In the olden days, especially on the frontier, hot baths were not all that easy to come by. So, if you happened on a place where you could soak your bones in a natural hot springs you weren't anxious to let it go.

That's how Banff, Canada's oldest National Park, got its start.

The hot springs at what is now Cave and Basic National Historic Site had probably been known for centuries, as first native tribes and later gold prospectors moved through the area.

But when railroad workers building the line through the Canadian wilderness found them in 1883, they filed a claim. "Wait," said other folks who knew about the springs, "you can't claim them; we knew about them first." And so there were claims and counter claims — and one, big, hot, bubbly mess.

The government stepped in. Hot water may seem like liquid gold, it said, but that doesn't mean hot springs could be claimed like they were gold mines.

In 1885, the government decided that the hot springs and the surrounding area should be set aside as a preserve for the good of all.

In 1886, more land was added to the preserve, and a year later the Rocky Mountains Park was created. Land was again added in 1892, when the area around Lake Louise was tacked on.

These were the days of railroad resorts, when far-flung destinations that could be reached by railroad had a great deal of appeal to the well-heeled set. And the Canadian Pacific Railroad, which was building a line through the Rockies in order to connect the country, saw a great deal of potential in the ruggedly breathtaking views in the area.

"Since we can't export the scenery, we'll have to import the tourists," CPR vice president and general manager William Cornelius Van Horne was noted as saying.

The CPR began to build what is now famous as the Banff Springs Hotel in 1886. The story is told that Van Horne visited the construction site and discovered that the plans for the hotel had somehow gotten turned around, and the hotel was being build backwards — with the kitchens overlooking the rivers and the guest rooms viewing the forest. Luckily, he was in time to correct the problem.

When the hotel, built in the area known simply as Siding 29, was completed in 1888, tourists could stay there for $3.50 a day. A town grew up in the area surrounding the resort, and that's how Banff came to have the only self-governing town inside a Canadian National Park.

The name Banff, by the way, didn't come until 1930, when it was suggested as a way to honor the CPR's first President, George Stephen, who had been born in Banffshire, Scotland. In 1984, Banff was named a United Nations Heritage Site.

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As with Glacier National Park in the United States, Banff owes its gorgeous scenery to the carving powers of ice and snow, at work eons ago. As the last Ice Age came to an end, retreating glaciers sculpted unusual gorges, created cirques and hanging valleys, notched out striking rock formations, left behind jade colored lakes and rivers.

Some people claim the whole region — stretching from Glacier through Waterton Lakes, Banff and up to Jasper — as the prettiest scenery in North America. There's no question that if you love mountain scenery, you will find much to delight the senses.

Banff offers both beauty and adventure. For those who are doers, there's much to do. A list of "top 10 summer activities" comprises hiking, biking, boating and rafting, fishing, horseback riding, golf, festivals, picnicking, touring and viewing wildlife.

For those who are watchers, there is also plenty to see: views that even postcards and calendars can't quite capture; forests that seem to go on forever; wildflowers blooming in profusion (at least during the summer season); and, if you're lucky, smiling mountain goats.

Lake Louise is one of the crown jewels of the park, and one of the most famous sites in all of the Rockies. The lake was named after the daughter of Queen Victoria, who also happened to be the wife of Canada's Governor General in 1884.

The lake had been "discovered" two years earlier by a railroad supplier named Tom Wilson who was packing in goods for survey crews. According to the history, he was camping one night when he hears a tremendous boom of what sounded like thunder. But Stoney Indians, who were also camped nearby, told him it was from an avalanche on a mountain by a lake. A Stoney guide took Wilson to see the lake the next morning, and Wilson was struck by the "matchless scene."

The Stoneys, who had wandered about the area for the past 200 years or so, called it the Lake of Little Fishes. Another, less poetic, explorer had termed it a "muskeg with mosquitoes and stumps." Wilson named it Emerald Lake. But Louise got the final honor.

The first chateau for visitors was built there in 1890. It could accommodate 12 guests. After a fire destroyed some of it, the hotel was rebuilt and enlarged and marketed as a destination for "rugged outdoors people, artists, mountaineers and trail riders." They began arriving in record numbers. The Fairmont Chateau at Lake Louise is now one of the most famous hotels in the world and can house 1,000 guests. It is open year-round.

The lake is filled with glacier and snow melt, so the cold temperatures preclude swimming. But visitors can rent a canoe and paddle around. There are also paths and hiking trails (some 42 miles of them in all) that take you around the lake and off into the nearby forests.

The color of the water changes hourly due to the play of light and shadow from the surrounding mountains. But its famous aquamarine is never far away. Geologists will tell you it comes from glacial sediment, called rock flour, that is finely ground in the run-off from glaciers. Fanciful folk may tell you it dripped off God's own palette.

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Banff National Park covers some 2,564 square miles in all. It runs into the Columbian Icefields, with their ever-shrinking glaciers, and then connects with Jasper National Park.

You can take the Trans-Canada Highway, if time is a factor. But for a more leisurely, scenic drive, the Bow Valley Parkway connects the town of Banff with Lake Louise.

Lake Louise may be the most famous, but is far from the only treasure in Banff. Moraine Lake and its Valley of Ten Peaks backdrop was so prized it once appeared on Canada's $20 bill. Some nine miles south of Lake Louise, Moraine is also glacier-related. Lake Minnewanka is the largest in Banff, and the only one to allow power boats. There are other lakes, rivers and waterfalls almost around every curve.

Castle Mountain, along the Bow Valley Parkway, is one of the more distinctive landmarks. It, too, has a naming story. Apparently, after World War II the name was changed to Mount Eisenhower, and the general himself was supposed to come to the naming ceremonies. But he didn't show up because he was delayed at a golf match somewhere else. That didn't sit well with the locals, who took to calling the grassy terrace on the south side "Eisenhower's Green."

In 1979 the Castle Mountain name was restored, and only the southernmost tower was christened Eisenhower Peak.

The town of Banff is also well worth a visit — or a shopping spree. Watched over by Mount Rundle, it offers shops, boutiques, restaurants, art galleries, as well as history, all in a gorgeous setting. You can visit the grounds of the Banff Springs Hotel, even if you don't stay there, and you can still go the place that started it all, Cave and Basin Hot Springs, where you can see the original 1887 bathhouse as well as the newly renovated bathing pools.

For overall views, you can take the gondola to the top of Sulphur Peak, where you'll find Canada's highest restaurant, some 7,500 feet above sea level. At the edge of town, you can visit the Tunnel Mountain Hoodoos, unusual rock formations sticking out of the mountainside like little cathedrals.

If it's shopping you want, you might also want to check out Canmore, known as the "Gateway to Banff." In fact, during the busy season, you might have a better chance of finding lodging in Canmore than in Banff itself. Canmore, too, is surrounded by spectacular scenery, including the famous Three Sisters peaks.

Nowadays, you're more likely to soak your bones in a hot tub rather than a hot springs. But there is still a lot that hasn't changed all that much in Banff. It's a place, the locals like to say, where "the world meets the wilderness." Here, they will tell you, you are surrounded by "all the elements of heaven." Ponder that while you soak, and you'll probably agree.


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