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Banff Travel Guide

Banff is the most popular destination in the Rockies, home to some of the world’s most breathtaking sceneries. This resort town is actually more like an alpine village, thanks to building restrictions and its cramped location between mountains. Banff is situated about 113 kilometers (70 miles) west of Calgary along the Trans-Canada Highway at the heart of Banff National Park. The town serves as the park’s main center for civilization. That means restaurants, accommodations, entertainment, and the starting point for trails, tours, and treks.[1]

Most travelers like to kill two birds with one stone, visiting both Banff and its counterpart town, Jasper, on the same trip. Jasper is a way’s away though. It is about 180 miles north of Banff along the Yellowhead Highway inside of Jasper National Park. Both towns are linked by the Icefields Parkway, which spans 145 miles between Lake Louise and Jasper. It is considered one of the most scenic drives in the world. The journey takes four hours of driving, but it is recommended that you set aside an entire day, so that sightseeing along the way can be done. Animals often wander into the road as well, which may result in a drive of stops and starts.[2]

In the summer, Banff becomes a busy tourist destination. If you don’t enjoy the crowds, it is better to visit in the spring or autumn when the roads and towns are less packed. Banff National Park offers a wealth of outdoor opportunities for the fit and active. We’re talking trails for walks and hikes, mountains for climbs, river and lakes for fishing and sailing, and thick powdery snow in the winter for skiing.[3]

The climate in Banff National Park really varies depending on the season and altitude. The higher you go up the mountains, the colder it gets. Even in July, it is essential that you pack a set of warm clothes in that holiday luggage.[4]

The fauna and flora at Banff is diverse. The park is full of wildlife. Black and grizzly bears, mountain goats, moose, bighorn sheep, and chipmunks are just a few that come to mind. Signs are up everywhere in the park reminding visitors not to feed the animals. Heed the advice. It is for their good. Also, keep a distance away from them. Some animals are wild, dangerous, and unpredictable, even when they seem innocuous and at ease with people. Park authorities, in fact, impose heavy fines on visitors caught feeding the animals.[5]

Even though the site was explored in the 1840’s by the Hudson’s Bay Company, the town of Banff was not settled until the 1880’s after the transcontinental railway passed through the Bow Valley. After natural hot springs were discovered in the mid-1880s as railway workers were laying some tracks, the area around the town was designated as a national park and promoted as an international resort and spa to help support the new railway; to further this billing, Canadian Pacific Railway built the now storied Banff Springs Hotel, a summer resort that quickly became synonymous with the word “luxury”. Guests from far and wide came to enjoy the hotel’s beautiful golf course and venture the trips and excursions organized by the employees. Every whim was catered for. The town quickly grew as a result and the park’s boundaries were soon expanded.[6]

Today, Banff sits at the heart of a vast park measuring 2,600 square miles or 6,640 square kilometers in area. It is the first and only incorporated municipality within a national park in Canada.[7] In 1984, Banff and its national park were designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.[8]

Banff lies in the Bow River valley about 16 kilometers from the gates of Banff National Park. It is tucked close to the base of Cascade Mountain and shadowed by snowcapped peaks from all sides. As the hub of Banff National Park, the town has everything a traveler needs. Banff is the starting point of horseback rides, multiple-day hikes, bike excursions, and any other outdoor pursuit the mind can imagine. There is a reason it is Canada’s favorite year-round resort. Walking trails originate from the town to many points in the park not accessible by car. Even the most intrepid and the most timorous will find something they’ll enjoy doing. The park, however, is huge and transportation will be required if you want to visit many of the top attractions, unless you enjoy long-distance hiking.[9]

Banff is small, but gets jam-packed during the peak season in July and August. During this time of year, parking becomes a headache. The town’s main street, Banff Avenue, gets quite claustrophobic in and around its line of shops and restaurants.[10]

Banff Park Museum
Banff Park Museum at 93 Banff Avenue occupies a Victorian building made of wood. On display are old-fashioned stuffed animals and various birds from the national park. The museum is the only place where the park’s birds can be studied up close. A section of the building is taken up by a reference library where information about the area can be read up.[11]

Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum at 112 Banff Avenue is on the same road as the Banff Park Museum, just a little further up. The museum looks at the geological formation of the Rockies through audio-visual displays and teaches about the early life forms in the area. You’ll also find exhibits on dinosaurs, a recreated abominable snowman, and a model of the Sasquatch.[12]

Luxton Museum
The Luxton Museum is located at 1 Birch Avenue in the south part of town near the Bow River. Housed in a reinforced log building, the museum has displays and photographs of the different Indian tribes of Alberta. Items and artifacts such as clothing and craftwork are showcased.[13]

Whyte Museum
The Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies is located at 111 Bear Street. The museum does not have a singular theme. It has models of historical log cabins, a gallery of paintings and sculptures of the Rocky Mountains, and a library with archived material. On weekend afternoons, tea is served by the fireside. The museum is open every day from May to October, but closed for half the week during the other months.[14]

Banff Centre
The Banff Centre is the cultural center of the town. Located on St. Julien Road near downtown, the Banff Centre has one of the top schools for dance, arts, theatre, music, writing, and visual arts in North America. It is an entertainment throughout the year, especially during the summer when the Banff Festival of the Arts is held. This lively arts program features presentations made by both students and professionals.[15]

Cave and Basin Hot Springs
The Cave and Basin Hot Springson on Cave Avenue south of downtown is the site of the original hot sulphur springs discovered by the railroad workers in 1883. Their discovery prompted Canadian Pacific Railway to build a spa surrounding it. The spa has since been restored to its original 1914 style. The pool area at the Cave and Basin Centennial Centre is a great place to relax, while the interpretive center is a great place to learn about the history of the area. The hot springs is open every day of the year. The pool is open only in the summers.[16]

Upper Hot Springs Pool
The Upper Hot Springs Pool is outside of Banff atop Mountain Avenue. It offers even warmer spring waters than the Cave and Basin Hot Springs. Temperatures are about 40°C. Visitors can enjoy swimming in the outdoor pool while in view of the glorious mountains.[17]

Sulphur Mountain Gondola
The Sulphur Mountain Gondola is right next to the Upper Hot Springs, about 2.5 miles from Banff. The gondola lift takes visitors to the top of the mountain at 7,500 feet high. The peak has an observation deck where incredible views can be enjoyed. There is also a restaurant called the Summit Restaurant at the top, as well as hiking trails that descend to the base.[18]

Banff Springs Hotel
Banff Springs Hotel was the hotel built by the Canadian Pacific Railway after they discovered the springs. This resort is magnificently-located near the springs. It is one of the most successful hotels ever built. In fact, it had to be rebuilt in 1910 to accommodate the swarms of tourists coming from all over the country. The building is styled in the Scottish baronial mode and emerges out of pine-covered slopes. Even if you are not staying at Banff Springs, it is worth visiting the hotel, eating a meal, and admiring the picturesque setting.[19]

Mount Norquay
Mount Norquay is a short drive north of Banff. There is a gondola lift that takes you near the top for a bird’s eye view of the area. In the winter, it is a popular skiing area. The mountain reaches a peak of 8,275 feet and is named after its first climber, the Premiere of Manitoba (1878-1887), John Norquay.[20]

Sunshine Village
Sunshine Village is south of Banff, about 15 miles away. It can be reached by taking the Trans-Canada Highway headed south and then turning off onto Sunshine Road, which leads up to the gondola. The lift takes visitors up to Sunshine Village. The resort is perched at an altitude of 7,267 feet high. Hiking trails run through the alpine meadows.[21]

Tunnel Mountain
Tunnel Mountain is located along the Tunnel Mountain Road and is one of the easier climbs and hikes in the area. It is fairly close to downtown Banff. The hike features strange views of column-like rock formations called hoodoos.[22]

Lake Minnewanka and Two-Jack
Lake Minnewanka and Two-Jack is about 8 miles west of Banff. It is a popular lake for canoeing, rowing, and trout fishing. You can also take a two-hour cruise that runs across the lake and back.[23]

Johnston Canyon
The Johnston Canyon is the starting point of a popular 1.5 hour hike. The trail runs from Johnston Canyon through waterfalls and pools. The hike can be extended for a few miles to reach a lovely meadow famous for its Ink Pots – deep-colored underground springs.[24]

Banff and its national park boasts hiking trails of all lengths – from short walks, to wilderness trails that take weeks to complete. The Canadian Parks Service offers brochures listing all the trails and detailing each of them. The brochures are found in the Information Centers. Be warned that overnight hikes in the back country require permits from the Information Center or a park warden. They won’t cost you anything though. Numerous cycling trails also have strict rules.[25]

A number of companies offer cycling tours. Plenty of places in town rent bikes. And some companies provide heli-hiking, a helicopter trip to remote spots high in the glaciers or mountains. From there, you can hike through virtually untouched places.[26]

If you plan on fishing, be sure to get a national park fishing license first. You can buy them at an Information Center or an outfitter. Whitewater rafting is also possible with the many rivers running throughout the park. The Information Centres have lists of companies that operate guided trips. Canoeing and boating can also be enjoyed at one of the many beautiful lakes in the park. Vessels and motorboats are allowed on most lakes and there are several places that rent them.[27]

Horseback riding is another possibility. Stables are everywhere in Banff National Park with treks of all lengths and varying difficulties. The Banff Springs Hotel has a stable. The Information Centres have more information about the other stables and what each of them offer.[28]

Golf enthusiasts can play at the Banff Springs Hotel. The 18-hole course there is old, but there is a newer 9-hole course. The real treat about playing there is getting to play in the backdrop of some of the world’s most spectacular scenery. The two golf courses are open to the public, but priority is given to the guests.[29]

In the winter, Banff has excellent skiing. The Olympic skiing events for the 1988 Winter Olympics were actually held in the mountains of Banff. Good places to ski include Mount Norquay, which is 3 miles away from the town, and the better facilitated Sunshine Village Resort west of Banff near Lake Louise.[30]

The Banff Centre on St. Julien Road is the entertainment centre of Banff. On tap are concerts, films, and plays throughout the year. From June to August, the Banff Festival of Arts is held at the centre and features a program of music, dance, and theatre. Most of the town’s busy bars are along Banff Avenue. The classier digs are in the hotels, where live musical entertainment is sometimes offered.[31]

How to Get There
The Calgary International Airport is the closet major airport to Banff. You can rent a car at the airport and drive the 70 miles or 113 kilometers distance to Banff.[32]

The Greyhound Bus Station in Banff is located on Elk Street and makes frequent runs to and from Calgary, Edmonton, and Jasper. From Lake Louise, another bus route takes passengers to Vancouver.[33]

The Trans-Canada Highway cuts through Banff National Park, connecting Calgary with Vancouver.[34]

“Banff, Alberta.” <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banff,_Alberta>

“Banff National Park.” <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banff_National_Park>

Carroll, Donald. Insider’s Guide Canada. Edison: Hunter Publishing, Inc, 1996. ISBN: 1556507100.

[1] Carroll, 116
[2] Id.
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Id. at 118
[6] Id.
[7] Banff
[8] Banff National
[9] Carroll, 119-20
[10] Id. at 120
[11] Id.
[12] Id.
[13] Id.
[14] Id.
[15] Id.
[16] Id. at 120-21
[17] Id. at 121
[18] Id.
[19] Id.
[20] Id.
[21] Id.
[22] Id.
[23] Id.
[24] Id. at 121-22
[25] Id. at 125
[26] Id.
[27] Id.
[28] Id.
[29] Id.
[30] Id. at 126
[31] Id.
[32] Id. at 128
[33] Id. at 129
[34] Id.

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