Friday, March 21, 2014

A Banff History Lesson with Mineral Springs, Snails, and a Cave

Disclaimer right from the start - Our family does not typically visit museums, historic sites, or anything that could be considered boring by a 5 year old child or two parents that would rather be climbing a mountain.  That being said, we've been to Banff a LOT of times and had never, ever visited the birthplace of the whole Canadian National Park system - the origin of the Banff Hotsprings.  I'm not sure I even knew the full story of how Banff, our first national park, was birthed after three railway workers explored a hole in the ground with steam rising out of it by lowering a tree trunk in it to climb down and investigate.  I know the story now however!  That's after having visited the Cave and Basin National Historic Site in the town of Banff.

Checking out the Original Thermal Water Basin at the Historic Site

The thermal waters that the railway workers discovered in 1883 didn't exactly bring them the liquid gold or riches that they were hoping for, but they did birth the first National Park and paved the way for an entire park system across our country.  THIS is history worth checking out while you are in Banff before you visit the commercial hotsprings that we have today.

The Banff Upper Hotsprings as we have them today

Aside from history, why else would you visit the Cave and Basin National Historic Site in Banff?

First of all, entrance to the site is included with your National Parks Discovery Pass!  

Few people know that, but if you have an annual park pass to get into the National Parks of Canada, you can visit historic sites like Cave and Basin as much as you want.  I for one, did NOT know that.  If I had, I'm positive we would have visited the source of the Banff Hotsprings a looooooong time ago because I've always been fascinated by the underground cave that contains the original mineral pool, and the protected Banff Springs Snail, found nowhere else on this planet.

The Cave at the Historic Site
The Thermal Pool inside the Cave

Second, the Cave and Basin Historic Site offers much more than a history lesson.

The site has been completely renovated or "renewed" over the last couple of years with year-round programming and interactive exhibits.  What's NEW:
  • Interpretive media exhibits including a new 4 screen HD video that takes you across Canada's National Parks, Historic Sites and Marine Conservation Areas
  • Tours and guided interpretive programs
  • Evening programs including a cinema under the stars on the original pool deck used by early tourists to the Banff Hotsprings, lantern tours and stargazing.
  • Winter programs including ice skating on a new ice rink that's been built onto the historic pool deck
  • Fun family-friendly events such as Magic Winter Saturday Nights and the Banff Winter Carnival, happening this month from March 26th through the 30th.

For a list of all events happening at the Cave and Basin Historic Site including the upcoming winter carnival, lantern tours, and cinema under the stars, visit the park website here.

Skating on the Historic Hotsprings Pool Deck
The Skating Rink and Site of Cinema under the Stars

Finally, for the outdoor family, there are hiking trails that all start right from the Cave and Basin site.  

The Sundance Canyon Trail has been a favourite Banff trail of ours for years now AND it's stroller friendly once the snow melts on a scenic paved trail that's also good for a family bike ride.  For a shorter stroll, check out the Discovery Boardwalk or the Marsh Loop.

Hiking the Sundance Canyon Trail

We did the Discovery boardwalk hike on our visit last weekend and it was really cool to see the cave vent that the railway workers would have found so many years ago.  We also enjoyed checking out two small springs on the hillside that were bubbling and alive with different colours of algae.

Looking Down into the Cave Vent
Exploring on the Discovery Boardwalk Trail
Checking out the Thermal Springs on the Discovery Trail

It was our first time visiting the Cave and Basin Historic Site but we'll definitely be back and the marsh trails are a lot of fun in the spring when you can search for rare plants and wild orchids.  Now that we know of all the cool programs happening at the site, we'll also be checking the calendar more regularly! 

Exploring the Cave and Basin Discovery Trail
And then after you visit the Cave and Basin site where Banff's thermal waters were first discovered, you can continue on to the Upper Hotsprings for a relaxing soak in the public pool.  (For a quieter visit, go early in the morning or maybe try around dinner time.  We found the pool to be busy even in the off-season.)

Relaxing at the Banff Upper Hotsprings in the Snow
Looking for more ideas for family-fun activities in Banff?  Check out my last story:  Playing Tourist in Banff - Without the Crowds. 

More ideas can also be found in my previous story:  Celebrating Spring Break in Banff.


  1. I'm glad you finally visited!

    I am also glad you brought up that this is FREE with your National Parks pass... and for this reason, we visit here often. At least the pools don't smell like sulphur (they did back in the 90's) now!! And everyone NEEDS to know about these very important snails---

    I did not know that I can skate on the pool deck, so thank you for that.

    You mentioned that you've never gone before because you were worried that Noah would be bored. Both of my kids love the museums in Banff and have never found them boring. If you go to the museum on Banff Ave near the river (the name escapes me), they have a fun treasure hunt for the kids to do while they are learning Banff history! My kids eat that up! When they finish the treasure hunt, they are given a nice sticker for their efforts. We tend to do the museums on rainy days, so that we don't use up our sunny days.

    I find it interesting that all the tourists wouldn't think twice about visiting these museums, but us 'locals' think they aren't for us too. I hope you have encouraged more people living around these treasures to spend a day doing something different.

    Thanks for the post!

    1. Thanks Samantha. I think very few people know that access to the site is free so I really wanted to highlight that fact.
      We will definitely be back. Make sure your skates are sharp if you go skating there. The ice is not a real ice and dull skates don't glide (mine wouldn't move at all.) Fortunately other skaters were able to demonstrate for me that with sharp skates, the ice was just fine.

      Agree that it's the perfect rainy day or cold weather activity in Banff. And since you never know what the weather's going to be like when you head out there, it's great to have a few of these ideas in the back pocket.

      We just visited the Whyte Museum for the first time this winter too - and it was incredible! Great art work. I know which museum you mean near the River. The old fort, right? That's next on the list. ;)