This is a guest post from writer, editor and Canada native Catherine Forth. Thanks for your insight, Catherine!
The Rocky Mountain town of Banff, Alberta, is internationally renowned for its first-class skiing, luxurious spas, fine dining and breathtaking vistas. However, children have a different checklist when it comes to evaluating places, and that’s not why the area appealed to me as a kid.
I was fortunate to grow up with this world-class tourist destination in my backyard. Born and raised in Calgary, I assumed everyone’s horizon was flanked by a sawtooth of snow-capped peaks. Banff was our regular all-season spot for picnics, day trips and weekend getaways a mere 90-minute drive down the road. It never occurred to me that my local stomping ground was a travelers’ magnet. It’s only after I’ve grown up and moved away that I “get” how special Banff National Park and the town of Banff itself is. But no matter how far I roam or how sophisticated my worldly experiences have become, Banff always brings out the kid in me, its essence forever etched in the soul of my inner child.
With that youthful perspective in mind, here are my top five must-sees and dos with kids in Banff.
Whether you are lucky enough to actually stay here or not, you must pop into the glorious Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, one of the original Canadian Pacific Railway properties that helped pioneer leisure tourism in the region. This historic chateau is Western Canada’s closest thing to a storybook castle, and I’d always revel in the medieval vibe of its grand halls, complete with stone walls, armored knights, rich tapestries and stately chandeliers. Ghostly rumors of dancing brides and former bellmen haunting the place only added to the kid appeal. It’s gone through some major renovations and is particularly posh these days, but there’s nothing to stop you from wandering the public spaces and exploring its many nooks and crannies. Just behind the hotel you can stroll down the stairs to Bow Falls, a short but powerful cascade that makes a great photo op. If you’re lucky, you might even spy some elk here.
Grownups will wax poetic about the majestic views from the summit of Sulphur Mountain, but kids might get more of a kick out of the gondola ride itself. The 8-minute ride up to 7,486 feet in a glass bubble dangling from a wire was always a thrill to my younger self. In warmer months you might want to take a picnic up there (bring a sweater!), or there are two restaurants by the observation deck too. Stretch your legs along the easy 1-km boardwalk or even hike up to some of the old weather stations up there. Chances are you’ll encounter chipmunks, marmots and bighorn sheep along the way (they are relatively tame, but best to keep your distance). It’s a bit pricey these days, but it’s one of those Rocky Mountain experiences you shouldn’t pass on.
For me, the distinctive rotten-egg smell of sulphur always brings back warm childhood memories of soaking in the century-old hot springs of Banff — no trip there was complete without a dip. Granted, it is a little stinky (cue the kids’ fart jokes), but once you get used to it there’s something so soothing about the natural geothermal mineral waters, which hover around 38 degrees C. While it’s particularly magical bathing in the outdoor pool in the winter (as a child I loved how my eyelashes would frost over but my body was toasty warm), any season is a good time to soak in the view while you soak your weary bones. Note, there’s a children’s wading area for the little ones.
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Formerly called Welch’s Candy Store, this has been an institution on Banff Avenue since 1965, and I make a traditional pilgrimage to the shop every time I’m in town. Trust me, it’s not just for kids. There are fancier confectionaries in Banff, but there’s something about this old-fashioned hole-in-the-wall store that makes it special. You’ll be nostalgic and stumped for choice as you contemplate the endless glass jars, shelves and bulk bins full of every sugary treat imaginable: jawbreakers, red hots, sours, Pez, etc. Stock up on treats for the road.
What-doos? Hoodoos, for the uninitiated, are geological oddities: limestone pillars artistically eroded by wind and water throughout the millennia. These sandy spires stand like sentinels overlooking the scenic Bow and Spray River Valleys below. An easy half-mile interpretive hiking trail off Tunnel Mountain Road follows a paved path (stroller-friendly!) that offers a great view of the hoodoos, Mount Rundle and the Banff Springs Hotel. There’s an old neverending call-and-response poem we used to chant when visiting the hoodoos. Teach your kids at your own discretion — this thing can go on for hours.
You remind me of a man.
– What man?
The man with the power.
– What power?
The power of hoodoo.
– What do I do?
Remind me of a man.
– What man?
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