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Banff National Park

Banff National Park lies in the region of the glaciated Rocky Mountain ridge east of the continental watershed and about 130 km (80 mi.) west of Calgary.
In the north it adjoins Jasper National Park, with which it is linked by the unique Icefields Parkway, and in the west it runs into the Yoho and Kootenay National Park.
Banff National Park is one of Canada's greatest tourist attractions. Together with its three neighbouring parks it has been included since 1985 in UNESCO's list of protected natural and cultural monuments. Banff National Park forms part of the main Rocky Mountain ridge east of the continental watershed and the Front Range which falls away steeply to the Great Plain, and in this park alone there are two dozen peaks of more than 3000 m (9850 ft). Millions of visitors a year are fascinated by the picturesque turquoise mountain lakes mirroring the snow-covered peaks, glaciers and mountain forests, by the luxuriant mountain meadows in early summer and the impressive waterfalls, charming streams, lonely highland valleys and areas of quiet and untamed natural scenery only a few hundred metres from the main roads.
The town of Banff, with its hot springs, is the only township in the park. The Icefields Parkway, which winds for 230 km (143 mi.) through the 3000-4000 m (10,000-13,000 ft) high mountains, connects Banff with the numerous sights and Jasper National Park to the north. The highlights of this impressive journey along the Parkway are the world-famous Lake Louise, in whose ice-cold waters under a deep-blue sky are reflected the surrounding mountains, the aristocratic-looking Canadian Pacific Hotel "Château Lake Louise", and the huge Columbia Icefield.
At any time of the year this national park offers good facilities for sport and leisure: there are mountain tours on foot and on horseback, "back-packing" (a licence being required for trips lasting several days), golf courses and tennis courts, "river rafting" on the Bow River or peaceful canoe trips on one of the beautiful lakes.
Typical of this section of the Rocky Mountains, there are marked seasonal differences depending on the height. The town of Banff itself, one of the lowest places in the national park, lies about 1400 m (4600 ft) above sea-level.
Winters are generally long and minimum temperatures below -30°C (-22°F) are not uncommon. In January the average maximum temperatures are -7°C (19°F), the minima being -16°C (3°F). The relatively cool summers are short, although brief periods when the temperature rises as high as 30°C (86°F) are not unknown. In July and August average daily maxima of more than 20°C (68°F) and minima of some 7°C (45°F) are attained.
In the long valleys in the lee of the high mountain chains annual rainfall amounts are very small, being only 380 mm (15 in.), while in the continental water-shed region they may measure more than 1250 mm (50 in.). The best months for travelling are July and August, but in view of the crowds of tourists at that time it may be better to go earlier in the year or in September.
Man settled in the great valleys 11,000 years ago, as is shown by excavations made at Vermilion Lakes near Banff. When the first Europeans arrived Stoney and Kootenay Indians as well as members of the Blackfoot tribes already lived and hunted here.
Banff's first "tourist" was undoubtedly Sir George Simpson who in 1841, when Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, accompanied by an Indian guide on one of his inspection trips crossed the Bow River to what is now the town of Banff and passed over the Rocky Mountains along a pass since named after him. After that fur-hunters roved through the present national park.
In 1883 the Canadian Pacific Railway reached Banff, then prosaically known simply as "Siding 29", and Lake Louise. In the same year railroad workers seeking minerals stumbled across the hot sulphur springs at Cave & Basin Springs, where initially the railroad workers and subsequently rheumatism sufferers from all over the world came to seek relief. Disputes as to ownership of the springs led in 1885 to the establishment of the Hot Springs Reserve at the foot of Sulphur Mountain. Two years later Rocky Mountains Park was laid out, from which sprang the Banff National Park in 1930.
The opening of the railroad brought settlers and tourists to the mountain valley. In 1888 the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) opened the Banff Springs Hotel, followed by the Château Lake Louise in 1890. In 1899 the CPR hired Swiss mountain guides to take tourists up the peaks in the park. By the turn of the century Banff was able to boast more than eight luxury hotels.
As the CPR had a monopoly of entrance to the park it was 1911 before the increasingly popular motor car could bring people in. Then from 1920 until 1940, roads were built to Lake Louise, Radium Hot Springs and Jasper. Around 1930 a start was made on building the first ski huts. Today there are excellent ski slopes to be found on Mount Norquay in Banff, in Sunshine Village 17 km (11 mi.) west of Banff and on the slopes of Mount Whitehorn near Lake Louise.Finds of minerals - copper, coal, zinc and lead - in Bow River Valley led to the establishment, albeit short-lived, of mining camps. From 1881 to 1886 the mining town of Silver City existed at the foot of Castle Mountain, but when the copper supply became exhausted it quickly disappeared. Then coal was found 6 km (4 mi.) east of Banff, but the mine closed down around the turn of the century. A further example of a short-lived coal town is Bankhead 6 km (4 mi.) north of Banff. Coal was mined here for a few years after 1905; the remains of the settlement can still be seen today.
In the 1930s the authorities put a stop to the mining of minerals and commercial tree-felling in the park. Up to 1915 railroad workers and at times more than 10,000 miners seriously decimated the original giant herds of wild animals, including elk, mountain sheep, caribou and mountain goats, so hunting was banned and rangers employed. Today, however, the authorities try to interfere as little as possible in the natural way of things.
The folding and lifting of the Rocky Mountains took place over a period lasting from the Mesozoic into the Tertiary (roughly 60 million years ago). Under intense pressure from the west the massive layers of sediment, several thousand metres deep in places, were broken up and folded. Several parallel fractures occurred, whole strata were forced eastwards and semi-vertical layers of chalk and sandstone were formed. The main ridge of the mountains which form the western part of the National Park are made up of such layers of sediment which had been forced up and distorted; however, this region is only slightly folded compared with the Front Range which breaks off steeply to the east. The formation of the surfaces as seen today occurred mainly during the Ice Ages, the last push ending about 10,000 years ago. At that time great masses of ice filled the valleys, creating wide valley-floors, slopes, passes and sharp ridges. Wind, water, frost and ice still continue the work of the Ice Age glaciers.
The broad valleys and lower mountain slopes up to about 1500 m (5000 ft) display typical montane vegetation consisting of open forest - studded with grassy areas - of Douglas pine, silver fir, lodgepole pine and the aspen trees which turn such a beautiful gold in autumn. Steep, dry southern slopes are often carpeted with grass. Above this and up as far as the tree line at about 2200 m (7200 ft) is the sub-Alpine zone. No aspen trees will be found there. Characteristic of the lower slopes are self-contained coniferous forests of spruce and lodgepole pine. In the lower regions where there is considerable snowfall and a vegetation period of one to three months the pine trees gradually disappear. In summer the sub-Alpine mountain meadows are covered with carpets of flowers. The area of bent and distorted trees near the tree line is followed by the Alpine zone. Typical of the vegetation here, reminiscent of the Arctic tundra, are the shrubland, small bushes, heather, mountain flowers and grass, gradually to be replaced in the extreme environmental conditions by the well-suited mosses and lichens before naked rock, rubble and ice finally take over.
There are still more than fifty species of mammals to be found in the national parks of this rocky region. Large wild animals are most likely to be spotted in the early morning and the evening. Elk predominate in the damp meadows of the valleys, while forest caribou, roe-deer, wapiti deer and mule deer frequent the thicker woods and meadows. Mountain goats and thick-horned sheep are found on the higher mountain slopes.
The park is also home to grizzly bears. Normally they do not come near roads and towns. When walking in the "backcountry", however, it is wise to keep an eye open for them and for the more common black bear. The latter prefer wooded areas and thick undergrowth on the flat valley floors and sunny south-facing slopes, while grizzlies keep to the Alpine regions in summer but seek food lower down in spring and autumn. Under normal circumstances there is little likelihood of meeting a bear face to face. That said, grizzlies have been known to come right down to Moraine Lake, on one of the busiest walking paths, in the middle of the day with large groups of people around. These animals have poor sight but can smell or hear approaching humans long before they see them. Bears can be surprisingly quick, so on no account approach one. The park administration offices have leaflets on correct behaviour in "bearland". Feeding the bears is strictly prohibited, as this can spoil their natural way of life and make them less shy of people. During long walks and at camp sites, therefore, a close watch should be kept on foodstuffs and cosmetics, and they should be kept either in special bear-proof containers or securely packed in air-tight boxes in the boot of the car. For waste extra bear-proof rubbish-bins are provided. Scratch marks clearly caused by bears' claws should be a warning to take due care. For their own protection, bears found begging or looking for scraps in the vicinity of human habitation are taken into custody.
Address: 224 Banff Avenue, Box 900, Banff, AB T1L1K2, Canada
ENLARGE MAP PRINT MAP EMBED < > Banff National Park - Floor plan map Banff National Park Map

Lake Louise, Canada

Icefields Parkway

The Icefields Parkway is a scenic stretch of highway that runs from just west of Lake Louise to Jasper. The road follows a valley through huge mountains, and past emerald colored lakes.

Sunshine Region (Sunsine Village Ski Resort)

Winter at Sunshine Village, Banff National Park.
9 km (51/2 mi.) west of Banff, Sunshine Road branches south off the Trans-Canada Highway. A further 10 km (6 mi.) brings visitors to the lower station of the longest cable railway, or gondola as it is locally called - about 5000 m (16,400 ft) - in the Canadian Rockies (winter operation only). A twenty-minute ride takes them up to Sunshine Meadows, at the Sunshine Village Ski Resort. The area is a very inviting mountain region where some beautiful hill-walks can be enjoyed, such as that to Rock Isle Lake.
This region is particularly magnificent in summer, when the mountain flora is in full splendor. In winter Sunshine Village is a favorite skiing area. A small Interpretive Centre provides information about the topography, and nature walks start from here. A chair-lift goes up to Standish Peak on the continental watershed, which here forms the boundary with British Columbia. From the end of June to early September the Sunshine Inn guesthouse offers food and lodging.
Sunshine Village is one of the two leading ski resorts in Banff National Park, drawing skiers from all over the world. It offers a vast terrain suitable for all levels of ability.

Bow Valley Parkway

The 48 km (30 mi.) long Bow Valley Parkway to Lake Louise offers an alternative to the busy TransCanada Highway. Viewing points, camping and picnic sites as well as stopping-places with information boards make it possible to get to know the charming countryside of Bow Valley and to learn more about its geology and topography. Towering above it all is Castle Mountain, whose Eisenhower Peak is 2728 m (8950 ft) high.
The Bow Valley Parkway also offers a great chance to see some of the wildlife in Banff National Park.

Johnston Canyon

A view of Johnston Canyon in Banff National Park after a heavy snow fall in mid winter.
26 km (16 mi.) along the Bow Valley Parkway sees the start of a favorite path through Johnston Canyon with its two waterfalls.
A trail leads through the canyon with bridges along the steep cliff walls allowing visitors to get a feel for being in one of these unique canyons. The trail contiues on some 6 km (4 mi.) on the far side of the canyon, leading up to the Ink Pots, a group of springs of which two basins are particularly striking because of the bluish-green color of the water. Most visitors just stick to the lower level while those with more time and energy take on the more strenuous walk to the Ink Pots.
Johnston Canyon is an impressive site in both summer and winter, although it sees very few visitors outside of the summer season.

Lake Minnewanka

Looking out over Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park.
Lake Minnewanka ("Devil's Lake" in the Indian language), 11 km (7 mi.) north-east of Banff, is now the largest lake within the national park. Simpson, the Governor of Hudson's Bay Company, rested here in 1841. Along the banks of the lake an old Indian path leads by the edge of the rocky mountain range. Around the turn of the century a small health resort grew up here, but it was not until 1912 that the first dam was built which raised the level of the lake by three meters. When the mines at Bankhead closed the government decided to build a power station here to provide electricity for Banff. Then, in 1941, a further dam was built below the lake on Cascade River, which raised the water level of Lake Minnewanka by a further 25 m (82 ft). The lake became 8 km (5 mi.) longer, sinking the holiday resort, forests and all traces of the old trail. Now, between May and September, there are trips lasting two hours round the charmingly situated lake which is now some 20 km (13 mi.) long. On the trip it is often possible to spot thick-horned sheep, deer and black bear.
Lake Minnewanka is the only lake in the park on which motor-boats are allowed. It is worthwhile going on to Two Jack Lake - where canoes can be hired - and Johnson Lake. Swimming is possible in summer in the relatively calm lake. A fairly easy path leads round the lake.

Vermillion Lakes

Mount Rundle seen from Vermillion Lakes.
The Vermilion Lakes Drive is 11 km (7 mi.) long and leads to the three Vermilion Lakes west of the town of Banff. They lie in the floodplain of the Bow River and are a refuge for numerous waterfowl. Ornithologists come here to observe bald eagles, osprey and Canadian geese. With a little luck beavers and elk may also be spotted.
This is generally regarded as the best area of Banff National Park for migrant waterfowl. In the early spring it's possible to see Tundra Swans, Cinnamon Teal, Northern Shovelers, and White-winged and Surf Scoters, to name just a few. This is also a good area to spot bald eagles, which nest in the Vermillion Lakes area.
In the summer months the American Bittern, Red-necked Grebe,Pied-billed Grebe, Wood Duck, Barred Owl, and Pileated Woodpecker frequent the area. The birding season continues on through the fall and into early winter.

Mount Norquay Ski Area

After traveling for 61/2 km (4 mi.) along Mount Norquay Road, with its many hairpin bends, you come to the lower station of the chairlift, which goes up to Mount Norquay, 2135 m (7007 ft).
Mount Norquay, one of the three most popular ski hills in Banff National Park, has the added benefit of offering night skiing with lit trails, something not found at the other major ski resorts in the area. The hill offers skiing for all levels of ability and has made efforts to market itself as a family hill. Norquay is also the closest ski hill to the town of Banff.
Address: Box 1520, Banff, AB T1L1B4, Canada

Banff - River Rafting

River rafting is a popular sport and past time in the Canadian Rockies, with many operators based out of Banff. From June to the end of September a number of firms offer trips by rubber dinghy or raft on the Bow River, Kootenay River, and Kicking Horse River. These are the main rafting sites but there are also others in the vicinity. There are trips available for all levels of rafting. Spring is a popular time with fast running rivers. This is definitely the best time of year for people looking for a wild ride.


About 7 km (41/2 mi.) north-east of Banff Town site, on the narrow bending road to Lake Minnewanka, can be found the remains of the old coal-mining town of Bankhead, which enjoyed its heyday in the first half of this century. An instructive footpath - with boards displaying old photographs and explanatory notes - helps give an idea of what this ghost town was like.
Lower Bankhead is where the coal mine and plant were located and Upper Bankhead is the location of the former town.

Silver City

The only remnants of the old mining settlement of Silver City, 27 km (17 mi.) west of Banff, are a meadow and a sign.
Silver City was once home to a population of 3000. These were prospectors who had been led to believe the area held vast amounts of silver. In reality the area held only minimal amounts the mineral but promoters, hoping to get rich quick from the influx of people, had misled the public. The industry soon collapsed and Silver City became a ghost town.
The old town was located below Castle Mountain.

Helicopter Flights

Sightseeing trips by helicopter are popular with visitors to the Rockies. They are available by various tour operators in Banff. Walkers can be taken to the more remote valleys, for heli-hiking, as it's called. In winter skiers can try heli-skiing, where skiers are flown to regions where they can be sure of snow. It is also possible to take a helicopter flight just to see the mountains and lakes from the air.

Tunnel Mountain

Tunnel Mountain in Banff National Park.
It is worthwhile climbing Tunnel Mountain where hoodoos, unique pillar rock formations caused by erosion, can be seen and from where there is a breathtaking view out over the surroundings and the Fairmong Banff Springs.
A 2.3 km (1.4 mi) walking trail leads to the top of Tunnel Mountain and is only light to moderately strenuous. For those not interested in climbing the mountain, the best views of the Tunnel Mountain are from Tunnel Mountain Road.

Horse Riding

The impressive mountain country around Banff can also be explored on horseback. Guided tours lasting one or more days are also available.
This can be a great way to see the Rocky Mountains and the backcountry and is a good alternative to hiking for those experienced in horseback riding.
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