In all the years I’ve been visiting Banff, how could I have missed touring one of Canada’s most important historic sites, the Banff Cave and Basin? But I had, so on an afternoon break from a conference at the Banff Centre, I headed off to go exploring.
From downtown Banff, the Cave and Basin site is only a 15-20 minute walk along a pleasant forest path that parallels the road. Along the way, you might catch sight of a few woodland inhabitants and fellow visitors enjoying their days.
If you were really ambitious and well-prepared, you could go a long, long way on this path. The trail is part of the National Hiking System, a cross- Canada network that provides links between national parks.
But, today, I leave the path, pay my $3.90 admission to Parks Canada, and begin my exploration of what’s known as the birthplace of Canada’s national park system.
Not surprisingly, the Stoney people, Banff’s original inhabitants, were well-acquainted with the hot springs located at this site. They held spiritual ceremonies here and bathed in the waters, which they believed to be sacred.
In 1883, during the building of the Canadian Pacific railway, three European railway workers “discovered” the hot springs, smelled financial opportunity, and petitioned the Canadian government for rights to develop the land. A hot springs reserve was granted and Canada’s national park system was established. The Stoney people, who had not been consulted about the development of their land, were pushed aside as wealthy spa visitors from around the world poured into Banff. Thankfully, after the springs were eventually closed to public use, the Stoney people resumed accessing the springs for traditional ceremonies.
Although you can’t bathe in the hotsprings anymore, you can follow a dimly lit hallway off the Interpretive Centre, which opens out into the Cave. As you breathe in the aroma of minerals and listen to the splash of a small waterfall, it’s not hard to imagine what it might have been like to visit this place thousands of years ago.
When you’ve finished absorbing the Cave atmosphere, head outside to the Basin for another perspective on this site. Even if you’re not an artist, you might be tempted to invest in a box of paints to capture the rich blues and greens.
This is an eyes only experience. Visitors are asked not to dabble their hands in the water for fear of disturbing the environment of the Rocky Mountain snails, the most at-risk species in Banff National Park. The Park rangers will happily point out these minuscule water dwellers which cling to the rocks along the water’s edge.
On the way back out, you can have a look at historical documents and photos that recall the days when the Cave and Basin were open for public swimming. But I’m happy that, after the site was rehabilitated to address various health and safety issues, the decision was made to keep the site a “look but don’t touch” experience. As Canada’s natural places and their inhabitants dwindle, they need the protection offered by this kind of foresight.