Banff National Park Nature Guide
Banff National Park lies within the main and front ranges of the Rocky Mountains, a mountain range that extends the length of the North American continent. Although the mountains are composed of bedrock laid down up to one billion years ago, it wasn’t until 100 million years ago that forces below the earth’s surface transformed the lowland plain of what is now western Canada into the varied, mountainous topography we see today.
The front ranges lie to the east, bordering the foothills. These geologically complex mountains are made up of younger bedrock that has been folded, faulted, and uplifted. The main ranges are older and higher, with the bedrock lying mainly horizontal and not as severely disturbed as the front ranges. Here the pressures have been most powerful; these mountains are characterized by castlelike buttresses and pinnacles, and warped waves of stratified rock. Most glaciers are found among these lofty peaks. The spine of the main range is the Continental Divide. In Canadian latitudes to the east of the divide, all waters flow to the Atlantic Ocean; those to the west flow into the Pacific.
Since rising above the surrounding plains, these mountains have been eroding. At least four times in the last million years sheets of ice have covered much of the land. Advancing and retreating back and forth like steel wool across the landscape, they rounded off lower peaks and carved formerly V-shaped valleys into broad U-shaped ones (Bow Valley is the most distinctive). Meanwhile, glacial meltwater continued carving ever-deeper channels into the valleys, and rivers changed course many times.
This long history of powerful and even violent natural events over the eons has left behind the dramatic landscape visitors marvel over today. Now forming the exposed sides of many a mountain peak, layers of drastically altered sediment are visible from miles away, especially when accentuated by a particular angle of sunlight or a light fall of snow. Cirques, gouged into the mountains by glacial action, fill with glacial meltwater each spring, creating trademark translucent green lakes that will take your breath away. The wide, sweeping U-shaped valleys scoured out by glaciers past now create magnificent panoramas that will draw you to pull off the road and gasp in awe; open views are easy to come by here, thanks to a climate that keeps the tree line low.
Nearly 700 species of plants have been recorded in the park. Each species falls into one of three distinct vegetation zones, based primarily on altitude. Lowest is the montane zone, which covers the valley floor. Above it, the subalpine zone comprises most of the forested area. Highest of all is the alpine zone, where climate is severe and vegetation cover is limited.
Montane-zone vegetation is usually found at elevations below 1,350 meters (4,430 feet) but can grow at higher elevations on sun-drenched, south-facing slopes. Because fires frequently affect this zone, lodgepole pine is the dominant species; its tightly sealed cones only open with the heat of a forest fire, thereby regenerating the species quickly after a blaze. Douglas fir is the zone’s climax species and is found in open stands, such as on Tunnel Mountain. Aspen is common in older burn areas, while limber pine thrives on rocky outcrops.
Dense forests of white spruce and Engelmann spruce typify the subalpine zone. White spruce dominates up to 2,100 meters (6,890 feet); above 2,100 meters (6,890 feet) to 2,400 meters (7,870 feet), Engelmann spruce is dominant. In areas affected by fire, such as west of Castle Junction, lodgepole pine occurs in dense stands. Subalpine fir grows above 2,200 meters (7,550 feet) and is often stunted by the high winds experienced at such lofty elevations.
The transition from subalpine to alpine is gradual and usually occurs around 2,300 meters (7,560 feet). The alpine has a severe climate, with temperatures averaging below zero. Low temperatures, strong winds, and a very short summer force alpine plants to adapt by growing low to the ground with long roots. Mosses, mountain avens, saxifrage, and an alpine dandelion all thrive in this environment. The best place to view the brightly colored carpet of alpine flowers is at Sunshine Meadows or Parker’s Ridge.
Viewing Banff National Park’s abundant and varied wildlife is one of the most popular visitor activities in Banff. In summer, with the onslaught of the tourist hordes, many of the larger mammals move away from the heavily traveled areas. It then becomes a case of knowing when and where to look for them. Spring and fall are the best times of year for wildlife viewing; the crowds are thinner than in summer, and big-game animals are more likely to be seen at lower elevations. Winter also has its advantages. Although bears are hibernating, a large herd of elk winters on the outskirts of the town of Banff, coyotes are often seen roaming around town, bighorn sheep have descended from the heights, and wolf packs can be seen along the Bow Valley Corridor.
One of the first mammals you’re likely to come in contact with is the Columbian ground squirrel, seen throughout the park’s lower elevations. The golden-mantled ground squirrel, similar in size but with a striped back, is common at higher elevations or around rocky outcrops. The one collecting Engelmann spruce cones is the red squirrel. The least chipmunk is striped, but it’s smaller than the golden-mantled squirrel. It lives in dry, rocky areas throughout the park.
Short-tailed weasels are common, but long-tailed weasels are rare. Look for both in higher subalpine forests. Pikas (commonly called rock rabbits) and hoary marmots (well known for their shrill whistles) live among rock slides near high-country lakes: look for them around Moraine Lake and along Bow Summit Loop. Porcupines are widespread and are most active at night; I often see them on early morning hikes in the vicinity of Lake Louise.
Vermilion Lakes is an excellent place to view the beaver at work; the best time is dawn or dusk. Muskrats and mink are common in all wetlands within the park.
The most common and widespread of the park’s hoofed residents are elk, which number around 2,000. Starting in 2000, a concerted effort was made to keep them out of Banff’s downtown core, but they are still congregating around the outskirts of the town, including up near the Tunnel Mountain campgrounds. They can also be seen along the Bow Valley Parkway. Moose were once common around Vermilion Lakes, but competition from an artificially expanded elk population caused their numbers to decline, and now only around 100 live in the park. Look for them at Waterfowl Lakes and along the Icefields Parkway near Rampart Creek.
Mule deer, named for their large ears, are most common in the southern part of the park. Watch for them along the Mount Norquay Road and Bow Valley Parkway. White-tailed deer are much less common but are seen occasionally at Saskatchewan River Crossing.
It is estimated that the park is home to around 900 mountain goats. These nimble-footed creatures occupy all mountain peaks, living almost the entire year in the higher subalpine and alpine regions. The most accessible place to view these high-altitude hermits is along Parker’s Ridge in the far northwestern corner of the park. The park’s bighorn sheep have for the most part lost their fear of humans and often congregate at certain spots to lick salt from the road. Your best chance of seeing one of the park’s 2,000 to 2,300 bighorn is at the south end of the Bow Valley Parkway, between switchbacks on Mount Norquay Road, and between Lake Minnewanka and Two Jack Lake.
Wild Dogs and Cats
Coyotes are widespread along the entire Bow River watershed. They are attracted to Vermilion Lakes by an abundance of small game, and many have permanent dens there. Wolves had been driven close to extinction by the early 1950s, but today at least four wolf packs have been reported in the park. One pack winters close to town and is occasionally seen on Vermilion Lakes during that period. The lynx population fluctuates greatly; look for them in the backcountry during winter. Cougars are shy and number fewer than 20 in the park. They are occasionally seen along the front ranges behind Cascade Mountain.
The exhilaration of seeing one of these magnificent creatures in its natural habitat is unforgettable. From the road you’re most likely to see black bears, which actually range in color from jet black to cinnamon brown and number around 50. Try the Bow Valley Parkway at dawn or late in the afternoon. Farther north they are occasionally seen near the road as it passes Cirrus Mountain. Banff’s 60-odd grizzly bears spend most of the year in remote valleys, often on south-facing slopes away from the Bow Valley Corridor. During late spring they are occasionally seen in residential areas, along the Lake Minnewanka loop road, on the golf course, and in the area of Bow Pass.
The chance of encountering a bear face-to-face in the backcountry is remote. To lessen chances even further, you should take some simple precautions: Never hike alone or at dusk. Make lots of noise when passing through heavy vegetation. Keep a clean camp. Read the pamphlets available at all park visitors centers. At the Banff Visitor Centre (224 Banff Ave.), daily trail reports list all recent bear sightings. Report any bears you see to the Warden’s Office (403/762-4506).
Reptiles and Amphibians
The wandering garter snake is rare and found only near the Cave and Basin, where warm water from the mineral spring flows down a shaded slope into Vermilion Lakes. Amphibians found in the park include the widespread western toad; the wood frog, commonly found along the Bow River; the rare spotted frog; and the long-toed salamander, which spawns in shallow ponds and spends summer under logs or rocks in the vicinity of its spawning grounds.
Although more than 240 species of birds have been recorded in the park, most are shy and live in heavily wooded areas. One species that definitely isn’t shy is the fearless gray jay, which haunts all campgrounds and picnic areas. Similar in color, but larger, is the Clark’s nutcracker, which lives in higher, subalpine forests. Another common bird is the black and white magpie. Ravens are frequently encountered, especially around campgrounds.
Several species of woodpecker live in subalpine forests. A number of species of grouse are also in residence. Most common is the downy ruffed grouse seen in montane forest. The blue grouse and spruce grouse are seen at higher elevations, as is the white-tailed ptarmigan, which lives above the tree line. (Watch for them in Sunshine Meadows or on the Bow Summit Loop.) A colony of black swifts in Johnston Canyon is one of only two in the Canadian Rockies.
Good spots to view dippers and migrating waterfowl are Hector Lake, Vermilion Lakes, and the wetland area near Muleshoe Picnic Area. A bird blind has been set up below the Cave and Basin but is only worth visiting at dawn and dusk when the hordes of human visitors aren’t around. Part of the nearby marsh stays ice free during winter, attracting killdeer and other birds.
Although raptors are not common in the park, bald eagles and golden eagles are present part of the year, and Alberta’s provincial bird, the great horned owl, lives in the park year-round.