Having celebrated its 125th birthday in 2010, Banff is Canada's oldest and most famous national park, its fabulous and dramatic landscapes the first, best argument that Canada's abundant, spectacular wilderness was worthy of federal protection. Its 6,641 sq. km (2,564 sq. miles) of incredibly dramatic mountain landscape, glaciers, high moraine lakes, and rushing rivers make it clear no argument was to be made at all; this is one of the most gorgeous places on Earth.
If there's a downside, it's that everybody knows it. In the towns of Banff and nearby Lake Louise (though much less so in Louise), a walk on main street can give you the odd sensation of walking in midtown New York City at rush hour, and it's not because of the urbane sophistication the towns have cultivated; it's crowded, and the sidewalks can be shoulder to shoulder.
Happily, the wilderness is just steps away. Thanks to outstanding infrastructure, and professional guides and outfitters, it's easy in Banff National Park to get on a raft, bike, or horse and find a little solitude. Alternatively, consider visiting the park off-season, when prices are lower, the locals are friendlier, and the scenery is just as stunning.
For more information on the park, contact Banff National Park (P.O. Box 900, Banff, AB T1L 1K2; tel. 403/762-1550; www.pc.gc.ca).
Banff Townsite -- So gorgeous is Banff townsite, it can sometimes seem surreal: quaint buildings, some of them historic, line a bustling main street, over which loom the peaks of the Rockies so close you feel like you could reach out and touch them. Mt. Rundle, the town's signature peak, towers over Banff Avenue from the south; its appearance lends support to the tectonic-plate theory of mountain creation, as one side, smooth as the plains, crests at a point and gives way to a jagged underside. To the south, the Bow River Bridge traverses the fast-rushing Bow in the shadow of massive Mt. Cascade.
It's postcard perfect -- exactly why the Banff Springs Hotel was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway company in 1888 (it's now owned by the luxurious Fairmont hotel chain), to draw tourists to the rugged beauty of the Rockies, providing all the comforts, including geothermally heated hot springs. The plan worked: Visitors flocked, and the town grew rapidly to accommodate.
The setting may be unreal, but in some cases, so is the town; in between the remaining historic buildings are high-end contemporary shopping malls, with luxury international brands and inflated prices. Banff also has an alarming surfeit of fudge shops -- the international symbol for "tourist trap." Banff is vibrant and cosmopolitan, its sidewalks crowded with people from all over the world year-round; what it isn't, though, is peaceful -- especially in summer.