Banff is a major centre for tourism in the Canadian Rockies, the main town in the national park which bears its name and probably the most famous settlement in the area. But then, all of Canadian Rockies are about tourism. The European settlement of the area started with the railways, and the railways brought the visitors searching for dramatic landscapes and healthy airs. Hotels (many of them railway hotels, owned by the powerful Canadian Pacific railway company) followed the railways and the visitors flocked to the wilderness.
And wilderness it remains, despite the veneer of civilization and technology, despite the roads, ski lifts, bear-proof rubbish bins and cable cars, the Rockies, as they have always been, are wild and untamed. Unlike the European mountains of similar size, the Alps, where people have been living, herding sheep and goats, making cheese and practicing the yodeling for hundreds if not thousands of years, there is little evidence of permanent human habitation in the Rockies.
We spend a sunny day in Banff and around, with our Couch-Surfing hosts kindly lending us a car and a parks' pass. It's a busy, touristy little place and the town itself doesn't feel particularly enchanting, but what matters is of course the landscape around and there is enough to satisfy everybody.
We take a walk along the Bow River to the rapids slightly downstream from Banff centre. It's a pleasant stroll, mostly on a wooded path separated from the road, with attractive views opening up and changing every few meters, it seems. The day is beautifully sunny, and the mountains look magnificent. The rapids are noisy and worth the effort of the walk, and as we climb up to a small viewing platform above the road, we can see the Banff Springs Fairmont Hotel, another of those castle-like grand railway hotels that Canadian Pacific seem to have built all over Canada. We walk back to the car park, where the children do some mock rock climbing in the playpark, and then drive to the Sulphur Mountain Gondola (which warrants a separate review, but is certainly a fun thing to do if you can afford it).
By now it's the afternoon, and we need to think of returning to base. On the way back, we do a detour to Lake Minnewanka, a glacial lake below Cascade mountain, a few miles north-east of Banff. It's clear here that May is not quite the high season in the Rockies. The lake is surrounded by snow and partially frozen, and there is no visitors about, although mountain goats and bighorn sheep can be seen by the roadside. The lake has been made bigger but also somewhat more desolate by hydro-electric schemes that raised the water level by some 30m. Still, it's an attractive spot, although wind gets channeled down between the hills and it's starting to sleet so we only stop for a brief look.
From Lake Minnewanka we drive back to the main highway and then off again for a while along the Bow River Valley which meanders rather magnificently under the huge massif of Mt Rundle. Views are everywhere, and as there are plenty of parking spaces we are tempted to stop for photos, cigarettes and gazing sessions that Our Children greet with increasing moans of annoyance. The last stop before we take off on the way back to base is by the Hoodoos, a set of convoluted shapes eroded in rocky outcrops that raise from the steep valley side above the river. The walk to the lookout is quick and interesting enough even for the children, and we don't meet many people on what is normally apparently very crowded path – there are some advantages to visiting in the low season.
The disadvantages hit us rather forcefully the next day, when we set off in the morning with a plan to visit the Johnston Canyon and Lake Louise. It's sunny and hopeful looking as we drive off from Canmore, taking the Bow Valley Parkway which is supposed to be the more attractive route. Alas, fog and mist descend pretty quickly and we can't see much, and within a few miles it starts to snow. By the time we turn back onto the Trans Canada Highway, I am driving in a minor blizzard, with the wipers going at full speed and the snow falling in large, wet and sticky flakes. In Canmore it's raining cats and dogs and we get completely soaked in a short run between the parking bay in a retail park and the inside of a cafe. Clearly, Johnston Canyon wasn't to be. We will take another shot at Lake Louise tomorrow, as part of our onwards journey.