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Banff National Park, AB

Mountain Meadows and Snow-Capped Peaks Banff National Park sprawls across the jagged backs of the Rocky Mountains, offering some of the most beautiful alpine scenery in the world. It is a land of breathtaking vistas no photo can do justice to—no matter how gifted the photographer. Craggy, snow-capped peaks encircle forested valleys and glacier-fed lakes. Sheltered meadows wear a glorious mantle of wildflowers, vibrant with fireweed, Indian paintbrush, columbine and anemone. Rushing streams sparkle in the crisp mountain air, flowing through forests of lodgepole pine and Douglas fir.

Banff was established in 1885, 2 years after railway workers discovered a misty cave containing thermal springs, a find that led to a legal battle over who would develop the springs as a bathing resort. The conflict was resolved when the Canadian government set aside the rugged land for the benefit of all its citizens, creating what would become the country's first national park. Although bathing in these mineral springs is no longer permitted, you can still see the natural grotto where it all began at Cave and Basin National Historic Site.

To attract wealthy tourists, the Canadian Pacific Railway built the luxurious Banff Springs Hotel in 1888. The castle-like stone-and-concrete building you see today replaced the original wooden hotel after it burned in 1926, but the idea of providing guests with opulent accommodations while they enjoy the area's scenic beauty remains unchanged. The image of the hotel's stately, high-peaked roofline rising above the surrounding evergreens is a fixture on postcards.

Known today as The Fairmont Banff Springs, the hotel stands on the outskirts of the charming resort town of Banff, where most development within the park is focused and where you'll find the largest number of hotels. Rustic mountain lodge-style buildings house boutiques, sporting goods stores, gift shops and restaurants. In spring and summer the sidewalks—radiant with colorful annuals planted in window boxes and hanging baskets—are crowded with visitors; in winter the streets in the town center can be just as packed as in warm-weather months with the difference being roof racks now carry skis and winter gear instead of canoes and kayaks.

The village of Lake Louise is the park's second most developed area, where you'll find a small shopping center, cafes, hotels and a ski resort. The community takes its name from the beautiful lake nearby, which is fed by meltwater from Victoria Glacier. The runoff carries finely ground rock flour that gives the lake a striking milky turquoise color you'll see in the area's other glacially fed lakes. Facing the glacier on the opposite shore is The Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, a grand hotel with more than 500 rooms. The hotel, lake and glacier together create one of the most photographed settings in the park.

Another highlight of Banff National Park is Bow Valley Parkway, a scenic roadway that parallels Trans-Canada Highway (Hwy. 1), connecting the towns of Banff and Lake Louise. Nestled in Valley of the Ten Peaks, Moraine Lake dazzles visitors with its sparkling blue waters, earning it the nickname, “Jewel of the Rockies.”

Other sights for which the park is famous: Johnston Canyon, Crow Foot Glacier, the sawtooth profile of Mount Rundle reflected in the clear waters of Vermilion Lakes and, in winter, the frozen waterfall known as Weeping Wall. And while you make your way among these scenic points, you'll likely encounter Banff's abundant wildlife. Elk, deer and bighorn sheep are most common, and if you have binoculars you may catch sight of mountain goats and moose in the distance. If you should spot them, you may want to steer clear of the area's predators: bears, wolves, coyotes and lynx, but odds are they'll want to keep their distance from you, too.

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Banff National Park, AB

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