Top 10 Things to Know About Banff National Park: PHOTOS

by Jon D. B.
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Banff National Park. (Photo credit: Getty Images, Outsider)

Unrivaled beauty and untamed wilderness mark Banff National Park as one of the most desirable and intriguing North American destinations.

If there’s any park worth venturing outside the U.S. National Park Service’s domain for, it’s Alberta’s Banff National Park. Located just a few hours north of the border, this breathtaking park protects 2,564 square miles of Canadian Rockies paradise.

Here, you’ll find some of the best views of the Rockies on our continent, peppered by glacier-fed crystal blue lakes, waterfalls, towering snowy peaks, and some of the best hiking in the world. Getting to know them all, and a bit of Banff history, will place this national park high atop your bucket list. Let’s get to it!

10. Banff is the World’s Only National Park with its own Distillery

This one’s for you, Outsiders.

Looking for spirits distilled with pure, glacial water? Park Distillery not only boasts fine whiskey, beer, cuisine and ambiance – it’s also the only national park-ran distillery in the world.

If you’ve ever imagined sipping on your favorite spirits while surrounded by the magnificence of a world-class national park, this is it. And boy would we love for our Yellowstone and Yosemite national parks to take note.

The experience is topped off by a world-class Park Distillery, Banff-centric shop, making for an unmissable stop on your Alberta excursion.

9. Banff Beginnings: Hot Springs Showcase on Sulphur Mountain

STATION SUPERIEURE TELECABINE DU MONT SULPHUR A BANFF DANS LE PARC NATIONAL BANFF, ALBERTA, CANADA. (Photo by Francois GOHIER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Looking for the heart of Banff National Park? Look no further than the Sulphur Mountain Hot Springs. The entire park began as a 10-square-mile reserve built around this natural feature in the 19th century. And it’s certainly blossomed in the centuries since.

Sulphur Mountain and her hot springs can be visited year-round. But think less Yellowstone geothermal features and more Canadian Rockies spa experience these days. Surrounding the historic resort are plenty of restaurants and destinations, and you can take the park gondola to and from. The views from atop Sulphur Mountain of the surrounding park are breathtaking, too.

8. Banff National Park’s Highest Peak Isn’t Forbes

Mount Assiniboine in British Columbia. (Photo by: Prisma Bildagentur/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Ask the internet, and it’ll tell you: Mt. Forbes is the highest peak in Banff National Park. Lesser than the fourteeners in the Colorado Rockies, Banff’s Forbes reaches an elevation of 11,850 feet.

Yet according to Banff.com, “Recent information tells us that the summit of Mt. Assiniboine (Assiniboine Provincial Park, BC) actually crosses the Banff National Park border which should make Mt. Assiniboine the highest at 11,870 feet (3,618 metres).”

This new ‘discovery’ marks Mt. Assinibione as the highest peak in Banff.

7. Crystal Blue: Banff Houses Glacially-Fed Lakes

Canada, Alberta, Banff National: Moraine Lake. (Photo by: Andia/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

If you don’t know Banff for its magnificent hiking and hot springs, then you’ve surely seen images like the one above. The park’s glacier-fed lakes are some of the most beautiful bodies of water on the planet, and it’s all thanks to said glaciers.

Specifically, Moraine Lake and Peyto are two of the most sought-after (and photographed) lakes on Earth. Glaciers feed each year-round, making for the pure crystal blue hue that’s hard to find elsewhere. Neither, however, are Banff’s largest or most impressive lakes. That distinction belongs to #6 on our list.

6. The Marvels of Lake Minnewanka

The sunrise over Lake Minnewanka illuminates a chilly autumn scene following a recent early snowfall. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

Banff National Park’s largest lake is, believe it or not, a man-made marvel. Lake Minnewanka was damned up many years ago in order to bring water closer to Banff town.

By the turn of the 20th century, the main town in the area was Minnewanka Landing, a small mining establishment on a nearby river. The Canadian government then dammed the area in the mid 1900s in order to supply the blossoming Banff town with fresh water.

Today, you can dive beneath Minnewanka Lake and find the remains of Mennewanka Landing.

5. The Johnston Canyon Hike is Unmissable, and the Busiest in Canada

For this national park explorer and enthusiast, Johnston Canyon is one of the finest hikes in North America. In the past, the canyon was actually a rowdy river; one that carved the incredible features tens-of-thousands flock to hike today.

If waterfalls, caves, otherworldy rocky cliffs, and ancient forest are your thing, too, then this is a must-see destination. Which is precisely why it’s the most traveled hike in Canada.

Humans aren’t the only creatures using this path, either. Be sure to stay bear-aware as both grizzlies and black bears are here in great numbers. Both are seen on Johnnston Canyon’s trails yearly.

4. Banff Houses Over 1,000 Miles of Hiking Trails

People hike under trees as snow falls near Lake Louise during a winter storm in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada, November 25, 2021. (Photo by Patrick T. FALLON / AFP) (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

Johnston Canyon is far from alone in Banff National Park when it comes to hiking, too. Here, visitors have access to over 1,600 kilometers – or 1,000 miles for us Americans – at their disposal.

Banff is, after all, an absolutely massive park. At over 2,564 square miles, the national park protects over 1.6 million acres. It’s the second largest national park in Canada, second only to Jasper National Park.

In short: You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better hiking destination on the continent.

3. How Banff National Park Got Its Name

Hikers strolling past Lake Louise in this historical photograph. (Photo by Authenticated News/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Such a gorgeous and unique park deserves a unique name, and Banff certainly has it. But where does this unique word come from? It’s not exactly one you come across elsewhere.

That’s because the name “Banff” was shortened from the name of a place across the pond (see: Atlantic Ocean). The park gets its moniker from Banffshire, Scotland. This is where two of the founding directors of the Canadian Pacific Railway were born.

Together with another railway worker, these Scottish gents founded Banff in 1883. We have Thomas McCardell, William McCardell, and Frank McCabe to thank for establishing the 10-square-mile hot springs resort that would blossom into a 1.6 million acre national park.

2. Canada’s First National Park

Colorized photo of guests seated on a terrace at the Banff Springs Hotel that overlooks a swimming pool and a scenic view of the Bow River Valley, Banff, Alberta, Canada, 1916. (Photo by Burton Holmes/Archive Farms/Getty Images)

The McCardells and Frank McCabe may have been mere railway workers when they discovered the natural hot spring at the base of Sulphur Mountain, but their legacy is one of great foresight.

It would take several years, and oversight from then Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, to expand the park. Macdonald exercised an expansion of Banff to a 26-square-kilometer preserve in 1885. Then, the government would declare it a national park in 1887 with an expansion to 674-square-kilometers.

At the time, it was known as Rocky Mountains Park. It wouldn’t be until 1930 that Canada would rename it Banff, establishing it as the country’s first national park as part of Canada’s own National Park Act.

1. Banff National Park is Home to ‘The Castle in the Wilderness’

BANFF SPRINGS, ALBERTA, CANADA – 2010: The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel & Spa is seen in this 2010 Banff Springs, Canada, early morning landscape photo taken from cliff above the Bow River. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

We saved this one for our #1 spot, because it’s unlike anything you’d expect. Known as the “Castle in the Wilderness,” the Fairmont Banff Spring Hotel & Spa is a true castle built in the middle of thick Canadian Rockies forest. This unbelievable place is the most visited landmark in Banff, and for good reason.

Opened in 1888, Fairmont is modeled after both French chateaus and Scotland’s Baronial castles. The combination results in the finest man-made sight and resort in Canada. If castles are your thing, of course.

Outsider will be back with more on Banff National Park soon.

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