Whenever Canada is mentioned, one of the first places that springs to mind is Banff. The soaring peaks, dense coniferous forests and abundant wildlife in one stunning region make it a Canadian institution. The Banff town site sits within Banff National Park, Canada's oldest and most spectacular heritage site. Home to many of the nation's most famous landmarks, densely populated with wildlife and full of opportunities for relaxation and adventure, Banff is Canada's ambassador to the world and one of the country's most-visited tourist attractions.
Banff is 100 kilometres west of Calgary and sits in the first range of the Eastern Slope Rocky Mountains. The landscape is rugged, consisting of towering black mountains, deep blue and white glaciers and alpine tundra. The valley bottoms are densely carpeted with spruce and pine trees, and fast-flowing rivers churn through their centers.
Almost all the people and animals in Banff live in these river valleys, most of which are less than a mile wide. Banff is home to black and grizzly bears, whitetail and mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep and mountain goats. Some people visit Banff just to see the animals as they are easy to observe and fairly docile. Of course, as with most wildlife, it is best to bother the animals as little as possible.
The city of Banff is relatively tiny, squeezed into a narrow mountain valley and bisected by the Bow River. Nearly all the restaurants and businesses in town are crammed onto three blocks of
A kilometer or so northwest of town are the Vermilion Lakes, a small chain of marshy ponds with walking trails that allow for picturesque strolls, summer or winter. The deserted airstrip lies across the Trans-Canada Highway, along with the Cascade Ponds and Lake Minnewanka. This area is popular with hikers in the summer, but should be avoided in the winter, as there may be icefalls from the steep slopes above.
To the north is
The town of Canmore is a 15-minute drive to the east of Banff, just outside the park boundaries. This small mountain community received international attention in 1988 when it hosted the Winter Olympics Nordic skiing events at the Canmore Nordic Centre. Since then, it has become a popular spot for athletes to train, because of both the high altitude and excellent facilities. There are many hotels and shops in Canmore that rival those in Banff, and a great many tour companies that operate in the park are based here. Canmore is a great place to find the down-home local culture that is sometimes lacking in Banff. With lower food and housing prices, Canmore is home for many Banff business owners, as well as a center of late-night activity during the summer. Canmore's dramatic mountain backdrop and easy access to the back-country has made it an ideal location for shooting Hollywood mountain movies. The actors can often be seen wandering around the downtown area and hanging out with the locals.
Getting to Banff is quite easy. The park is an easy two-hour drive from the airport in Calgary, and many Banff hotels offer airport shuttle service. If you are planning to drive to Banff, which requires driving through the park, make sure to purchase a parks pass from the kiosk on the Trans Canada Highway in Canmore. If you are caught without a pass in the park, you could receive a ticket and fine. Parks personnel often check vehicles in ski area parking lots, so it is better to spend CAD10 on the pass than face a hefty fine.
Camping areas are scattered throughout the park, from commercial campgrounds with showers and cooking areas to wilderness campsites that are little more than a clearing in the trees. If you intend to camp, be sure to check with Parks Canada to ensure that the area you are heading into is safe and that there are vacant sites available. Fees for camping in Parks Canada campgrounds range from CAD10-CAD25 per night.
The first people to occupy Banff were Native Americans who arrived in the Bow River Valley nearly 11,000 years ago, just as the last Ice Age was coming to an end. The winter climate was mild due to the chinooks (strong, warm winds that rush out of the mountains and onto the prairie in the middle of the winter), so they settled in the protected mountain valleys, and enjoyed the abundance of fish and wildlife. Over time, they developed into the Cree, Kootenay and Blackfoot tribes, who coexisted in relative peace for the next 9,900 years. In the late 1700s, a smallpox epidemic washed over the Great Plains, killing half the native population and seriously weakening the survivors. Buffalo hunters had also reduced the thundering herds to a mere trickle, eventually eradicating a major source of food. Territorial conflicts broke out among the tribes, who had received horses and firearms from trading partners to the east. Soon, there were rumours of European traders and missionaries began arriving and explorers began to trickle into the area. Most of the travelers were employed by the Hudson's Bay Company, and were seeking new areas to trap and trade furs. Fur trading and mining exploration remained the primary activities in the region until the 1850s, when surveying expeditions, including the famous Palliser Expedition, came to chart the Southern Rockies and northwestern prairies. Their maps were used in the definition of the emerging country of Canada, and would prove vital in later years for defining the route of the Canadian National Railroad, which would eventually link the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, and provide a vital trade link between Europe and the Orient. In 1883, the Canadian National Railroad was pushed through the Rocky Mountain ramparts via the Bow River Valley, passing close to the present day Banff townsite. During the construction of the railroad, three construction workers were exploring the slopes of nearby Sulphur Mountain when they stumbled across a collection of small hot springs bubbling out of the rock. A heated debate erupted over the ownership of the springs, which would later be known as the Cave and Basin National Historic Site.
The Government of Canada finally stepped in and designated the springs, as well as the 673-square-kilometre area surrounding them, as the country's first national park. It was called the Rocky Mountains Park, and instantly became popular with travelers on the railroad, which had a station called Siding 29 nearby. Siding 29 quickly became the birthplace for the town of Banff, and the jumping-off point for the newly constructed lodgings, which are known today as the Fairmont Banff Springs. The hotel underwent many renovations between 1888 and 1926, and evolved from a spartan wooden hut to the palatial structure present today. It became a tourist attraction in its own right, drawing European aristocracy with its mineral springs and revitalizing spa, as well as luxury seldom found elsewhere in North America. With the hotel came Banff's tourism era. The Canadian Pacific Railway Corporation, which owned both the Fairmont Banff Springs and the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, imported Swiss mountain guides to take visitors up to the ice fields and onto the highest peaks surrounding the town. The Mount Norquay Ski Hill opened in 1928, and was soon joined by the Sunshine Village and Lake Louise ski areas. With an explosion in the popularity of downhill skiing and the construction of the Trans-Canada Highway in 1962, getting to Banff became easy and relatively inexpensive. The growing town eventually ran out of room for new buildings. Real estate prices soared, and it became uneconomical to live and work in Banff at the same time. Many local business owners and employees moved to the nearby town of Canmore, which soon developed into a destination in its own right. To prevent Banff from becoming overcrowded, the notorious “need to reside” law was passed in the 1960s, which stated that no person could live in Banff unless he or she was employed in the city. Recently, Banff was hit by different kind of overpopulation problem. Wild local elk discovered that the golf courses and lawns made an excellent source of food, and that no predator would venture after them. They quickly took over, and, at their peak, it was estimated that there were over 100 elk within the city limits. There were several attacks on tourists and locals, which resulted in a mass relocation in the summer of 2000 that has appeared to resolve the situation. Currently, Banff is a thriving resort destination with dozens of hotels, restaurants and shops, and an exceptional expanse of wilderness and adventure activities. Modeled after the mountain villages of the Alps, it attracts an international clientele unmatched anywhere else in Canada.
Lodgings are abundant in Banff. The winter season is quite busy however, so it is best to make reservations at least a month in advance. Accommodation choices run the gamut from the famous Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel penthouse, which has been sheltering royalty and celebrities beneath its spired pillars for over a century, to a local hostel, where you might share your room with a rowdy crowd of drunken Australian surfers.
For the very best in Banff living quarters, the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel has been around longer than the park or even the town itself, and has played a crucial role in the development of both. The Springs is quite expensive and always in high demand; reservations should be made up to six months in advance. With several restaurants and lounges, ballrooms, a spa, and many other entertainment choices, it is possible to stay quite busy in Banff and never leave the hotel. Perched on the lower slopes of Sulphur Mountain, the hotel is also very close to the Upper Hot Springs and commands a magnificent view of Mount Rundle.
If you don't have CAD600 to spend on a bed for the night, one of the downtown hotels might suit you well. Lining Banff Avenue for almost a kilometer, the hotel strip represents most upper-end chains, as well as a host of independent local operators. Most of these hotels have rooms in the CAD150-CAD250 price range. There are also a couple of inexpensive motels tucked away in the woods at the very north end of town, where a room can be had for less than CAD90 per night.
If you want to get away from the bright lights of the city, the Norquay's Timberline Inn offers one of the best views in the park from its perch on the lower slopes of Banff Mount Norquay. You can ski to your doorstep, and with the attached restaurant and lounge, you need not descend into the valley at all. The beautiful Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is located about 50 kilometers north of Banff, on the banks of Lake Louise, a UNESCO Heritage Site, which sits on the edge of the dozen jagged mountains featured on Canadian dollar 20 bills. The Chateau is comparable in luxury and grandeur to the Fairmont Banff Springs, but receives less attention due to its isolated location.
If you want to be near town while still remaining close to nature, the Tunnel Mountain Chalets may be the answer. Located on the flank of Tunnel Mountain about three kilometres from downtown, these hotels have an excellent view of the Bow River Valley and peaks that loom over the neighboring town of Canmore. The Buffalo Mountain Lodge and the Banff Alpine Center share a clearing along the Tunnel Mountain Road, close to easy hiking trails and spectacular views. These hotels are much less expensive than their downtown brethren, and offer shuttle services to most downtown attractions and local ski hills.
For those with shallower pockets, Banff's sister town of Canmore, a 10-minute drive to the east, has a number of exceptional accommodation choices available at a fraction of Banff prices. Most of the Canmore hotels have shuttle services which transport guests into Banff for the nightlife, as well as out to the ski hills during the winter.
While harder to find than the big hotels, there are dozens of bed and breakfasts and small lodges scattered throughout the residential districts of Banff and Canmore. These run the gauntlet from one-bedroom units to fully appointed luxury suites. Depending on the location and quality of service, they can either be very expensive (up to CAD300 per night,) or very reasonable (less than CAD50 per night) in the off season. Staying at a B&B also has its advantages in that you get to personally know your hosts, who will give you advice on the best deals and entertainment options available in town. If you find yourself strapped for cash or cannot get a reservation in time, there are two hostels in town. The Banff Y Mountain Lodge at the south end of the bridge over the Bow River has 300 beds available to all manner of travellers. The Banff Alpine Center has 260 beds, as well as an excellent restaurant and information center.
There are several government and privately-operated campgrounds in the park as well. If you plan on staying in a campground, make sure to visit the Banff Information Center, which is located half-way down Banff Avenue, to inquire as to the latest campground conditions and to reserve a space.
Banff is a town centered around the art of hospitality, and nowhere is it more apparent than in their hotels. They take great pains to ensure that every guest is well taken care of, and the Banff Chamber of Commerce regularly inspects every place of lodging to ensure that it meets their stringent standards. Wherever you stay, you can be assured of a fine night's rest and exceptional service.
With spectacular and stunning beauty, Banff and the surrounding area is a perfect place to explore nature's beauty, both in winter and summer. A large number of touring companies have sprung up to cater to those who want more than great skiing and snowboarding in Banff. From classic to more extreme tours, whether it's for 2 hours or 2 weeks, there is a guided tour to suit every taste.
For hiking, White Mountain Adventures provides comfortable walks as well as more strenuous hikes. People who want to take it easy but also want a long hike should check out the Canadian Rockies Tour while hardcore hikers may enjoy the Rockwall Highline Hike offering a more intense trip. To get up close and personal with glaciers without expending any effort, try Columbia Icefield Snocoach Tours where a specially equipped vehicle drives you onto the glaciers themselves. Or for a different kind of water tour, take a Lake Minnewanka Boat Tour where heated boats show off the majesty of Lake Minnewanka.
Canadian Ski Museum West
Exploring downtown Banff might best be done by simply wandering around this beautiful town nestled in the mountains. With an area of less than one square mile, it is easy to hit every nook and cranny. For those who just want to hit the highlights, make sure to spend time on Banff Avenue. Amble down Banff Avenue stopping in at specialty stores abound. Skiing enthusiasts should check out Canadian Ski Museum West to get a sense of local ski history as well as the development of skiing through the ages. Continue down Banff Avenue and if you are feeling out of contact with the world, stop in at the Cyber Web Cafe to check the news online or send some emails. Take some time to explore the area around the intersection of Banff Avenue and Caribou Street. There are excellent eateries such as the always busy Evelyn's Coffee Bar, Aardvark Pizza and Sub , or Pump and Tap Tavern for some British fare and a happy hour starting at 1pm. But save room for dessert because the Fudgery serves up fudge, caramel apples, and a number of other sweet treats. Continue down Banff Avenue and stop in at Kabin Fever for traditional souvenirs of the t-shirt and postcard variety.
Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies
Art buffs should take a right on Buffalo Street to Bear Street and check out the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies for a celebration of Rocky Mountain heritage. Cross the water and turn right on Cave Avenue. Stop in at the Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum to learn about the Plains Indians. Farther down Cave Avenue is Cave and Basin National Historic Site with caves, springs, and wildlife, a great place to spend an afternoon wandering the trails, if it isn't too cold that is!
There are plenty of touring companies that offer tours of the various activities one can part take in any time of the season. Plus, Banff National Park is open all year round, so be sure to check out the offered tours of the national historic sites found there.
Banff National Park Tours
Banff National Park ( +1 403 762 1550 / http://www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/ab/banff/activ/index_e.asp )
Discover Banff Tours ( +1 403 760 7629 / http://www.discoverbanfftours.com/season.php?type=winter )
Discover Banff Tours ( +1 403 760 7629/ http://www.discoverbanfftours.com/season.php?type=summer )
Banff Transportation and Tours ( + 1 403 762 8400/ http://www.banfftransportation.com/index.htm )
Raft the Kicking Horse River
Banff Adventures Unlimited ( + 1 403 762 4554 / http://www.banffadventures.com/adv_wknds.html )