There we were, passing through the open country of Alberta’s prairies, good grazing and rich ranch lands, as we made our approach to the town of Canmore, just west of the big city of Calgary. We knew we were headed back towards the mountains . . . we just didn’t realize how precipitously they would appear. Barely out of Canmore’s city limits, the highway curved and BAM! Smack in your windshield—like a formidable, impassable barrier, a virtual wall of rock rising from the highway. We had arrived. Welcome to the Canadian Rockies!
We headed off the Trans-Canada Highway at the first Banff exit. Our campground was ideally situated—a 5-minute drive from town, yet surrounded by forest and mountains. The road leading in was typical of Banff’s setting, ensconced within a mountainous landscape. We’d be camping in the shadow of Mt. Rundle, a landmark of the town.
Tunnel Mountain Campground provides a perfect place to experience all that Banff and the national park have to offer. Sandwiched between the town and the nearby scenic places, it’s a huge place with hundreds of sites. Some with full hookups (make summer reservations early), others just with power, and still others are basic and provide dry camping only. Whichever way you choose to go, the scenery is equally spectacular. Terraced on a mountainside, all the sites have views of forest and mountain. Behind towers Mt. Rundle and in front is the camp’s namesake, Tunnel Mountain. Early morning will illuminate its flanks, while evening light gives a backdrop of glowing color. A perfect place indeed. We had four blissful days to enjoy it.
Banff is Canada’s oldest national park, established in 1885. Located west of Calgary in the province of Alberta, it encompasses 2,564 sq. miles of mountainous terrain, with numerous glaciers and ice fields, dense coniferous forests, and alpine landscapes. In 1984 Banff National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In 1883, on the slopes of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, three railway workers discovered a natural hot spring, and from there the park was born. Nowadays, Banff is one of the world’s premiere destinations, spanning a region of unparalleled majestic mountain scenery. Every year, millions of visitors make the pilgrimage to Banff to take in its stunning views and arsenal of activities.
The town of Banff, established in 1885, is the main commercial center in the national park, as well as a center for cultural activities. The Bow River flows through town, with the Bow Falls located on its outskirts. Just as the Great Northern Railway developed Glacier National Park, the Canadian Pacific Railway was instrumental in Banff’s early years, building the Banff Springs Hotel and Chateau Lake Louise, and attracting tourists through extensive advertising. In the early 20th century, roads were built in Banff, at times by war internees, and through Great Depression-era public works projects. Since the 1960s, park accommodations have been open all year, with annual tourism visits to Banff increasing to over 5 million in the 1990s. Millions more pass through the park on the Trans-Canada Highway.
From the opposing end of main street you’ll find Cascade Gardens. A 5-acre terraced rock garden full of a variety of wild and domestic flowers, it is a well-maintained treasure of the town and a popular place to escape the bustle of the tourist crowds.
Lording over Banff on the mountain slopes—arguably the town’s prized landmark—the Banff Springs Hotel has international fame. Built in a Scottish Baronial style, the hotel is a former Canadian Pacific Railway property that was first opened to the public in 1888. Taking a year to construct, it cost $250,000. Since that time, it’s been renovated extensively through the decades and today’s structure looks totally different from the original building. In 1906 plans began for a complete overhaul and by 1914 $2 million had been spent on its redesign. Two new wings were added in 1928, but it wasn’t until 1968 that the building was winterized, staying open year-round since then. With it’s majestic setting in the mountains it’s easy to see why it’s called the Castle of the Rockies.
If you’re looking for another type of attraction, drive the opposite way from the campground. In an equally close distance, you’ll have the full effect of scenic wonders along the Lake Minnewanka Scenic Loop. In the coming days this would be my “go-to” favorite location. Everything a nature lover could want would be found along this 15-mile drive.
And it started out with quite the impact. On our first late afternoon drive just to scout out the “lay of the land”, we found more natural wonders than we could have hoped for.
Not five minutes further, a roadside attraction was drawing many curious bystanders. Where people congregate it’s a sure sign there’s wildlife interest close by. In this instance, the curious bear seemed as interested as the people. Not seemingly shy, he was an easy photo subject.
The next “catch” was all ours. While the crowds were still absorbed in Bear #1, we continued down the road. Another black bear stood regal and unperturbed against a backdrop of the forest. A great photo subject and all I had to do was simply “point and shoot”!
Lake Minnewanka is a huge, mountain-encircled lake of crystal clear blue water. Although the evening light was dim, I was attracted to the lake’s setting. I knew where early morning would find me (and it wouldn’t be in bed).
First glow on a mountain can turn an ordinary-looking peak into something much more appealing. My pay-off for braving the brisk morning air was great light and a sprinkling of puffy clouds to reflect the colors of dawn. It’s a great way to begin a day in the mountains, pulling you into the spirit of a place.
Another place not to be missed in the Banff area is the Vermillion Lakes. On the west side of Banff a string of three lakes makes for a very picturesque setting. A favorite with bicyclists and fishermen, it’s also a big draw for photographers come to capture its scenic allure. Mt. Rundle has the starring role and all you need is favorable light to click to your heart’s content.
Another sunrise, another photo op. In a place such as Banff a person just can’t sleep in—at least, not with a clear conscience. I knew there was more than one scenic setting out there on the Minnewanka Drive. I headed out.
When other lakes in the area are ruffled by wind, Johnson Lake is often calm. My hopes this early morning was to catch Cascade Mountain reflecting on the glass-like surface of the water. The only obstacle to that goal was a ½-mile forested trail through bear habitat in the pre-dawn hours of day. Usually happy to learn I’d be the only photographer on site, this particular morning I was not exactly relieved to be the only one around. Nevertheless, I trudged on, armed with a trusty hiking stick. And bear spray strapped to my belt.
Without time to find the best position, I arrived at a high incline along the lake. The light was breaking through, the mountain aglow, no time to maneuver any better—I captured first light on Cascade Mountain. Yes, the lake was calm and its reflection clear. My efforts were worthwhile.
Now I come to the highlight of our stay in Banff. After all the research, after our preliminary visit more than a decade ago, after gleaning locals’ recommendations I can irrevocably say that the epitome of a Banff experience is to be found at Sunshine Meadows. That is the one place, the one experience, you’ll want to take in if ever you come to Banff. That is, if you favor outdoor, scenic pleasures over high-class shopping and expensive restaurants.
The Sunshine Meadows are reputably the most stunning alpine setting in the whole of the Canadian Rockies. Situated at an average elevation of more than 7,000 feet (high by the standards here this far north), the meadows straddle the Continental Divide and the boundary between Alberta and British Columbia. Surrounded by some of the Rockies highest peaks, the unobstructed views are beyond compare. Wildlife abound in the meadows, and the brilliance of the summer flowers and autumn larches guarantees stunning scenery on every visit.
Several trails branch out once arriving at Sunshine Resort. The only access is by bus transport to the alpine village, the area’s only downhill ski resort. After taking one of several uphill trails, you can experience the rare pleasure of alpine tundra through rolling meadows capped with higher mountain peaks. It is truly a “Sound of Music” moment.
Perhaps the most popular route, the one chosen by us, is the Rock Isle Lake Trail. A 5-mile loop, its rewards are many. What appears to be a mere easy, short hike easily becomes a day-long venture . . . if you are one that believes in “stopping to smell the roses”. One of us is such a believer, and yes, we surely did.
After the steep, ½-mile path gaining 300 feet of elevation, traversing rocky ridges past stands of larch trees and fording rocky streams. the trail’s namesake comes in view. Yes, it’s picture-perfect, a spot meant to stop and give time to absorb. While one of us searched out the best of angles, the other found pleasure in the antics of the native fauna. To each his own.
After that brief interlude, the hike continued on. But once attaining higher ground yet another vista opened. Necessitating another stop, this view just couldn’t be passed by.
Following a bit more up-hill trudging, the apex of the trail is gained. From there we were presented with a sight that says it all. Simpson Viewpoint puts it all into perspective. From this high vantage point it hits home—you are walking through the high elevations, in the rare air of the alpine zone. Pictures can’t convey the sense of vastness.
But if you’re thinking this was the climax of our day, you just might be second-guessed. Soon after that overwhelming vista, another delight was just ahead. The day was building to its climax, and the pathway offered the first clue . . .
Oh my, what glorious sight was this? A feast for the eyes and a balm for the soul. Could this be some precursor to the treats that lay ahead?
Yes, it was just the prelude to a symphony of flower-filled meadows. Ahead lay unimaginable fields of alpine wildflowers, colorful carpets of fireweed, paintbrush, alpine daisies, mountain avens, groundsel and arnica as thick as I had ever seen. Oh yes, this was the moment to embrace, a sight to preserve in mind. Could any picture illustrate the actual scene? Most doubtful.
Don’t forget—you heard it here.
Banff is just the start. Much more still lay ahead. The Canadian Rockies aren’t just limited to this park. Our time is far from over. But what a start it is! One last parting shot–an image to convey the beauty of Banff– now it’s on to our next destination.
Airstream Travelers, Melinda and Chris,
leaving Banff behind.