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Banff National Park - Alberta, Canada

Canada's most 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 travelers.

Park History

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 views.

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.

Lake Louise

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 suites.

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.


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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 & lounge ($$$).

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 ($$ to $$$).

Park Campgrounds

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.

Staying In Canmore

Green Gables Inn
(403) 678-5488 or 800-661-2133
61 units (including suites) with queen size beds & whirlpools. Some rooms have fireplaces. Coffee, lounge. Children free. Located on Hwy. 1A ($$ to $$$).

Rocky Mountain Chalets
(403) 678-5564
40 condo units with kitchenettes & fireplaces. Suites, laundry. Children free ($$) At Hwy. 1A & 17th Street.

Rundle Ridge Chalets
(403) 678-5387 or 800-332-1299 (Alberta only)
28 cabins with kitchenettes & fireplaces in a wooded site with good views of nearby mountains. Studio, 1 3 bedroom units. Children free ($ to $$) In the Harvie Heights area.

Restwell Trailer Park & Cabins
(403) 678-5111.
In Canmore, with 175 campsites, laundry, dump station, and fishing. Open year round.

Where to Eat

For fine dining, head straight to the historic "chateau" railroad hotels, the Banff Springs Hotel and the Chateau Lake Louise.

The Post Hotel (Lake Louise) also has an excellent dining room with superior service and ambience

Le Beaujolais at 212 Buffalo St. and Joshua's (204 Caribou) serve continental cuisine.

The best hamburgers in town are at Harvey's fast food place in downtown Banff.

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