If you want to blame anyone for the Moraine Lake Road closure, perhaps point the finger at Instagram.
That’s the feeling you’re left with speaking to some regular park users, a week after Parks Canada decided to shut down Moraine Lake Road to personal vehicles for the summer. The road is only open from June to October due to avalanche risk.
While social media can’t be all to blame – Alberta’s national parks are Canadian treasures – those trekking to the parks for that iconic shot for their feed may be feeding the beast itself.
Recently, the provincial government weighed in on the Parks Canada decision. Minister of Forestry, Parks and Tourism, MLA Todd Loewen penned a statement he posted to Twitter on the proposed closure.
“Parks Canada’s decision to block personal vehicles at Moraine Lake means fewer visitors to this important part of the province, less time to climb in the area and less access to the backcountry,” the letter read.
“Sunrise and sunset hikes or night photography are near impossible to achieve under this plan, unless people can afford to pay for commercial transport or travel unsafely by foot or bike in the dark.”
Loewen said that not only as the portfolio minister, but as an avid outdoorsman, when you have these valuable lands and parks “you want to do everything you can to ensure that it can be enjoyed by everyone.”
It’s worth noting that in the summer of 2021, a $90 annual pass became mandatory to enter the Kananaskis Country and Bow Valley Provincial Park and public land sites. The money is intended for conservation and park upkeep but could present a financial barrier for Albertans wanting access to mountain provincial parks.
Premier Danielle Smith weighed in on the matter Tuesday. She said the feds didn’t even call Alberta’s parks minister. Smith would also like to ensure accessibility.
“I recognize that they’ve got limited parking but how are people with canoes and kayaks and dogs supposed to get up there?” Smith said.
‘It was just an absolute, complete gong show’: Marriott
John E Marriott, a professional wildlife photographer and long-time conservationist said he stopped going to Moraine Lake for sunrise shots six years ago.
“It was already a full parking lot before we’ve even really hit the height of what Instagram and Twitter and Facebook and so on have become in the last few years,” he told LiveWire Calgary.
He said he now tends to go to areas where no one else is going (though he wouldn’t divulge this to LWC). Marriott did go back there for a fall hike about 18 months ago.
“It was just an absolute complete gong show, even though it was a little past the prime of the larches,” he said.
“We had to park way down the road and I just thought, ‘what are we doing here, like, we need to have some form of a system in here.’”
On Instagram, #Banff has been tagged 3 million times, #banffnationalpark 1 million times, #morainelake 294,392 times and #morrainelake 14,060 times.
Marriott, who has lived in the Canmore and Banff area for more than 30 years, and spent four years as a Parks Canada naturalist before making the jump to photography, said he sat on a Parks Canada committee two decades ago around the Bow Valley Parkway.
Last summer, Parks Canada began a three-year pilot forbidding vehicles at night on the eastern section of the parkway from May 1 to June 25. From Sept. 1 to 30, vehicles can’t access the eastern section of highway 1A.
“It’s a little bit different because it’s mostly people looking for wildlife as opposed to Moraine Lake where people are looking for a selfie or for a particular type of photograph,” Marriott said.
“So, they’re slightly different but the usage rates have climbed dramatically in all these different areas.”
He said he made the decision to alter his own business to lessen the impact it would have on the ecosystem and wildlife.
Cody Stuart said he and his family usually head to the Moraine Lake area roughly 10 times a year to bike or hike.
“We’ve driven out there and been turned around. We’ve kind of learned to know how to get up there,” he said.
“It got to a point where it just wasn’t worth it.”
He and his family tried the shuttle early on, but it was expensive. Prices have since come down and they’ve experienced the shuttle a few times, but they also bike the roughly 14-kilometre stretch on occasion. Stuart has seen – and been a part of – the snarl along Moraine Lake Road, from all perspectives.
“I definitely see why (Parks Canada) made the move. It was chaos. It was just utter chaos,” he said.
“Even myself, like I found myself getting upset with staff and obviously it’s not their fault.”
Roughly 8.3 million vehicles travel to Banff National park and roughly half stop in the park.Parks Canada
Stuart also brought up the Instagram crowd. He said he’s guilty of it as well, posting regularly. He recalled one poster saying they were just going up to Moraine Lake for the Instagram shot.
“They’re driving up there in the past, they’re spending their five minutes there for the Instagram shot and then leaving,” Stuart said.
“That’s what’s killing it for a lot of people.”
He understands it. Albertans going to Paris would do the exact same thing and think nothing of it. It’s a challenge Parks Canada has to deal with because the area just can’t sustain that kind of vehicle traffic, he said.
“For a lot of people around Calgary that area has become a bit of a no-go zone at times just due to the popularity for locals compared to tourists,” Stuart said.
Nicoya Schmidt, who has worked the past two summers as a former Parks Canada visitor experience employee in Banff, said visitors want “this magical vacation that they saw on Instagram.”
“Then it doesn’t play out that way, which just makes people mad,” she told LiveWire Calgary.
(Schmidt also mentioned Instagram during the interview saying, “It seems as if people are only there to get the Instagram photoshoot picture, but not actually experience the environment there or be a part of it.” It is one of the classic Banff shots, she said.)
Schmidt said that while she worked primarily in the Banff area – Lake Minnewanka, Johnston Canyon, the hot springs – she understands the overcrowding aspect. While she never worked directly at Moraine, she expected it would be worse.
“It’s just kind of a combination of everyone I guess is kind of on their own agenda,” she said.
“Which makes sense when you’re traveling, you kind of only think about your own plan, but then it just kind of results in like mass overcrowding.”
When visitors would ask about Moraine Lake trips, Schmidt was honest. She told them to take transit or arrive at 2 a.m.
“Otherwise, you don’t have an option. You can’t just arrive there during the day,” she said.
Schmidt said that her perspective may be driven by her own experience in the area, but she was somewhat surprised that visitors expected to just drive up and park with no problem.
But, when Schmidt saw the Parks Canada decision, she was actually split on it – for several reasons. She was concerned it catered to international tourists rather than locals – especially those basing for longer climbs in the area peaks. The East Ridge of Temple – one she called a classic 50 climb in North America – required an alpine start.
She’d like to see something in place for regular mountaineers, sunrisers or even regular paddleboarders.
The solution and what’s next
The Parks Canada plan goes into effect this summer. They said plans are in place to ensure adequate capacity for those looking to enter the Moraine Lake area by ROAM shuttle. Visitors can also get in via bike, walking, or other commercial transport like taxis, rideshare or tour groups.
They’ve said that at peak times in the summer 900 vehicles were able to access the lake area, while 5,000 were turned away. They said traffic management in years past went from sunrise to sunset, but in 2022 required flaggers 24 hours a day.
Minister Loewen said more parking spaces would help. (The Rocky Mountain Parks Act of 1887 governs all aspects of development, including traffic.)
Schmidt suggested a reservation system for those regular users or people requiring it to base, maybe through their bivouac permit, which allows for unofficial camping for technical climbs.
Parks Canada said they considered a reserved parking system, but with the overwhelming parking needs those options offered little added benefit.
All three LWC spoke to said they understood the steps taken by Parks Canada. Something needed to be done. It may encourage visitors to explore other parts of Banff National Park or the Kananaskis, they said.
Stuart said maybe you could have added an absurd parking fee, but then complaints would have poured in that Moraine Lake was only for the wealthy, he said.
It wouldn’t dissuade him from visiting the area. In fact, he said knowing the traffic wouldn’t be chaotic, it might mean more trips by bike.
Marriott said being open and accessible to everyone isn’t doable in an age when everyone’s travelling by personal vehicle. Going to a bus system and still allowing everyone to go in is reasonable.
“We’re just going to have to work around not being able to drive a vehicle,” he said.
“So, it’s a sacrifice, but I think in the long run it’s a sacrifice that is really going to make the experience in there a lot better.”