The jaw dropping scenic drive from Calgary to Banff is best described as lickity split. After boarding a bus I hopped into a front seat and watched Calgary’s urban landscape fade away as I lurched past Canmore into the heart of the Rocky Mountains.
The wee village of Banff is situated in the heart of Canada’s first National Park (established in 1885) and encompasses 6642 sq kms of protected wilderness offering visitors the perfect opportunity to get outside and enjoy the fresh air. The Park sees over 4 million visitors each year with its peak being in the summer months where adventure seekers from near and afar enjoy the sunshine while river rafting along turquoise waters, hiking up lush alpine mountains and soaking in therapeutic hot spring pools. Banff was a skiers playground for the 1988 Calgary Olympics and with three resorts a stones throw aways its a popular spot in the winter months for those who have a penchant for ploughing through powder.
My first visit to Banff was with my family in the summer of Grade 10. I’ll never forget buying my first Roots Canada sweater at the shop on Banff Ave. Other than that one memorable shopping thrill the rest of the visit is a fog in my mind (blurred memories of mountain tops and steak-centric dinners).
One of the largest draws to Banff is its rich Canadian history. How did a little village in the middle of Canada’s Rocky Mountain wilderness come to be? The story is a bit of a folk tale…
In 1883, two years before the completion of Canada’s first transcontinental railroad, three railroad workers stumbled upon a series of hot springs on the lower shoulder of what is now called Sulphur Mountain. By 1885, after a heated ownership dispute, the springs and surrounding area were set aside as Canada’s first national park. The Canadian Pacific Railway immediately recognized the tourism potential of the Canadian Rockies. In 1888, under the direction of William Cornelius Van Horne, they opened the elegant 250-room Banff Springs Hotel.
The railway then constructed a series of grand hotels along its main line and began advertising Banff as an international tourism stopover on the steel highway that had suddenly become the fastest and most direct route from Europe to the Far East. The Rockies quickly became popular with the Victorian gentry, who came to drink in the scenery and soak in the soothing hot springs.
During my three day visit I found myself running around town to capture the essence of what life in Banff looks like in the height of the summer tourist season. My home base would be Brewster’s Mountain Lodge a rustic alpine hotel located in the heart of Banff village. My suite had a petite balcony which offered stunning panoramic views of the surrounding Rockies. From breathless mountain hikes to gondola adventures quickly followed by hot spring soaks the following are a list of my favourite moments in Canada’s favourite National Park:
Sips and Nibbles: Banff offers a wild variety of dining options that I sipped and nibbled my way through. Lunch at Bear Street Tavern is a popular local spot to bask on the patio and grab a pint and pizza. An essential stop on your culinary tourism itinerary should be the timeless alpine Swiss fondue tavern, Grizzly House. For a little late night Wild Bill’s Legendary Saloon is a perfect spot to chill out to live music and laugh yourself silly as beer fans have a go on their mechanical bull. For the early morning brunching crowd Coyotes Grill is a great spot to grab a quick bite, be sure to order their famous stuffed French Toast. Enjoy a romantic dinner at Buffalo Mountain Lodge’s Sleeping Buffalo Restaurant where a booming fire and a smiling bison as bust welcome guests as they arrive. The best burger in town can be found at Eddie Burger Bar and locals rave about their Trashcan (an eye bulging cocktail featuring several shots of liquor and a crushed can of Red Bull). Be sure to treat’yo’self on your final night in town at The Bison Restaurant one of the cities most celebrated kitchens.
A Heart Pumping Mountain Hike: Banff National Park offers several picturesque hikes available for those looking to take in a few well earned Rocky Mountain views. The easiest is Tunnel Mountain as you can start on foot from Banff Ave and get up and down in around two hours. After eating my way through far too many restaurants in Calgary getting a bit of exercise was exactly what my body needed. From the top 360 degree views showcase raging rivers and a mountain range which extends as far as the eye can see. Heading back down to the village I enjoyed a quick stop at The Banff Centre one of Canada’s most celebrated creativity incubators.
Arting Here and There: Art fans looking to find inspiration on canvas should stop by two notable galleries. When I visited, the Whyte Museum had a fantastic retrospective on show entitled “Picturing the Canadian Pacific Railway.” Where the Whyte offers west coast museum moments Canada House Gallery is the perfect spot for collectors and buyers to purchase a new painting or sculpture from one of Canada’s top artists.
Lapping Up Luxury at Rimrock Resort: There is no better place to Treat’Yo’Self in Banff than at Rimcrock Resort. Nestled into a mountain cliff the property offers jaw dropping views. I had an opportunity to kick back at their in house spa where I enjoyed a full body massage and gents pedicure. Apres cocktails at The Larkspur Lounge are a must. If you’re going all out for your sweetheart order the “My Name is Jewel” a Grand Marnier and Champagne infused sipper that sells for $295 and comes with a pair of Swarovski Crystal earrings.
Hoodoo Float Trip: Rocky Mountain Raft Tours offers a leisure trip which starts at the base of a raging waterfall and jolts along the Bow River. The boat travels approximately 7km between Tunnel Mountain and Mount Rundle and past the famous Hoodos (tall, thin spires of rock that protrude from the ground). Rafters are picked up on a bus and driven past The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, a perfect opportunity to whisk yourself through the National Parks historical icon.
Gondola and Hot Springs: If you’re looking to hit two birds with one stone you can visit the Banff Gondola for a fun adventure up to the top of Sulphur Mountain. After taking in the jaw dropping views head back down to basecamp and walk over to the Upper Hot Springs for a bit of steaming soak therapy.
Banff Farmers Market: If you’re in town on a Wednesday from June to September be sure to stroll through Central Park where locals gather each week for a fantastic farmers market. During my visit the Banff International String Quartet entertained foodies who visit each week to pick up locally grown produce, bison sausage, organic teas, fresh honey and piping hot Belgian waffles.
My visit to Banff was a press trip coordinated by Travel Alberta. Hotel accommodation, restaurant visits and activities featured in this destination guide were complimentary.