Touring Around Banff & Lake Louise
For more than a century, explorers have been dazzled by the magnificent Rocky Mountains.
A few hours or a few days to spend? No matter. The sights, sounds and smells of the wilderness are at your doorstep. Watch for the elk that stroll through town parks and alleyways. South of the Bow River Bridge, behind the Park Administration Building, you’ll find Mountain Avenue, the road to Sulphur Mountain.
The paved road winds through dense forest for 4 km to the Banff Upper Hot Springs, on the right, and to the Sulphur Mountain Gondola lower terminal straight ahead. The pool is available for soaking, and the views from atop the gondola are sensational—mountain ranges and the entire Banff townsite and valley stretch before you.
Bow Falls has resulted from the Bow River flowing over the limestone bedrock between Mt. Rundle and Tunnel Mountain. The Spray River flows into the Bow at this point, with the pounding water creating powerful rapids. The falls are accessible from the road to the Fairmont Banff Springs Golf Course.
Tunnel Mountain offers beautiful views of Banff, Mt. Rundle and the Bow Valley. This mountain, just east of the Banff townsite, was originally surveyed as the site for a railway tunnel. Plans were abandoned for a more economical line, which is the current route of the TransCanada Highway. Though the plans were changed, the original name for this mountain remained. Access this area via Tunnel Mountain Rd.
Hoodoos were nocturnal giants who awoke to pound the passerby with rocks hurled from the mountainside. Geologists believe the formations were cemented together with dissolving limestone over 20,000 years ago. Scientific analysis tells us the Hoodoos were pillars of glacial till. They are visible from the lookout point off Tunnel Mountain Road. Look for the interpretive signs.
Mt. Rundle, named for Robert Rundle, the missionary who passed through the region in the 1840s, rises to 2,949 m (9,700 feet). It is one of Banff’s signature sights and is often seen on postcards or paintings with the Banff townsite nestled just below it. Seven distinct high points along its ridge stretch southeast from Banff to the Whiteman’s Gap.
The 6.4-km drive to Mt. Norquay begins north of the TransCanada Highway from Banff, with a winding two-lane road providing striking views of Banff and the Vermilion Lakes. The elevation of Mt. Norquay is 2,522 m (8,300 ft), and it is one of Banff’s popular skiing areas in the winter.
The Vermilion Lakes are the most important wetlands for migratory birds in Banff National Park. The three lakes are connected by marshes and beaver dams. The varied lakeshore habitat makes this one of the richest bird and wildlife areas in the Park. Cascade Mountain towers 2,998 m (9,840 feet) north of the Banff townsite. Part of the Vermilion Range of mountains, Cascade’s prominent waterfall can be viewed from the TransCanada Highway.
The Lake Minnewanka Loop road takes you to several popular sites for interpretive walking tours, picnicking, biking or fishing. Bankhead is 8 km northeast of Banff on the road to Lake Minnewanka. Watch for signs of Lower Bankhead, an abandoned coal mine and Upper Bankhead, the site of the previous coal mining community. The same forces that shaped the mountains also left exposed rich seams of coal on Cascade Mountain. In Banff’s early days, these seams were mined to fuel the railway’s ever-hungry steam engines. While industrial activities, such as mining, are no longer allowed in National Parks, visitors can walk through the scattered remains of the ghost coal town. Interpretive signs at the beginning of the self-guided trail will help you to discover Bankhead’s story.
A hiking trails follows the abandoned Bankhead railway line south to the Cascade Ponds, a beautiful day use area with picnic tables, shelters and fireboxes, making them a perfect spot for a picnic. This area is also great for cross-country skiing in the winter.
Two Jack Lake and Johnson Lake, the smallest of the three area lakes, are reachable from the Lake Minnewanka Drive via a loop. Both are popular spots for fishing, picnics and canoeing. You’re likely to see Bighorn Sheep on your circuit. Lake Minnewanka is the largest lake in the Park and the only one on which power boats are permitted. It is very popular with trout fishermen. Minnewanka, meaning “Lake of the Water Spirit,” is also a popular family recreational area, with picnic sites, a snack shop, trails, boating and fishing. Ask for park brochures and the Parks Canada Visitors’ Guide to Banff, Jasper, Yoho, Kootenay National Parks and the Bow Valley Parkway.
BOW VALLEY PARKWAY
Although the TransCanada Highway is the better known route between Banff and Lake Louise, the Bow Valley Parkway (Hwy. 1A), which parallels the TransCanada, is very scenic and provides a more leisurely experience. Watch for interpretive signs, picnic areas and trail heads along the way. You can almost count on seeing wildlife from this road. Many campgrounds are located on this route, which begins 6 km west of Banff, or one kilometre from Lake Louise village on the road to the ski area.
Johnston Canyon, 25 km northwest of Banff and accessible from the Bow Valley Parkway, boasts two magnificent waterfalls. The falls are a mere 6 m (20 ft) across at some points along the trails and the Upper Falls, at 30 m (over 100 ft) high, are a real natural treat. Catwalks make access to the Lower Falls (1.1 km) easy and the closeness to the pounding water magnificent. The Upper Falls (2.7 km) are reached by a trail, which winds through lodgepole pine, spruce and Douglas Fir. The trail climbs above the falls another 3.2 km to the “Inkpots”—brilliant blue and jade green springs, where the pools’ bottoms are composed of quicksand.
Castle Mountain, which was once named Mt. Eisenhower, after the American President, is nearly mid-way between Banff and Lake Louise. The Junction of TransCanada Hwy. and Hwy. 93 South to Radium Hot Springs, in Kootenay National Park, lies in the shadow of this mountain. Approximately one kilometre west of this junction, stop and admire the views at the pull-off sign “Castle Cliffs.”
Lake Louise is the most famous glacial lake in the Canadian Rockies and one of the most beautiful in the western hemisphere. The lake, named for Princess Louise Caroline Alberta, daughter of Queen Victoria, is 1,730 m (5,680 ft) above sea level. The world-famous Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise sits at the opposite end of the lake from Mt. Victoria and Victoria Glacier, named for the Queen. The nearest surrounding mountains, Mt. Lefroy and Mt. Fairview, add to the remarkable picture. Melting glacier silt creates the striking turquoise colour of the lake and keeps it at a frigid temperature year-round! You can rent a canoe and paddle the lake, or simply enjoy the panoramic splendour of the glaciers and Lake Louise from across the valley at the Lake Louise Gondola.
Moraine Lake is also quite famous in that an image of the Valley of the Ten Peaks, surrounding the lake, appeared on the back of older versions of the Canadian $20 bill. The highest peak is Deltaform, at 3,424 m (11,230 feet), and all of the peaks—Fay, Little, Bowlen, Perren, Septa, Allen, Tuzo, Deltaform, Neptuak and Wenkchemna—are white-capped with what remains of the Wenkchemna Glacier. The huge mountain to the north, with the glacier on its summit, is Mt. Temple, at 3,547 m (11,636 feet), the third highest mountain in the Park.