We have long believed the national parks that encompass a huge section of the Rocky Mountains are a national treasure. What we didn’t realize was that a modest source of warm water, once deep in the woods but now a short walk outside the present-day town of Banff, was the birthplace of the whole Canadian national parks system.
We found a good deal on a room in Banff and the road was calling! We decided to squeeze in a short mid-summer run across the Continental Divide and back. So off we went, stopping in Revelstoke on the way and staying at The Sutton Place Hotel, otherwise known as the Revelstoke Mountain Resort. They were also offering a mid-summer deal on rooms, and even upgraded us when we got there. The hotel consists of three buildings at the base of a ski hill, likely a much-busier place in the winter, but quiet and out of the way during the summer. We slipped back down into town for dinner, and sampled the locally made India Pale Ale (IPA) called Nasty Habit, which Mt. Begbie Brewing promises is a “wicked ale that leaves you lusting for more”. Right they are!
The half-day drive from Revelstoke to Banff involves driving along side or through three national parks (Revelstoke, Glacier, and Yoho) and some of the most stunning views of mountains in Canada. The area around Banff itself is so picturesque, it does seem fitting that this would be the inspirational for establishing a system of national parks.
It was a trio of railway workers, Frank McCabe and brothers, William and Tom McCardell, who in 1883 stumbled upon an opening in a hillside that lead to a large underground cave and the springs that were generating hot water from deep in the earth. A park brochure notes that Aboriginal peoples and non-native explorers and settlers knew about the cave and the warm water that trickled into a small lake in the valley, but these three believed that with the coming of the railway, they would be able to attract wealthy travellers to bathe in these healing waters. They petitioned the government for the rights to develop the land, but when word reached Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, he proposed the creation of a hot springs reserve, retaining ownership of the land for the public’s “great sanitary advantage.”
Over the years pools were built near the springs that were attracting over 150,000 people per year in by the early 1960s. The pool was closed in 1971, rebuilt and re-opened in 1985, but closed for the last time in 1994. The main facility is now a viewing platform and park museum (and established as the Cave and Basin National Historic Site), and the starting point for trails that criss-cross this unique marshland.
With warm water flowing in, the area stays frost-free even as snow and ice cover the surrounding mountains. We thought we could do the Marsh Trail, but it is also a horse trail, deep in mud and manure, not something to try without rubber boots. We did take a long walk along the main trail, although when we stopped to read directional signs, we were attacked by dozens of large, hungry mosquitoes, forcing a rapid retreat to apply bug spray – so glad we packed it!
We really like international travel, but exploring our own magnificent ”back yard” once in a while is always worth the effort; and there is always something new to learn!