The magnificent Banff National Park in neighbouring Alberta, the first national park in Canada, is home to a variety of distinctive natural features and cultural and historical sites.
Rugged mountains, ancient glaciers, icefields, alpine meadows, beautiful blue cold-water lakes, mineral hot springs, deep canyons and fascinating hoodoos compose the natural landscape and habitat for a great variety of birds and mammals.
In the fall of 1883, three Canadian Pacific Railway construction workers stumbled across a cave containing hot springs on the eastern slopes of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. The park started as a ten-square-mile reserve around the Sulphur Mountain Hot Springs, established by the Dominion of Canada in 1885. From that humble beginning was born Banff National Park.
Banff National Park was the third established in the world, behind Yellowstone National Park in the US and Royal National Park in Australia, and is one of four national parks (Banff, Jasper, Yoho and Kootenay) that, together with three British Columbia provincial parks (Mount Assiniboine, Mount Robson and Hamber), make up the UNESCO Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site.
Spanning 6,641 square kilometres (2,564 square miles) of valleys, mountains, glaciers, forests, meadows and rivers, Banff National Park is one of the world’s premier destination spots. The park is the second largest of Canada’s mountain parks, behind Jasper National Park, with the western boundary running for 240 kilometres along the Continental Divide. Visitors can tour historic sites, soak in hot springs, stroll along the shores of Lake Louise, spend a night in the historic Banff Springs Hotel, and drive the Icefields Parkway into adjoining Jasper National Park.
Incorporated in the park is Lake Louise, the most famous landmark in the Canadian Rockies, which was “discovered” by guide/outfitter Tom Wilson in 1882. However, natives of the Bow Valley had known of the lake’s existence for some time, and one of them, Edwin Hunter, led Wilson to the lake’s edge. Today, the village of Lake Louise is surrounded by some of the most majestic mountain peaks in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, and is amongst the most beautiful areas in all of Canada.
Hiking: Banff National Park is a hiking wonderland, containing over 1,600 kilometres (1,000 miles) of trails, more than any other mountain park. Hikers can find anything from a one-hour jaunt up a mountain to a month long backcountry excursion into the lonely wild regions of the park.
Camping: There are 14 campgrounds and a total of over 2,000 campsites in Banff National Park. The campgrounds range from those that offer fully-serviced sites with interpretive talks to those that are much smaller and offer only the bare necessities (drinking water and an outhouse). You cannot reserve a campsite in the national park – all sites are awarded on a “first come first serve” basis. Campgrounds are listed below:
- Tunnel Mountain Campground, 2.4 km from Banff
- Two Jack Main Campground, 12 km from Banff
- Two Jack Lakeside Campground, 12 km from Banff
- Castle Mountain Campground, 34 km from Banff
- Protection Mountain Campground, 48 km from Banff
- Johnston’s Canyon Campground, 25 km from Banff
- Lake Louise Campground, 58 km west of Banff
- Mosquito Creek Campground, 24 km north of Lake Louise
- Waterfowl Lake Campground, 57 km north of Lake Louise on Icefield Parkway
- Rampart Creek, 88 km from Lake Louise on the way to the Columbia Icefields
Winter Activities: Crackling fires and good books warm a heart’s cockles when it’s cold outside, but a beautiful winter day in the park is best spent outdoors. More than 150 km of groomed trails are maintained for Cross-country Skiing and Ski Touring. Three Downhill Ski areas operate within the park – Mount Norquay, Sunshine Village, and Lake Louise. The challenging sport of Telemarking can be practiced at downhill ski areas, or on steep slopes during cross-country ski trips. Many areas are suitable for Snowshoeing , the traditional means of winter travel, and there’s a short Tobogganing run at the Cascade Pond Picnic Area, just outside Banff townsite. Commercial operations offer Dog Sledding and Sleigh Riding. Winter photography is excellent almost anywhere in the park, or visitors can soak in the Upper Hot Springs pool on the slopes of Sulphur Mountain.
Banff is home to a number of outstanding geological and ecological features. In addition to the hot springs, the Castleguard Caves in the remote northwest corner of the park are Canada’s longest cave system. The park also contains Alberta’s southernmost herd of the endangered woodland caribou.
The park is in the Rocky Mountain natural life zone, with terrain divided into three separate eco-regions: the montane, the sub-alpine and the alpine. Each eco-region is characterized by a different plant and animal regime, as well as a different climate and elevation.
The Trans-Canada Highway, the Banff-Radium Highway, the scenic Bow Valley Parkway and the awe-inspiring Icefields Parkway are all major travel routes that bisect the park, enhancing visitors’ chances of seeing the abundant wildlife inhabiting the mountain regions. Lucky travellers may see elk, deer, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, moose, caribou, black bears, grizzly bears, wolves, coyotes and a host of other large and small mammals.
You are in bear country wherever you are in the mountain national parks! Bears are naturally wary of humans, and generally choose to avoid us. However, bears may threaten and even attack people when they become accustomed to humans, when they are surprised, or when they are forced to defend themselves, their young or their food. You can substantially reduce your risk and enhance your park experience by taking a few precautions, including making noise when you hike, travelling in groups, and properly storing food.
Ever stare down a grizzly bear? Taste the wild by exploring the Banff Park Museum, the oldest natural history museum in Western Canada. This turn-of-the-century taxidermy collection continues to thrill visitors curious about the mammals, birds, insects and fish found in the Canadian Rockies. Relax and curl up with a book in the Reading Room of this architectural showpiece, or view wildlife videos in the interactive Discovery Room. The Banff Park Museum is located in Banff at 91 Banff Avenue, next to the Bow River Bridge and Central Park. For more information call 403-762-1558.
The Lake Louise Visitor Centre takes you on a 600-million-year journey into the past. Discover how the Rocky Mountains came to be, and learn about the recent natural and human history of the Lake Louise area. The centre is located in Lower Lake Louise, next to Samson Mall. For more information call 403-522-3833.
Banff National Park is located in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, on the Alberta side of the Continental Divide. It is situated 128 kilometres (80 miles) west of Calgary, 401 kilometres (250 miles) southwest of Edmonton and 850 kilometres (530 miles) east of Vancouver. Commercial airlines service each of these three Canadian cities, and buses to Banff and Lake Louise run year round.
If you are driving into the park, the Trans-Canada Highway (#1) runs west from Calgary into the park and through Banff and Lake Louise, then continues west towards Vancouver. From the town of Banff, Lake Louise is located 55 kilometres (35 miles) to the west, while the town of Jasper in Jasper National Park is 287 kilometres (180 miles) to the northwest.
The Bow Valley Parkway is an alternate scenic route from Banff to Lake Louise. Fifty-five kilometres long (thirty-five miles), it provides outstanding views of the Sawback Range and Castle Mountain, as well as taking visitors to Johnston Canyon and Silver City.
The Icefields Parkway travels in the shadow of the Great Divide. Following the headwaters of three major river systems among the rugged mountains of the Eastern Main Ranges, this route will take you through scenes and experiences you’ll never forget. It is one of the world’s greatest mountain highroads, named for the chain of huge icefields that roofs the Rockies. Not long ago, only packtrains travelled here, and a fast trip from Jasper to Lake Louise took almost two weeks. Today’s parkway lets everyone visit areas once seen by only the hardiest tourists.
Tour buses operate within the Four Mountain Parks (Banff National Park is bordered by Yoho, Kootenay and Jasper National Parks). There are also several car rental agencies in Banff and Jasper townsites, as well as in the neighbouring cities in British Columbia.
The resort towns of Banff (pop. 7,500) and Lake Louise (pop. 500) are located in Banff National Park. Each offers visitors a full range of services, facilities and recreational opportunities.
Nearby Regions & Towns
Parks Canada – British Columbia
Box 129, 23433 Mavis Avenue
Fort Langley, BC, V1M 2R5