Banff National Park
Banff National Park is Canada's first national park, and gave birth to the National Park system. At 6,641 square kilometres it is also one of the largest in Canada, if not the world. The park sees visits well into the millions annually.
This area was inhabited by the Stony Indians thousands of years before the white man arrived. Anthony Henday was the first non-native to see the Canadian Rockies in 1754. The park itself was first 'discovered' by the workers building the transcontinental railway in 1882. At first the park was centered around the Cave and Basin Hot Springs, and was officially born in 1885. The first Banff Springs Hotel was built a mere three years later, the current incarnation was built in 1928. The first highway through the park was completed in 1923. The park boundaries as they are today were drawn up in 1930, as part of the National Parks Act passed by Canadian Parliament.
Other than the townsites of Banff and Lake Louise, and the highways that bisect the park, it is about 93 percent untouched wilderness. The most dominant feature is of course the mountains, of which vistas are present from anywhere in any direction.
Flora and fauna
The most common wildlife seen in the park are Bighorn Sheep, Deer, Elk, and Caribou. More elusive are the Moose, which are on a decline in population, and Mountain Goats, which are virtually undetectable on the mountainsides without a good pair of binoculars. Although sightings are rare, it is important to keep in mind the park is also home to Black and Grizzly Bears, Wolves, Coyotes, and Mountain Lions (Cougars).
On the warm and fuzzier side the park is home to many Squirrels and Marmots. The occasional Porcupine and Beaver may also be found. Bird lovers will want to watch for Grouse, Bald Eagles, and the ubiquitous Canada Goose.
In summer the climate is generally mild. July is the warmest month, with an average temperature of 22C. There is rarely snow at highway level in the summer, but the mountain tops will be snow covered year round. In winter the average temperature drops drastically. January is the coldest month with an average of -15C. Snow will be found at any elevation in the winter, and harsh winter conditions can be expected anywhere at any time. No matter the season, it is important to consider that the temperature will drop 1C for every 200m of elevation gained.
Highway 1 (Trans-Canada) bisects the park east/west. Banff is about an hour and a half from Calgary Alberta and the same from Golden British Columbia. Other ways to enter the park by automobile include the Icefields Parkway from Jasper, Highway 11 from Rocky Mountain House and Red Deer Alberta, and Highway 93 from Radium Hot Springs and Cranbrook British Columbia.
Greyhound and Brewster provide regular scheduled coaches that serve Banff and Lake Louise, departing from Calgary and points in British Columbia. Another option is to book one of the many guided bus tours that visit the park. Most of these will depart from Calgary or Vancouver.
There are three different airport shuttle providers from the Calgary Airport to Banff and Lake Louise.
Explore the Canadian Rockies by rail. Day rail tours depart from Banff connecting to Vancouver.
Between Mid-April and Mid-October, the two-day, all daylight Rocky Mountaineer travels between Vancouver or Whistler, British Columbia and the Rocky Mountain destinations of Jasper, Banff or Calgary Alberta. Guests relax in Redleaf or Goldleaf Service, enjoying onboard commentary and bi-regional cuisine as the awe-inspiring scenery passes by at a leisurely pace. For selected departure date in December, the festive Rocky Mountaineer travels through a winter wonderland where the mountain valleys are covered in a blanket of snow.
The closest International Airport is in Calgary. Banff does have an airstrip, but there is no commercial service. An expensive charter flight will be required to land right in the park. Vancouver International Airport is an approximate 12 hour drive to the west. Springbank Airport (west of Calgary, towards Banff) is nearly 80 km from Banff. It operates short charter flights and tours over Banff National Park.
All visitors stopping in the park (even just for gas) require a park permit. If you are driving straight through the pass is not required. Day passes and annual passes are available.
Additional variable fees are required for camping and backcountry exploration. See the official website for Parks Canada for a current schedule.
There are several nature trails within half an hour of Banff township. These feature wildlife, waterfalls, lakes, rivers, and mountains. Banff is located at a high latitude and thus the scenery is four-seasonal; Banff looks completely different in the winter than it does in the summer.
Peyto Lake is a scenic location on the Icefields Parkway about 40 kilometers north of the town of Lake Louise. Access to the viewing area for this magnificent area is immediately off the parkway and is well signposted. Upon climbing the short distance to the viewing point you are greeted by what many consider to be one of the best views in Canada. The lake is located in a convergence of valleys surrounded by magestic mountains and rich forests. The lake system is fed from the Peyto Glacier to the left of the view point and this gives the lake a magnificent blue colour in the summer months due to the mineral content.
Banff National Park is the home of three world renowned alpine ski/snowboard areas. There are passes valid at all three resorts available.
In nearby towns you may enjoy strolling alongside locals and world-travellers as you discover a cosmopolitan collection of galleries, boutiques and cafés. Shops range from internationally recognized clothiers or independently-owned establishments to Canada's oldest department store.
With inventive panache, chefs relentlessly reach new culinary heights. Recipes change according to the seasons and make use of the freshest local ingredients. During the fall and winter, this means game, squash and legumes, while spring features asparagus and mushrooms and summer highlights edible flowers and fresh fruits.
Banff has a large variety of places to sit and enjoy a drink whether it is après ski or a patio.
Most of the pubs have live music, both open mike and hired bands. Dancing is definitely encouraged!
Looking to watch the footie game or cricket match? Check out the Pump and Tap Tavern.
Whether camping or looking for a high class hotel, Banff National Park has something to offer. Camping spots are found throughout the park. Camping outside of designated spots is illegal without a special backcountry permit.
There are many hotels/lodges and bed-and-breakfasts throughout Banff. Vacation rental apartments can also be found easily. Some resorts provide log-cabin rentals. RV parking is available very close to Banff township.
Banff National Park uses Parks Canada Campground Reservation Service.
To reserve a campsite within the Park, visit the 24-hour Internet service or dial toll free 1-877-737-3783 (1-877-RESERVE) (12 hours/day), TTY: 1-866-787-6221. If you are calling from abroad, the international number is +1-514-335-4813.
Although cougar and bear attacks may get sensationalized in the media, statistically the greatest threat for injury or death in the park is driving through it. If you are unfamiliar with driving in winter conditions it is highly recommended you either find other transportation, or visit in the summer. If venturing in the backcountry you must also be aware of avalanche danger. This also applies to skiing out of bounds, in three words: Don't do it.
Elk, moose and deer are unpredictable and potentially dangerous, especially females with young (May and June) and males during the mating season (September through November). Remember, stay at least 30 metres (3 bus-lengths) away from any elk, moose or deer.
Elk in some areas of the park are accustomed to the presence of people and automobiles. Do not think you can photograph a bull elk (i.e. one with antlers) from close-up by driving slowly past it while you shoot. Especially during mating season, bull elk will attack an automobile without warning, and can cause serious damage.
Wolves and coyotes are often seen on trails and along roads. Cougars are elusive and rarely seen, but they do live here. The chance of being approached by these carnivores is unlikely, but if you are approached, send a clear message that you are not prey.
Learn more and educate yourself from a reliable source
Ask park staff about wildlife safety, and how you can keep wildlife wild– and alive, or read Parks Canada wildlife publications available at information centers or on the Parks Canada website.
Although Banff itself is considered one of the best places to "get out," some other destinations nearby are also great:
The nearest major cities are: