Founded in 1885 after the discovery of the Cave and Basin Hot Springs, Banff is Canada's first and most famous national park. It is home to an outstanding variety of geological and ecological features, like mountains, glaciers, icefields, lakes, alpine meadows, mineral hot springs, canyons, and hoodoos. The park is also well-known for having wildlife that is just as diverse. Visitors can encounter 53 species of mammals, including bighorn sheep, wolves, bears (black and grizzly), elk, coyotes, caribou, and even mountain lions.
The park was established in 1885 resolving a dispute about who discovered the hot springs in the area and who had a right to develop them for commercial gain. Rather than keep the fight alive, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald set aside the hot springs as a small, protected reserve. Under the Rocky Mountains Park Act, enacted on June 23, 1887, the park was expanded to 260 square miles and named Rocky Mountains Park. It was Canada's first national park, and the second established in North America (the first was Yellowstone National Park).
When to Visit
When you decide to go all depends on what you want to do while you’re there. The summer brings warm, sunny days perfect for hiking, biking, camping, and climbing, while the winter offers snow for activities like tracking, skating, and alpine or nordic skiing. Keep in mind, the winter brings a high chance for wind chill, but don’t let that hinder your visit.
Also be sure to remember, the length of the day in Banff varies greatly throughout the year. For example, in December, there can be as little as 8 hours of daylight. And by the end of June, the sun rises at 5:30 a.m. and sets at 10 p.m.
Banff National Park is located in the province of Alberta in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. There are several major highways (how to get there from Vancouver) you can take, including Trans-Canada Highway (#1) which runs west from Calgary into the park; Icefields Parkway (#93) which runs between Lake Louise and Jasper Townsite; Radium / Invermere Highway; and Bow Valley Parkway (#1A).
For those visitors flying into the area, Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver all have international airports for your convenience.
Lake Louise: This glacial lake was named after Princess Louise Caroline Alberta and is famous for its stunning emerald water that reflects the surrounding glaciers that formed it. The eastern shore of the lake is home to Chateau Lake Louise, one of Canada's luxury railway hotels, and the lake itself is well-known for the hamlet Lake Louise. The hamlet is made up of two separate communities: The Village and Samson Mall.
Banf Gondola: Take 8 minutes out of your day for one of the best panoramic views of the park you could ever imagine. You will travel to the top of Sulphur Mountain at an elevation of 7,495 feet where you can see the surrounding peaks, Lake Minnewanka, the Town of Banff and the Bow Valley stretching from east to west.
Upper Hot Springs: This 1930s heritage bathhouse has been restored to include all the amenities of a modern spa. Enjoy a steam, massage, or other wellness treatment while taking in the views of the alpine. It’s open year-round and includes a cafe, gift shop, and children’s wading pool.
Banff Park Museum: Built in 1903 by the Natural History Branch of the Geological Survey of Canada, the museum showcases the diverse wildlife in a different way: preserved by taxidermy. It is open on weekends from October through May, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. During the summer and early fall (from mid-May to mid-October), the museum is open Wednesday to Sunday, and Holiday Mondays from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Prices range from $3-$4 and youths under 17 get in free. Call 403-762-1558 for more information.
Camping is a great way to stay in Banff and Parks Canada offers 13 campgrounds that are perfect for those looking to get away. Summer camping begins in early May, with all campgrounds open by mid to late June, and close throughout September and October. Winter camping is also available at Tunnel Mountain Village II and Lake Louise Campground. Remember, campers must purchase a camping permit at the campground kiosk or at the self-registration kiosk. Check online for what sites may be right for you or call 877-737-3783.
For those not interested in camping, there are many lodges, hotels, condos, and bed & breakfasts to choose from. Try Brewster’s Shadow Lake Lodge for a luxurious backcountry lodge experience, or A Villa With a View for a comfortable bed and breakfast stay. The Banff-Lake Louise Tourism site will give you an insight at what accommodations you can choose from and which offer exactly what you’re looking for.
Areas of Interest Outside the Park
Jasper National Park: Established in 1907, this is the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies. The park includes the glaciers of the Columbia Icefield, numerous hot springs, lakes, waterfalls, mountains, and a large variety of wildlife. It’s a great place to hike, camp, and enjoy a relaxing retreat. Call 780-852-6162 for more information.
Cave and Basin National Historic Site: Visit the birthplace of Banff National Park! This was the place where the natural hot springs drew tourism and led to the construction of Banff Springs - a luxury destination for those seeking healing spring. The site is open daily mid-May through mid-October from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. During the late fall and winter, it's open Wednesday to Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call 403-762-1566 for more information.
Kootenay National Park: Located in the southwestern area of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, this national park is as diverse as they come. One minute you can see spectacular glaciers and the next you can stroll through the semi-arid grasslands of the Rocky Mountain Trench, where cactus grows! If you like backcountry camping, climbing, fishing, or swimming, this park offers a unique way to do just that. E-mail or call 250-347-9505 for more information.