Have you ever wanted to sell everything you own and just "take off?" Travel the country's back roads, paddle down a meandering stream, experience breath-taking mountain views, walk among 100-year old trees, and just marvel at America's beauty? That is the dream that my partner, Betsy, and I decided to make a reality. This blog describes our adventure. The food we eat, people we meet, sights we see, and the enjoyment we find in traveling.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Banff National Park in Alberta

Ah, the glorious Canadian Rockies.  Banff National Park (NP) is the embodiment of the Canadian Rockies cloaked in their snow-capped rugged mountain splendor splashed with mysterious emerald lakes.  Banff NP covers 6,641 square kilometers of this incredible part of the world rich in geologic history and wildlife magnificence.  The park’s striking wonders and scenes are virtually the same as what greeted explorers, mountain climbers, and adventurers when they descended on this area over 100 years ago. 

A look down Banff Avenue
“Banff” (which is also the name of the largest town in the NP) is derived from the town of “Banffshire” in Scotland.  The name was given by two of the original directors of the Canadian Pacific Railways which herald from the Scottish town.  And speaking of railways…that is precisely what gave birth to the park that now sees visitors from all reaches of the world.  The park’s history goes back to three dusty railway workers that stumbled upon a series of hot springs (in the present-day Sulphur Mountain area).  Two years later in 1885 as the transcontinental railway was nearing completion the Prime Minister John A. Macdonald acknowledged the country’s desire for national parks and Cave and Basin hot springs became the first protected reserve.  Macdonald had to act fast as others saw dollar signs associated with the hot springs and were anxious to develop a commercial venture sure to attract rail-riding tourists.  Soon after Cave and Basin National Historic Site (NHS) was established, the park grew exponentially and became known as Rocky Mountains Park of Canada.  Later is was renamed to Banff National Park and with the railroad in place, people flocked to the area.

We filled our days by visiting some of the historic sites and museums, as well as, hiking.  A few weeks back when we first entered Canada, we bought a Discovery Pass that allows entry to all NP's in Canada.  What a great buy - for $157 the pass is good for a year and covers over 200 parks and historic sites.  Our first stop was Cave and Basin NHS to get a look at the birthplace of Canada’s National Parks.  It is interesting to think that the vast system of Canadian National Park's grew from a hot springs - but you have to start somewhere.  The hot springs was a welcoming place for people looking for a hot bath and/or to cure ailments.  Water (in the form of a raindrop or snowflake) percolates deep through the earth where it becomes heated and picks up dissolved concentrations of mineral.  Decades, or even centuries, later it makes its way back to the earths surface and into thermal pools with the distinctive smell and warmth of hot springs.

Thermal pools are not just a source of warm sulphur water but home to the Banff Springs
Snail - an endangered species that lives in the warm waters.  
In the 1920’s people arrived by rail and close to 66,000 people swam in the warm water.  The number of visitors swelled to nearly 157,000 visitors in the 1960’s and crowded the pool.  Despite the popularity the pool was closed in 1976 due to health reasons.  (Duh, warm water with thousands of people bathing in it!  Yuk!)  The pool reopened once again but shortly after was closed permanently.  Today there is a visitor center and trails guiding people around the historic site.  

The two historic belvederes are an impressive site and also functional.  They provided a place for people to sunbathe on the top while taking in a beautiful view of the mountains and offered shade for people lounging underneath. 
A view from the belvedere shows the pool deck and where the pool
used to be.
History and development of Cave and Basin NHS is told through a variety of exhibits in the remodeled historic buildings. 
Downtown Banff is a vibrant community nestled in the park boundary and is a hub of activity. The town of approximately 8,000 swells throughout the year as nearly 4 million visitors descend upon it. Downtown you will find plenty of lodging, shopping, restaurants, relaxing parks, and museums.  A quick trip to the Banff Park Museum is a great way to see all Banff’s wildlife up-close and personal and safely (as they are all taxidermy mounts).  The Museum building is a National Historical Site and the oldest natural history museum in western Canada.  And if you like to see dead stuff, this is the place in Banff for you.


If you are wandering around downtown, pop into the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies.  Here you can admire some of the artwork of the Rockies and peruse the Gateway to the Rockies Heritage Gallery. The museum admission is by donation so you can entertain yourself for an hour or so pretty cheaply.  The museum is more than just artwork and really comes alive in the Heritage Gallery which communicates the exploration and history of the Rockies via interactive exhibits using artifacts, recordings, and dioramas.  Betsy originally passed on a visit to the museum but after I told her how interesting it was she gave it a look and really liked it.

The museum has a helicopter that was used by Hans Gmoser - the "Father of "Heli-skiing."  In 1965, he and a pilot friend Jim Davies flew the helicopter to glacier peaks which gave birth to a new industry for thrill seekers.

We chose to stay in Village II in the Tunnel Mountain campground which proved to be great access to town (about two miles) and hiking trails.  There is a loop trail that wraps around the large campground complex and a couple of other trails that lead to waterfalls and hoodoos.

After seeing hoodoos in Bryce Canyon NP in Utah, we decided to give the Hoodoo Trail a look.  Let me just say, there is quite a difference (the little hoodoo is visible in the lower left side of the picture).  While the hoodoo is not all that spectacular, the scenery on the whole is.

When Betsy suggested we visit the falls in Johnson Canyon, I was game.  The drive down the densely forested Bow Valley Parkway is a great contrast from the bustling Trans-Canada HWY that runs parallel to it.  A word of advice - if you want to see the falls, go early.  As in 6 a.m. early because this place fills up quickly.  The trail has a series of cat walks that have you dangling over the rushing water and clinging to the canyon walls.  We loved the trail and scenery but the mobs of people we encountered on our way back got a little crazy.  It doesn't help that there is a gift shop and restaurant at the trailhead.

Spirit was a trooper on the walk but didn't think much of the catwalks.
We had a great time in Banff and four days flew by.  It was a nice introduction to Banff NP which we will continue to explore as we head to Lake Louise.  Stay tuned for more incredible Canadian scenery. 


  1. Beautiful! Banff is on my list of places I want to visit. It's going to have to go on the 2014 list at this point though!

  2. Love Banff ... went there in 2007 for a week and loved every minute of our time there. But we still have a lot of places to see ... three of which you mentioned at the top of your post ... as good a reason as any to go back.


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