Canmore Nature Guide
The Canmore Nature Guide describes the geology, plants, and animals of Canmore and the Bow Valley in the Canadian Rockies.
Canmore lies in the Bow Valley, flanked by mountains rising up to 1,000 metres (3,280 feet) above the valley floor. To the south and west are the distinctive peaks of the Three Sisters, Mount Lawrence Grassi, impressive Ha Ling Peak, and the southeastern extent of Mount Rundle. Across the valley are the Fairholme Range, Mount Lady Macdonald, and Grotto Mountain. Like the rest of the Canadian Rockies, these mountains began as layers of sedimentary rock laid down on the bed of an ancient sea. The seabed was forced upward over millions of years to create today’s lofty peaks, whose sedimentary layers give them a distinct appearance. Through the valley flows the braided Bow River, heading eastward and into the Saskatchewan River system. At the north end of town, the river divides in two, leaving downtown Canmore on a low-lying island that is protected from annual spring flooding by dikes of large boulders.
Canmore Trees, Plants, and Flowers
Even though much of the Canmore valley floor is developed, large tracts of land are protected by Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park, making the surrounding area a delight for nature lovers. Lowlands on either side of the Bow River are lined with stands of poplar, while the drier mountainsides support extensive stands of Douglas fir, Engelmann spruce, and lodgepole pine.
Viewing Canmore’s abundant and varied wildlife is a popular pursuit in the wilderness surrounding the town. For the best places to see wildlife, go to our Canmore Wildlife Viewing page.
Mule Deer and White-Tailed Deer
Mule deer and white-tailed deer are similar in size and appearance. Their colour varies with the season but is generally light brown in summer, turning dirty gray in winter. While both species are considerably smaller than elk, the mule deer is a little stockier than the white-tailed deer. The mule deer has a white rump, a white tail with a dark tip, and large mulelike ears. It inhabits open forests along the Bow Valley. Canmore has a healthy population of mule deer. The white-tailed deer’s tail is dark on top, but when the animal runs, it holds its tail erect, revealing an all-white underside. Whitetails frequent thickets along rivers and lakes.
The elk, or wapiti, is the most widespread and common of the larger mammals living in the Canadian Rockies, and they are often seen in meadows around town, on the golf course, and on the Trans-Canada Highway corridor. It has a tan body with a dark-brown neck, dark-brown legs, and a white rump. This second-largest member of the deer family weighs 250-450 kilograms (550-1,000 pounds) and stands 1.5 metres (five feet) at the shoulder. Beginning each spring, bulls grow an impressive set of antlers, covered in what is known as velvet. The velvet contains nutrients that stimulate antler growth. By fall, the antlers have reached their full size and the velvet is shed. The rutting season takes place between August and October; listen for the shrill bugles of the bulls serenading the females. During the rut, randy males will challenge anything with their antlers which can be dangerous. The bulls shed their antlers each spring, but don’t relax too much because, also in spring, females protecting their young can be equally dangerous.
The two species of bears present in the Bow Valley—BLACK BEARS and GRIZZLIES—can be differentiated by size and shape. Grizzlies are larger than black bears and have flatter, dish-shaped faces and a distinctive hump of muscle behind their neck. Colour is not a reliable way to tell them apart. Black bears are not always black. They can be brown or cinnamon, causing them to be confused with the brown-coloured grizzly.
If you spot a bear in or around town, chances are it’s a black bear. These mammals are widespread throughout all forested areas, but are also relatively common on the outskirts of town. Their weight varies considerably, but males average 150 kilograms (330 pounds) and females 100 kilograms (220 pounds). Their diet is omnivorous, consisting primarily of grasses and berries but supplemented by small mammals. They are not true hibernators, but in winter they can sleep for up to a month at a time before changing position. During this time, their heartbeat drops to 10 beats per minute, their body temperature drops, and they lose up to 30 percent of their body weight. Females reach reproductive maturity after five years; cubs, usually two, are born in late winter, while the mother is still asleep.
Grizzlies, the second largest of eight recognized species of bears worldwide (only polar bears are larger), have disappeared from most of North America but are widespread throughout the Canadian Rockies and the Bow Valley. Grizzlies are only occasionally seen by casual observers in the Canmore area; most sightings occur along the wildlife corridor running along the south side of town near Quarry Lake. The bears’ colour ranges from light brown to almost black, with dark tan being the most common. On average, males weigh 200-350 kilograms (440-770 pounds). The bears eat small and medium-sized mammals, and berries in fall. Like black bears, they sleep through most of the winter. When they emerge in early spring, the bears scavenge carcasses of animals that succumbed to the winter, until the new spring vegetation becomes sufficiently plentiful. Females first give birth at four years old, and then every three years, with cubs remaining with their mother for 2-3 years.
Bighorn sheep are some of the most distinctive mammals of the Bow Valley, but are not present in the immediate vicinity of town. Bighorn sheep are common on rocky outcrops above Spray Lakes Road and along Highway 1A east of town toward Exshaw.
Easily recognized by their impressive horns, they have often seen grazing on grassy mountain slopes or at salt licks beside the road. The colour of their coat varies with the season; in summer, it’s a brownish-gray with a cream-coloured belly and rump, turning lighter in winter. Fully grown males can weigh up to 120 kilograms (270 pounds), while females generally weigh around 80 kilograms (180 pounds). Both sexes possess horns, rather than antlers like members of the deer family. Unlike antlers, horns are not shed each year and can grow to astounding sizes. The horns of rams are larger than those of ewes and curve up to 360 degrees. The spiraled horns of an older ram can measure longer than one metre (3.2 feet) and weigh as much as 15 kilograms (33 pounds). During the fall mating season, a hierarchy is established among the rams for the right to breed ewes. As the males face off against each other to establish dominance, their horns act as both a weapon and a buffer against the head-butting of other rams. The skull structure of the bighorn, rams in particular, has become adapted to these head-butting clashes, keeping the animals from being knocked unconscious.
The coyote is often mistaken for a wolf when in fact it is much smaller, weighing up to only 15 kilograms (33 pounds). It has a pointed nose and a long, bushy tail. Its colouring is a mottled mix of brown and gray, with lighter-coloured legs and belly. The coyote is a skillful and crafty hunter, preying mainly on rodents. Coyotes have the remarkable ability to hear the movement of small mammals under the snow, allowing them to hunt these animals without actually seeing them. Coyotes are widespread along the entire Bow River watershed. They are attracted to Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park by the abundance of small game, and many have permanent dens there. They are often seen patrolling the edges of highways, crossing open meadows in low-lying valleys, and sneaking around the town of Canmore.
Rarely encountered by casual hikers, these majestic creatures (known in other parts of North America as mountain lions, pumas, or catamounts) measure up to 1.5 metres (five feet) long. The average male weighs 75 kilograms (165 pounds) and the female 40-55 kilograms (90-120 pounds). Cougars are versatile hunters whose acute vision takes in a peripheral span in excess of 200 degrees. They typically kill a large mammal such as an elk or deer every 12-14 days, eating part of it and caching the rest. Their diet also includes chipmunks, ground squirrels, snowshoe hares, and occasionally porcupines. Their athletic prowess puts Olympians to shame. They can spring forward more than 8 metres (26 feet) from a standstill, leap 4 metres (13 feet) into the air, and safely jump from a height of 20 metres (65 feet).
The cougar is a solitary animal with distinct territorial boundaries. This limits its population density, which in turn means that its overall numbers are low, although there are reports every year of cougars entering residential areas, usually on the north side of the Trans-Canada Highway.
One of the animal kingdom’s most industrious mammals is the beaver. Growing to a length of 50 centimetres (20 inches) and tipping the scales at around 20 kilograms (44 pounds), it has a flat, rudderlike tail and webbed back feet that enable it to swim at speeds up to 10 kph (6 mph). The exploration of western Canada can be directly attributed to the beaver, whose pelt was in high demand in fashion-conscious Europe in the early 1800s. The beaver was never entirely wiped out from the mountains, and today the animals can be found in almost any forested valley with flowing water. Beavers build their dam walls and lodges of twigs, branches, sticks of felled trees, and mud. They eat the bark and smaller twigs of deciduous plants and store branches underwater, near the lodge, as a winter food supply.
Several species of squirrels are common in the Bow Valley. The GOLDEN-MANTLED GROUND SQUIRREL, found in rocky outcrops of subalpine and alpine regions, has black stripes along its sides and looks like an oversized chipmunk. Most common is the COLUMBIAN GROUND SQUIRREL, which lives in burrows, often in open grassland. It is recognizable by its reddish legs, face, and underside, and a flecked, grayish back. The bushy-tailed RED SQUIRREL, the bold chatterbox of the forest, leaves telltale shelled cones at the base of conifers.
Birdwatching is popular in the Bow Valley, thanks to the approximately 250 resident bird species and the hundreds of thousands of migratory birds that pass through each fall. All it takes is a pair of binoculars, a good book detailing species, and patience. Dense forests hide many species, making them seem less common than they are.
A wide variety of raptors are present in the Bow Valley—some call the mountains home year-round, while others pass through during annual spring and fall migrations.
GOLDEN EAGLES migrate across the Canadian Rockies, heading north in spring to Alaska and crossing back over in fall en route to Midwest wintering grounds. Golden eagles—more than 10,000 of them annually—soar high above the mountains on thermal drafts. BALD EAGLES also soar over the Canadian Rockies during annual migrations; mature birds can be distinguished from below by their white head and tail (immature birds resemble the dark-brown-coloured golden eagle). OSPREYS spend summers in the region, nesting high up in large dead trees, on telephone poles, or on rocky outcrops, but always overlooking water; look for their nests along the Bow River beside Highway 1A east of town. They feed on fish, hovering up to 50 metres (160 feet) above water, watching for movement, then diving into the water, thrusting their legs forward and collecting prey in their talons.
Distinct from all previously listed species is a group of raptors that hunt at night. Best known as owls, these birds are rarely seen because of their nocturnal habits but are widespread throughout forested areas of the mountains. Most common is the GREAT-HORNED OWL, identified by its prominent “horns,” which are actually tufts of feathers.
Birdwatchers will be enthralled by the diversity of eastern and western bird species in the Bow Valley. Downtown, MALLARD DUCKS are a popular year-round attraction on Policeman’s Creek at the north end of Main Street. In low-elevation wetlands and ponds around town are CANADA GEESE, LOONS, MERGANSERS, and BARRON GOLDENEYES.
Widespread elsewhere are MAGPIES, SPARROWS, STARLINGS, GROUSE, RAVENS, and CROWS. BLACKBIRDS, FINCHES, THRUSHES, HUMMINGBIRDS, WOODPECKERS, FLYCATCHERS, and many species of WARBLERS are common in forested areas. A common campground visitor, the cheeky GRAY JAY is similar in appearance to the curious CLARK’S NUTCRACKER.