Places to Visit

Cave and Basin National Historic Site: A Top Guide

Who doesn’t love visiting new places and learning about other people? Travelling is a great way to explore unknown areas, experience different cultures, and take a break from your daily routine.

If you’re planning to visit Banff, in Alberta, Canada, you should definitely check out the Cave and Basin National Historic Site.

The Cave and Basin National Historic Site is a popular tourist destination, with many visitors coming to the park to see the hot springs, go hiking, and learn about the history of the area. There is a visitor center on-site, which offers a variety of educational programs and activities for visitors.

1. Facts About the Cave and Basin National Historic Site

This site includes the historic Cave, the Basin, the interior pool, and the trail leading to the original steam vent. It also includes the ruins of the original hotel, the bathing pavilion, and the caretaker’s cottage from the 1900s.

We’ll take a look into the origins of Cave and Basin National Historic Site and then about what you can expect from this national historic site.

cave and basin national historic site
Photo by adrian korpal on Unsplash/Copyright

1.1 Origins

1.1.1 The People Who Found It?

In 1883, three railway workers came across thermal springs in Banff. This discovery led to the creation of what we now know as the Cave and Basin National Historic Site.

These three were Canadian Pacific railway workers, William and Tom McCardell, and Frank McCabe. They recognized the potential of the area, and so they set up the first boundary around it.

However, it should be clarified that these three were not actually the first people to have found it, as there is evidence of prior human habitation in the area.

1.1.2 The Place

The railway workers found a cave on the Sulphur Mountain in Banff, which was in the Bow Valley in Banff, and realized that it contained hot springs.

They noticed steam rising from the ground, and upon further investigation, they found a steam vent leading into what we now know as the Cave and Basin.

1.1.3 Ownership Dispute

The three railway workers tried to claim the land, arguing that it should belong to them as they had found it. However, several other parties tried to lay their own claims on the land, leading to a legal dispute between the parties.

The Government realized that these hot springs would be useful in tourism and revenue generation, and decided to take over the area.

1.1.4 The First National Park In Canada

In 1885, the Government turned the land into a Hot Spring Reserve, covering over 20 square kilometres. Settlement and sale were prohibited.

In 1887, the Reserve was expanded to over 650 square kilometres and was named the Rocky Mountains National Park, which was the first national park in Canada.

This action was done under the new Rocky Mountain Park Act, which established that natural resources should belong to the people, and not to private individuals.

Later, the entire area was finally given the name Banff National Park.

1.1.5 A National Historic Site

In 1981, the Historic Sites and Monument Board of Canada advised that the Cave and Basin National Historic Site be designated as a National Historic Site, partly due to its significance in the lives of the Indigenous peoples, and partly due to the important role it played as the birthplace of Canada’s national parks.

Cave and Basin National Historic Site
Image by Kit Leong On Shutterstock

1.2 What to Expect?

1.2.1 The Activities

There are many things to do at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site. There are hiking trails near the area, where you can enjoy scenic views. There are breathtaking scenic points, and great places to plan a picnic as well. Interactive theatre exhibits and tours are also available.

1.2.2 The Cave and Basin Hot Springs

The Cave and Basin Hot Spring itself can be reached through a short tunnel. It is a small but beautiful thermal spring located inside a cave. While you cannot take a dip in these waters, and the smell of sulphur (a rotten egg smell) may be overpowering, the history surrounding this basin will surely enthrall you.

Among the nine hot springs on Sulphur Mountain, the Cave and Basin is the only one with a cave large enough to accommodate groups of people. Be careful though, this might result in overcrowding in the cave.

1.2.3 The Trails

There are several scenic trails in the area:

  1. The Discovery Boardwalk – This is a short hike, and is interpretive, giving you a quick history lesson about the discovery of the hot springs by the three railway workers. This will lead to you the original steam vent that was found in 1883, and the Cave and Basin.
  2. The Marsh and the Marsh Loop Trail – After the Cave and Basin is another easy hike, a little over 2 kilometres, which follows the natural hot springs and ends at the Bow River. You will be able to view the mountains and meadows, teeming with flora and fauna. There is also a platform for fish and bird watching. If you continue down the path, you will end up on the Marsh Loop, which is extended from the Marsh Trail.
  3. The Sundance Canyon Trail – This trail is over 4 kilometres long, and has more elevation than the other two. It also has a great view of a waterfall. It’s a great place to go biking, but you should make sure to check the conditions of the trail before planning to walk or bike down it.

Fun Fact: The Marsh Loop Trail is Also used by Horse Riders!

The Discovery and Marsh Trails are also known as the Cave and Basin Trail.

1.2.4 The Wildlife

The endangered Banff Springs Snails are the most important species at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site. These 3-5 mm size snails can be found in the waters of the Cave and Basin, floating on the water where the hot spring bubbles. Other endangered wildlife species are also present in the area, including the Banff Longnose Dace Minnow.

At the fish blind on the Sundance Trail, you’ll have the opportunity to marvel at all the waterfowl hanging around. At the fish viewing platform, if you look closely, you’ll see lots of bright fish.

Beyond the Marsh Loop, there is an area of the forest restricted from visitors. This is for the benefit of larger wild animals, such as wolves and bears, to move across the land. Who knows, maybe you’ll catch a glimpse? But follow all the protocols and don’t stray from the path.

cave and basin national historic site
Photo by Toomas Tartes on Unsplash/Copyright 2019

1.3 Some Venturesome Things to Do Nearby!

1.3.1 Hiking

As mentioned, you can enjoy hiking along the trails. The Discovery Trail is also called the Upper Boardwalk Trail, and the Marsh Trail is also referred to as the Lower Boardwalk Trail.

There are great picnic spots along the routes, and a plethora of wildlife for you to enjoy, including waterfowl (including ducks), fish, the endangered Banff snail, and 6 varieties of orchids.

Sundance Creek, along with its waterfall and rapids, is a great scenic point on the Sundance Canyon Trail.

1.3.2 The Cave and Basin Building

This building in the Cave and Basin National Historic Site is a must-see attraction. This interpretive museum gives those visiting Banff interesting information about the Banff National Park, and the discovery that led to the creation of the Cave and Basin National Historic Site.

It contains a short walk to the Cave from the inside, which is separate from the Discovery Boardwalk above, that takes you to the steam vent. It also has a Story Hall, with large screens and display boards, telling you about thermal springs, the endangered Banff Snail, and the history of the area.

There’s also an outdoor pool, still containing the general shape of the original 1900s bathing pavilion.

1.3.3 The Hot Springs

While the Cave and Basin Hot Springs are the main attraction here, there are several other springs in the larger Banff National Park area, such as the Banff Upper Hot Springs.

cave and basin national historic site
Photo by Tayawee Supan on Unsplash/Copyright 2021

1.3.4 Taking Tours

There are several tours available for visitors to take advantage of, and most are free with an admission fee. Parks Canada offers these tours. The first 4 are free, but the next two require advance purchasing.

  1. The Basics Tour – You will be taken on a tour of the pool and the cave, and will learn about the importance of the site for the Indigenous peoples.
  2. The Discovery Tour – As you tour the boardwalks and the hot springs, you will have the opportunity to learn about how the discovery of the Cave and Basin led to the creation of the whole national park system through the past years.
  3. Billy’s Railway Camp – This will allow you to meet one the of three railway workers who found the springs in 1883.
  4. Hope Springs Internal Tour – For all the nerds out there, this tour will go into detail on how the thermal springs work, and the science behind why people thought that the warm spring waters contained healing properties.
  5. Forest Sense Walking Tour – A walk where you will be able to experience the practice of forest bathing, which is guaranteed to be meditative and relaxing.
  6. Lantern Tours – This is a unique, after-dark experience. You’ll be told tales from the past, and even meet a ghost, all illuminated only by the light of lanterns.

You can check the details, timings, and availability of these tours and other activities here.

1.3.5 Other Activities and Exhibits

Other fun activities and exhibits offered here include:

  1. The Banff Winter Carnival – This carnival happens every year and is teeming with a variety of snow-filled activities!
  2. The Xplorers Club – For those young people that love exploring and solving puzzles and mysteries, this activity is a must-do!
  3. Art-making for Rejuvenation and Resilience – These art activities will bring out your creativity through the influence of the serene Banff nature and will definitely relax you.
  4. Imagine a Country – An interactive exhibit and activity that encourages you to share your thoughts about what makes an ideal country.
  5. The Internment Exhibit – This interactive exhibit does not shy away from showcasing some of Banff’s darker history and the role it played during World War II.
cave and basin national historic site
Photo by Dustin Bowdige on Unsplash/Copyright 2020

2. Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

2.1 What Exactly Is the Cave and Basin National Historic Site?

Cave and Basin National Historic Site is a national park and the birthplace of Canada’s national parks system. It is open year-round, although some facilities and activities may be closed during the winter months due to the cold weather.

The park is located in the town of Banff, which is in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta and is easily accessible by car or by bus.

2.2 Can You Swim at The Cave and Basin National Historic Site?

You cannot take a dip or swim in the Cave and Basin Hot Spring at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site. This prohibition is to protect the endangered Banff Snail that is found in those waters, as they are a very fragile species.

2.3 how Long Does It Take to See the Cave and Basin National Historic Site?

The suggested duration for visiting the Cave and Basin National Historic Site is one to two hours. You can visit the museum, where you can watch the films and walk through the displays, visit the Cave and Basin through the tunnel, and look at the scenic views from the upper decks, within this time.

2.4 Is the Cave and Basin National Historic Site Free to Visit?

Admission for entry to the Cave and Basin National Historic Site is free for people aged 17 years or younger, and for those who have obtained a valid Annual Discovery Park Pass.

Some of the tours are free with a daily admission fee. If you would also like to visit the Banff Upper Hot Springs, you will be required to purchase a Thermal Springs Pass. You can take a look at the details here.

2.5 What Are the Different Ways to Enjoy the Cave and Basin National Historic Site?

There are many ways to enjoy the sites at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site and the Banff National Park. You can opt for walking or biking tours, or you can opt for longer bus tours as well.

You can also have the exciting option of multi-day and extended tours, taking you through the historic Banff sights.

3. Closing Notes

Before the Cave and Basin National Historic Site was discovered by the railway workers, records dating back to the 1850s show that the Indigenous Peoples had known of this land for over ten thousand years.

The Cave and Basin National Historic Site has been described as a pretty but amazing experience by those visiting Banff. (You can check out the best times to visit Banff and the other attractions it offers here!)

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