Banff today: Visiting the heart of the Canadian Rockies

Updated: Apr 13

Banff and Region Today


The actual Townsite of Banff – as differentiated from the National Park - is one of a few rare municipalities inside a protected, and nationally managed area. The Town is a major tourist destination, but is also home to a real, loyal and vibrant community.

Bighorn Sheep

The Bow river flows from Bow Glacier – fed from the Wapta Icefield 37 kms north of Lake Louise, through Lake Louise, Banff, Canmore, Calgary and eventually into Hudson Bay. This Valley defines the easily accessible parts of the park and for those living in or near the National Park, they refer to it as the Bow Valley.

The Town of Banff is home to roughly 8000 permanent inhabitants and hosts millions of tourists annually (last count 3.6 million).

Banff has a real community and is tightly linked with nearby Canmore (13,000 permanent inhabitants) – including all the predictable sibling rivalries. The setting is simply perfect, unless, of course, you don’t like mountains (or a long winter)!

There are many reasons why people fall in love with this fairly isolated, higher altitude community. On a clear day – and blue skies are common – the Canadian Rockies really are beautiful. Sure, those mountains are my home, but people from around the world return again and again.

Grassi Lakes, Canmore

The altitude is just high enough (1400 meters / 5000 feet) to stress one’s body, but not to really cause any harm. Being a mere 900 kms from the Pacific Ocean the air is clear and dry, with virtually no pollution the blue Alberta sky is ethereal.

The snow that does fall (and can fall out of the sky all 12 months), is light and dry – Banff is not snowman country! Summertime average temperatures climb to the 20’s (70’s) and winter cold is mitigated by the lack of humidity.

There is no doubt the entire region is expensive and locals suffer just as much. A popular local saying; “you have become a Bow Valley resident when you’ve finished your PhD and are flipping burgers!”

I like even more; “what is in the back of your car, or on top of it, should be worth more than the car itself!” Life is all about outdoor pursuits!

The Bow Valley from the air

The park is an outdoor playground for anyone who loves mountains. Many do.

Another element of the Bow Valley’s attraction are the many short-term workers who join us from around the world. Canada is already the most ethnically diverse country on earth and in our mountain resort towns the majority of workers come from elsewhere in Canada or around the world.

Huge numbers of Eastern Canadians (French and English speaking) come to work for a season or two, and many stay on. Of the foreign workers, Australians are the most numerous, followed by British, Kiwis, and increasing numbers from elsewhere in Europe and South America.

One or two may find it all too small or cold, but for the most part, the people working in the Valley are revelling in the beauty as much as the tourists. What this really means is a genuine – even enthusiastic – social environment. It is not a fake ‘have a nice day’, rather a genuine pride in sharing such beauty.


The Park is not pretentious, though some people try. The large and extremely expensive hotels host important meetings and wealthy Albertans will dress up for a weekend in the Park, but hiking boots are more acceptable to dinner than high heels.

Banff is also a cultural centre. The Banff Centre – most easily described as a mountain university – is a centre of culture and learning right in the Park. It develops a book festival, film festival, retreats and a myriad of culture events that simply celebrate mountain culture.


Visiting Banff

Looking to the Hamlet of Lake Louise (with its famous Chateau) and beautiful Jasper to the north, there can be no rooms available anywhere in high season. Jasper (and I love Jasper), is totally sold out.

Any new hotel development will be slow and controlled. The Canadian National Parks have permitted the development of towns, but with clear restrictions. The ‘need to reside clause’ manages housing so that it is not a free market. One must have a justifiable reason to live in the park, in order to own property. This has not been a perfect solution, but has kept housing out of the hands of ultra-wealthy weekender set.

My town of Canmore does not have this protection and houses worth millions are traded internationally to owners who may visit fewer that twice a year. Oh how I wish we could control this issue.


Dining

A western take on Poutine

We have been working on dining guides to the region. This is a challenge. Whist we love our many temporary workers, it is remarkably hard to maintain standards with extremely high staff turnover. Have a look at this introduction to dining in the area.

Canada may have very few of its own truly national dishes (poutine!), but we are a wealthy, educated, immigrant-based society and our children grow up being exposed to so many different foods. From the predictable days of meat and potatoes (or fish and potatoes), Canada may now arguably be a culinary destination.

And it is expensive. I recently wrote a piece about the culinary experience in Britain and how affordable and good it has become!

The Park(s)

The Rocky Mountain parks encompass a vast protected area of dramatic scenery. It doesn’t really matter if you are in Banff, Jasper or even Kananaskis – Alberta’s spectacular provincial park (also known for the film ‘Brokeback Mountain’).

The Canadians Rockies are young. They have been pushed and folded through tectonics and then carved with glaciation. Generally they point east. Our mountains are limestone, so quite malleable when compared to harder rocks.

*Water from the tap is deviously filtered through the limestone, so is very drinkable – please avoid buying plastic bottles!

I had to zoom, but that’s a grizzly near Lake Louise cooling off on the snow!

Parks Canada can be very bureaucratic but has achieved a good balance between access, heritage and environmental stewardship. Wildlife is abundant – and wild! There is a $25000 maximum fine for feeding any animals and PLEASE, PLEASE stay in your car when you see a bear. I love visitors, but I will yell at you if you chase an animal with your camera.

Roughly 5-7% of our parks are accessible by road. That means 95+% IS WILDERNESS. And together the four mountain parks are roughy the size of Israel. The ecosystem is special – in the true dictionary definition.

Climbing!

We do everything from hiking, to climbing, to site seeing to rafting. It is accessible for those with accessibility issues all the way to serious adventurers and climbers.

The Alpine Cub of Canada, based in Canmore, publishes the longest running mountaineering journal in Canada and perhaps the world.

The landscape offers a sub-arctic climate – despite being so far south (about the same latitude as London, UK). Bears are awake late March through late October. Elk are ubiquitous. Mosquitos only come out for a few weeks and moose are rare (try Moose Lake near Maligne Lake, Jasper).

Relaxing by Maligne Lake (Jasper)

There is so much to say, but we’ll start with this little introduction. Please remember our mantra; “take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints.”

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