Our Heritage

The History of Banff National Park

With its towering peaks and stunning glacier-fed lakes, it’s hard to believe that an area as beautiful as the Canadian Rockies once lay dormant to Western eyes, known only by the native peoples that dwelled in the valleys below. It wasn’t until the 1700s that Europeans arrived, thus beginning an exciting tradition of exploration in the mountain landscape.

In 1883, two years before the completion of Canada's first transcontinental railroad, three railroad workers stumbled upon a series of hot springs on the lower shoulder of what is now called Sulphur Mountain. By 1885, after a heated ownership dispute, the springs and surrounding area were set aside as Canada's first national park. The Canadian Pacific Railway immediately recognized the tourism potential of the Canadian Rockies. In 1888, under the direction of William Cornelius Van Horne, they opened the elegant 250-room Banff Springs Hotel.

The railway then constructed a series of grand hotels along its main line and began advertising Banff as an international tourism stopover on the steel highway that had suddenly become the fastest and most direct route from Europe to the Far East. The Rockies quickly became popular with the Victorian gentry, who came to drink in the scenery and soak in the soothing hot springs.

Soon visitors were not just stopping over - they were coming to stay. Now, approximately 8300 people call Banff their home. Residents of both Banff and Lake Louise are proud to share their local knowledge and appreciation for the nature, history and culture of this World Heritage destination. The history of the area is also captured by a number of museums, including the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, Banff Park Museum, Luxton Museum and the Cave and Basin National Historic Site.

Important Characters in Banff National Park History

On his journey of mapping the waterways of Western Canada, David Thompson explored the Bow Valley as early as 1800.

James Hector was the leader of the Palliser Expedition in the Banff area from 1857-1860. The expedition was one of three organized by John Palliser to see if the land could be settled.  The Palliser Expedition was successful in redrawing the map of the west and shifting political attention to the resource and settlement potential of the southern plains and mountains.

Reverend Robert Terrill Rundle, a Wesleyan Missionary, was the first missionary to enter the western part of the Bow Valley and, in 1847, held services for the natives on the shores of Lake Minnewanka.

In 1882, Canadian Pacific Railroad packer Tom Wilson was the first white man to see Lake Louise after being guided there by a Stoney Indian.  He named it Emerald Lake, though it was later renamed Lake Louise in 1884 after the daughter of Queen Victoria.

In 1900,Bill and Jim Brewster began guiding and outfitting in Banff. The Brewster family dominated tourist transportation throughout the Mountain Parks until 1965, when they sold to Greyhound.