foxes, coyotes, skunks, porcupine, and beavers can be found as well. Moose and elk can also make appearances and you never know where or when a wandering bear will show up.
The Policeman’s Creek Trail can start on Main Street in Canmore, at the Railway Avenue intersection just before the lights, you’ll find the entrance.
Bicycles are not allowed on the wetland section of the boardwalk.
Town of Canmore
Yes, the entire townsite of Canmore is a great viewing location for whatever may roam the southeastern Canadian Rocky Mountains. Obviously, not quite as busy as out in the wild, but Canmore has earned the reputation as a real mountain town.
Elk, moose and deer are the most common sights within the town, but bears, cougars, lynx have all been, and continue to be, spotted throughout the town.
In the town of Canmore, you have the option to go in any direction and get a little further into the wilderness for even better chances of experiencing wildlife.
Hummingbird species Calliope and Rufous are a huge international draw in Canmore, as they are particular to Southern Alberta and are protected with regulations against feeding them. The Calliope is the smaller of the two with the Rufous male showing off a reddish-brown face.
The Golden Eagle peak migration lasts from mid-March to the late-April. Some do return in late summer heading back south as well. Canmore does have a group that is part of a larger group that tries to have a count done each migration. Zoom cameras and binoculars are a must for this event.