Friday, September 14, 2012

Shop or hike in Banff--there's something for everyone

Banff in Alberta, Canada has been called a “cute” town and no wonder—it was designed to satisfy the expectations of tourists. That translates into a profusion of shops, restaurants, and hotels, especially in the south end. If you enjoy a lively social scene when vacationing there’s plenty to keep you occupied. These days Banff is also a bustling commercial center in the Canadian Rockies, not incorporated until 1990 when the emphasis changed from managing Banff National Park to serving needs of permanent residents.

Exhilarating scenery at Bow Falls
If you’re more interested in experiencing serene wilderness areas and some mild (or strenuous) physical challenges, you’ll find Banff a good hub from which to branch out and explore. We opted for light adventure and started our day with a hike to the Bow River. After parking at Surprise Corner, we scrambled down a grassy embankment and followed the rocky trail along the river to a point above Bow Falls.
But then we wanted to see the cascading falls from the other side. We stopped at a popular day-use area near Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel with excellent views, including a lookout point above the falls, which were formed as a result of glacier movement that caused natural dams eons ago. As we soon discovered, glaciers are responsible for almost all topography changes in this part of Canada.

Profussion of colorful blooms at Cascade Garden
A visit to Cascade Gardens was surprisingly delightful--beautifully landscaped terraces with a multitude of blooming flowers, water features, pergola, and the most exquisite views looking back towards Banff Avenue and Cascade Mountain. The Garden is a wonderful place for a leisurely stroll or to just fill your senses with the beauty that nature has provided.
Next we caught the four-person Banff Gondola for an eight-minute ride to the top of Sulphur Mountain.  What a view, especially after walking up the boardwalked Vista Trail to a restored weather observatory. At an elevation of almost 7,500 feet, Sulphur Mountain provides stunning panoramic views of Banff, Bow Valley, Cascade Mountain, and Lake Minnewanka. Although wildlife is sometimes noted in the valley, we didn’t see any.
Looking back at Banff from the top of Sulphur Mountain

Lunch was a picnic at Lake Minnewanka, otherwise known as Lake of the Water Spirit. At 15 miles long and 466 feet deep it’s the largest lake in Banff National Park. The hydroelectric dam built in 1941 caused the lake level to rise 98 feet, which covered the town of Minnewanka Landing. A slightly uneven path leads around a good portion of the lake, so we walked along the trail and away from the crowds, admiring stony beaches, bright blue water and rock outcroppings that made excellent picture spots. An interpretive boat ride is available for those who want to learn more about the history, folklore, and geology of the area.
Be sure to visit Lake Minnewanka near Banff
As if one shimmering lake wasn’t enough, we continued our drive with quick stops at Two Jack Lake and Johnson Lake, popular spots for swimming, picnicking, or camping. On the return to Banff we saw our first wildlife, a tagged elk wandering near the road--a brief preview of the amazing wildlife sightings we would have later on this trip.

Photos by Larry and Beverly Burmeier
Read more travel stories at Striped Pot and Austin Adventure Travel

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