The world got a glimpse of the Canadian Rockies during the 1988 Winter Olympic Games. But Banff, Canada's first national park, has such scenic splendor that no picture can really do it justice.
The 4,088 square miles of snow-capped peaks, crystal-clear rivers and emerald lakes in the park offer diverse pleasures - from hiking and camping in rustic woodlands to the charm of formal gardens and massive inns reminiscent of European castles. Pleasant summertime temperatures and the favorable exchange rate make a trip north even more inviting.Banff National Park lies west of Calgary, an eye-pleasing 90-minute drive along the Trans-Canada Highway. Mount Rundle is visible miles before reaching the park's entrance. First stop is the town of Banff, a well-kept community of 5,500, proud of its world-class status.
Banff Springs Hotel, overlooking the confluence of the Bow and Spray rivers and the 18-hole golf course beside them, is 100 years old. Although room rates are high (starting at $160 Canadian per night, mid-May through September), the public areas afford a look at the elegance of European castles, including exact reproductions of period furniture. The view from the terrace is not to be missed.
Nor are colorful Cascade Gardens, back down the road from the grand hotel, near the park's administration buildings. Pathways lead past pools, waterfalls, and an array of perennial and annual flowers, providing a quiet respite from the bustling souvenir shops lining Banff Avenue.
West of the gardens and administration buildings lies a large public recreation area, perfect for a picnic, game of softball, or fishing in the gentle Bow River. (Pick up a free National Parks permit, available at the Information Centre.)
At the opposite end of the street, stop in at the Parks Information Centre for helpful brochures, maps and schedules of free tours. All summer, park interpreters offer a variety of guided walks and hikes to help visitors understand the natural and cultural history of the area - all at no charge.
Fine arts enthusiasts will want to check out the Banff Centre, which hosts a variety of live performances, plus first screenings of many cinematic features from Canada's film industry. Free noon-hour concerts are presented in the complex's Margaret Greenham Theatre. The Peter Whyte Gallery and Walter J. Phillips Gallery exhibit the best work of Banff Centre students and international artists.
As for physical activity, hiking, cycling, and backpacking are common and welcome throughout the park. Information Centres can give directions, plus options for other explorations by foot, car, or horseback.
From Banff, it's 35 miles along the Bow River to splendid Lake Louise. Gaze at its emerald waters and, in a quiet moment, perhaps, hear the rumbling of Victoria Glacier directly in front of you as you stand on the back steps of the elegant Chateau Lake Louise (undergoing a facelift as it nears its hundredth year). And don't forget your camera! This has to be one of the most picturesque spots in all the world. They don't call it "the Jewel of the Rockies" for nothing.
Pathways around the small lake are great for leisurely walks, energetic hikes, or early morning jogs. Or, ply its mirror-like water in a rented canoe. Visitors are in for a special treat with hikes to alpine teahouses, one overlooking Lake Louise (2.2 mile hike) and the other offering a spectacular view of six glaciers after a 3 1/2-mile, full-day hike. Other paths and unforgettable scenery are available at nearby Moraine Lake. Ask Information Center guides for specifics.
Miles away on the east side of the Trans-Canada Highway, you can enjoy a distant view of Lake Louise and the mountains towering around it from the top of the gondola on the ski runs. A $4 hiker's special (half-price for kids 5-12) lets you ride up, enjoy breakfast or lunch, and hike down.
If you're planning to spend the night in Banff or Lake Louise, it might be wise to book accommodations at any of several motels in the towns, or even a few miles away. A central reservations number for Banff/Lake Louise is (403) 762-5561.
Our family's favorite was a tiny, rustic cabin in the pines, just off the main road to Lake Louise, away from the town's new shopping mall. Paradise Bungalows sleep six in what is sure to be the most-remembered place you stayed in Banff - unless, of course, you can afford the European-style hotels. Be forewarned that no accommodation in the area is inexpensive. For one night in a cabin, we paid $104 Canadian (which translated to around $78 U.S. at the exchange rate at the time) and thought the memory well worth it. Phone (403) 522-3595.
Beyond Banff, you may want to take in some other wonders of the Canadian Rockies, including the massive Athabasca Glacier and Athabasca Falls, both along the Columbia Icefields Parkway leading north from Lake Louise. For camping, cycling, and hiking information, write Information Centre, 224 Banff Ave., Banff, Alberta T0L 0C0. For a listing of accommodations, write Banff/Lake Louise Chamber of Commerce, Box 1298, Banff, Alberta T0L 0C0.
Paddling a canoe on Lake Louise, above, is one of many outdoor activities in Banff National Park. Chateau Lake Louise in the background is undergoing a facelift. Thundering Athabasca Falls, left, is among the beautiful sights in the Canadian Rockies.