Banff Stories and Tips

Canada's Rockies: National Parks, or National Highways?

Morning in the Mountains Photo, British Columbia, Canada

The U.S. invented the national park in 1873 to protect Yellowstone’s fairyland of thermal features, although you might say that ‘reserving’ the Hot Springs of Arkansas in 1820 was the precursor to this landmark decision. Either way, Canada followed in those steamy footsteps by establishing Banff National Park in 1883. The three rail workers who’d discovered the hot springs had visions of a fortune built around the warm, sulfurous waters, but in the end the national government denied their petition to withdraw the area from the public domain and instead set aside a modest amount of land as Rocky Mountains Park.

Today, an impressive amount of spectacular landscape forms one of the world’s premier park systems, protecting a wide expanse of land and wilderness along the crest of the Rockies. Much of it was designated fairly quickly after creating the seed from which Banff NP eventually grew, surviving cattle ranching, strip mining of coal, and farming (all within park boundaries!) before these activities were finally shut down in the early 1930’s.

This string of jewels begins with Waterton Lakes on the US-Canada border, featuring the oft-photographed Prince of Wales Hotel atop its promontory on the shore of one the region’s countless turquoise lakes. From there, it’s a few hours drive northwest along the spine of the Rockies to the four-park cluster that begins with Banff, and includes Jasper NP to the north and Kootenay and Yoho parks to the west, across the Continental Divide and the Alberta-British Columbia border. Further west in British Columbia are Glacier and then Mount Revelstoke National Parks, both along Canada 1. Together, these parks contain over 8,500 sq mi of protected mountain ecosystem, much of it inaccessible by road. When you add in the significant Provincial Park and reserve system, particularly in Alberta, there’s a 300-mile stretch of the Rockies and surrounding area in public hands.

After a few days, I noticed some real differences between the US and Canadian park systems. For starters, there were the entry fees: in the last few decades, US parks have received permission from the Park Service to raise their fees, and keep the additional monies in the park for special projects. Even so, the $20 pass for Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or Yosemite gives you and everyone in your vehicle entry for a week. With the recent changes to public lands admission, $80 will buy you an American the Beautiful pass, giving you and your vehicle’s passengers admission to every national park, monument, forest or other federally administered site for a year.

In Canada, daily park entrance fees are charged for each person. At nearly $10 a pop, five days of entry for the two of us totaled nearly $100. This covered admission to Banff, Jasper, Yoho and Kootenay, and came within $40 of a yearly pass but still seemed steep. Park entry fees are required for any entry from the southern edge of Banff (transiting the other way—east from Yoho or Kootenay to Calgary—is free as long as you don’t stop).

The other differences became clear as we talked with Peter, our host in Canmore. He was convinced that Parks Canada wants to simply move people through the parks, and discourages visitors from stopping to hike, paddle or enjoy the wilderness in other ways. His comments suddenly brought a lot of things into focus. We drove Canada 1 from Calgary to Lake Louise; whether inside the parks or not, this backbone transportation artery doesn’t have a single scenic turnoff. I can’t imagine an American park having its roads structured in a similar way. And that’s unlikely to change, as the government works to complete the ‘twinning’ of the highway, completing its transition to limited access, divided highway.

There’s also a noticeable difference in the amount and character of literature. Parks Canada publishes a single 16-page color newsprint folder describing all seven Rockies parks, devoting a two-page spread to each. Each highlights about 10 features of the parks, but that’s nearly it for published information describing the attractions of each park. In the visitor centers, the rangers were helpful, and (at Lake Louise) pulled out another simple line drawing of the area with trails on it. But there were no easily available lists of hiking opportunities and other options, as you find at each NPS facility.

My best guess is that Canada has already made the transition from considering the parks primarily as recreational facilities, and instead sees them as ecosystems to be preserved. Banff remains wildly popular, hosting over 4 million visitors a year, comparable to Yosemite, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon. Everything we saw was consistent with conceding the well-known sites to visitors, and then working to minimize human interaction with the remaining landscape. That explains why over 2 million people will hike some part of Johnston Canyon this year: what other options do they have?

This also fits with the extensive (and expensive) commitment to reducing human-wildlife interactions (and especially human vehicle/wildlife interactions). Once, Banff was famous for having elk on Banff Avenue; clearly, they would like those days to end (although we did see three deer in the schoolyard, and another on the lawn of a condo not far from the main exit). Long-term studies of wildlife movement led to a comprehensive series of barriers, bridges, and tunnels along Canada 1 and the other roads, preventing animals from reaching the roadway’s surface but providing them with multiple routes to cross under or over the highway, and directing them in new routes away from the towns and roads. It’s an admirable goal, and an amazing effort, and the few quick slides we saw seemed to indicate that it’s succeeding. But the long stretches of fence along the highway gave me the feeling of being in the mirror image of a zoo.

In the end, although I was sympathetic, I found it hard to completely share Peter’s frustration. Intentional or not, Parks Canada’s usage policy may be just what’s needed to keep such beautiful and highly popular places intact. As any park ranger or guidebook will tell you, less than 10% of visitors ever leave the paved areas. When visitor totals run into the millions, would we really want to push that percentage any higher? Perhaps the best solution is for those seeking more direct experience with wilderness to have their numbers and impact diluted among the wide range of other parks and forests. That group is highly likely to find such opportunities easily, without running the risk sending a few hundred thousand people down a new road or trail in Banff.

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