Bowled over by Banff

Banff in Bow Valley, Canada. (Photograph: Canadian Tourism.)

THE most remarkable thing about the Canadian town of Banff, I found, was not its magnificently dramatic location in the Rocky Mountains – it is the highest town in Canada with an elevation of 1 383 metres – the 1 600 kilometres of beautifully maintained hiking trails that traverse its surrounds, the more than
1 000 glaciers in the area or its insipid-sounding name. Instead, I was bowled over by the graciousness of Banffinian drivers.

On our first day in the country, fresh from Africa, I walked with my family from the centre of town towards the Bow River, which flows – icy and crystal clear – through Banff and all the way to Hudson’s Bay. We were flabbergasted as motorist after motorist slowed and stopped to let us cross the town’s roads, even before our feet were close to the edges of the pavement. Indeed, Canadians are a law-abiding and polite nation, markedly so, I guess, to those of us accustomed to the culture of ‘pedestrians-beware-under-all circumstances-and-with-no-exception’. In Banff it seemed to us that the clear air amplifies civility among its 7 500 inhabitants to new heights.

Mannerly Banff is about 145 kilometres from Calgary in the province of Alberta. It is the central point of the 6 641 square kilometre Banff National Park, which is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. The name is derived from Banffshire in Scotland, the birthplace of two of the original directors of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) company, which was instrumental in the founding off Banff.

Shortly before completing Canada’s first transcontinental railroad in 1883, three CPR railroad workers came across a series of hot springs on the lower slopes of what is now called Sulphur Mountain. By 1885, after a fiery ownership dispute, the springs and surrounding area were set aside as Canada’s first national park. In 1888, the castle-like 250-room Banff Springs Hotel was completed, heralding the town’s first major foray into tourism. The hotel remains a popular resort.

In winter Banff and the luxurious mountain lodgings around the town are packed with goggle-eyed skiers and the town hosts some of the world’s largest ski and snowboarding events. In summer the national park’s 2 468 sites campsites are colonised by herds of hiking and wildlife enthusiasts. And undeniably, with its well-mapped and superbly maintained trails, Banff is hiking heaven. Even when the town is full of people (usually in July and August), you can walk away from the busy streets and within minutes, be alone in the countryside. There is such a variety of trails that you are bound to find something to suit you, regardless of your fitness levels or mood.

Among the many trails close to the town, Tunnel Mountain is an easy two to three hour hike that gives you a panoramic view of the Banff, Bow Valley and the highest peak of in the area, Mount Rundle.

The trail begins in a fragrant pine and fir forest that is typical of the mountainside around Banff. A broad, neat trail heads upwards with regular loops that moderate the climb. The views open up to Mount Rundle on one side and the town below. You can then follow the trail down from the east side to a large and pretty field.

You can also climb Sulphur Mountain by hiking below the Banff Gondola from the hot springs. If you are lucky, you will meet the resident herd of mountain sheep along the way. Do not fear, the animals are harmless and you will smell them long before you actually see them. The route covers 5,3 kilometres and once you have arrived at the top, you can enjoy lunch at the restaurant and the magnificent views from the platform, before taking the gondola back down into the town.

Then, as you walk back though Banff, you can marvel again at how safe it is to be a pedestrian in Canada.

(First published in The Weekender.)

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Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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2 Responses to Bowled over by Banff

  1. Sara says:

    Great article! I noticed that everyone was super friendly in Banff and similarly as we traveled past Lake Louise and into Jasper. Just friendly, courteous people everywhere.

    • pennyhaw says:

      Thank you, Sara. Yes. Super-friendly. I often think that the friendliness and big-heartedness of a country’s population are in direct correlation to the size of the sky beneath which they live. Canada is a big sky country (like South Africa).

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