popular national park was established as a railway resort shortly
after the construction of the trans-continental railroad
which linked the new provinces of Canada together
following the national confederation in 1867. The
president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, having seen
the great beauty of the Canadian Rockies, realized that
if he couldn't take the Rockies to the Canadian people,
he could bring them to the Rockies with his railroad. The park sits in the rugged mountains, in a river valley surrounded by rocky muntain peaks. The famous Banff Springs Hotel, built by the railway is close to summer activities and winter skiing. Donald Smith's dream was realized with the building of
the hotelotel in 1888 and in 1890, a small
chalet was built beside Lake Louise to serve the needs of
The first known crossing of the Canadian Rockies by
Europeans was made in 1800 by two North West Company
voyageurs, Le Blanc and La Gassie. Surveyor David
Thompson crossed the Rockies by Howse Pass in 1807 and
established the first fur trading post in the Columbia
River Valley. Hudson's Bay Co. Governor George Simpson
crossed a pass which now hears his name near Banff in
1841 and in 1881, after several abortive attempts to find
the right route through the mountains for the CPR, Major
A.B. Rogers (an American surveyor) began work on plotting
the railway route through the Bow Valley and Kicking
Horse Pass. The tracks entered the Banff area in 1883;
the railway was completed in 1885 and the real story of
Banff National Park began.
In 1887, an area of 260 square miles was set aside as
a federal reserve. The following year, the great chateau
was finished and visitors flocked to the new park to have
a taste of luxury in a pristine setting. Like the
founding of Yellowstone as a national park in the U.S.,
Banff National Park was the precursor of Canada's
excellent national parks system. It was the first and is
still the most visited of Canada's parks.
The Park Today - Banff & Lake Louise
Located an easy morning's drive from Calgary, there
are two town sites within the park: Banff and Lake
Louise. The bustling town of Banff is clearly a tourist
community, filled with motels, lodges, restaurants and
souvenir shops which appeal to the increasingly up scale
visitors who come here -- many flying from Japan. The
Japanese have taken Banff to their hearts and pocketbooks
The store signs -- many in Japanese -- cater to this
growing trend. Lake Louise, 34.5 miles west of Banff, is
quieter, retaining the flavor off the Banff of thirty
years ago, before the hordes arrived. Regardless of the
overdevelopment of the Banff townsite, this is still a
superb wilderness park with something for everyone,
particularly the magnificent mountains which attracted
Donald Smith to build the original resort hotel in 1888.
The park is actually one of four contiguous national
parks (Kootenay, Yoho, Banff and Jasper) which span the
Canadian Rockies from Radium Hot Springs in the Columbia
Valley to north of Jasper. Paved highways link the four
parks. Yoho National Park in British Columbia, west of
Banff National Park, is a pure wilderness area and
includes the immensely important Burgess Shale Fossil
Beds. Declared a World Heritage Site in 1981, the Burgess
Shale contains the fossilized remains of more than 120
marine animal species dating back 530 million years.
What to See & Do
Why do more than 3 million people visit Banff National
Park each year? It has to be the mountains, arguably the
most beautiful of all of the Rockies peaks. There seems
to be just the right combination of forested mountain
slopes, show clad peaks, beautiful turquoise alpine lakes
reflecting the mountains, and glaciers which hang over
the landscape below. Banff contains 25 peaks which climb
3,000 feet or more over the baselands. Mineral hot
springs and canyons add to the enjoyment.
There are major information centers located in the
Banff and Lake Louise townsites. Banff Park Museum is a restored log building which has displays of
representative animal life in the park.
The Cave and Basin Centennial Centre has a year
round interpretation program, along with swimming &
soaking at the original hot springs location near the
base of Sulphur Mountain. You can drive on Mountain
Avenue from the Banff Springs Hotel area to an overlook
giving fine views of the townsite and the valley. The
Upper Hot Springs Pool is at the end of Mountain Ave.
This is the highest (el. 5250 feet, 1600 meters) and the
hottest of the five springs on Sulphur Mountain. A
gondola departs from near the hot springs to the top of
the mountain where there is a restaurant and even finer
Also in the Banff area are the Vermilion Lakes,
a wetlands area along a scenic drive where wildlife is
abundant, including elk (wapiti), deer and many birds.
The Fenland Trails lead around the small lakes and marsh.
Moraine Lake, east of the Fenland area, is a very scenic
lake with a shoreline trail to explore. This lake is a
favorite of photographers.
There are several scenic drives in the Banff area
which lead visitors to points of interest and scenic
viewpoints: The Tunnel Mountain Drive begins at
Banff Ave. and Buffalo St. in the townsite and leads 6
miles (9 KM) up the side of Tunnel Mountain, past a
viewpoint over Bow Falls and the Banff Springs Hotel, and
then onto Tunnel Mtn. Road to two viewpoints (Mt. Rundle
and the Bow Valley) and to the Hoodoos Nature Trail. The
loop road continues down the mountain into Banff.
To get closer to the Bow Falls, take Golf Course
Drive which leads you for about 7 miles (11 KM), past
the Banff Springs golf course (18 holes), and to the
falls which lie between Mount Rundle and Tunnel Mountain.
The Mt. Norquay Drive gives excellent views of
Banff, the valley and surrounding peaks from a viewpoint
near the top of the road. Wildlife along the route
include bighorn sheep and mule deer. There is a
restaurant at the top of the mountain, and the gondola
which takes you there is beside the ski lodge. Minnewanka Loop Road leads past several little
lakes with good views all along the way. The loop starts
at the Trans-Canada Highway interchange, northwest of
Banff. It's a winding route which takes you first to the
Cascade Ponds, with a picnic area and to Lower Bankhead,
the ghost town site of an old coal mine where there is a
self guided tour of the abandoned buildings and exhibits.
Lake Minnewanka, 12 miles (17.7 KM) long, is the largest
lake in the park and a popular area for boating, fishing,
swimming, picnicking and hiking. Rental boats are
available. The loop then continues to Two Jack Lake, with
canoe rentals and a picnic area. This secluded lake is a
wonderful place for early morning and evening canoeing. A
road branches off to Johnson Lake, with a picnic area and
lakeside trail. This is another respectable fishing lake.
Sunshine is a high mountain ski and summer
resort which is reached by taking a gondola from the end
of Sunshine Road which is 6 miles (9.9 KM) west of Banff,
off the Trans Canada Highway. The lodge at the top has a
restaurant and there are hiking trails fanning out from
the lodge area.
The Bow Parkway is an alternate 2 lane route
between Banff and Lake Louise, which allows you to avoid
the freeway aspect of the Trans Canada Highway. The
Parkway offers fine views of the Bow Range including
Castle Mountain and other peaks to the east of the road.
Many consider Lake Louise the scenic gem of the
park. Mount Victoria, with its glacier, hangs over the
lake. There are many trails (hiking and horse) around the
lake and across the slopes of the mountains. Canoeing on
the lake is popular and canoes may be rented at lakeside.
This is the location of the Chateau Lake Louise, another
grand old railway hotel. There are several other lodging
places in the Lake Louise townsite including the historic
Post Hotel which has retained its original log building
although recent additions include ultramodern rooms and
There are several scenic drives from the Lake Louise
townsite. The most popular is the Lake Moraine
Drive, which leads from the junction with Lake Louise
Drive for 7.7 miles (12.5 KM) with several viewpoints
along the way. Moraine is a popular canoeing lake. By
hiking the trail to the pile of rocks at the outlet of
the lake, you will get a super view of the ten peaks
which give the valley its name. The most prominent
mountain (to the north with glacier) is Mount Temple.
There is a lakeside trail which will take you to the far
end of the lake. A short walk leads to Consolation Lakes.
Great Divide Road follows the original highway
route over Kicking Horse Pass and the Continental Divide.
The drive runs for 4.6 miles (7.4 KM) to a monument on
the summit of the pass, at an elevation of 5,331 feet
(1,625 meters). A picnic area is nearby. Continuing past
the divide, you drive into British Columbia and Yoho
National Park which includes Takakkaw Falls and Emerald
Lake. You can return to Lake Louise by backtracking or by
taking the faster Trans Canada Highway east.
Banff National Park not only has campgrounds but there
is a panoply of hotels, lodges and motels with prices
ranging from moderate to deluxe. There are no cheap
lodgings but there are several B&B homes which offer
value for money.
Banff Springs Hotel
(403) 762-2211 or 800 268-9411
This is the doyenne of the Rocky Mountain resort hotels,
an historic place to stay with gracious accommodations
and service. There are tennis courts, winter skating,
golf & riding stables. There are fine dining rooms
and lounges ($$$).
Banff Park Lodge
(403) 762-4433 or 800-661-9266
A motor hotel in the Banff townsite with 210 rooms,
swimming pool, steam room, whirlpool, dining room &
Buffalo Mountain Lodge
Tunnel Mountain Road
(403) 762-2400 or 800-661-1369
Bungalows, chalets & townhouse units (some suites)
with kitchenettes or full kitchens. Fireplaces, hot tub,
steam room ($$ to $$$).
There are three campgrounds operated by the Parks
Service near Banff: Castle Mountain has 44 sites, 1.3
miles (2 KM) north of Castle Junction on Hwy. 1A.
Johnston Canyon has 140 sites, 16 miles (26 KM) west of
Banff on Hwy. 1A. Protection Mountain has 89 sites, 7,
miles (11 KM) west of Castle Junction on Hwy. 1A.