Banff has long captured the hearts of travelers from around the world, whether it was the wealthy of the early 20th century seeking the park’s curative waters or today’s traveler, in search of some of Canada’s most beautiful natural landscapes. Banff itself though is a quirky little town, in existence for one reason – to cater to the millions of tourists who visit every year. Many of those tourists spend their time outside of the town’s main street, but as I learned there’s plenty to see and do in Banff itself.
Banff Upper Hot Springs
In 1882, Canadian Pacific Railway workers discovered the Banff hot springs, which led to the creation of Canada’s first national park in 1885, Banff National Park. After several fits and starts (and fires) the Upper Hot Springs bathhouse was finished in the 1930s in a style meant to rival the famous spas of Europe. That same style and spirit persists today in spite of several refurbishments, plunging the guest back into the heyday of taking the waters like a well-heeled member of the fin de siècle elite. Even though shushing down mountain slopes has overtaken the popular spas as the number one reason to visit, the thermal complexes are not only still running, they’re still drawing the masses. Whether or not the steamy mineral water really possesses medicinal qualities, there’s nothing more relaxing than to sit back in the hot baths, admiring the snowy peaks and remarking at how many people have sought peace and tranquility over the years doing the exact same thing.
Soaring high above Banff is Sulphur Mountain, which is also home to one of the best experiences in town – the Gondola. The short, 8-minute trip to the top is fun in its own right, and some of my favorite photos came from the ride. But of course there’s nothing like the amazing views from an elevation of nearly 7,500 feet and on a clear day visitors can marvel at a bird’s eye view of six incredible mountain ranges. I first visited a few years ago but on my most recent trip I enjoyed a completely remodeled summit facility that offers not only those stunning views, but short hiking trails and even restaurants. Enjoying lunch at the Sky Bistro was definitely one of the most picturesque meals I’ve ever enjoyed with the added bonus of great food. All in all, the Banff Gondola experience is a lot of fun and the best way to get a better idea of the geography of Banff and the region.
Exploring the Neighborhood
Before leaving Banff, I joined the local tour company Discover Banff Tours for a morning tour around Banff National Park. I’m not totally comfortable driving on snowy roads and I wanted an expert to show me the best spots, so it worked out well. One of the many amazing things about Banff is that some of the area’s most beautiful places are found in and around the town itself. Not only did my guide show me the perfect places for my photos, but I learned a lot about the history of Banff along the way and even enjoyed access to amazing sights like this one at the Hoodoo Lookout. I’d seen hoodoos before in Southern Alberta, and honestly didn’t expect to see them up in the mountains. They’re strange-looking pillars created by years of erosion, but that wasn’t the highlight of this particular stop. No, it was the amazing views of the Bow Valley and Mount Rundle, all deadly silent in the midst of yet another snowfall. It was a beautiful scene and one I didn’t expect, but as is usually the case it was one of the highlights of my brief but always amazing time spent in beautiful Banff.
Banff Springs Hotel
While in Banff I stayed at a legendary hotel that I have wanted to visit for a very long time, the Banff Springs Hotel. Often copied but never duplicated, the Banff Springs first opened way back in 1888 by the Canadian Pacific Railway, one of the luxurious railway hotels that dot North America. From the very start it was known as a bastion of luxury and that first year the hotel had 250 rooms and charged a whopping $3.50 per night. It was later transformed into the magnificent structure we see today, tailored after a Scottish baronial castle made with thick limestone blocks. Perfectly positioned not only to take advantage of the hot springs, but the views for which Banff is so now very well known. Thankfully the service inside the hotel matches its epic exterior and while massive, the staff excels in making guests feel special. Not to miss is the hotel’s health retreat, the Willow Stream Spa. With pulsating waterfalls and a mineral pool at the heart of the spa itself I was instantly reminded of the curative waters that first drew visitors here more than a century ago. It’s a wonderful place to relax and unwind no matter what the weather is like outside.