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Banff National Park
Banff National Park covers some of the most spectacular sections of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, including Lake Louise where we had hiked to an authentic tea house high above the jewel-green water.
Over the next two days, we explored other areas in the park, including: waterfalls in Johnston Canyon, a former coal-processing center called Bankhead, mountain bike trails along the Bow River, the Banff Park Museum, and downtown Banff.
Johnston Canyon Trail
About 20 miles southeast of Lake Louise, was Johnston Canyon—a narrow gorge with waterfalls and a trail that is purportedly “one of the most popular hikes in all of Canada.” The trail description was enticing: winding over wooden footbridges, through a tunnel, and along catwalks embedded into canyon walls. We couldn’t pass that up!
Johnston Canyon was located along the Bow Valley Parkway, a narrow road that ran beside the Bow River:
Over a million people hike Johnston Canyon every year. To avoid the crowds and ensure a parking spot for our RV, we arrived before 8 a.m. The parking lot was practically empty, but several tour buses had already deposited their loads of passengers onto the trail.
The route was up-and-back, not a loop. We planned to walk 1 ½ miles (3 miles round trip) to reach the highest waterfall, called Upper Falls.
Genevieve, at the trailhead:
Near the entrance, we found the sweeping curves of this tree trunk:
The trail was paved, with railings along the side next to Johnston Creek.
Large portions of the trail were attached to the canyon wall with steel beams:
For fifty years, the path had wooden bridges over the water, but the park had replaced those with the much sturdier steel catwalks in 1974.
The catwalks had to be strong enough to carry the weight load of large groups of hikers:
An easy half-mile walk brought us to the Lower Falls:
A bridge crossed over to a small tunnel that led to a closer viewing point. Here are the bridge and cave from a higher perspective:
A view of the waterfall from the bridge:
Only a limited number of people could comfortably stand on the viewing point through the tunnel. We waited outside for a mass of people to exit the tunnel. Genevieve and Sebastian showed more patience (and manners) in waiting their turn than some of the adults around us.
Sebastian, entering the tunnel:
Being closer did allow us to feel the powerful energy of the falls.
The spray coated us with a fine layer of moisture.
Sebastian and Genevieve:
With a line of people at the tunnel entrance, we really couldn’t linger too long.
Continuing onward, the trail climbed past Lower Falls, with more catwalks clinging to the canyon walls. We were thrilled to have this section almost to ourselves.
As we moved steadily uphill, the creek presented a series of waterfalls—low but lovely:
Without the crowds pressing around us, I could relax and notice all the details in the scenery.
Ben and Sebastian, hand in hand:
Genevieve discovered some rock slabs that looked as if they might have been stacked by a giant’s hand:
Close to the Upper Falls, we reached a fork in the path. There were no signs. We opted for the part that headed downhill toward the river, and we soon reached a catwalk with stairs that led to a viewing platform near the bottom of the waterfall:
Across the creek, water was flowing down the canyon wall, giving it a smooth and slippery appearance:
Rather than eroding the wall, the water was actually building it up—creating new rock! The water seeping out of the upper edges of the cliff contained dissolved limestone rock. A special type of algae thrives on the wet cliff-face, and it absorbs the carbon dioxide from the water. As the carbon dioxide is removed, limestone crystals form on the wall and build up over time to form new layers of “travertine” limestone—the type of rock used to build the Colosseum in ancient Rome.
After viewing the waterfall from below, we backtracked along the path to reach the fork. Here is the elevated trail along the creek:
The upper path curved around and led to the top of the waterfall, where we peered over the edge and watched the foaming water plunge almost 100 feet to the pool below:
Near the roaring mass, a smaller stream plummeted off the cliff edge:
The hike back to the parking lot was considerably less than serene, as we scooted by and through hoards of other hikers on the skinny trail. We weren’t the only ones intrigued by the idea of catwalks, bridges and a tunnel!
Bankhead, the Briquette Town
In contrast to the crowds at Johnston Canyon, there were very few people wandering the paths through the former coal-processing area known as Bankhead.
From 1903 to 1922, the Canadian Pacific Railway operated Bankhead Mine in Banff National Park to supply its steam engines with much-needed coal. The mine opened at a time when the government actually encouraged mining in the park, compared to today when the focus is generally on conserving public resources, not exploiting them.
The meadows below the mine were transformed into a processing area that turned the coal into small briquettes. Here is what the area looked like in 1911, one hundred years ago:
When the mine closed in 1922, the vast majority of buildings either were moved to the towns of Calgary or Banff, or they were destroyed.
Today, only a scattering of foundations and couple of buildings remain. Here are Ben and the kids in the main area:
A trail looped through the former industrial area, with exhibit signs explaining the history behind the crumbling walls or concrete foundations.
Near the trail entrance were the remains of an important building—the Lamp House:
Before heading into the mines each morning, the miners would stop by the Lamp House in the morning to pick up a numbered lamp. That lamps would then be returned at the end of the work day. If an empty gap existed where a miner’s lamp should be, a search of the mine shafts would ensue.
We then passed through the upper meadow, where the cement foundations of now-absent structures were hidden by tall grass.
At the far end of the meadow was the Transformer Building, which once converted the energy produced in the Power House to a standard voltage that could be used in nearby towns.
The building was locked, but the windows contained various exhibits about Bankhead’s history.
Next to the Transformer Building was an old railway car that could hold 2 tons of coal:
During the peak of coal production here, over 400 coal cars were hauled out of the mine each day.
Also on display was an old ventilation fan that had blown fresh air into the mine shafts, clearing out swaths of coal dust and poisonous methane gas.
Continuing our walk, we curved down to a lower meadow that contained the foundations of the Boiler House:
In the Boiler House, coal was burned to heat water, which produced steam that was used to power all the machinery at Bankhead. Here is an old photo showing the building’s exterior:
About half the coal produced in Bankhead was so brittle that it had to be processed into briquettes to make it usable for heating homes or fueling steam locomotives. The coal was combined with Pennsylvania pitch, and then subjected to intense heat and pressure to form the briquettes—up to 500 tons daily. This photo shows the Briquette Building:
Another key building was the Breaker, where various screens and chutes were used to separate the coal from rock and then sort it into nine different sizes. Today, the Breaker’s foundation was overgrown with small trees:
Here is how the Breaker Building once looked:
Part of the coal sorting involved removing all the “slack”—bits of rock and unsalable coal. Even today, the slack heaps were still visible:
The slack heaps marked the boundary of the shantytown for the Chinese immigrants, who were segregated from the rest of the workers and had the worst living conditions. Most of the other mine workers lived in modern homes in a relatively nice residential district above the industrial area, far from the slack heaps.
Coal was transported to the Breaker Building from the underground mine on small trains that pulled about 30 cars. Here is a shorter version:
The capsule shape of the locomotive was quite unusual:
We learned that it was powered by compressed air in order to minimize the risk of igniting the highly flammable methane gas within the mine tunnels.
At the rear of the train was a passenger car for the miners. All aboard!
Leaving the Bankhead area, we noticed the intricate patterns on the aspen tree trunks. Some of the designs looked like they had been hand-drawn to create a natural totem pole:
Around the Town of Banff
One of the highlights of our day occurred just outside the town of Banff, when we noticed a black bear emerge from the bushes and start to cross the road:
We immediately stopped so that the bear could cross safely, but the traffic on the opposite side was still flowing. The bear took a few hesitant steps into the road, and that’s when we saw that she had some cubs with her—there were three small cubs, the most that we have seen with a mama bear!
The mama bear must have decided the risk of crossing was too great because she quickly turned around and headed back into the bushes. One of the cubs lingered on the edge before making an about-face:
We didn’t see any more bears during our stay here, but those four were certainly a special treat.
Our campground was on the outskirts of Banff, and we decided to ride our bikes along the Bow River, making a loop that would take us into town. We followed a steep and slippery downhill trail to connect with the Bow Falls-Hoodoo Trail, described as “intermediate/advanced” with sharp climbs and descents. Once again, Genevieve and Sebastian rose to the challenge.
Here is Genevieve at the top of a slope:
Navigating down a set of stairs by the river:
Looking back up the stairs:
A more mellow section:
Across the river was the historic Banff Springs Hotel (now owned by Fairmont Hotels):
One of the first buildings that we saw upon entering the town of Banff was the Banff Park Museum, which is a National Historic Site of Canada:
The museum was opened in 1895 and was western Canada’s first natural history museum. It was initially designed as part of a grand plan by the railroad to attract wealthy travelers to the Banff area. The museum is of historical significance because its extensive collection of preserved wildlife reflects “an early approach to the interpretation of natural history in Canada.” Specifically, the specimens were gathered during a time when naturalists thought that the best way to study an animal was to catch and kill it.
We stopped our bicycles in front of the museum and discussed whether we wanted to go inside. The stereotypical scene in which the adults try and cajole their children to visit a museum was flipped on its head in this instance. Ben and I were on the fence about going inside—it was late in the day, we were a bit tired, and we felt that we had already explored so many museums on this trip. I mean, how much more could we learn and absorb? Well, the answer turned out to be “quite a lot.”
First, Genevieve and Sebastian were the ones urging us to go inside. How often do kids beg to go to a “museum”?! That alone taught us that we must be doing something right in our long-time approach to not only include museums of all types in our travels, but also to try to make those visits as fun and interesting as possible.
Second, this museum was really different from all the others that we had been to during our trip throughout Canada and Alaska. The interior showcased hundreds and hundreds of local animals, all meticulously preserved and displayed. There must have been every single type of bird and mammal that existed within Banff National Park. Here is a view looking down from the open second story:
The museum also contained information that allowed Genevieve to finish up the requirements in her Xplorers booklet to earn a certificate and a dog-tag type of necklace with the park’s name. We were happy to have Chantal, at the front desk, review Genevieve’s booklet and give her an oath to protect nature:
August was high-season for tourists in Banff, and we were in the thick of it:
For dinner, we happened upon the Bear Street Tavern, whose motto was “Ridiculously Good Pizza.”
And, yes, it was really superb!
Afterwards, we couldn’t resist the scoops of creamy goodness from “Cows”, which offered a variety of flavors such as “Smoores,” “Gooey Mooey,” and “Moo York Cheesecake.”
Rising above the town of Banff was Cascade Mountain:
We had another view of the mountain the next day on our way out of town:
From this new angle, Cascade Mountain appeared to be a completely different mountain than the one visible in town. Perhaps that is the magic of Banff National Park. There are so many different areas and personalities—Lake Louise, Banff town, Bankhead, Johnston Canyon, the Trail of Six Glaciers, and so much more—that ten people could spend a week here and each have a different experience depending upon their “angle” or interests.
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