One of the biggest advantages to being nestled in the middle of Banff National Park, and arguably the largest protected mountain ecosystem in the world, is that wildlife sightings are very common. Ungulates, or hooved animals, in particular, are frequently seen.
You can actually distinguish a local from a visitor based on how wowed they are by an elk blocking a walking path: locals barely blink and skirt around the animal without altering their stride the way most city folk skirt around a parking meter. Visitors often stop dead in their tracks.
So to help our visitors still in awe of the wilder residents of Banff National Park, here is a guide to identifying the most common hooved creatures of the area – the ones you are most likely to spot while exploring on your vacation, be it in the town, driving around or heading to the slopes!
Elk are the most commonly seen ungulate in the park. Although there are no guarantees when it comes to wildlife sightings, with a healthy elk population of more than 200 living near the town area, elk are the one large animal you are almost certain to see. They look a bit like deer – they are in the same family after all – but they are significantly larger. A mature elk male weighs around 700lbs and stands almost 8 feet fall where as a mature male deer tops out at 300lbs and is only about 3.5 feet tall. Their shaggy brown coats, white rumps and the sizable antlers on males make them an impressive sight.
The park’s elk live predominantly in the Eastern end of the park so chances of spotting them year-round are high. Cruise the Banff area roadways like the Bow Valley Parkway, the Lake Minnewanka Loop or head to the golf course and you are likely to see them grazing. Wherever there is open grassland there’s a chance of catching them chowing down!
There are two species of deer that are common to Banff National Park: white-tailed deer and mule deer. While-tailed deer are tan in color and get their name from their tail’s white underside which they raise when alarmed. Mule deer are grey in color with larger ears and their tails have a distinctive black tip. While deer are fewer in number than elk, and a bit more shy of humans, it is still very likely you will see them around town. Hike the short Tunnel Mountain trail for spectacular view of the Banff town site and if you get lucky you will see them foraging in the woods.
It is not uncommon to see small herds of Bighorn sheep when heading to our three ski resorts. While female bighorn sheep have small horns jutting out of the tops of their head, it’s the large curved horns of the males that give the species their name. Weighing up to 30lbs, the curved horns grow the entire life of the male and are not only a symbol of status but a weapon used against other males in the battle for dominance and for a mate. During the winter months, Bighorn sheep move to lower-elevation mountain pastures in the search for food. This makes it more likely to spot sheep in the winter than in the summer when they tend to stay higher in the alpine. So keep your eyes open and take a drive up to Mount Norquay! There is a herd that frequently feasts along the access road to the ski resort – just watch your speed going around the corners.
Moose are the monster of all ungulates. They are the biggest in size – by far. Males can weigh up to 1500lb and are easily discernable from other members of the deer family by their antlers. While deer and elk have twig-like antlers, moose antlers are a more like a shovel with finger-like branches growing off them. They also have startlingly skinny, lanky legs, a hefty torso and short thick neck. Seeing them in the winter is a treat; their spindly legs allow them to gingerly walk through deep snow. It makes their rather top-heavy appearance make sense. While they tend to stay in marshy areas in the summertime, spotting moose in the winter is a more a game of chance: you never know when you may get lucky.
Enjoy wide open spring skiing until mid-May. To book your next ski vacation at Ski Banff-Lake Louise-Sunshine, check out our featured ski and stay vacation packages or call us at 1-844-754-2443.