With an angry 350-kilogram elk snorting at her heels, it’s fair to say Kim Titchener learned her lesson about Rocky Mountain wildlife the hard way.

Titchener wasn’t the first Banff visitor to flee the wrath of the wapiti, but few have turned such heart-pounding encounters into a lifelong love for the emblematic animals of southwest Alberta’s mountain towns and parks.

“I was 19 and new to Banff. I had no idea it would chase me. I just ran and didn’t look back,” she says.

Titchener, a leading expert on wildlife-human conflicts, and the founder of consulting company Bear Safety & More, helps others avoid such encounters. Thanks to vigilant parks staff and people like Titchener, serious conflicts are rare, but, she says, visitors to mountain country can take precautions to make wildlife encounters terrific, rather than terrifying.

“People visit these places with a false sense of security. You’re on busy trail systems around the townsites, where you’d think there is no chance of encountering an animal like a bear,” she explains. “But you will see wildlife—you could be on Banff Avenue in Banff and see an elk, or even a grizzly, so you have to be aware.”

It’s about safe distance and realistic expectations. Titchener says hopes of getting National Geographic-quality snapshots on cellphones lures many past the point of safety. “You’re not going to get that kind of picture, so it’s better to stay safe. Don’t get out of your car; don’t get too close.”

While she doesn’t recommend joining roadside traffic jams that form when animals roam near roadways, she says a slow, hazard-lights pass is a safe, rewarding way to view wildlife. “It’s best at dusk or dawn,” she says.

Bears love meadows, while elk enjoy nibbling aspen bark, and it’s these sorts of details that help keen-eyed observers find the famous fauna of Alberta’s mountain areas. Asking locals for likely spots always helps—Titchener says the Norquay lookout above Banff, where spotting bighorn sheep is almost guaranteed, is a good example.

Visitors should heed notices warning of animal activity. “In May and June, when elk are calving, and in fall rutting season, people get too close, and get chased,” she says.

While the lure of spotting alpine animals draws visitors to Alberta’s mountain environs, such dangerous encounters are entirely avoidable with a bit of sensible precaution and discreet distance.

Three wild animals to watch for: 

  • Recently reintroduced to Banff National Park, bison can be spotted in its backcountry.
  • Found only in the park, view rare Banff Springs snails at Cave and Basin National Historic Site.
  • With the wolf population rebounding, look for these shy predators on trails and on roadsides.

Getting there: WestJet flies to Calgary 111 times a day from 24 Canadian, 12 U.S. and 12 international cities.