Banff Town/nearby Lakes/Falls, Banff National Park
Banff Town is the absolute point of departure for a trip in this park. It is a rather large town, considering the fact that it lies within the boundaries of a National Park. The place is very touristic, with lots of souvenir shops. hotels and restaurants. (for cheap and very good italian food, visit the "Old Spaghetti Factory", which is located in one of the malls.)
The town has also a large visitors centre.
Just outside the town you will find the Sulphur Mountain Gondola. Named after the mineral Hot Springs, that are located close to the base station of the gondola. The gondola ride and the views from the top provide you with great panoramas of Banff and the surrounding area. However, bear in mind that this southern part of Banff National Park is a bit less rugged than further to the north, so no glaciers or snowcapped mountains can be seen from here. (i.e. in summer of course).
Just outside Banff Townsite, you will find a short road that leads along the borders of Vermillion Lakes. It really is a short drive, but the views are absolutely awesome. You can view across the lakes and have a great view of Mount Rundle as well. A very nice area for amateur photographers as well.
Banff is a fairly typical upscale ski resort kind of town, with lots of shopping, restaurants and bars. Everything seems to be made of wood or stone and it has rustic if ritzy feel to it. Of course, it's also a mecca for hikers, bikers, and paddlers making their way to the holy grail of Banff National Park. It is one of Canada's top tourist destinations in its own right and having been to Banff is a bit of a pilgrimage for any good Canadian. It's very popular with all tourists so expect it to be crowded.
It's almost a bit overwhelming as a National Park gateway town but you can't deny its amenities, convenience or scenic locale. All that great stuff comes at a price with hotel rates high and campgrounds that feature wireless and hot tubs. Of course, you can camp in the park but many prefer the creature comforts that Banff provides. As the biggest town in Banff National Park and a part of the park, you need to pay a park entrance fee just to stop in town. To their credit, parking is free aside from this one detail. For that reason, our stop in Banff was fairly brief. We only had till 4 PM on our pass and had to get on the road by that time.
We stopped by the very nice visitor center and did a little window shopping. It's a nice enough place but it sure would be a lot nicer if you did not have to pay to get in.
We didn't really get a chance to see the Bow River while staying in Calgary, so made it one of our first stops when we arrived in Banff.
Back home in Glasgow we have the River Clyde, which is full of almost everything....dirt, shopping trolleys, litter, clothes etc.......so we were absolutely overwhelmed at our first glimpse of the Bow River! It looked so refreshing!
With the river being so long, there are quite a few places to get a good view, however, for your convenience, here are the 3 places in and around Banff we thought had good views:
1) From the Bridge at the bottom of Banff Avenue.
2) From the viewing point at the Bow Falls.
3) From almost any point on the Bow Valley Parkway.
The picture opposite is taken from the Bridge on Banff Avenue.
Situated in the town of Banff, the Cave & Basin is the origin of Canada's national parks system. 3 CP Rail workers stumbled across the hot springs in 1883 & immediately realized their economic potential. A disagreement eventually broke out between this group of men & another group, over who had the rights to lay claim to the area & develop the hot springs. The Canadian government eventually stepped in & established the country's first national park around the hot springs, in order to preserve the area & ensure its availability to all citizens.
The site was reopened to the public in 1985 & was commemorated as a National Historic Site at that time.
Visitors to the site can tour the original cave and basin, open air pools above the site, watch a short film about the origins of the site and walk along 2 outdoor trails to see various spots where the springs bubble out of the ground. The Vermillion Lakes are visible in the valley below the site.
The site is open year round except for a few days at Christmas & admission is very reasonable - less than $4 for an adult.
The Bow Falls are fairly small compared to some of the other Falls you will see around Banff and Jasper national parks, but they are worth a visit nonetheless!
They are very easy to find, although if you don't have a car it will take you around 10-15 minutes to walk from Banff town centre.
Traveling from Banff Springs hotel, take the first turn on your right at the traffic lights, or, if you are coming from the town centre, take the last left just before the Banff Springs hotel.
Follow the road right round. Be careful if you are driving, it is a tight winding road. It is a very short road, but its better to be careful!
The car park is at the bottom of this road. The Bow falls are right next to the car park. Both the falls and the view down Bow River make the short trip worthwhile.
Lake Minnewanka was the first lake we visited during our stay in Banff. Perhaps not the most beautiful view you will see, the lake and the drive around Minnewanka road are still very impressive......at the very least, they are an excellent indication of the scenery you will be seeing while in the Banff National Park area.
Lake Minnewanka can be found simply by following Banff Avenue northwards out of Banff and under Highway 1. Banff Avenue takes you directly onto Minnewanka Road, which in turn takes you to Lake Minnewanka.
Minnewanka ring road also gives you access to Johnson Lake and Two Jack lake, both of which you can see from the roadside.
We also got our first view of the Banff wildlife while taking pictures of Lake Minnewanka. Just as we turned around to head back to the car, 5-6 goats appeared on the road! Cool! We ended up passing loads of Goats on the drive around Minnewanka Road!
P.s. Apologies for the angle of the photograph opposite..... not sure what happened there! ha ha ha!
In the Banff Townsite, you will find all the amenities that a tourist could ever want including hotels, restaurants and souvenier shops. You will also find access to the Banff Hot Springs and Sulphur Mountain Gondola.
One of my favourite spots in Banff was the lovely Cascade Gardens behind the Park Administration Building. It is open daily from June to Sept and features flower gardens and walking paths. Admission is free.
One of the amazing things about our national parks is that there are a lot of beautiful spots. Every road leads to another view of another mountain, lake or valley.
Just north of Banff townsite is a quiet picnic ground called the Cascade ponds. Beautiful place with a nice (flat) hike around a reflective pond with mountains as a backdrop. I didn't discover this area until my 5th or 6th visit to Banff. Don't make the same mistake as me.
Banff Avenue runs North - South through Banff. It is the main street, and just happens to be the street that our Youth Hostel was on!
Like any main town road it has its mixture of tourist shops, stores, Restaurants, Bars and a lot of traffic - both human and road traffic.....lots of it!
You will find though that Banff Avenue is generally cleaner than most other town main roads..... and most town roads don't have such stunning views, especially the view in my picture to the left! The huge and very impressive Cascade mountain sits to the North of Banff Avenue, and the Bow River runs under the bridge at the south end...brilliant!
You can't miss Banff Avenue, most streets cut across it at some point.
A nice way to spend a morning or afternoon!
As I have mentioned before, I have spent a lot of time in Banff. In the 1960's, we used to swim at the Lower Hot Springs which had a hot springs and a normal pool. Now the Lower Hot Springs is a historical site called the Cave and Basin. It was closed (I think in the 1970's) as the Parks could not keep the water clean enough to swim as the temperature of the hot springs decreased.
The Cave and Basin Historic site has been restored back to the way it was in 1913 (so it looks different than I remember it in the 60's). There is a lot to see and read at this site. You can walk through a tunnel and find the original hot water basin in the cave where the hot springs were discovered. The smelly sulphur water is still there.
Above the cave in the building that used to be the changerooms, etc. is an interpretive display of how Banff National Park was discovered (in 1885) and how it became Canada's first national park. Around the buildings is a short Discovery trail which wanders out above the buildings to see the warm water spring flowing down the hillside. Besides the Discovery trail, there is the Marsh trail - another short boardwalk below the centre and the Marsh Loop - a hike downstream of the Cave and Basin that I quite enjoyed. Even in winter, the warm water flows down the hillside, and tropical fish (non-native) survive there all year long.
There is a cost to enter - $4 each in 2006. I don't think you need to pay to walk the interpretive hikes around the building.
The horse and carriage rides in Banff Township don't come cheap, mass tourism always carries a price. You can let the cute little horse and carriage transport you around the town streets for fifteen dollars (Canadian) per person - minimum two people. It won't take up much of your time the ride lasts fifteen minutes - the only takers we saw were families with young children. Banff isn't big and can be walked easily but if you fancy a carriage ride - well why not? For information on other carriage rides contact the Trail Rider Store.
In 2004, changes were made to the green space behind the Banff Park Museum and washrooms. The park was just upgraded with new grass, more care of the trees and a beautiful path along the Bow River.
We found this path calm and quiet, and away from the maddening crowds of Banff streets. We saw birds and chipmunks playing, people on park benches watching the Bow flow by, reading, snoozing or strumming on their guitars. Just what we needed!
This year we saw no elk wandering through the park either. We have seen them there in past years. They enjoy the calm and quiet as well.
Surprise Corner is situated at the intersection of Buffalo Avenue & Tunnel Mountain Drive. There is an elevated viewing platform here, where you have amazing views of the Banff Springs Hotel and the Bow Valley. This is THE place to go, for a great photo of the Banff Springs Hotel. The Bow Falls are just below the viewing platform & can be reached via a short trail.
Alternate directions to Surprise Corner:
Take Tunnel Mountain Road to Tunnel Mountain Drive and follow this road to Surprise Corner. This route is not accessible during the winter.
As I said in the previous tip, the falls do not change much. When I recall our visits long ago, there was not as much parking as there is now. Now there is a large parking lot complete with spots for the ever-present tour buses.
Just downstream a few hundred feet you will see part of the famous Banff Springs Golf course. This is a fancy golf course which where the wildlife has to be factored into your play. I'm not sure if I would go get my ball if it rolled under the bull moose reclining on the 8th fairway.