Did you know there are plenty opportunities to spot wildlife in Alberta in winter? Although all bears are obviously having their winter sleep and there are less birds in winter, you are still able to spot lots of animals in Alberta, like elk, deer, moose, goats, bighorn sheep, coyotes, wolves, owls, birds, bison and the elusive lynx and cougar or mountain lion. Therefore, I would recommend spotting wildlife as one of the best things to do in Alberta in winter.
This blog is written by Traveltomtom team member Kim Paffen, an award winning travel and wildlife photographer. Together we traveled to Alberta in February 2020. All of the amazing photos are hers and many more of our trip you can find in the Jasper things to do in winter blog and in our complete winter travel guide for Edmonton.
Want to know what to bring to Canada in winter? Than check out this Canada winter packing list!
Winter Wildlife Discovery Tour Jasper National Park
In Jasper National Park I had a private Wildlife Discovery Tour organized by SunDog Tours. My guide, Michelle, picked me up around 08.00 at Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, the hotel where I was staying, and from there we started the wildlife tour in Jasper. There are lots of animals in Jasper and during this tour you will learn all about the way these animals contribute to the diversity of Jasper National Park and how they survive during winter.
Just outside of the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge we spotted a pine marten crossing the street. He was too quick for a photo but I loved spotting it, since they are a huge part of the ecosystem in Jasper. A few minutes later we spotted a huge Elk bull.
Regarding his antlers he was around 8 years old. Bulls spend most of the time in solitude. If you come across a group of Elk, they are usually females with their babies. Did you know that antlers are shed and regrown each year? That is why you can sometimes find antlers while hiking in Jasper National Park. If you find antlers, please leave them where they are and don’t take it home with you. Discarded antlers are an important part of the ecosystem in Alberta and represent a source of calcium and other minerals to more smaller animals like squirrels, porcupines, pine martens, rabbits, mice and sometimes also coyotes or wolves gnaw these antlers.
Elks are quite easy to spot in Jasper. They hang around in town a lot and also at the grounds of Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. Therefore, the place is definitely worth a visit to just walk around. Even better is to overnight at the Fairmont JPL. If you’re lucky you will spot Elk walking on the frozen and with snow covered Lake Beauvert. Coyotes also tend to hang out in this area.
In Jasper I spotted one coyote crossing the river. I spotted it in a distance, from the main road in Jasper overlooking the river. I sadly couldn’t take a photo, but it was quite impressive to spot a coyote anyway. Michelle, my guide from SunDog Tours, told me they have a den near the river and are spotted crossing the river more often. Because parts of the river are frozen and covered with snow they really stand out!
To spot some bighorn sheep we tried our luck in the direction of Medicine Lake and Maligne Lake, a beautiful serene and peaceful area where we didn’t even see one other car. If you are quite you only hear the sounds of nature, something I really love and you’re able to experience in Jasper in Winter.
In summer it gets more crowded and it will be much harder to only hear the sounds of nature without the sound of a running car engine. Anyway, it was just us and nature and the moment we thought there were no sheep around, we looked up and saw a few sheep up on the rocks. They probably just woke up and were on their way down to Medicine Lake. Lucky me!
After spending some time observing Jasper’s bighorn sheep, we were hoping to find moose on our way up to Maligne Lake. Because the weather became very cloudy and grey, we didn’t drove all the way up and went looking for owls at Pyramid Lake instead.
Owls tend to go back to the same place. You can spot them on eyelevel in smaller trees along the road and they love wide open spaces. Sadly, we couldn’t spot any owls on our winter wildlife discovery tour in Jasper National Park. It’s often all about luck!
Same for spotting a lynx or mountain lion. Just like an African leopard, they are very elusive and hard to spot; even for inhabitants of the cute little town of Jasper and the guides who do these wildlife tours on a daily base. Lynx are found in higher areas and they were spotted in the mountain towards Marmot Basin a couple of times. Mostly by the people who work at Marmot and use the road on a daily base. We drove up to have a look but as predicted without any luck. We did see some footprints but they were probably already a few days old.
Since our guide, Michelle, taught us a lot about wildlife and the areas where the animals tend to hang out, we tried our luck by ourselves on a sunnier day and drove all the way up to Maligne Lake, hoping to spot some incredible Moose. On our way to Malgine Lake we weren’t really lucky. We only spotted a flock of bighorn sheep on Medicine Lake.
On our way back from Maligne we stopped along Maligne Road to photograph the scenery with the Canadian Rockies in the background, when suddenly two moose – a mother and her baby – showed up right behind us!
Check out the videos of this amazing encounter. Find all my highlights in my Canada 1 and Canada 2 stories on my Instagram account @traveltomtom. Click on the link to go there directly and scroll through 30 minutes of footage of all our adventures in Canada. The wildlife stories can be found in Canada 2.
Wow, we were lucky they decided to take the road instead of the bush. We stared to each other for a couple minutes and then they felt safe enough to walk up the road towards Maligne Lake.
After this sighting we drove to Pyramid Lake hoping to spot some owls but came across a squirrel instead.
Spotting Bison in Elk National Park Edmonton
If you want to spot Canada’s hairy buffalo, the bison, a must do in Edmonton is planning a day excursion to Elk National Park, a 35 km-drive from Edmonton (50 minutes). There are opportunities to see elk, moose, coyotes, beavers, deer and many birds, but the park is mostly known for its efforts to conserve Alberta’s Plains bison, since they brought back to this place when they almost got extinct. Apart from the Plains bison, you can also spot the Wood bison.
Elk Island National Park has a loop, the so-called Bison Loop Road, to spot bison grazing. First hour we were not extremely lucky since the bison were hiding in a dense forest and hard to photograph.
After spending some time observing the bison from a distance, they slowly moved closer to the road as the sun started to set. By that time, we were lucky to spot a herd of bison crossing the street, very impressive!
Don’t come too close to the bison; they can be aggressive and charge if they feel threatened. Recommended distance is about 100 meters, so please give them space.
Wildlife along the Icefields Park Way
Along the Icefields Parkway - the scenic but icy road that connects Jasper to Lake Louise and Banff, you have a chance of spotting Alberta’s wildlife too! For example, at the area around Athabasca Falls, Sunwapta Falls, Bow Lake and many more spots along the scenic Icefields Park Way. At Athabasca falls I spotted this colorful Steller’s Jay, one of the many birds in Alberta, Canada.
In total we traveled around for 2 weeks. See our complete 14 day Alberta itinerary in this link.
Looking for wildlife in Banff National Park
Banff National Park is Canada’s first and most visited National Park, located in the Rocky Mountains. In winter it’s less busy then in summer and also in winter is Banff a great place to spot wildlife like elk, moose, owls, birds and so on.
Since they spotted a fluffy Boreal Owl at Vermilion Lake, we went to have a look around sunset and again just after sunrise, but without any luck. We also drove up to Lake Minnewanka twice, looking for Banff’s wildlife but unfortunately - apart from seeing some Elk - without luck.
How do you keep Alberta’s wildlife wild?
It’s important to know that the we share our planet together with our wildlife and that they are wild animals, not waiting to be touched or fed by us humans. They only survive when we treat them with respect. That means: do not feed wildlife, do not approach wild animals (stay 30-100 meters away depending on the animal) and stay on the trails that are specifically designed for tourists to keep you safe and give the wild animals their space.
Wildlife in Alberta
If you are a lover of wildlife visiting Alberta in winter is definitely worth it! Seeing Alberta’s charming winter wonderland and its wildlife makes me also curious about exploring Edmonton, Jasper and Banff in early summer when the bears are waking up from their winter sleep (hibernation) and the frozen lakes and rivers transform into beautiful turquoise lakes surrounded by evergreen trees.
By the way, along the highway from Banff back to Edmonton I also spotted 3 coyotes on the country side! So cool.
In two weeks Kim and I completed a 2 week itinerary around Alberta. We started in Edmonton and drove a couple days later to Jasper. Save at least 3-4 days before you continue onwards to Lake Louis and Banff and before getting back to Edmonton have a stop in Calgary. Click on the links for more detailed travel guides.
Stay connected on your road trip and buy a Canada sim card or have a look at the following link for a complete Canada packing list.
Enjoy your trip to Alberta.