Beyond the Postcards

Beyond the Postcards: Overlooked Wonders of Banff National Park

*To access all the photos, photo locations and GPS coordinates of Beyond the Postcards, click here.

1. Introduction

The history of Banff National Park is not a simple one, nor is it the way most people imagine it to be.

It is not the story of a land so pristine it was worth protecting the moment modern “explorers” set foot upon it. It is not without its politics or battles over financial gain, access to resources, and land use. And it is not free from discrimination towards the First Nations people who first inhabited the area.

Despite its tumultuous history, Banff National Park remains a stunning landscape, an artefact of wilderness on the planet, and a giant geographical museum worthy of preservation and protection for many years to come. The photographs in this exhibit provide you with a glimpse of some areas of the Park that are overlooked despite Banff’s standing as a world-class tourism destination.

2. Beyond the Postcards

Every year, 4 million people visit Banff National Park, eager to see the world famous peaks and lakes. But rarely do these visitors (and some locals) get beyond the postcard destinations: the Town of Banff, the Sulphur Mountain Gondola, Upper Hot Springs, Lake Louise, Johnston Canyon, Lake Minnewanka, and if they’re in for a stunning drive, the Icefields Parkway.

There is no doubt these places offer enough eye candy to last a lifetime, but Banff is so much more than that.

3. The Trail Less Travelled

You may begin on a well-travelled trail – to Johnston Canyon, perhaps. The trail is wide, eroded (sometimes paved) and easy to follow. The footsteps of hundreds, perhaps thousands of hikers, give you confidence in the direction you are going. But the further you go, the smaller and narrower that trail becomes. Route-finding skills eventually become a necessity. And at some point these trails either merge into game trails or become lost altogether on scree slopes or rocky passes. A faint trail may lead the way, but also shows how few people have followed it.

These are the places that we love.

4. The Adventurers Would Come

There is a story of how people built the railroad tracks between Italy and Switzerland long before a train could handle the journey. They knew that, eventually, there would be one.

And perhaps this is how it was with Banff. While the boundaries of the Park were drawn and altered over the years for a multitude of reasons, no one could have anticipated what kind of people would eventually make journeys and pursue adventure throughout the land within those borders. We are just two of those people who enjoy exploring the remote corners of the Park, hiking hundreds of kilometres on trail and over rocky passes, deep into that legendary area people like to call the backcountry.

In this exhibit, we bring you photographs of what we like to call “Lake Louises or Mount Rundles of the Backcountry,” places we think are equally beautiful, equally magnificent, but not equally accessible. And this is what makes these places so special.

5. Drawing the Lines

The current size and boundaries of Banff National Park are the result of an ever-evolving process that has often been dictated by every factor other than what was worth protecting within those boundaries. The Park was enlarged and reduced over the years for many reasons, from the restricting of hunting of game by First Nations to eliminating areas irrelevant to tourists.  At some point, though, someone took a pencil to a map, sketching lines across valleys, mountains, rivers and lakes, defining borders invisible to the hiker standing one foot on either side of that line.

At its largest Banff National Park was 11,400 km2.The Park now encompasses 6,641 km2 of mountainous terrain.

6. Before Banff

Before 1885, Banff National Park remained undefined, a vast land of wild spaces with the hamlet of Banff (its name recently changed from Siding 29) budding in its current location at the base of Cascade Mountain. The railway that would connect the nation was now stretching West from Banff, towards Laggan (now Lake Louise) and beyond.

Then there was the day in 1883 when railway workers Frank McCabe and brothers William and Thomas McCardell came upon a mist rising from the slopes of Sulphur Mountain.

7. The Birthplace of Canada’s National Park System

The “discovery” of what is now the hot springs at the Cave and Basin forever changed the history of the surrounding area. A heated debate began between claimants to the hot springs and the apparent value of the “sanitary advantage” of the waters and soon the Government of Canada stepped in, creating the Hot Springs Reserve in 1885 and declaring the springs were “reserved from sale or settlement or squatting.”

This area, known as the birthplace of Canada’s National Park system, was really the icing on the cake to both the government and the CP Railroad, who saw a great potential for tourism. It wasn’t too long before the CPR built the Banff Springs Hotel, which was the largest hotel in the world at the time.

8. A Park for the People

We can thank William Pearce, the man who drafted the Rocky Mountains National Park Act in 1887, which expanded the reserve beyond the hot springs to include 665 km2 of wilderness. The Act also established an important pillar for Canada’s National Parks system: “the said tract of land is hereby reserved and set apart as a public park and pleasured ground for the benefit, advantage, and enjoyment of the people of Canada.” Banff, and the areas of development within it, may have otherwise become a privately-owned tourist trap with no boundaries whatsoever to growth.

Banff National Park, as it is called today, was the first national park in Canada, and the third in the world.

9. A Shift in Thinking

Thankfully, eventually conservation made her delicate appearance upon the stage, and decision-makers began considering the environment in their impactful debates about the future of Banff National Park.

As Theodore Binnema and Melanie Niemi conclude in Let the Line Be Drawn Now, “It appears that most of those responsible for managing national parks and sensitive environments did not make their decisions simply to create uninhabited wilderness playgrounds for the well-heeled, but many did make, and continue to make their decisions based on their perceptions that ecological integrity and biodiversity are seriously threatened.” While the Park wasn’t created for the well-heeled (like us wilderness enthusiasts), we are surely thankful to have that playground. We tread carefully, however.

10. A Tribute

Like the train that eventually made the journey between Italy and Switzerland, we are just two of many outdoor enthusiasts who have journeyed throughout Banff National Park long after its borders were drawn. Those lines have created an important distinction, but not to the extent that the land around the Park should not be respected for its own ecological or environmental significance.

As hikers and lovers of the wilderness, we are tremendously aware of the potential impact of our footsteps. We consider ourselves privileged to have seen the areas we have seen, climbed to the top of scarcely climbed peaks, and are thankful to those who manage the Park and to the Earth we walk upon.

Above all, this exhibit is a tribute to these incredible places that are worthy of our protection.

11. Capturing the Images

How the photographs were taken is a whole other story. As a photographer, Paul is dedicated to capturing and documenting remote places using only boots or skis as his vehicle. I was privileged to share the moments during which about half of the photographs were taken.

Many of these photographs required over 25 kilometres of hiking from the road, not to mention hundreds of metres of elevation gain and loss. The moments captured in the photos also involved some adventurous approaches, including hiking with a kayak to an alpine lake, paddling across Hector Lake with an inflatable raft and shovel, and hiking 20 kilometres along manure-filled trails.

And all the photographs captured moments that literally took our breath away. Choosing just twelve was another feat of its own.

12. The Journey Continues

There are still untouched places, unclimbed peaks, and rivers that may have never been forded. And all this is right outside our backdoor. Thankfully, we can look forward to many memorable times to come when we can sit atop a mountain in wonder and awe of the landscape before us. All it takes is putting one foot in front of the other, and pushing onward.

There is always a moment before another adventurous trip where one of us sticks our finger on the map and says, “I wonder what that place looks like.”

Happy pointing and adventuring to you, too.


Binnema, Theodore (Ted) and Melanie Niemi. “‘Let the Line Be Drawn Now’: Wilderness, Conservation, and the Exclusion of Aboriginal People from Banff National Park in Canada.” Environmental History 11 (October 2006): 724-750.

Lakusta, Ernie. Banff & Lake Louise History Explorer. The Canadian Rockies: Altitude Publishing, 2004.

Reichwein, PearlAnn. “Hands Off Our National Parks”: The Alpine Club of Canada Hydro-development Controversies in the Canadian Rockies, 1922-1930.”Journal of the Canadian Historical Association / Revue de la Société historique du Canada Vol. 6, n° 1 (1995): 129-155.

© Meghan J. Ward, 2010.

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