History of Banff National Park

The Western history of Banff National Park begins in 1883, when Canada’s first transcontinental railroad reached completion and connected the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific. In this same year, three railroad workers stumbled upon a natural hot spring located within Sulphur Mountain and thereby sparked the formation of the first national park in Canadian history in 1885. But the real history begins several thousand years before.

Evidence of human occupation in the Bow Valley between the Rocky Mountains where lies the current Banff townsite, stretches back to 11,000 BC where early relatives of the Cree, Kootenay, and Plains Blackfoot Indian tribes were living. These later tribes became the inhabitants of this region and conducted constant trade with each other and generally lived in peace and relative prosperity, there within the valleys of the towering mountains.

Then the white man came in the 1700s bringing guns, germs, and steel. The European introduced horses to the native tribes as well as foreign diseases like smallpox which killed an estimated 3/5 of the western aboriginal peoples. All of this shook up the power dynamics (to say the least) and resulted in much bloodshed between tribes and externally. It was a rough time and almost everything changed.

Meanwhile, in 1754 Anthony Henday is named the first non-native to set foot on the Canadian Rockies. Exploration had come west and continued throughout the 19th century as various groups sponsoring individual explorers and fur traders and trappers ventured towards the Pacific. Hudson’s Bay Company was one of the major players in this westward expansion, as was the Canadian Pacific Railway which built its tracks past Banff in the 1880s. 

After three railroad workers stumbled upon a natural hot springs in Sulphur Mountain, known today as Cave and Basin, a federal reserve / sanctuary was established in 26 square kilometres around the springs to protect them. This was then increased to 673 km2 in 1887 and named Rocky Mountains Park, which was the first national park in Canada’s history and the birth of its tourism.

The main town was originally called Banffshire, after a Scottish district. It provided the central community point for the brave adventurers and homesteaders and explorers that were journeying out into the rugged wilderness to create a life for themselves. In 1888, the original log frame of Banff Springs Hotel was built, followed with the original Chateau Lake Louise site, providing accommodation for the burgeoning tourist industry, attracting visitors from Eastern Canada and America and Europe. The demand for guides to take visitors out onto and up the mountains brought in people like the Brewster family who sparked the outfitting and guiding industry in what would be shortened to Banff.

In 1911 the road was built into the park, and with the introduction of cars came the second phase of tourism. Roads were expanded to Lake Louise (1921) and Jasper (1923), the latter of which was the first public highway through the Canadian Rockies, linking to America in what was known as the Grand Circle Tour. Every year more people came to visit, basking in the majesty of the mountains. In 1962 Rocky Mountain Park changed its name to Banff National Park and with the official opening of the Trans-Canadian Highway, linking Banff to the international airport in Calgary, the park was by now solidly boasting a worldwide reputation for top-notch outdoor travel experience. Today approximately 8 million people visit the park annually.