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Banff: Canada's Oldest National Park Is an Outdoor Paradise

 by Rita Cook

The first place you'll want to see in Banff is the immense sprawling castle semi-hidden behind a thick layer of trees. By castle I mean the type of castle that entire communities lived in during the Middle Ages. The castle is just one of the many places you can stay while visiting this unique town, which is also a national park

Banff is Canada's oldest national park and the world's third oldest and it is also a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park is 2,564 square miles, the second largest in Canada after Jasper National Park.

Banff had a humble beginning when three railroad construction workers accidentally discovered the hot springs, now popular in the park.  The park was born on only 10 square miles located around the Sulphur Mountain Hot Springs area.

The park is home to many notable wildlife populations and ecologically it is full of rare finds. Located in the Rocky Mountain zone, the terrain is separated into three distinct eco-regions.  There's the montane, the sub-alpine and the alpine. As you progress through the various eco-regions you'll see the different plants and animals characterized by location. Visitors to the area can enjoy the hot springs, the caves and the outdoor activities and they might even have a chance to see the endangered woodland caribou. Banff is located in the Canadian Rockies in the province of Alberta, which makes it a winter wonderland and a must for winter outdoor lovers. The town is located 80 miles from Calgary and it is very accessible to travelers from anywhere in the United States.

While you're staying in Banff, you'll probably at some point encounter a moose on a two-lane road. After all, it is a national park, and the wildlife usually has the right of way over visitors.

The best way to explore Banff is on foot in the summer or the winter. If you happen to stop there in the summer, you'll love the extended daylight–the sun lingers until after 10 p.m.

Banff is paradise for lovers of the outdoors. Everywhere you look there are hikers and campers. For the more adventuresome, the river offers a real ride. Winter in Banff offers great skiing, both downhill and cross-country, at the two area ski resorts, Sunshine and Mount Norquay.  Other outdoor activities in the town include dogsledding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing and sleigh rides.  Banff Adventures Unlimited at (800) 644-8888 offers many of these winter activities, as does Good Earth Travel Adventures at (888) 979-9797.

Mount Norquay, in existence since 1926, is great for either beginners or the expert looking for double black diamond runs. If you're an expert skier, you will be thrilled to see the steep slopes as you approach the area.  Runs like Upper Lone Pine and Gun Run are rated black diamonds and are as good as any in the world.  For a snow report for Mount Norquay, check out

Banff's other ski resort, Sunshine, started 70 years ago as a lone cabin high in the mountains near Banff.  The cabin was actually a stopping point for people traveling through the Rockies. Now it's a multimillion-dollar ski resort. The original log cabin is still standing–it's currently called the Mad Trappers Saloon. 

The ski resort totals 3,168 acres on three mountainsides.  There are 3,514 feet of vertical slopes for the expert and the resort's longest run stretches five miles. Sunshine is also one of the last North American resorts that relies only on natural snow.

          Accommodations in Banff range from some great, inexpensive little bed and breakfasts to the castle, and everything is convenient to the skiing and other outdoor activities. There are 3,600 hotel rooms, more than 2,500 campsites and 125 restaurants in the Banff/Lake Louise area.

For entertainment, visit the Lux Cinema Centre, the only motion picture cinema in town. It has four screens that run daily and a matinee on Saturdays and Sundays. There is also a fun place called Wild Bill's Legendary Saloon, a Western dining and nightlife venue featuring Alberta beef and tex-mex food. Some good bands that visit the saloon too and there is a big-screen TV for sports fans.

While you are in Banff, don't miss the opportunity to spend a little time in Calgary, the Dallas of Canada. There are rodeos, fabulous restaurants and plenty to do there. The amazing thing about Calgary and the drive into Banff is the open land and lack of development. The traveler really experiences nature in Alberta. In contrast to Banff however, Calgary is very flat and so similar to Dallas that Hollywood has started to move in and film Calgary as a Dallas location. The best way to get to Banff is to fly into the Calgary airport and allow time to take in the city scene. Then take a trip north to Banff and bask in the glory of the mountains and the wilderness.  For more information on Banff's winter sports and snow reports visit


Rita Cook is a freelance travel and entertainment writer, as well as the freelance editorial director of ``Insider" magazine. She lives in Los Angeles and her most recent project, besides traveling, was producing a feature-length mockumentary called ``Marty & Virginia."



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