Every summer the glaciers dotted alongside the Icefields Parkway in Alberta melt and recede. The flowing water and ever changing landscapes eventually freeze again every winter. Freezing time, and with it, ice caves to be explored by those brave enough to venture into their depths.
Welcome to the Icefields Parkway Alberta, Canada
The Icefields Parkway (highway 93) is a 230km stretch of road connecting Banff National Park and Jasper National Park. The Columbia Icefield west of the highway is nearly 200 sq. km. The many glaciers accessible from the road are all connected to the Columbia Icefield.
There are only so many glaciers that can be accessed within a single day’s effort on skis or snowshoes. Some ranging just a few km from the road, others might be a round trip of 20 km or more.
There’s certainly a large adventure aspect to exploring ice caves in Alberta. The elements in this region are unforgiving to say the least. The approach often takes a lot of energy. Finding a possible entrance into the toe of the glacier is also sometimes difficult.
The reward of climbing inside one of these incredible ice caves is incredible. Standing among ice that is nearly 30,000 years old. The size and scale is difficult if not impossible to comprehend.
A Little Bit About Alberta’s Ice Caves
Some caves are larger than life itself. Bigger in scale than the largest cathedrals made by man. Even in those massive frozen planets, it’s usually the details that posses me. The way that the light from the entrance reflects off the smooth surfaces inside. The air bubbles that have been trapped, frozen in time for tens of thousands of years.
If you look for it, you can find really interesting ice formations under ice shelfs. This is where the ice might have an opportunity to melt just slightly, the freeze thaw cycle creates really unique shapes. Some of the raw creativity of these caves simply couldn’t be imagined.
Ice caves are without a doubt one of the most unique features in the natural world.
The most exciting part for me is venturing out to a new location and discovering the frozen planet that was formed during the short summer months. Seeing a new and temporary landscape for the first time. As a photographer, I liken it to a blank canvas. There are no expectations. Just a blank slate to create something completely original.
There are numerous ice caves dotted all along the Icefields Parkway between Big Bend and Athabasca glacier. Find the exact location of each cave is ever changing and part of the adventure. There are turn outs and parking lots to the various locations depending on which exact ice cave is that you plan to travel to.
Getting to the general area requires snow tires. The Icefields parkway legally requires all users to equip their vehicles with snow tires from Nov 15 to May 15 (don’t quote me on that though).
Photography Tips For Shooting In Ice Caves
Best Time of Day for Photography
Depending on the size and shape of the entrance to the ice cave, you typically want to be shooting during the day. Getting deep inside the ice caves can sometimes mean very little natural light source from the sun outside. However, there’s obviously exceptions to this rule. Depending on the opening of the cave, it might lend itself to some incredible astrophotography or even shots of the aurora if you’re lucky enough.
What Camera Gear to Bring
- Air/Dust blower for blowing snow off your lens
- A polarizing filter to help defuse any harsh reflection on the ice
- A tripod to take long exposure shots from inside the cave if lighting is limited
- Wide angle or fisheye lens to capture the enormity of some of the caves
- External lighting sources like Lume Cubes or extra headlamps
What Outdoor Equipment to Bring
- Headlamps, at least two incase one dies or if you like additional light sources for your photos
- Bring way more layers than you think you need. The ice caves provide great shelter from the cold but it can still be really chilly if you’re not moving around for a while
- Know before you go – you might need avalanche equipment
- Satellite phone and or Spot or InReach devices – weather can be extreme and emergencies out hear can be dire very quickly
Technical Photography Tips
It’s a challenging subject matter to photograph. The environment isn’t very approachable and navigating these frozen structures can be tedious and dangerous. Having safety at the forefront of your mind can also obstruct the creative flow sometimes. It’s just a reality of shooting in such a precarious place.
Shooting wide is a no brainer once you’re inside Alberta’s ice caves. Some caves are bigger than others, the smaller the cave, typically the wider I’ll shoot. If the cave is really large I don’t typically like to go wider than 24mm because I like to show the sense of scale in a realistic way to give the viewer a very true concept of the size yet still capture a big part of the environment. Sometimes there might be a nice background and going super wide will push the background too far away for my liking. It’s a balance for sure.
Standard rules apply like including really interesting foreground for typical landscape shots. The foreground in ice caves can be some of the most unique and mesmerizing foregrounds to be found in nature. Whether it’s the light reflecting of the ice textures of the ice walls around you, or the crystal formations from a constant freeze-thaw cycle beneath your feet. There’s no shortage of interesting foreground so be sure to use it to your advantage.
Shoot as many angles as possible while including a variety of different compositions. Don’t make the mistake of getting too caught up on a particular composition. Everything looks pretty incredible in an ice cave, but once you nail the shot, switch it up, take another… and another. These caves take a lot of energy and aligning of the stars to shoot in, so don’t waste any time and miss out on the opportunity to create as much as possible while you’re there.
Bring a tripod with you for every ice cave you plan to shoot in. Some caves have extremely small entrances and let in very little light. Using the natural light from the entrance of a cave will be you only light source besides headlamps – if there isn’t a lot of it, you’ll have to shoot some long exposures. Be sure to communicate yo your subjects that if you’re shooting a long exposure on a tripod, you’ll need them to be extremely still. It’s hard to do when you’re cold and on ice, so try shooting even wider. The smaller your subjects are during a long exposure, the less blur will be visible from them if they do move a little during your shot.
Bring more layers than you think you’ll need. This is more than a just a standard outdoors tip. It’s specifically a photography tip. If you’re too cold to be creative, your shots will suffer. You may have an opportunity to shoot in an ice cave for an extended period. If you’re not moving around much, you’re going to want that extra puffy or two!
Where to stay
During the winter months on the Icefields Parkway, you’re totally on your own out there. The highway is scarce during the summer but in the winter, there’s nothing until Jasper. The town of Jasper will be your best bet for finding accommodations close by. Most of the parking for the ice caves are all within about 20 minutes of each other, so you’re about 1 hour and 10 minutes – 1 hours and 30 minutes from Jasper depending on where you’re parked. (Depending on road conditions too. Prepare for more ice, high winds, and a steep decline down a giant mountain pass).
Where to eat
Hopefully you enjoy cold nuts and protein bars because that’s about all you can have to eat out here. There’s nowhere to grab food anywhere except for Jasper or Rocky Mountain House which are both hours away. Bring tons of water too because your body will use extra hydration to regulate your bodies’ temperature.
As creators in this digital age, we all have a responsibility to keep these wild places pristine for everyone to enjoy. We also have a responsibility to keep people safe. I’m intentionally vague about the locations of Alberta’s ice caves. It’s not that I don’t want to share. There is an increasing number of ill-equipped photographers and outdoor enthusiast putting themselves in harms way. Always assess your individual and group preparedness and safety protocols. Some ice caves have avalanche risk on approach, some caves might be too unstable, all are in extremely volatile weather regions. Think twice before sharing a location to the public.