Contributor James Ross returns to Banff, Canada’s oldest national park and gets back in the saddle, now with his adult daughter.
Canada’s first National Park was born in 1883 when three railway workers discovered what’s now called the Cave and Basin, a natural hot spring in the Rocky Mountains.
Since then, Banff National Park and the town of Banff have become one of the world’s premier destinations. Every year, millions of visitors arrive in Banff to take in its stunning views, unparalleled majestic mountain scenery, and year-round activities.
Time travel: the backstory
Long ago, I called Banff home. Young, adventurous, and with a hard-earned university degree in my pocket, I caught a trans-Canada train west to the mountains.
I found summer work as a cowboy and mountain guide for a horse outfit. Not exactly related to my field of education, but satisfying nonetheless; so much so that summer led to summer, year to year until a decade had come and gone.
In Banff, I met a wonderful woman who became my wife. And then came a daughter. And with family, it was time to get serious. My oldest daughter was born thirty years ago while I guided my last horse trip. Not to take anything away from the labors of my wife, but I also had a busy day. When I learned by camp radio that my child was on the way a month early, I raced my horse the 15 miles back to town. But I arrived just a bit too late to be by my wife’s side.
So that is a brief background to this father-daughter adventure. It is now three decades later, and finally, I am testing out that old adage: Can one return home? I have travelled back to Banff, bringing with me that daughter for her first memorable Banff experience.
Then vs. now: Banff protects its future
Banff, the highest town in Canada at an elevation of 1384 m (4,540 ft), sits at the convergence of three valleys and two rivers. And that location drew Blackfoot, Stoney, Nakoda, and Tsuut’ina people here to gather and trade. Now its surrounded by Canada’s oldest national park, 6,000 square km of Rocky
Mountain splendor covered in pine, spruce, and larch trees and riddled with glaciers bleeding blue into crystal clear lakes and rivers.
Although the townsite has matured since I departed 30 years ago, Banff still displays its magic and allure. And there have been improvements. Now downtown blocks are closed to vehicle traffic, so cafés and patios sprawl into the street. Two new footbridges across the Bow River help alleviate congestion. And efficient, environmentally-friendly buses shuttle visitors anywhere they want to go, thus encouraging visitors to park their cars and leave them behind.
My daughter and I used the excellent transportation system to explore the town. On a drizzly morning, we boarded the Sulphur Mountain gondola for an eight-minute ascent through swirling mist and low-hanging clouds.
Although we took a chance on the summit views, the inclement weather meant we almost had the mountain to ourselves. And when the wispy clouds disperse, we are rewarded with dramatic vistas down to the townsite.
We toured the magnificent Banff Springs Hotel, Bow Falls, the Cave and Basin National Historic Site (birthplace of Canada’s national parks). And we also visited the excellent Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, which tells the stories of the early guides and outfitters who essentially opened up the park.
Back in the saddle again at Canada’s oldest national park
Our Banff adventures continued in the saddle, which is equally appropriate and comfortable for us. Perhaps it was the circumstances of her birth, but my oldest daughter is horse-crazy. She rides much more than I these days. So, we were back where it had begun, on a backcountry horseback trip.
Our group of twelve gathered in the morning at Warner’s Stables for an overnight trip with Banff Trail Riders to Sundance Lodge, a 16 km (12-mile) ride southwest of town.
After the gear and provisions were packed on mules and sent off ahead, we met our two guides, Calgarian Brion Holland and Courtney Gardiner of Sarnia, Ontario. Next, we were introduced to our horses. Mine was a stout dun named Trooper. He proved himself to be quite a ‘trooper,” hauling me through rivers, across valleys, and up steep and rocky mountain trails.
We rode westward alongside the tranquil Bow River. People often say the town of Banff, while charming and picturesque in its mountain setting, is busy. Well, that’s always been the case. When one ventures a short distance from the townsite on a hike, bike, or horse, the people disappear, leaving you with only quiet and sheer awe-inspiring beauty.
Fortified with cowboy coffee and steaks grilled over the fire during a lunch break on the banks of the Bow, we remounted our friendly steeds. The trail took us high along the valley wall for splendid views before dropping down to Healey Creek. Our sure-footed horses crisscrossed the turbulent, boulder-strewn river before clamoring up the bank to our destination.
Sundance Lodge then and now
Sundance Lodge was built in 1991 during my time with the outfit. It shelters guests in ten guest rooms, with two shared bathrooms, a living room with a fireplace, a kitchen with a communal dining table, and a large inviting porch.
As a guide, I remember unrolling my bedroll in the saddle shed we shared with mice, squirrels, and the occasional brave marmot. Now, the lodge is luxurious, with handmade furniture, log beds, solar panels, and plenty of hot water in the showers for weary riders.
I loved the family-like energy as the guests gathered around the dinner table enjoying salmon served by cook Zachary Blease. I remember fondly the camaraderie of the Bunky, shared with the guides, packers, and cook, and the nighttime sounds from the horses and mules in the corral. But I decided to suffer in my comfortable lodgings without complaint — age does have its privileges. We returned to town the following day, and in a friendly gesture (or was it a test?), the guides let me pack Tanya, the lunch mule.
Pedaling the parkway
In a pilot project implemented from 2022 to 2024, Parks Canada is closing the Bow Valley Parkway in spring and fall to vehicle traffic. And so, my daughter and I exchanged horses for e-bikes and set off on a 56 km (35-mile)-pedal from Banff to Lake Louise. We seemed to be alone on the route, which gave the impression that we had the whole Bow Valley to ourselves.
Without automobiles, the parkway becomes very wildlife friendly. We stopped to view elk, mule deer, and even a black bear and cubs playing amongst the sun-bleached stumps and logs on an open grassy slope. We spied sheep high along the line where vegetation meets rock. And we watched a young bull moose with velvet hanging from his new antlers plod through a marshy section below us.
Upon reaching Lake Louise, after locking our bikes, we made a quick trip up the gondola for splendid views of the lake’s turquoise waters before loading our E-bikes on public transport for the return journey.
More ways to enjoy Banff National Park
Besides the horseback riding and biking, other tempting activities in Banff and Canada’s oldest national park include:
- enrolling in a Rock Climbing 101 course with Alpine Air Adventures
- climbing the Mount Norquay Via Ferrata course, rafting the Kananaskis River or through Horseshoe Canyon with Chinook Rafting
- taking an evening wildlife safari with Discover Banff Tours,
- experiencing Banff National Park through an Indigenous lens: On medicine walks with Mahikan Trails, guides identify flora and fauna and their healing properties
- the 26 km (16-mile) Banff Legacy Trail between Banff and Canmore, one of the park’s many scenic cycling and mountain biking routes
- fly-fishing, canoeing, kayaking, and guided float trips on the Bow River, and
- Teeing off at the Fairmont Banff Springs Golf Course, with its original 1911, nine-hole Tunnel Mountain and newer 18-hole Stanley Thompson course, both with epic mountain views, fairways along the Bow River, and elk acting as natural hazards in the rough.
Canada’s oldest national park is accessible for adventure year-round for visitors of all abilities and interests. Whether you explore Banff National Park by foot, horse, bike, safari van, or a retro open-top tour bus, outdoor recreation seems without limits.
After a week of adventures and great experiences, while trying to act young again and keep up with my daughter, it was time to head home and return to the present. It was great to be back in Banff, travelling together, reconnecting with each other and with a place in time. And equally special to be back in the saddle in this spectacular park where it all began.
What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?
- While you can rent a car in Calgary and drive to Banff, having your own wheels is not necessary. The excellent shuttle and transit system includes the town and around the park. Roam Transit’s hybrid electric buses serve most attractions (including Lake Louise, Moraine Lake, Johnston Canyon, and Lake Minnewanka). And they even pick up passengers at the campgrounds. The buses have bike racks and are wheelchair- and stroller-friendly.
- Banff townsite is very walkable, with the main street of Banff Avenue closed to vehicular traffic. Full of shops, restaurants, and photo-worthy sights, you can spend the whole day exploring on foot.
- Banff offers a wide variety of excellent restaurants and dining options. I enjoyed the best steak I’ve ever had, and a Caesar salad prepared tableside at Chuck’s Steakhouse. We also enjoyed Una Pizza and Wine, the Park Restaurant and Distillery, and Three Bears Brewing.
- Accommodations in Banff range from camping and glamping to the finest hotels. We stayed at the Moose Hotel and Suites and found its rooftop hot tubs a great place to comfort our saddle-weary backsides.
- During summer, the Big 3 ski mountains in Canada’s oldest national park—Sunshine Village, Mt. Norquay, and Lake Louise— allow lift-assisted sightseeing. The gondolas whisk you high for easy access to the spectacular alpine views and terrain.
- For a less-active adventure, an evening wildlife safari with Discover Banff Tours allows the best opportunity to see animals in their natural habitat. Look for the national park’s population of ungulates, elk, deer, bighorn sheep, and moose in roadside fields. Black bears and grizzlies forage for food in mountainside clearings.
- Although Banff Trail Riders has excellent horses for all abilities, from raw beginner to the horse whisperer, this experience is best for those with a certain comfort level around the horses. Guests should also be in moderate shape before setting out on a multi-day backcountry adventure. Other rides from hour-long to half-day are available. And these also allow access to incredible scenery on the back of a hard-working steed.
- Today, Banff, Canada’s oldest national park, prioritizes environmental protection and redressing wrongs done to the original inhabitants. Wildlife overpasses and underpasses cross the Trans-Canada Highway and the Icefields Parkway. These allow safe passage for fauna, from elk and moose to the more elusive wolves, cats, bears, and wolverine.
Disclosure: The author’s trip was partially subsidized by Banff and Lake Louise Tourism. Any opinions expressed in this post are his own.
All photo credits: James Ross except as noted. Lead photo: Noel Hendrickson, courtesy Banff and Lake Louise Tourism
IF YOU GO
- Banff National Park is 129 km (80 miles) west of Calgary.
- Calgary International Airport (YYC) is serviced by major national and international carriers.
- Brewster Express provides direct shuttle service from the airport to Banff.
- To Plan a Visit: Contact Banff and Lake Louise Tourism for information.
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