Banff and Jasper National Park are world famous for the rugged Rocky Mountains landscape with mountains, glaciers and countless wild animals as its inhabitants.
Banff and its surroundings used to be known as Hotsprings Reserve. This is the oldest national park of Canada. The countless hot water springs are no longer the the big attractions and this is not just because the Yellowstone geysers are more impressive. The brothers Banff and Jasper are the most popular attractions for tourists. To many people Banff, Jasper and Yoho are the real Rocky Mountains.
You get a real sense of the massive landscape, with the flora and fauna that go with it. At least, so it seems. A variety of animals can be spotted and approached with relative ease here. Examples are moose, elk, mountain goat, bighorn sheep and even wolf, American black bear and brown bear (or grizzly).
The heart of the region is formed by the Columbia Icefields, the largest ice flat of the North American continent. According to scientists, the ice mass has shrunk one and a half kilometers in size in the past 125 years. In these years it has lost half its volume.
The glaciers provide water for no less than three oceans: the Atlantic, the Pacific and Arctic Ocean. The ice also feeds lakes such as Lake Louise. This lake is famous for its striking blue and green colours.
The colours are the result of brutal forces. The weight of the glaciers scrapes all sorts of sediment from the rocks, which is carried along by the river. Once it settles in the lake, it drifts almost at the surface of the water. The sediment absorbs all colours except green and blue. The intensity of the colour changes every day.
These mountains are relatively young, estimated at between 50 and 120 million years old by scientists. Older rock formations rise to the surface regularly, like in the fossil beds. It may be hard to imagine but a large portion of the Rocky Mountains was once an enormous sea. At an altitude of about 100 meters, dozens of fossils of the most peculiar marine animals were found in the Walcott and Raymond stone quarries. If you see it, you will be amazed.
Things to do in Banff National Park
Hike through Johnston Canyon
Banff National Park has many popular hiking trails. One of which is Johnston Canyon, a limestone gorge. En route you will pass the ‘Ink Pots’. These are pools where erosion coloured the stone. If you are not in a hurry you can spend the day; go for a picnic and encounter wildlife in the canyons.
If you are a birder, you need to get on the trail early. The area is famous for an abundance of species of birds. At the visitors center in Banff you can get a lot of information about this wonderful canyon.
Climb up a frozen waterfall
Most waterfalls in Banff, Jasper and Yoho will freeze in winter. This enables an extraordinary sport. With special crampons and pick axes (and warm clothes) you can climb up this ice mass. Secured by a line, you will be completely safe, but you may get out of breath. Waterfall ice climbing, as it is officially called, is a very hard sport. But the feeling you will have once you have reached the top is not one you are likely to forget.
Count birds at Christmas
This is a famous tradition in Banff. Around Christmas, many amateur-ornithologists go out to count birds. The most sought after species include several hummingbirds. The count is arranged by the Bow Valley Naturalists volunteer organization. After the count, participants will hear what the results are.
More information: www.bowvalleynaturalists.org
Climb among mountain goats and bighorn sheep
If you wish to see the absolute acrobats of the park, you should go on a daytime hike to Bourgeau Lake. In spring and summer bighorn sheep regularly come down this way to graze in the alpine meadows. Mountain goats explore the surrounding rock formations. The way these animals balance on their four skinny legs is unbelievable.
Experience the view from the Banff gondola
The view from the gondola, on the way to Sulphur Mountain, is the best in the park. The boardwalk at 2,450 meters atop the gondola is perfect to enjoy a sunset with a ‘sundowner’. There is only one problem: you will not be alone, especially not in summer. The view, however, makes up for it. Early in the morning, on a clear day, is also something special.
Enjoy a dog sled tour
In winter it is difficult to move around here, but for Alaskan huskies the snow is a welcome challenge. Jump on a dog sledding tour and choose your route. Take the initiative and explore the Rockies by yourself or go with a guide. Be sure to take your time for this, because only after a couple of hours you will get a taste for this. It is also possible to take multiple-day trips, where you will really get to know the area. And your dogs.
More information: http://kingmikdogsledtours.com
Have a meal at high altitude
If you want to have an extraordinary lunch or dinner, you should visit this restaurant. The Summit Restaurant is on the 2,450 meter high Sulphur Mountain and it provides an unprecedented view. This is the ideal place to eat lunch or have dinner, with the sun slowly setting. It is best to go in the summer months (July to September), when it will be a lot longer light. Don’t forget your camera.
See the hummingbirds
Summer, from May to August, is the best time to see hummingbirds in this area. You will see some of the most extraordinary types. In the most vibrant colours. And a very interesting life cycle. Several hummingbirds migrate from Mexico to Canada every year to spend the summer. If you pay close attention to brushes in bloom, you will see them shoot past and sometimes they will hang suspended in mid-air for a moment.
The two species of hummingbirds seen most are the ruby-throated hummingbird and the rufous hummingbird, but there are others that are spotted as well. Some restaurants have so-called feeders, containing a sweet liquid the birds can drink.
Go skiing through the wonderful Rocky Mountains
Those who are looking for a challenge can go on a multiple-day skiing trip in Banff and ski from cabin to cabin. This is not for inexperienced skiers because the terrain may be extremely difficult and the journey will be tiresome. However, it will be an extraordinary adventure. So hop on your ski’s and go…
Watch the bighorn sheep fight
In November and December you can witness an extraordinary natural phenomenon. The male Bighorn sheep will fight each other over the females. These battles will be fierce. First, they walk away from each other, only to turn around and smash their heads together with great force. This doesn’t hurt them actually since their skulls are designed to withstand hits like this. But the sound of the skulls banging against each other is quite impressive.
Camp out in the wild
If you love to camp, Banff, Jasper and Yoho National Park offer you many opportunities to do so. It is a great way to discover the area. First go hiking, then set up your tent, watch the sun go down, go to sleep and witness the first light rising over the mountains. Make sure you are well-prepared and always make sure somebody knows what you are planning to do. Consider that there are wild black bears here, which will regularly show up around tents.
Go on a ‘helicopter-hike’
It may sound a bit odd, but it is the ultimate way to reach and explore extraordinary places. A helicopter will take you to a certain location in the mountains, where you will start your hike. From the helicopter you will get a perfect view of the immense Rocky Mountains. Then you hit the trail yourself, for an intensive exploration of the territory. The chance of running into another tourist is very small.
More information: www.canadianmountainholidays.com
Best time to visit Banff National Park
In the middle of summer, the roads in the park can be really busy. If you wish for some privacy, you should go hiking, preferably a day hike of even longer.
While your camping, all sorts of animals may show up at your tent. It is recommended not to keep food supplies in the tent. If you run into a brown bear, a wolf or a cougar, you should really be careful.
If you are with a group of people, it will be wise to make as much noise as possible. If you inadvertently surprise a bear and you are too close to the animal, the best thing to do is pretend to be dead. This requires nerves of steel, though.
More information: www.pc.gc.ca/