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In 1883 the Canadian Pacific Railway was blasting a path through Alberta’s Rocky Mountains in an effort to establish a continuous rail link from east coast to west. Workers surveying the rugged terrain discovered a group of natural hot springs in the Bow River valley. They tried to exploit these springs but in short order the Canadian government took control. In 1885 officials declared the 10 square mile site a natural reserve. The hot springs became Canada’s first national park in 1887. By the 1930’s, 2585 square miles of rugged mountainous terrain and alpine valleys were added to the original hot spring site, and officially named Banff National Park.

Banff’s topography is incredibly diverse. Forests, marshlands and meadows are home to many types of coniferous and deciduous trees. In more windswept locales hikers will discover native grasses and wildflowers in swaying profusion. At higher elevations the sometimes sheer and barren walls of limestone and shale have challenged many the rock climber. The park also offers a rich medley of wildlife like the wapiti (elk), moose, mule deer, black and grizzly bear, bighorn sheep,and mountain goats. Smaller mammals like the coyote, wolf, lynx, ermine, marmot, red and brown squirrel, cougar and the elusive wolverine, also call Banff National Park their home.

Glaciers that were formed billions of years ago are an important part of Banff and the Rockies. As the ice melts it drains down into the valleys, filling the many lakes, rivers and streams. Glacial ice melt is Banff’s main source of water. The most famous glacier within the park’s boundaries is the Columbia Icefield, considered to be the largest in the Rocky Mountains. This mammoth straddles Mounts Columbia and Athabasca, an area of approximately 100 square miles. During the summer months visitors are encouraged to take tour in specially equipped snowcats and get a close-up view of this magnificent wonder of nature.

Over 4 million visitors come to Banff each year. Before embarking on more in-depth tours of the park and the beautiful wilderness area, it’s a good idea to stop in at the Information Centre located in the Banff townsite. Pamphlets and brochures highlight all the best things to see and do. Downtown Banff, all five blocks of it, offers many of the amenities of larger centres like gourmet restaurants, art galleries, live theatre, expensive designer shops, and even home-made candy.

Most visitors are encouraged to get a birds-eye view of the Banff townsite and the surrounding mountain ranges by taking a gondola ride up the side of Sulphur Mountain. At the top there’s a restaurant, boardwalks and an observation deck to take full advantage of the spectacular view. Depending on the time of day, herds of bighorn sheep or mountain goats might even be out browsing. Make sure to have a camera handy.

Visiting the famed Banff hot springs is another must. The entire area around the springs was recently renovated but the new Cave and Basin Centennial Centre incorporates much of the original layout. The hot springs temperatures vary from 34 to 42 degrees C during summer months, and in the winter become even warmer. Whether you’re worn out from a day of hiking Banff’s picturesque valleys and trails or sore from a day of shushing down the championship ski hills at Lake Louise, most bathers swear that the hot springs will definitely cure what ails you - at least for a little while!

No visit to Banff National Park would be complete without a stop, or even an overnight stay, at the Banff Springs Hotel. When the Canadian Pacific Railroad finished building the Victorian structure in 1888, it was considered the largest hotel in the world. Over the years its been a backdrop for many a wedding photo and numerous movies and television specials. Even the local wildlife is partial to the hotel and surrounding area. Herds of elk regularly trek down the mountain to nibble on the lush grass of the world class golf course. While she may have lost some of her glitter over the last 100 years, most visitors will heartily agree that the Banff Springs is the grand dame of Canadian resort hotels.

Whether tourists come to Banff to camp, hike or explore the park’s beautiful mountain valleys, the cold, clear lakes set like emeralds amidst the rugged Canadian Rockies or to enjoy winter sports like downhill or cross-country skiing, Banff National Park is a year-round wilderness playground - true jewel of Canadian national parks.