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Things You Didn’t Know About Banff National Park

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Banff National Park is Canada’s most visited national park, welcoming around 4 million tourists every year. And it’s not hard to see why: The park covers an exquisite mountainous landscape in the Canadian Rockies, where high-altitude emerald and turquoise lakes are scattered between jagged, snow-capped peaks. The park is home to a number of caves, including Canada’s longest, Castleguard Cave. Visitors to Banff National Park regularly spot varied wildlife such as bighorn sheep, elk, bears, moose, wolves, cougars, and lynx. But even though its name may be familiar, you might not know as much about this national park as you think. Here are eight fascinating facts about Banff National Park.

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Banff Was Canada’s First National Park

Road trip driving through the Canadian Rockies and Banff National Park.
Credit: YinYang/ iStock

The origins of Banff National Park date back to 1883. At that time, the construction of the new Canadian Pacific Railway had reached Bow Lake. On their day off, two railroad employees, Frank McCabe and William McCardell, discovered the Cave and Basin Hot Springs nearby. It wasn’t hard to see the commercial potential, and developers quickly built several bath houses. However, there was a dispute over land ownership and a legal battle followed. To resolve the issue, a nature reserve was established in 1885.

When surveyor George A. Stewart came to take a look at the area surrounding the newly formed Banff Hot Springs Reserve, he deemed it so scenic it was suitable to become a national park. In 1887, a 260-square-mile area became the Rocky Mountains Park, and over the next few decades it grew considerably in size. In 1930, it was renamed Banff National Park.

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The Canadian Pacific Railway Built the Park’s Two Most Famous Hotels

Banff Springs Hotel located in Banff National Park.
Credit: jewhyte/ iStock via Getty Images Plus

Three years after the creation of the national park, the Canadian Pacific Railway opened the park’s first hotel. The railways’s president, William Cornelius Van Horne, reportedly said at the time, “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.” He found the ideal location in Banff, and the Banff Springs hotel opened in 1888. Allegedly, the hotel was built backwards; some say it was a contractor mistake while others claim it was done deliberately to maximize the views of the mountains behind. The biggest mystery centers on Room 873, sometimes referred to as the “Lost Room.” There are different versions of the legend, one involving a grisly murder and a ghost and another blaming an incompetent building team. Whatever you believe, today there is curiously no Room 873 on the 8th floor, yet there’s a Room 973 and a Room 773 immediately above and below.

The Canadian Pacific Railway was also responsible for another world-renowned property, Chateau Lake Louise. Initially a far more modest single-story log cabin that was erected in 1890 as an offshoot of the Banff Springs Hotel, the hotel catered largely to day visitors. However, the area’s soaring popularity created the demand for a much larger hotel, and from the early 20th century onwards, the hotel we know today started to take shape.

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The Park Had an Uneasy Relationship With Cars in the Early Years

Aerial view of the Icefields Parkway road between Banff and Jasper National Parks in Canada.
Credit: R.M. Nunes/ iStock

Early visitors to Banff National Park took advantage of packages that combined rail transportation and accommodations. It would be some time before the first car would arrive in the park, driven by a Boston couple in 1904. But the freedom to explore the area by automobile was soon rescinded. Concerned about the detrimental impact cars could have on local wildlife, a ban came into force just a year later. However, such action would prove short-lived. In 1910, the authorities lifted the block, although for a time, there was a speed limit of just 15 mph.

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A red cargo train passing through Morant's curve in Bow Valley, Banff National Park.
Credit: R.M. Nunes/ iStock

Despite the increase in road traffic, Banff’s close relationship with the railroad endures. Since 1990, more than 2 million passengers have traveled on board the luxurious Rocky Mountaineer on its scenic trips through the park. Two of its four routes, the First Passage to the West and Coastal Passage, connect Banff and Lake Louise.

Perhaps the most iconic image you’ll see of Banff National Park is that of Morant’s Curve. This stretch of track, named after a railroad employee named Nicholas Morant, is one of the most photographed spots in the park, as trains hug the bank as they meander along the Bow River. Set up your tripod on the scenic lookout on the Bow Valley Parkway, wrap up warm and prepare to be patient. The most coveted shot is of a red train against a snow white backdrop, but there’s no regular winter schedule for those particular freight trains, so you’ll need some luck if you want to snap it yourself.

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Banff Is Home to One of the World’s Few Triple Divide Points

View of the hydrological apex at the Snow Dome Mountain.
Credit: Autumn's Memories/ Shutterstock

At first glance, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about Mount Snow Dome. But this 11,000-foot-tall mountain, located on the northwestern edge of Banff National Park at the intersection of the Great Continental Divide and the Arctic Divide, is considered a hydrological apex — a point where three different watersheds meet. What that means is that a raindrop falling onto its summit could travel into three different drainage basins as it makes its way downhill. Mount Snow Dome isn’t just one of the few points like this on the planet; it’s also the only one in the world that empties into three completely different oceans — the Pacific, the Atlantic, and the Arctic.

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Some of Banff's Lakes Get Their Extraordinary Color From Rock Flour

Beautiful high mountains and turquoise Moraine lake on a sunny day at Banff National Park.
Credit: Hellen888/ Shutterstock

Moraine Lake is among the bodies of water in Banff National Park which take on a vivid turquoise hue in summer, along with others nearby such as Bow Lake, Lake Louise, and Peyto Lake. They all have something in common: They are glacier-fed. As temperatures rise in late spring, those glaciers begin to thaw. Snowmelt travels down to the lakes, carrying with it tiny particles known as rock flour that are suspended in the water. Light refracts off these particles, which is why these lakes are an even more dazzling shade of turquoise on a sunny day.

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The Banff Town Signs Used to Feature Bill Peyto

A panoramic view of bright blue Peyto Lake surrounded by the dense evergreen forest.
Credit: SeanXu/ iStock

Ebenezer William "Wild Bill" Peyto was instrumental in the early management and conservation of Banff’s landscape. He was an English immigrant who had worked for the railroad, as a prospector, and lateras a trail guide in the 1890s. In 1913, he took up a position as Banff’s park warden; five years later, he became its game warden.

Throughout his life, Peyto craved solitude and privacy. He would regularly spend the night in a remote mountain cabin or camping in a secluded spot beside Peyto Lake, which is why it bears his name. For a long time, signs greeting visitors to Banff town bore his image. To the dismay of some of the wardens who followed in his footsteps, however, the Town of Banff replaced them in 2017.

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Lake Minnewanka, The Park’s Largest Body of Water, Hides an Underwater Ghost Town

The Minnewanka lake in the Canadian Rockies in Banff, Alberta, Canada.
Credit: shahnoorhabib/ Shutterstock

The 13-mile-long Lake Minnewanka hides a subterranean secret. In the 1880s, a log hotel called the Beach House was constructed on its shores. Demand was high and the development soon grew into a small resort, which became known as Minnewanka Landing. But in 1912, a hydroelectric plant was built nearby, damming the river downstream and resulting in significant flooding. In 1941, another dam further exacerbated problems for the resort, as water levels rose by 98 feet. So today, if you want to visit Minnewanka Landing, you’ll need to don scuba gear.

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