Adventures Predominate All Year 'Round

© 1998 Shawn Vidmar

  Banff, Canada, is the Garden of Eden for geologists and outdoor enthusiasts.  

  The majestic Castle Mountain greets you as you enter Banff National Park from highway 93.

   When you reach the junction of the Trans Canadian Interstate 1, you need to decide whether to go north to Lake Louise or southwest to Banff. Along 93 you pass the exit for the Columbia Icefield. This glacier is left over from the last ice age and many of its counterparts, which helped mold the area into the incredible scenery around you, have long since melted away.

   The Columbia Icefield is 125 square miles and covers about the same surface area as Yellowstone Lake. It even reaches thickness of over 1,000 feet in places. If you have never ventured onto or around a glacier, this is an excellent time to do it. It is truly amazing to feel the cool breeze come off the ice and be dwarfed by its immense size. You immediately realize how these massive ice rivers carved the valleys and mountains before you.

   About 12 miles after that pullout, the turnoff for either Lake Louise or Banff. Lake Louise offers a wonderful Chalet on the lake in the shadow of the Victoria Glacier. Many people flock to this resort, founded by the Canadian Pacific Railroad in 1890.

   Lake Louise Chalet (now Chateau Lake Louise), the brainchild of then-CPR general manager W.C. Van Horne, continues to be updated to offer the most modern conveniences.

  Horne realized that many high-society people traveled upon this scenic leg of the CPR line so he began offering first-class service, akin to the Titanic and Oriental Express in their heyday and extravagance. Unfortunately the route proved to be too windy, hilly, and bumpy to serve meals on fine china and to sleep in silk beds. Therefore he decided to arrange stopovers at Lake Louise and Banff Hot Springs and then built luxurious hotels to accommodate his posh customers. (The Empress in Victoria and the Hotel Vancouver in Vancouver are a part of this “chain”).    

   Banff Springs Hotel looks much like a magical Gothic castle nestled into the forest. Located at the base of Sulfur Mountain, which received its name from the sulfur smell caused by the natural mineral pools, it offers multifarious services including a complete spa, mineral baths, shuttle services, several great restaurants and a nice golf course. 

   It is a bit unnerving to walk along the street and look over your shoulder to see a cow elk and a calf grazing in the soccer field. These animals are untouchable because Banff township is located within the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site. This site protects 8,000 square miles of massive rock, ice, snow and evergreens.  

   Banff, situated as an “island of civilization among a sea of wilderness,” is a short drive from breathtaking scenery sans any evidence of humans. Natives from the lower Rocky Mountains which offer seemingly higher peaks from the numbers, are astounded when these newest members of the chain dwarf the Fourteeners. An international photographer commented that the mountains in Banff put the Swiss Alps to shame. Moraine Lake and the Valley of the Ten Peaks, within driving distance of Banff, are a sure bet for the tourists; however, if you want to narrow the scope, Banff is also the place.

   Banff and Lake Louise offer over 1,120 miles of well-maintained trails. Some campsites are equipped with suspension lines for food because bears cause some problems in the area. Most campsites, accessible regardless of the season, provide a great foray into the wilderness.

   The longer days of summer offer over 16 hours to hike and set up camp. Not all trails go straight up, many skirt the many glacial lakes in the area. For instance, along Minnewanka (Spirit) Lake, two campsites, one at six kilometers in and another at 22, shank the pristine waters. The trails gain little elevation and the water remains safe to drink. Yet diving in on a hot day is not recommended since the lake’s temperature seldom exceeds 40 degrees Fahrenheit. 

  The same lake and campgrounds in the winter are wonderful to ski or snowshoe into. The lake never freezes over because of a manmade dam at the outflow which supplies the electricity for the ski areas in the vicinity.

    If downhill skiing fits your passion, Mt. Norquay, Lake Louise and Sunshine Village challenge even the expert skier. Long, steep cirques and fresh powder fuel the dreams of any extreme enthusiast. The rugged mountains also offer a great habitat for many local wildlife.

  Any number of animals live in the area at any given time. Among others, they include: bighorn sheep, elk, marmots, pikas, cougar, bobcat, mountain goat, muskrat, coyote, buffalo and bear. Hiking at any time requires forethought and bear whistles. As always, hikers should be aware of their surroundings by allowing the native animals the right of way and knowing first aid.

   Any season provides a good time in Banff. Summer offers wildflowers and green pastures. Fall paints the hillsides hues of a fire with the changing Aspens and Larch trees. Winter sports remain bountiful indoors and out. Spring thaw presents a chance to see newborn wildlife, fresh patches of meadowlands and glorious waterfalls from the snowmelt.

     For further information, contact Banff National Park Visitor Centre, Box 900, 224 Banff Ave., Banff, AB TOL OCO or call (403)762-1550. or visit


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