Banff – Canada’s First National Park

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Banff National Park Hostels

By: Bob Kenyon

Johnsone CanyonPhoto: Johnson Canyon, Banff
Bob Kenyon ©2006

Banff is the oldest of Canada’s National Parks and possible the best known. Located on the western edge of the province of Alberta, it was established in 1885, twenty years before Alberta became a province. It is part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site which is a United Nations designation that includes Jasper, Kootenay and Yoho National Parks, plus adjacent B.C. provincial parks: Hamber, Mount Robson and Mount Assiniboine. This area helps protect over 20,000 sq. km (7,700 sq. miles) of the Rocky Mountains. Many visitors to Banff also travel east to Canmore and Alberta’s Kananaskis Country, for more mountain experiences.

Banff offers great camping, hiking, backpacking, cycling, climbing and horse trail riding opportunities, as well as spectacular scenery. The town of Banff with its cosmopolitan atmosphere, with upscale art galleries, restaurants and shopping, and its close proximity, to the southern Alberta metropolitan area of ; is much more commercial than it’s northern neighbour Jasper.

Photo: Banff from top of Sulphur Mountain
Bob Kenyon ©2017

For a bird’s eye view of Banff and the Bow valley, with Mount Rundle, the landmark peak of Banff; then you should take a trip up the Banff Gondola up Sulphur Mountain, which operates daily, with occasional shutdowns for maintenance and closed Christmas Day.

A short but steep hike, from the top of Sulfur Mountain, will take you to the Sulphur Mountain, Cosmic Ray Station, National Historic Site of Canada. The original laboratory, that is no longer there, was built for International Geophysical Year, during 1957 to 1958. Canada constructed nine sites to study cosmic rays, but this site in particular was the most important due to its higher elevation.

After coming back down the gondola, on Sulphur Mountain, go over to the neighbouring Upper Hot Spring, for a warm sulfur water soak. A soak in the pool is also well appreciated after a hard day of summer climbing, cycling, paddling, scrambling or trekking. For downhill, cross country skiers, in Winter, the pool makes for great “apres ski activity!

Down in the town at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site visitors can go into the cave and see the sulfur springs that were found, by workers on the Canadian Pacific Railroad. The spring was the basis for the park originally being designated.

Photo: Cascade Mountain from Banff Avenue
Bob Kenyon ©2017

The town of Banff offers excellent accommodations ranging from hostels, bed and breakfast, luxury hotels and rustic cabins, with reservations being recommended.

For those wishing to camp, there are two excellent full serviced (and large) National Park campgrounds, near the town at Tunnel Mountain and Two Jack Lake. There is also a campground at Lake Louise and at several campgrounds going north on the Ice Fields Parkway.

During the summer months, sites in campgrounds in Banff are at a premium and it is suggested that campers should use Parks Canada’s online Campground Reservation Service. Travelers using hotels, motels, hostels and bed and breakfast are also encouraged to make reservations.

If you like seeing museums, then don’t miss the displays of wildlife and aboriginal cultures at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies,Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum, Banff Park Museum National Historic Site and the Banff Centre for Mountain Culture. The Banff Centre, is also the home of the world renowned Banff Film and Book Festivals, that runs late October and early November each year.

By road, Banff is best reached by the #1 Trans-Canada Highway, coming west through Alberta (Calgary), or east via the Roger’s and Kicking Horse passes from Yoho, Glacier & Mount Revelstoke National Parks. In Yoho, be sure to stop at the famous Spiral Tunnel to see the railroad engineering marvel, as tunnels have been cut through the mountains to allow trains to gain easier elevation.

The tunnels go through Mt. Stephen, under the Trans-Canada Highway, across the Kicking Horse River and into the Lower Spiral Tunnel in Mt. Ogden. It spirals to the left up inside the mountain for 891-m and emerges 15-m higher. The train then crosses back over the Kicking Horse River, under the highway a second time and into the 991-m tunnel in Cathedral Mountain.

Another excellent route, from the east, is via Alberta’s David Thompson Highway, which begins west of Red Deer about half way between Calgary and Edmonton. It enters the Ice Fields Parkway in the north of Banff at Saskatchewan River Crossing.

Many travelers wanting to do a circle route, travel the Ice Fields Parkway between both Banff and Jasper. On this route there are many exceptional sites for stopping for a tour, hike, including the Columbia Icefields, Peyto Lake, Bow Lake, Crowfoot Glacier and the Jewel of the Canadian Rockies…Lake Louise. These spots are reasons to always have a camera, while in the Canadian Rockies.

While at Lake Louise take one of the side trips to either the top of big beehive, (stop at the lake Agnes Tea House) or Mt. Fairview (both strenuous). These two treks provide spectacular views of the lake and the glacier that feeds it.

The Lake Louise area is a day hiker’s heaven, which includes day trips to Larch Valley, Sentinel Pass, Paradise Valley, Eiffel Lake, Wenkchemna Pass, Consolation Lakes, Plain of the Six Glaciers and the Saddleback.

Other notable day hikes, in northern Banff, are Dolomite Pass (with spectacular views of the Crowfoot Glacier). Longer hikes, that can also be used for pack packing, are North and South Molar Passes and Glacier Lake.

There are also many good overnight and multi day backpack trips in the park, which include Sunset Pass, Nigel Pass, Pipestone Pass, Howse Pass, Boulder Pass, Skoki Valley and Fish Lakes. Closer to the town of Banff, a good 2 – 3 night trek goes from the Sunshine Village ski area, to the Trans-Canada Highway, via Healy Pass and a series of high passes and valleys.

Just north of the Banff park boundary, in south end of Jasper, hikers will find the trail heads for two spectacular views of the Columbia Ice Fields, with Wilcox Pass and Parkers Ridge. During the summer, in the high meadows of Wilcox Pass you will often find big horn sheep rams grazing. For a chilly night of tent or trailer camping and a high mountain experience, try the Wilcox Campground, south of the Ice Fields Interpretive Centre.

For overnight, back country treks, permits are required, from the park office and can be difficult to acquire do to the quota system. Dogs are not allowed in the back country, of the National Parks, nor are open fires. Always check with the park office for trail closures and other regulations prior to departure.

Anglers and and fly fishing enthusiasts will really enjoy Banff but you need to have National Park fishing permit and motor boats are not allowed. You also have to be aware of catch limits and many anglers practice catch and release, but it’s also great to keep one for the pan.

Travelers into Banff’s back country should be trained in map and compass use, proper gear, clothing, food storage/disposal and experience and bear avoidance skills are mandatory!

The roads in Banff are great for bicycle travel, but can be steep. There is also excellent rail, bus any many bus tour companies provide service throughout the western Canadian mountain parks areas.

Like most mountain resorts, winter means a totally new season of activities, with downhill skiing being very good in Banff at Sunshine, Mt. Norquay and Lake Louise. Winter time in Banff also provides excellent opportunities for x-country skiing, snowshoeing and, for the experienced, ice climbing. Worldwide experienced, ice climbers go to the weeping wall, north of Saskatchewan Crossing. For a real winter experience, try a professionally guided ice walk, in the bottom of one of the frozen canyons.

Temperatures in Banff can range with the highest being 34.4 C (July 17, 1941, Banff), and the lowest -52.8 C (January 25, 1950, Lake Louise). Average summer high temperatures are 18 to 22 C and average winter high temperatures are -7 to 0 C.

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