One of the lesser-known sites in Canada’s most famous national park is the most historically significant.
The Cave and Basin National Historic Area is where the national park system began.
It’s home to pungent, mineralized and slightly (but not dangerously) radioactive waters considered for decades to be therapeutic, rejuvenating and healthy.
People came from all over to bathe in the waters, until interest waned and health authorities changed their mind about the water’s benefits.
Steam and sulphur blow out of vents from several small streams along the scenic pathways and boardwalks on the property, which also served as a First World War internment camp. (There’s a small museum explaining that, as well.)
Though the hot mineral waters were known to local indigenous peoples for centuries, they only came to the government’s attention in 1883 when three railway workers discovered steam venting from a crack in the rocks, which led them to a water-filled cave.
According to the national parks website for the area, the government denied bids to take ownership of the property and instead set aside the “Banff hot springs” as a national reserve — Canada’s first.
“Immediately, the government began development — an access tunnel blasted to the Cave and a bathhouse beside the (outdoor) basin. In 1887, this reserve became out first national park,” a sign on the site explains.
The cave is now accessed through a building. The basin is just outside.
The best part is the cost. After you’ve bought your national park pass, visiting the cave is only $3.90. Touring the rest of the property is free.
That’s a lot cheaper than the Banff Gondola and Columbia Icefield/Athabasca Glacier on the Banff-Jasper highway — two must-sees in the area.
Nor will you be fighting crowds as you do at the other sites and in the tourist-congested town. The cave has a small public viewing area, so you are shoulder-to-shoulder there, but it’s wide-open spaces on the rest of the property.
The odd whiff of sulphur you’ll pick up on your walks, or on a horseback tour, also helps explain how nearby Sulphur Mountain, home to the gondola, got its name.
— All expenses for this trip were paid for by the writer.
Banff hot springs claims over the years:
1906 - “Invalids from every conceivable place come here for treatment, which in almost every case results in a cure.” — Department of the Interior annual report
1918 - “The chief ailments for which sulphur waters have proved efficaceous are diseases of the skin, gout, chronic rheumatism and syphilis, for the treatment of stiff joints, and gunshot wounds, and in the poisoning by mercury or lead. — R.T. Elworthy, Mineral Springs of Canada, Part II
1980s - Hot springs baths may be used for muscular problems and relaxation therapy, and sulphur is still a common component of skin ointments. Most other medical claims are now questioned.”
— From a sign at the Cave and Basin site.