Our skiing had come to an end and I allocated the last full day in Banff to explore some more local attractions while my husband headed into Calgary to do some shopping. We got going at about 11:30 am and Nigel dropped me off at the foot of the Banff Gondola. This historic attraction has been around since 1959 and the gondola was just recently reconstructed and reopened in 1998 and features a state-of-the-art gondola system engineered by a Swiss gondola construction company.
On the parking lot of the gondola you can see a big bus with oversized wheels called the “Ice Explorer”. This is the type of vehicle used to carry tourists onto the famous Columbia Icefields located between Lake Louise and Jasper National Park.
The gondola takes you from 1583 m (5,194 feet) at the base station to 2,281 m (7,486 feet) to the upper terminal on Sulphur Mountain in just 8 minutes. On the way up I enjoyed the wonderful view of the townsite of Banff, looking down at the Banff Springs Hotel.
At the top of Sulphur Mountain is a complex of visitor services that includes a restaurant called the Regal View Garden. No doubt this is a rather appropriate name since the panorama from Sulphur Mountain is truly something to behold. The summit gondola station also features a roof-top observation deck that is equipped with a variety of arrows, indicating directions and distances to major world cities.
The one kilometer interpretive boardwalk takes you over to Sanson’s Peak which is the location of the 1903 Stone Observatory. Norman Sanson observed the weather from Sanson’s Peak for every week for 30 years and recorded his observations. Near the observatory is the foundation of a designated National Historic Site: the Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station that measured cosmic radiation during the 1950s and 1960s. Along this boardwalk there are a variety of informative panels informing you about local fauna and flora in this unique habitat.
The gondola brochure points out that you may actually encounter local wildlife such as Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, Golden Mantled Squirrels, Bald Eagles and Golden Eagles. Although I didn’t run into any major wildlife, I enjoyed the majestic view from the mountain and the peacefulness that surrounds it.
I had a little snack in the cafeteria and sat right next to the picture window and looked down onto the townsite of Banff. It wasn’t a perfectly clear day and Cascade Mountain’s top was covered in mist and cloud, but the view from Sulphur Mountain is one of the most astounding panoramas anywhere.
After my wonderful mountain break, I took the gondola down – although I was debating whether I should take a snowy forest pathway all the way down the mountain which I kept seeing from the gondola. From the base station I walked over to the Banff Upper Hot Springs. The Canadian Rockies limestone mountains have all sorts of fissures and hot springs feed geothermally heated water right up through one of the cracks to the Banff Upper Hot Springs.
The springs were discovered in 1894 and contain steaming water loaded with minerals. Even in the winter people sit in the open-air pool and enjoy the medicinal waters of the Upper Hot Springs. The fully restored bathhouse dates back to the 1930s and also provides day spa facilities offering massage therapy, a steam room, aromatherapy and other facilities. A restaurant and snack bar are also located in the Bathhouse.
For a minute I was tempted to try the Hot Springs myself, but I didn’t have a bathing suit with me. Although the retail shop in the Bathhouse sells bathing suits I decided that rather than relaxing in the hot water I’d get a bit more exercise and I started my walk towards town.
Instead of taking the main road back to town I took a forest path that connects the Banff Upper Hot Springs with the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. It was a beautiful peaceful walk through the trees and it would have been perfect if I hadn’t been wearing the world’s most slippery boots. I had to watch every step on the sloping forest terrain to make sure I didn’t wipe out, and I finally arrived at the bottom of the hill, relieved to be back on a paved parking lot right next to the Banff Springs Hotel.
I strolled by this famous Banff landmark into town and crossed the road to explore the grounds of Canada Place, the home of the Banff Park administration since 1936. During the summer Canada Place offers free admission to an exhibit that celebrates Canada’s land, culture and achievements.
During the winter the facility is closed, but the view from the surrounding Cascade Gardens towards Cascade Mountain is stunning on a clear day. I wasn’t so lucky, for our entire week in Banff we never got to see famous Cascade Mountain completely clear and free of clouds. But never mind, the glimpses that we did catch gave us a feeling for this amazingly photogenic natural feature that is always pictured on Banff postcards.
From Canada Place I crossed the bridge over the Bow River and I visited another important landmark: the Banff Park Museum. It is one of Canada’s oldest and grandest natural history museum, housed in a historic “railway pagoda”, built in 1903, the largest and most elaborate example of early park design, using decorative cross-log construction.
Specimens inside the museum include mountain goats, deer, cougars, bisons, bears, a large variety of birds and mammals and some of these specimens date back to the 1860s. Norman Sanson, the weatherman on Sanson’s Peak, was the curator of this museum for over 30 years, and personally collected thousands of specimens for this museum.
The museum also holds a library where you can browse through a variety of books and magazines. After I had informed myself about Western Canada’s wildlife I strolled down Banff’s main street, aptly named Banff Avenue, I strengthened myself with a quick late lunch in the food court at the Cascade Plaza Shops, one of Banff’s main shopping plazas. After lunch I headed back out on the street and a very chilly mountain wind had started blowing. This was my last walk through Banff on this vacation and I was mentally saying goodbye to this picturesque mountain town.