You may have seen the instagrammable photos of this amazing Alberta lake, but did you know it is also an affordable and relatively un-touristy place to visit? For the Canadian Rockies, Abraham Lake is about as budget as it gets!
Read on for everything you need to know about this bucket list destination!
Where is Abraham Lake?
Abraham Lake (sometimes called Lake Abraham online) is located in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, outside of any National Parks. This means you do not need a park pass to visit!
The lake (which is actually a reservoir) is very remote. The nearest town is Nordegg, but in the Winter there are very limited services there. If you are flying to Alberta to visit, you will want to fly to either Edmonton or Calgary. Both are 3.5 hours from the lake.
Where to Stay Near Abraham Lake
I recommend staying in the somewhat-nearby town of Rocky Mountain House. There are several affordable hotel options here, as well as places to eat, and grocery stores. There is also a Canadian Tire, which is handy if you forget any of your gear!
Hotels in Rocky Mountain House
We have stayed at both the Best Western and the Voyageur Inn.
The Best Western is what you expect: Clean and nothing fancy.
We definitely would not recommend the Voyageur Inn! Despite good ratings on Google and Booking.com, it was pretty dirty and our door didn’t even seal closed. (A big deal in Canadian Winter!)
There are several hotel chains here, so pick whatever suits your budget. You should have no problem finding something for around $100 Canadian per night. There is no best location as RMH is pretty small, and you can get anywhere in a few minutes.
Is Rocky Mountain House in the Rocky Mountains?
Unfortunately, the name “Rocky Mountain House” is a bit deceptive. It is certainly the gateway into the Rocky Mountains, but you will not have mountain views here. The first you will see of the mountains is about a half hour towards Abraham Lake.
Winter Camping at Abraham Lake
If you have appropriate gear, the brave can also winter camp at Abraham Lake.
You will be surprised by how many people go camping out there in the dead of Winter! The lake shore area beside the highway is a designated public land use zone, which means that camping is free.
If you decide to try camping, take your time to choose a spot out of the wind. Abraham Lake is known for extremely high winds, and in winter temperatures this can quickly become dangerous. The far end of the lake is typically a little less windy.
The small gas station at Nordegg has an excellent selection of camping equipment if you forget anything.
(I have never tried camping in the winter, so please get some real advice first as far as safety equipment and all weather gear!)
Getting to Abraham Lake, Alberta
From Rocky Mountain House, getting to Abraham Lake is easy! It is about an hour and 15 minutes driving, all on Highway 11 (the highway that goes through RMH.) You really can’t get lost. This highway will take you past the lake, and all the photoshoot spots are actually right beside the highway!
When to Visit Abraham Lake to See Ice Bubbles
The best time of year to visit Abraham Lake and see good quality ice bubbles is from January until mid-February. After that, I am told the ice can start to get cloudy.
I’m sure this doesn’t happen overnight, so if you are local to Alberta and can plan according to the weather, pick a warmer weekend. The Explore Nordegg website occasionally updates ice conditions here.
You can always skip the planning and book a tour through the website as well!
Best Time of Day to Photograph Ice Bubbles
Serious photographers will tell you that sunrise and sunset are the best times to photograph the ice bubbles. Winter in Canada makes for short days, so if you plan ahead you can easily stay out there for both.
When we visited in late February, sunrise was at 7:45 am and sunset around 5:00 pm. The first day we left our hotel too late and missed sunrise by a few minutes. The next day we got there on time and the colours of the ice and bubbles really do look great before the sun is up.
For a casual photographer, an overcast period, or later in the day would still create amazing photos, so don’t worry too much if you aren’t on time. Being winter, the sun never gets high in the sky, but on a clear day in mid-morning the glare off the ice does make pictures more challenging.
Times to avoid: Try to avoid from about noon to sunset. The area starts to get really busy which makes parking along the highway more challenging and dangerous. There will also be a bunch of people in your shots, which is not ideal!
Pro tip: Do try to be out at or near sunrise because that is when you will find the serious bubble hunters, and their vehicles will give the best spots away!
What Causes These Ice Bubbles?
The air bubbles trapped in the ice of Abraham Lake are actually methane.
The methane is produced by decomposing matter at the bottom of the lake (mostly plants.) As the lake freezes over in the winter, the bubbles are trapped in the ice, which turns into layers of frozen bubbles as winter goes on and the ice gets thicker.
Why are there more bubbles in Abraham Lake than other lakes?
I really wanted to know why Abraham Lake specifically has so many methane ice bubbles. After all, most lakes will have decomposing matter at the bottom. The answer was hard to find! I read that it is somewhat common in northern lakes, which doesn’t really explain much.
One proposed reason is that these northern lakes never used to thaw completely, but now due to climate change they do. That doesn’t really hold true for Abraham Lake, because it is a man-made reservoir, and has only been around since 1972.
I finally found this article by NASA, that suggests it is actually the thawing permafrost under the lakes that is releasing the extra methane. Which I guess makes sense.
What To Do Between Ideal Photo Times
“So there is nothing out there, but we should stay out ALL day and avoid going on the lake in the afternoon??”
The good news is that there are plenty of pit toilets in the area, so you don’t need to be worried about facilities. The mountains are absolutely beautiful, as is the lake, so there are plenty of opportunities to take beautiful photos away from the other bubble hunters.
Drive to Lake Louise
We took the opportunity to visit Lake Louise for lunch! It is only an extra hour and 15 minutes driving from the far end of the lake. That might sound like a lot, but the drive along the famous Icefields Parkway alone is worth it!
This does enter Banff National Park, so you will need to buy a park pass at some point. Sometimes the booth on one side is closed, so you will pay whenever you drive through another one. Lake Louise will also be crazy at this time of year (when is it not?) but it’s a pretty easy way to check off a bucket list item, and see Lake Louise in the Winter.
We had lunch at The Station in Lake Louise, which is a restaurant located in a historic railway station (no longer in use.)
Visit a Frozen Waterfall
If you don’t want to do the extra driving, nearby Crescent Falls is only about a 15 minute drive from Abraham Lake.
The actual waterfall is just a short hike from the parking lot. There are two or three viewing platforms above the falls with a decent view.
You will see that a lot of people risk it all to hike down to the bottom of the falls for a picture, which I thought was a legitimate hike until we got to it.
It is not.
Getting to the bottom of Crescent Falls is only possible via a steep icy hill with lots of warnings (that Jason still convinced me to try) and I wrecked my pants sliding partway down it. We quickly realized that we wouldn’t be able to get back up if we did make it to the bottom and settled for views from the top.
Hopefully knowing this saves you some time (and beloved Lululemons!)
You could also spend the afternoon looking for bubble spots and marking them for later when the lighting is better.
Best Photo Spots
Before we went I had dutifully saved a map of bubble locations from another blog. Unfortunately, it would seem that the bubbles move around from year to year and only one of the locations from that map had bubbles: Preacher’s Point.
Abraham Lake Ice Bubble Spot #1 – Preacher’s Point
Preacher’s Point is the most popular and easiest to access bubble spot. It will also come up on a Google map search, so no special marking required!
There seems to be bubbles at this spot every year. I think because it is quite shallow and weedy. If you remember, the “air” bubbles are actually methane created by decomposing plants under the water, so it makes sense that this happens here.
Preacher’s Point has a lot of really interesting ice patterns and you can see right to the bottom of Abraham Lake in most places. However because it’s so shallow, you won’t really get the dark turquoise photos that you are probably thinking of.
At Preacher’s Point we saw the most diversity in ice! Big sheets, ice frozen in waves, ripples, bubbles, and geometric patterns. It is also where most people gathered in the afternoon. Some even came to skate!
Ice Bubble Spot #2
For the deeper water where you can see the beautiful dark blue/green ice with white bubbles, we found a spot by paying attention to where the early birds were. The second day we went to the same spot and were totally alone out there.
Here is the spot we had luck with:
Necessary Gear for Viewing Ice Bubbles
Did you notice that my top secret ice bubble spot is near “Windy Point?”
That’s no joke!
Abraham Lake is pretty much always windy. Lucky for us it was an unseasonably warm weekend, so the gale force winds and ice being pelted at us didn’t do any serious damage.
I did actually start blowing away when I was kneeling on the ice for pictures! It’s unfortunate, but if you are out there on a day that is really cold, you might not be able to get the pictures you want if you don’t gear up. In those high winds frostbite would not take long.
You will need:
- Gloves that are touch screen compatible for your phone
- Hat or hood
- Good winter jacket
Possibly something to cover your face
You should also dress in layers so that you can comfortably lay or kneel on the ice to get the best angles.
I don’t own snow pants (ridiculous, I know) so I wore leggings under jeans and was okay on the ice, but again, it was only about 0 degrees C.
I have never had a problem with my phone dying in the cold before, but it happened here the very first time we went on the ice in the wind.
If we were to go back, I would bring a hand warmer for my pocket. Instead I had to give my phone to Jason to warm up in his inside pocket between shots! Just in case, I would also bring a power bank next time.
If you are bringing a real camera you will want to bring extra batteries.
One more thing that you will absolutely need, is ice cleats!
We packed cleats for the hike to Crescent Falls, not realizing how difficult it would be to get down to Abraham Lake in the good photo spots. Thanks goodness we brought them! I just had little ones and Jason still needed to help me around, so you want something with actual teeth like he brought. Similar to these.
Another good reason to check out where the locals and serious photographers are, is for safety. Nothing like having someone else test the ice!
Abraham Lake is a very strange lake, in that a lot of rivers and streams flow into it, and even when the lake is frozen, the river still flows around the edges in some spots!
We were shocked to see open moving water near the shore when the ice is clearly FEET thick just a short distance away. Be very careful around the shoreline to walk where you are SURE that it is safe.
With the ice being as thick as it is in most places, you are unlikely to fall through, but in the cold and wind you do NOT want to get wet!
There is no cell service out at the lake, so take any and all sensible precautions to not do anything dangerous. I also would not go alone for the same reason.
We had an amazing trip out to Abraham Lake!
Beyond the ice bubbles that we came for, we were amazed by ALL of the variations and patterns in the ice. Everything from bold cracks to delicate little geometric shapes. Even if you miss the clearest bubble season, there are still so many amazing things to see and photograph.
This stretch of the Rocky Mountains from Abraham Lake to Revelstoke, BC is actually my favourite! In the summer it is just full of breathtaking glacier-fed lakes and mountains, right beside the road! If you have an opportunity to visit in the warmer seasons, it is well worth it.