BANFF NATIONAL PARK is the most famous Canadian Rockies park and Canada’s leading tourist attraction – so be prepared for the crowds in its key centres, Banff and Lake Louise, as well as the most accessible of its 1500km of trails, most of which suffer a continual pounding during the summer months. That said, it’s worth putting up with the crowds to enjoy the sublime scenery – and if you’re camping or are prepared to walk, the worst of the park’s excesses are fairly easily left behind.
The best plan of attack if you’re coming from Calgary is to make straight for Banff, a busy and commercial town where you can pause for a couple of days to soak up the action and handful of sights – or stock up on supplies and make for somewhere quieter as quickly as possible. Then head 58km north along Hwy-1 to Lake Louise, a much smaller but almost equally busy centre with some unmissable landscapes, plus readily accessible short trails and day-hikes if you just want a quick taste of the scenery.
Two popular roads within the park offer magnificent vistas: the Bow Valley Parkway from Banff to Lake Louise is a far preferable route to the parallel Trans-Canada Hwy, and the much longer Icefields Parkway leads from Lake Louise to Jasper. Both are lined with trails long and short, waterfalls, lakes, canyons, viewpoints, pull-offs and a seemingly unending procession of majestic mountain, river, glacier and forest scenery.
Modern road routes into the park provide transport links that have superseded the railway that first brought the park into being. The arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway at the end of the nineteenth century brought to an end some ten thousand years of exclusive aboriginal presence in the region. This area had previously been disturbed only by trappers and the prodigious exploits of explorers like Mackenzie, Thompson and Fraser, who had sought to breach the Rockies with the help of aboriginal guides earlier in the century. Banff itself sprang to life in 1883 after three railway workers stumbled on the present town’s Cave and Basin Hot Springs, its name coined in honour of Banffshire, the Scottish birthplace of two of the Canadian Pacific’s early financiers and directors.
Within two years the government had set aside the Hot Springs Reserve as a protected area, and in 1887 enlarged it to form the Rocky Mountains Park, Canada’s first national park. Yet the purpose was not entirely philanthropic: the new government-sponsored railway desperately needed passengers and profit, and spectacular scenery backed up by luxurious hotels was seen – rightly – as the best way to lure the punters. Cars were banned from the park until 1916.
Today Banff National Park attracts some five million annual visitors, putting inevitable pressure on the environment. Park authorities try to manage this, with measures including a 10,000-person ceiling on Banff’s population, strict building controls and regular closures, of some roads during wildlife migration seasons and certain trails during berry season. But many experts agree that Banff’s ecosystem is on a knife-edge: more restrictions may save it, but they’re in constant conflict with the park’s recreational role.