Skip to main content

Canadian National Parks II: All the Comforts of Home

Banff National Park is the jewel of Canada's park system; all are free this year in honor of the country's 150th anniversary .

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designates places of “outstanding universal value” to all of humanity to be World Heritage Sites. The universal value to mankind may be natural (e.g., Yellowstone National Park) or cultural (e.g., Taos Pueblo) or a mixture of the two, such as Calakmul, in Mexico’s Campeche state, designated for both the ancient Mayan city and the endangered tropical forest in which the city is located.

Parks Canada, the Canadian equivalent of the National Park Service in the U.S., is offering the Discovery Pass—good at all national parks—free for the asking in 2017 to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary. Our first look at the Canadian parks focused on what we called “extreme boonies,” places difficult to reach and seldom crowded.

Now we turn to what we might call extreme value not just to Canada but also to the world—the parks designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Particularly when compared to the parks near the Arctic Circle, the traveling is easy.


The vast area that UNESCO describes as the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks amounts to a geological textbook in stone. Parks Canada administers the site as separate parks named Banff, Jasper, Kootenay and Yoho. These parks, unlike the extreme boonies, have roads suitable for both tour buses and private vehicles. The scenery is still spectacular, but you will have to share it with more people.

Banff might be thought of as the Yellowstone National Park of Canada. Like Yellowstone in the U.S., Banff was the first national park in what would become a collection of the finest natural areas extending all the way across North America. Also like Yellowstone, Banff became known for hot springs.

Banff was discovered by railroad workers in 1883. They noticed steam venting from the side of a mountain. Investigation led to a cavern containing hot mineral springs. The springs were of course known and used by the indigenous people, but the white discoverers set about getting title to the cavern so they could coin money with a tourist attraction. Instead of making the discoverers rich, the Canadian government kept the cavern and the land around it in the public domain, and so was born the first Canadian national park, in 1885.

Lake Louise, one of many stunning scenes in Banff National Park in British Columbia, Canada.

Lake Louise, one of many stunning scenes in Banff National Park in British Columbia, Canada.

If you’ve spent much time in Seattle, you have probably driven to Vancouver, British Columbia. From Vancouver to the Banff National Park Visitor Center is 527 miles over excellent highways. While it’s very drivable in one day, highway speeds narrow your field of vision and so there’s a lot to be said for taking it slow and easy.

Coming from the other direction, Banff is about one and a half hours from Calgary by car or by bus. There are hotels in the city of Banff as well as 13 campgrounds in the park. Banff is as rich in touring amenities as the Arctic parks are primitive. More information at Banff National Park.

There are about 120 miles of mountain biking trails in Banff, best explored between May and October. The nature trails are less challenging and better marked than you will find in the parks where wilderness and wild animals are the main attractions. Like the more remote parks, Banff supports a substantial population of grizzly bears to whom tourists should always yield right of way.

Parks Canada has a program that is controversial in Canada and seems just odd from the U.S. It’s called the Red Chair Experience. Bright red plastic chairs have been placed in pairs in areas considered to have exceptional views. Visitors are encouraged to find as many red chairs as possible. It is futile to list them here while they are being installed, but there will be maps on the park websites and GPS coordinates for those who navigate electronically.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Yoho National Park in British Columbia, Canada

Yoho National Park in British Columbia, Canada

The Red Chair Experience began in Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland. The visitors to Gros Morne seemed to like it, but whether it will catch on nationally remains to be seen.

The red chairs have also invaded Jasper National Park, which is contiguous to Banff to the northwest. Note that substantial improvements to the infrastructure are planned for Jasper in this year of free admission. Construction will render parts of the park temporarily off limits. If you go, check the website first, and watch for signs while you are there.

Red chairs in Jasper National Park, Canada.

Red chairs in Jasper National Park, Canada.

If you are driving, you should not miss the Icefields Parkway, a spectacular highway that crosses both Banff and Jasper. The superior views of glaciers are in Jasper. Like Banff, Jasper is bicycle friendly.

The spectacular Icefields Parkway crosses crosses both Banff and Jasper national parks in British Columbia, Canada.

The spectacular Icefields Parkway crosses crosses both Banff and Jasper national parks in British Columbia, Canada.

If you head out from Banff as if you were going to Jasper but you take a left on highway 93, follow it southwest down the length of Kootenay National Park to Radium Hot Springs, B.C., a village on the edge of the park. At that point you have driven the long way across Kootenay. The Radium Hot Springs are still the major attraction in the park.

The springs get their name from trace amounts of radon, a decay product of radium, in the water. A half hour bath equals 0.13 millirems of radiation exposure, which is about ten times average background levels, but well short of danger to the average person.

Entry to Radium Hot Springs in Kootenay National Park, in British Columbia, Canada.

Entry to Radium Hot Springs in Kootenay National Park, in British Columbia, Canada.

The last national park included within the Canadian Rocky Mountains UNESCO World Heritage Site is Yoho, a word derived from the Cree language meaning an expression of wonderment. In addition to the natural wonders common to the rest of the UNESCO site, Yoho contains the famous Spiral Tunnels, an innovative engineering answer to the problem of getting long and heavy trains over the Rockies at Kicking Horse Pass.

The Canadian Rocky Mountains UNESCO World Heritage Site contains four national parks, all of which are easily accessible to the public and contain all the amenities modern tourists expect: good roads, hotels, restaurants, campgrounds, swimming areas, well marked hiking and bicycle trails. Banff in particular represents the beginning of the Canadian National Park System and is now that system’s crown jewel.

The next article in this series will look at the other Canadian National Parks that have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites.