Banff – the birthplace of Canada’s Parks & Modern Tourism

Updated: Feb 25, 2021

“If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll have to import the tourists.”

William Cornelius Van Horne, General Manager and subsequent President of the Canadian Pacific Railway, 1880’s
Iconic Moraine Lake

Banff National Park, in Alberta, Canada is among the world’s most famous scenic parks. It borders Jasper to the North, Yoho to the west and Kootenay to the south. Together these four parks comprise the bulk of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site.

Banff was Canada’s first National Park and North America’s second after Yellowstone. Park’s Canada was the world’s first National Park Service, established in 1911. 

I am fortunate to consider this region my home, and am long overdue in offering a general introduction to the area.

Here are a few links about the area on our website:

Where to Eat in the Rockies, The Winter Rockies.

A (really) Brief History

Canada’s birth as a country (nation is a bit too much to claim for such a diverse place) was the result of many competing factors.

The icy, Icefields Parkway

The Hudson’s Bay Company – the oldest incorporated business in North America – received its charter in 1670. The waters flowing into Hudson Bay have their watershed up in the Canadian Rockies and fur traders passed through the more northern Yellowhead route (now Jasper) long before the Bow Valley (where Banff is located) was mapped by Europeans.

Why the ‘Yellowhead Trail’? The first nations met blond people for the first time. Just imagine those French and even Gaelic speaking traders meeting the the nations of the foothills. They ended up developing a ‘Chinook Jargon’ of a few hundred words in order to communicate.

Pre-train travel, this was horse country

‘Canada’ began to emerge as a country in 1867 when Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia entered confederation. The real future of the country occurred when sparsely populated British Colombia joined in 1871 on the provision that a trainline connected the country.

Meanwhile, in 1867 Russia sold Alaska to the post-civil war USA for 2 cents an acre! Russia wanted to weaken Britain and the USA was bubbling with Manifest Destiny.

By remaining ‘British’ (i.e. joining Canada) the northern dominion emerged through the British North America Act – no war of independence. The new Canadian government purchased Rupert’s Land from the HBC in 1870 and began building its train in 1875.

Trains are no faster today 😉

The train was completed on Nov. 7, 1885 and Banff National Park was established protecting a small area of natural hot pools on the side of Sulphur Mountain.

The early CPR (Canadian Pacific Railway) was chronically short of funds and the difficult route through the mountains of western Canada required extremely difficult engineering and continuous avalanche management.

*It is important to remember the painful contribution of Chinese Canadians when building the train. They were paid less than European workers and were burdened with the hardest jobs – including handling dynamite. Upwards of 1000 Chinese workers died building the train through the mountains.

Hotels & Tourism

The Banff Springs; a castle in the mountains

I like to think the magnificence of the area was not lost on the early visitors and General Manager of CPR, William Van Horne (born in Illinois, died very wealthy in Montreal) developed the remarkable business plan of building mighty chateaus in the mountains and across the country.

Today, the Banff Springs Hotel, Chateau Lake Louise and the Chateau Frontenac (Quebec City) are among the most photographed and visited buildings in Canada. The Empress out in Victoria harkens back to the trans-pacific shipping company linked with Canada’s trans-continental train. Indeed Canada’s train lines still competes with the Panama Canal for integrating the world economy.

Sparsely-populated Canada – first explored in hopes of finding a route to Asia – suddenly did unite much of the northern hemisphere and encouraged trade and a fascinating movement of people.

Walking across frozen Lake Louise

During the early years, the hotels only opened during the short summer

And tourists began arriving. This may be seen as the birth of modern tourism. Wealthy Europeans, Americans and Easterners would travel west by train and enjoy mountain luxury. Lake Louise was already the ‘Jewel of the Canadian Rockies’ and from Laggan’s station in the valley, visitors would take a narrow gauge train up to the Lake.

I imagine in those early years, there was a lot of smoking, drinking and keeping up appearances. The first Banff Springs hotel (1880) had room for 280 visitors – many would stay all summer.

Pure bliss, particularly during winter

The upper hot springs

It is now much easier to explore Western Canada by road, but for a generation or more, travel was by train and in the villages, visitors were met by horse drawn carriage or sleigh.

*While Canada’s historic relationships with the First Nations walks the line of genocide, the Stoney people who live near Banff have long maintained a deep relationship with the mountains. Even Calgary’s famous Stampede did (and does) invite the First Nations to play a prominent role. Across the continental divide in British Colombia, the First Nations caught salmon and traded over huge distances.

Looking down on the Townsite of Banff from Mount Norquay

The Park’s success is undeniable. Banff itself (named in 1884 for the Scottish birthplace of the railway’s president, George Stephen) has proven a remarkable success. Its name recognition is global. When asked where in Canada I live, rather than saying Alberta, Canmore or even Calgary I simply say ‘Banff.’

In the early days of the Park there were five towns where there are now two; Banff in the Park and Canmore just outside the eastern gates. Lake Louise is a village unto itself and the highest permanent settlement in all of Canada.

BC was a province in 1871, but Alberta as an entity was not carved out of the Northwest Territories until 1905. At that time Banff was the third largest city in the Province!


Obviously the Canadian Rocky Mountains Parks are famous for their rugged environment and abundant wildlife, but also there remains a friendly, frontier feel. Where the alps are manicured, the Rockies are wild.

Now that plains bison have been reintroduced into Banff, all of the historic wildlife is once again living in this (mostly) pristine part of the world.

Banff does have challenges. The Parks Canada mandate is as follows:

On behalf of the people of Canada, we protect and present nationally significant examples of Canada’s natural and cultural heritage, and foster public understanding, appreciation and enjoyment in ways that ensure the ecological and commemorative integrity of these places for present and future generations.
Wildlife is abundant

Balancing access and services with environmental stewardship will always be difficult. In the early days park wardens eliminated predator animals – we have subsequently learned apex animals (i.e. wolves) are vital to a healthy ecosystem.

A huge challenge now is fire. The vast and mostly coniferous forests of the Rocky Mountains need to burn. By stopping fires for well over 100 year, the forests have aged and lost their diversity. Coupled with a changing climate, this has helped the spread of beetles and raised the risk of fires that could threaten towns.

Lake Louise in late May (still a little ice)

Banff has a sub-arctic climate (but don’t be afraid the cold). It is a remarkably fragile environment. As a resident, I am not so much an owner as a custodian. It really is one of the world’s magical places.

Stay tuned for part two of our Banff publication where we talk about Banff today: Visiting the heart of the Canadian Rockies.

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