When writing about the Canadian Rockies, it’s impossible not to go back to Banff, and the fall of 1883, when three Canadian Pacific Railway construction workers stumbled across a cave containing hot springs on the eastern slopes of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains.
These hot springs became the foundation for the town of Banff and Banff National Park, which led to the creation of the entire Canadian National Park system.
Because of its history, and its location well inside of Banff National Park, the town can feel like a stop on the trail, like a spectacular oasis of a campground in the middle of the wilderness.
Bec Johnson, a local outdoors enthusiast and owner of Banff Springs Ski and Mountain Sports, notes some of the perks of living inside the park.
“What I love most about Banff is waking up every morning and seeing the mountains around me, seeing deer walk past the kitchen window and being in the heart of an outdoor adventure playground. You never get tired of it,” she says.
Besides the views and the wildlife, which also include elk, moose and bear sightings in and around town, you can really access nature right from Banff.
Tunnel Mountain is actually located within Banff town limits, and one can reach the summit in less than half an hour, starting from, say, your hotel.
From town, Johnson recommends hiking, biking or skiing the Spray River Loop trail.
“You can do it as a short one, or go all the way to Spray Lakes behind Canmore,” she says.
Johnson says she originally moved here from Australia for the skiing—Banff sits next to three of the Canadian Rockies most incredible ski resorts, Lake Louise, Sunshine Village and Norquay.
“It’s some of the best skiing in the world,” she says.
These days she notes what a wide range of activities the town has to offer.
Because of this, she says, “One of the things we always hear from visitors is that they don’t have enough time.”
She says she’s always being asked, “I’ve got one day, how do I see it all?”
“You just can’t.”
The flipside she says, is that “There’s an activity that would suit everyone.”
Elizabeth Palma moved to Banff one year ago from the busy South American city of Santiago, Chile, and currently works at the Banff Inn.
“I wanted to live in a place without stress, to enjoy nature,” she says.
She says she’s had no problem finding her niche here.
Some of her favorite activities in and around Banff include dog sledding and ice-skating.
But outdoors activities like dog sledding, ice skating, hiking, skiing, mountain biking, snowshoeing, horseback riding, golfing and canoeing just scratch the surface of what there is to do in Banff.
Even if your preferred activity is to be inactive, you’ll find something in Banff. Banff boasts some of the best spas and most luxurious hotels in the world such as the historic and majestic Fairmont Banff Springs, while the heritage Upper Hot Springs is just an hour walk out of town.
There are cultural attractions to this town as well. Banff hosts the Banff World Television Festival, Banff Mountain Film Festival and Rocky Mountain Music Festival, and is home to a great many artists attracted here by the unique Banff Center for the arts.
Perhaps this is an effect of the famously beautiful mountains visible from town, including Mount Rundle (2,949 m/9,675 ft), Cascade Mountain (2,998 m/9,836 ft) and Mount Norquay (2,134 m/7,001 ft). Five minutes out of town, you can hop on a gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain (2,281 m/7,484 ft) then hike on a boardwalk to Sanson Peak site of the Cosmic Ray Station.
Despite being literally in the mountains and being the center for many hiking, biking and skiing trails, Banff is still only about 90 minutes from Calgary via the Trans Canada Highway, and less than two hours from Calgary International Airport.
Driving 45 minutes west of Banff gets you to the Hamlet of Lake Louise. From there, it is possible to access Jasper National Park, Kootenay National Park, Yoho National Park, the spectacular Icefields Parkway and the wider Canadian Rockies.