Summer Roadtrip Day 7: Exploring Banff

Having been put up in 2 Executive Suites, me and my siblings got a really good night’s sleep at Banff as the bed was as comfortable as the ones at Lake Louise. So with us refreshed in the morning, we went on to really discover what Banff has in store for us!

Double Queen Beds at Banff Springs Hotel
Double Queen Beds at Banff Springs Hotel

Banff National Park is the 1st of Canada’s successful national parks system and was established in 1885. Which is why there is a lot of museum and historic sites around the area. But instead of visiting a museum, we shall have breakfast first at Banff Townsite and I have led my family into one Melissa’s Restaurant & Bar which serves breakfast and is amongst one of the more famous restaurants in town. Their food is relatively good and I had their specialty apple hot cakes, while my sister shared with my mum a plate of french toast. Dad and my brother went for the usual eggs, bacons, sausages and hams. Having had the most important meal of the day, we can now explore Banff National Park. For starters, we drove towards nearby Vermillion Lakes. The 1st and 2nd Vermillion Lakes have marshes around them and are reputedly known to be home to a variety of birds including bald eagles, though we did not spot much wildlife the day we were there. It was pretty quiet in the area too with a lack of tourists and buses… Though the next time I head to Banff, I might return here again on a clear day for some great photos and maybe catch a sight of more wildlife like beavers, coyotes and those eagles!

Scenery of Banff at the 2nd Vermillion Lake
Scenery of Banff at the 2nd Vermillion Lake

After visiting lakes, we headed to view the mountains in Banff. The drive to see the Tunnel Mountain Viewpoint brings us past the Town Centre once again into Tunnel Mountain Drive, a road which leads us to this viewpoint where we got to see the Banff Springs hotel in all its splendour.

Castle in the Rockies - the Banff Springs Hotel
Castle in the Rockies - the Banff Springs Hotel

Like most Fairmont Hotels in Canada, the Banff Springs Hotel used to be part of the Canadian Pacific Railway Hotels, a  group of historic hotels built to lure travellers into new territories to help pay for the immense construction costs of building a railway through western Canada. That is also the reason why much of the hotels have the similar architecture and design. The Tunnel Mountain Drive also allows drivers to enjoy the beautiful scenery around Banff as it takes us higher towards the Viewpoint.

Tunnel Mountain Viewpoint
Tunnel Mountain Viewpoint

Tunnel Mountain was named because the railway company initially wanted to build a tunnel across the mountain but never did as the tracks were re-reouted. But the name stuck and it hasn’t changed! Another reason to visit this area is actually to see the Hoodoos, a bunch of natural stone structures found near the Tunnel Mountain Campground further down the road. From the Hoodoos, one also get a nice view of the Bow Valley which is a different perspective as the offered from our hotel suite. It is also not difficult to see why people enjoy hiking in the Canadian Rockies, the view is so much different when you are travelling closer to the scenery!

The Hoodoos - natural stone sculptures at Banff in Bow Valley region
The Hoodoos - natural stone sculptures at Banff in Bow Valley region

While driving around Tunnel Mountain Drive we were also able to hear the noise of the waterfalls which in fact is caused by the Bow Falls close by Banff Springs Hotel. This naturally leads us to our next destination – the Bow Falls and Banff Springs Hotel Historic Site, which is close by the hotel, and a point of interest we should have visited earlier in the day. Bow river is main waterway cutting through the town of Banff and is the focal point of the Bow Valley which makes Banff such a beautiful town surrounded by many interesting mountains. Unlike much waterfalls we have seen thus far, Bow Falls seems mild in comparison as it is neither tall nor too powerful. In fact we are able to view the falls close up and boat/canoe close to the Falls in the Bow River.

A view of Bow Valley from the side of Bow River
A view of Bow Valley from the side of Bow River
Landscape view of Bow Falls and the flow of the Bow River
Landscape view of Bow Falls and the flow of the Bow River

Having had a filling breakfast earlier on, and with it being still early after visiting Bow Falls, we drove to the nearby Cave and Basin National Historic Site. If any place in the Rockies could be said to be the birthplace of the 4 Mountain Parks, this could be it. A hot springs was discovered here by 3 miners and they began to develop it as a tourist attraction, and before long the city of Banff grew and the government made it into a National Park. The Cave & Basin charges a nominal entrance fee which allows us to visit the original cavern and the hot springs site and provides numerous exhibits on the formation of the National Park and the result of it being chosen as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Cavern leading to the Hot Springs Pool
Cavern leading to the Hot Springs Pool

From the Cave & Basin, there is also a nice boardwalk that allows us to view the surrounding marshlands. In fact this area is directly opposite to where we were in the morning around the Vermillion Lakes. This area of Banff are made up of marshlands which provides a breeding habitat for different species of animals and refuge for Canada’s national animal – the Beaver. Birdwatchers can also take delight in the walk around these area as they provide the opportunity to spot wild birds!

Marsh Boardwalk view of the surrounding Marshlands
Marsh Boardwalk view of the surrounding Marshlands

With much energy burned after all the walking, we headed back towards Banff Townsite for a late lunch and with most restaurants past their lunch hour by then, we had something most tourists do when they are in a foreign territory – McDonalds. Yes, the ubiquitous golden arches have a branch in the middle of Banff. Having lunch at town centre also allows us to explore more of the Banff Townsite, and picking up an ice cream cone or two from Cow’s. I remember there used to be a branch of Cow’s in Vancouver, but has since closed down. Anyway the ice cream didn’t taste as good as when I tasted it back then… so it was more to shop around town again as we headed to Cascade Plaza, perhaps the largest shopping mall in the whole of the Rocky Mountain National Parks.

Cascade Plaza is the place to shop in Banff
Cascade Plaza is the place to shop in Banff

For starters, there’s GAP in the Cascade Plaza, Roots next door, and for the upper crust, there’s Louis Vuitton! Maybe the Japanese or the nouveau-riche Chinese feels the need to lavish on new handbags after the last one has been scratched by a bear! Oh well, it is to serve the needs of those who can’t do without shopping in a holiday, I guess! After the ladies had fun in the Plaza, we went on towards Lake Minnewanka for an evening wildlife cruise. Chances of spotting wildlife is higher in the early morning or the early evening (think of zoo feeding times) as that’s when they come out to look for food. We passed by one round of the major Banff Avenue, the main thoroughfare of Banff Townsite and admire this charming city before properly going in the direction towards one of the largest lake in Banff.

The charming town of Banff along Banff Avenue
The charming town of Banff along Banff Avenue

Unlike other lakes we have seen which are relatively smaller, Lake Minnewanka is much larger and didn’t have the extravagant beauty of Lake Louise or the clear sparkling waters of Emerald Lake. Which makes it relatively ordinary, but the interesting thing was that the lake has been dammed up more than once, having resulted in the height of the lake being artificially raised. From here, one gets a beautiful view of the Cascade Mountains and the Fairholme Range of Mountains. One tip is to go early morning for great photos of Cascade Mountains and late evening for good shots of the Fairholme Range. It’s got to do with the direction of the sunshine and quality of light. Anyway, we were earlier than we expected for the last departing evening cruise and had the chance to explore the area

Boats moored on Lake Minnewanka
Boats moored on Lake Minnewanka

As it was a great sunny day on the day we were there, several people was bringing their own yachts and fishing boats out to enjoy the lake! In fact, I have seen more boats in this trip being towed along huge Dodge Ram Pick-ups than in my whole lifetime! Boating is definitely the thing to do in western Canada where large lakes are spread out in this part of the country. There was even a gasoline station at Lake Minnewanka for boats! On the evening we were there, bighorn sheeps were also roaming around the area, but that seems to be the only sign of wildlife we saw while we were there. Now, to talk about the cruise, it was a very nice ride towards the other end of Lake Minnewanka, with the guide indicating to us the various sights and stories about the area. In fact there used to be a site for a small village by the lake, which was submerged as the lake’s height was increased. As we reached the other end of Lake Minnewanka, we turned back and the return trip was slightly faster. The whole cruise took around 1 and a half hours and was a nice journey, though for the price of the tickets, it was fairly ordinary.

Mt Peechee in the Fairholme Range seen from Lake Minnewanka
Mt Peechee in the Fairholme Range seen from Lake Minnewanka

As we disembarked from the cruise, the guides gave us a tip and asked us to head towards Two Jack Lake where we can get some great scenery during sunset. It was a good tip as we went according to the plan and found this parking area close to the lakeside which provided a nice landscape of the Fairholme Range and the mountains of Banff.

Evening sunset view from Two Jack Lake close to Lake Minnewanka
Evening sunset view from Two Jack Lake close to Lake Minnewanka

From Two Jack Lake, we returned to Banff Townsite again for dinner. See the cycle here? Visit a lake, return to Banff, visit a mountain and a cave, return to Banff, visit another lake and return to Banff again. That’s what makes Banff such a nice place to base your excursion out into the Rockies. For dinner we had decided to try one of Banff’s award-winning restaurant, Maple Leaf Grille for dinner. It was a good choice as it had a nice variety of western dishes which was to Dad’s and Mum’s palette. For starters, their prawn fritters was nice with a spicy mayo dip. The guys stuck to steaks as we ordered NY Steak, 18oz Bone-In Rib Eye and Bison Tenderloin. While the NY Steak was ordinary, the Bone-In Rib Eye was one of the largest steaks, equalling even Morton’s Porterhouse. The Bison Tenderloin was the most unique of all as it had cocoa jus over it which was unique and kinda suitable to the more tangy taste of bison over normal beef. The ladies had Wild BC Salmon and Codfish which was also equally appetizing. And to end the meal we had Hot Chocolate Souffle served with Vanilla Ice Cream.

NY Steak at Maple Leaf Grille
NY Steak at Maple Leaf Grille

With the dinner, it was time to return to the hotel for a nice rest before we head towards Calgary tomorrow. However I took this chance to venture around the castle, and explore the hallways and common areas. The Banff Springs Hotel is truly like a castle as its interior has that medieval look complete with dark spiral staircases and wooden furnitures. I wouldn’t be suprised if they ever film the Harry Potter movie using Banff Springs as the set for Hogwarts!

Medieval Hallway in the Banff Springs Hotel
Medieval Hallway in the Banff Springs Hotel
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