A complete guide to Banff

History of the Banff National Park

            1883 marks one of the most prestigious years in Canadian history.  Besides Canada's first transcontinental railroad reaching successful completion, 3 railroad workers stumbled across a series of hot springs on the lower shoulder of the present-day Sulphur Mountain.  After various heated ownership disputes, the springs and it's surrounding areas were labelled Canada's first national park by 1885.

            The unsung potential of the Canadian Rockies unravelled immediately as the Canadian Pacific Railway was taken aback by the possibilities of the national park serving as a hotspot to tourists worldwide.  Thus, this opened the doors to investments, leading to the erection of the elegant 250-room Banff Springs Hotel, under the direction of William Cornelius Van Horne, in 1888.

            More ideas sparked and the railway then constructed a series of grand hotels along its main line. 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, was the next step towards the emergence of Banff's fame.

            The Rockies became prominent amongst the Victorian elites, who indulged themselves in drinking within the scenery and, soaking in the soothing sulphur springs.  This promoted the integrity of the Rockies and in no time, people were not only coming to visit...but also to stay! 

            Banff and Lake Louise depict our local knowledge and appreciation for the nature, history and culture of our World Heritage destination.  Banff is applauded for its museums, national historic sites and galleries. At the Luxton Museum you can discover the long native presence of the Plains Indian in the Rockies. Visit the Cave and Basin National Historic Site to feel the energy and vision invested in the creation of our national parks system. Tour heritage homes at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, and take in the fine interpretive exhibits that explain the panoramas seen from the top of the Banff Gondola.

100 Year Tradition

             When skiers arrive at the top of our mountains, they're awestruck by the grandeur of the unspoiled wilderness that surrounds them. These same sights greeted explorers and climbers from around the world when they first visited the Canadian Rockies more than 100 years ago. Mountain guides from Switzerland led the first ascents of the peaks. On wooden skis with leather bindings, adventurers discovered untracked snow in wide-open bowls, laying the groundwork for today's modern Banff/Lake Louise ski industry.

Timeline for Heritage and History on Banff

11,000BC- Early evidence of human occupation in the Bow Valley were discovered by archaeologists in places such as the shores of Lake Minnewanka and Vermilion Lakes. Valleys and passes of the Canadian Rockies were popular amongst the native tribes. Early relations among the Crees, Kootenays and Plains Blackfoot Indian tribes were cordial, with constant trade and little turmoil.

 1700's- The first Europeans arrived along with the introduction of guns, horses and European diseases, which led to a shift in power, as well as bloodshed, among the native tribes. The introduction of smallpox demolished three fifths the population of the western Aboriginal peoples.

1754- Anthony Henday was labelled the first non-native to set foot on the Canadian Rockies.

1800- David Thompson and Duncan McGillivray ventured out in Bow Valley.

1841- Exploration throughout the Canadian Rockies ignited when Sir George Simpson, Governor of the Hudson Bay Company, crossed the Rockies on his way around the world.

1847- Services were held for the natives on the shores of Lake Minnewanka, by the Wesleyan Missionary, Rev Robert Terrill Rundle.

 1857-60- The Palliser Expedition explored central and western Canada for the British Government. John Palliser, an Irishman, organized this trip to see if the land could be settled. The group split into three to unravel the modern day areas of Kananaskis, Banff, the Kootenays and Waterton. Many mountains of Banff were named by the leader in charge of Banff's exploration, James Hector. Success was achieved by the Palliser Expedition in redrawing the map of the west, and in shifting political attention to the resource and settlement potential of the southern plains and mountains.

1871- Three generations of surveying work of western explorers became nationally crucial as the newly established Confederation of Canada was to be united by a transcontinental railway.

1882- Tom Wilson, a Canadian Pacific Railroad packer, was the first white man to see Lake Louise, with guidance from a Stoney Indian. He named it Emerald Lake (later renamed Lake Louise in 1884 after the daughter of Queen Victoria).

1883- Eventually, the railway was built through Siding 29 (Banff) and it reached Laggan Station (Lake Louise).


The Emergence of Banff National Park

1883- Hot springs (known today as the Cave and Basin), at the foot of Sulphur Mountain, were discovered by railway workers William McCardell, Thomas McCardell and Frank McCabe.

1885- A federal reserve of 26 square kilometers was set aside surrounding the hot springs. In 1887, the area was increased to 673 square kilometers and named "Rocky Mountains Park". This represented the first footsteps of Canada's National Park system and the birth of tourism.

1886- The federal government appointed George Stewart to create an infrastructure of roads, bridges and services that would make the hot springs reserve into a credible National Park as soon as the attraction potential of the hot springs was realized.  The town was named Banff after "Banffshire", the district in Scotland which was the birthplace of two CPR directors, Lord Strathcona and George Stephen.

1888- The original log framed Banff Springs Hotel was opened for business by Canadian Pacific Railways. However, William Cornelius Van Horne, head of CPR quickly designed a viewing pavilion for guests as soon as he noticed that the hotel was being built the wrong way , while he visited the site during construction.

1890- A log cabin was constructed on the shore of Lake Louise and was soon replaced by a larger chalet.

1892- The area around Lake Louise is added to the "Rocky Mountains Park".

1899- Swiss guides were brought by the CPR to the Rockies to lead tourists to the summit of the mountains.

1900- Bill and Jim Brewster sparked the beginning of guiding and outfitting in Banff. The family dominated tourist transportation throughout the Mountain Parks until 1965, when they sold it to Greyhound.

The CPR opened the mining town of Bankhead.


Nurturing of Banff as an International Destination

1911- The construction of the Banff/Lake Louise Coach road allowed automobile access to the park, creating an immediate impact on the development of the park. Cars marked the beginning of the second phase of tourism. Today 92% of the parks visitors arrive by private vehicle.

1921- The road between Banff/Lake Louise was completed.

1923- The road between Banff and Radium opened as a link in the first public highway across the Canadian Rockies. This connected with routes to the US to form what Americans called the "Grand Circle Tour".

1924- The Rattenbury wing of the Chalet at Lake Louise was destroyed by fire.

1925- Reconstruction of the CPR Hotel at Lake Louise is completed and was opened under the name "Chateau Lake Louise".

1926- Fire destroyed the north wing of the Banff Springs Hotel.

1928- Reconstruction of the Banff Springs Hotel was completed. The building appeared essentially as it is today.

1930- The present day parks system is managed through the concept of parks preservation which was passed by the National Parks Act, thus establishing boundaries of the mountain parks generally as the exist today.


Rocky Mountain Park Changes It's Name to Banff National Park

1962- The Trans-Canadian Highway is officially opened. Banff by now had become the foremost of all of the Canadian National Parks. The growth and competitive prices of the airlines helped Banff become the international holiday location that it is today.

1990- Banff proudly became a self-governing municipality within the Province of Alberta on January 1st.

Banff National Park covers an area of 6,641 square kilometers, as of today.

Now, approximately 8 million people enter the park annually.