Sulphur Mountain, Banff Upper Hot Springs & Cave and Basin Natural Historic Site - Alberta

Alberta Hot Springs

Travelers headed west through Alberta en route to British Columbia on the Trans Canada Highway won't want to miss the nine hot springs at Sulphur Mountain near the town of Banff.

Sixty miles west of Calgary, Banff is the jumping off point to Banff National Park, one of Canada's most legendary national parks and a must-see on any driving itinerary. Be sure and spend a few days in the area exploring one of the most popular attractions in Alberta-Sulphur Mountain-located just a 10-minute drive away at the end of Mountain Avenue.

Named in 1916 for the nine sulphurous hot springs on its lower slopes, Sulphur Mountain is located in Banff National Park in the Canadian Rocky Mountains and overlooks the town of Banff. Two of these hot springs have been commercially developed, Banff Upper Hot Springs and Cave and Basin Natural Historic Site.

The Banff Upper Hot Springs are accessible via Mountain Avenue, just over two miles south of the town of Banff. The Upper Hot Springs are located outdoors with views overlooking the valley to Mount Rundle.

With an elevation of 5,200 feet, the Upper Hot Springs is the highest hot springs in Canada. This is an important detail as it means thermal waters must be driven up vertically through the Sulphur Mountain thrust fault, a big crack in the layers of rock. Water flow fluctuates seasonally with the highest flows in summer and lowest in winter. When water levels are reduced, heated municipal water is used to guarantee an enjoyable experience for guests and keep the hot springs open year-round.

The Cave and Basin site, located lower on Sulphur Mountain, was discovered first, and Europeans began visiting the Upper Hot Springs for the first time in 1884. More and more travelers frequented the area over a period of time and in 1932, the first bathhouse opened, complete with sulphur swimming pools, steam rooms and dressing rooms. After repeated renovations, the bathhouse was restored to its original appearance in 1995. In 2001, Pleiades Massage and Spa expanded the space with a broader range of services.

The Upper Hot Springs are positioned in a historic, alpine setting and feature all of the amenities of a modern spa. Travelers can "take the waters" in the luxurious pool, or visit the day spa for one of the many massage and aromatherapy options. An indoor café, outdoor snack bar and gift shop are all on site.

The lower of the two developed hot springs on Sulphur Mountain is Cave and Basin, the origin of Canada's national parks system. While human habitation in the area can be traced back thousands of years, it was three Canadian Railway workers who brought the underground cave and pool to national attention, causing the Canadian government to take notice and deem the area Banff National Park in 1885, making it the first national park in Canada. A tunnel was built in 1886 to aid visitation to the Cave and Basin, and the site was declared a National Historic Site in 1981.

Although the Cave and Basin Historic Site area is closed as of July 2010 for renovations, it will reopen in the spring of 2012 and visitors will want to make sure it is included on their itineraries once improvements are complete.

The area around the Cave and Basin is a delicate wetlands system filled with exotic plants and wildlife. At different times throughout the year about 80 percent of Banff's bird species can be found in the area, along with elk, deer, coyotes and an occasional wolf or bear. The open-air mineral basin is home to the unique Banff Springs snail, found nowhere else in the world. Because of the rarity of the snail, soaking in these waters is now prohibited in order to protect and preserve the species. Colorful bacteria and algae and an abundance of fish and insects flourish in these warm waters and make for a fascinating visit.

After exploring the basin area, take time to view the cave and its original vent hole. The Discovery Boardwalk Trail above the old bathing pavilion gives visitors an opportunity to view the cave vent and two smaller, undeveloped hot springs. Exhibits are on display on the second floor of the bathing pavilion, and the replica 1887 bathhouse shows a film on the discovery of the area.

Spend the night at Tunnel Mountain Campground in Banff National Park, the perfect stopping point on the long trek north. Located within walking distance of downtown Banff, services such as food and laundry are close by, and designated RV sites offer full services.

On your way out of Banff drive the Icefields Parkway north toward Jasper National Park. This is an alternate route to the Alaska Highway north from Calgary, and takes travelers through Banff and Jasper national parks and three major glaciers, all within the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site. Stop at the Sunwapta Pass; at 6,676 feet of elevation this turnout is the highest along the Icefields Parkway and straddles the boundary of Banff and Jasper national parks.

To learn more about Banff Upper Hot Springs visit http://www.pc.gc.ca/regional/sourcesthermales-hotsprings/itm2-/banff_e.asp. For information on Cave and Basin Natural Historic Site, visit http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/lhn-nhs/ab/caveandbasin/index.aspx.

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