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Cave and Basin

Updated: Jul 23, 2021

On this day in 1885, Canada established a nature reserve in the Rocky Mountains that later become the country's first national park. It was named after the Banffshire region in Scotland, where two of the original directors of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) were born. More than a century later, Banff National Park remains one of the most popular tourism destinations in Canada, drawing over four million visitors each year.

Any trip to Banff would not be complete without a stop at Cave and Basin. Long regarded as a sacred site to Indigenous Peoples, the hot springs on Sulphur Mountain played an important role in the development of Canada's national parks. A handful of fur traders, explorers, and prospectors had visited these turquoise pools during prior expeditions of the continent, but Cave and Basin didn't manage to capture national attention until three railway workers stumbled across the site in November 1883.

News spread fast. People from nearby work camps flocked to the hot springs to soak in the mineral-rich water and disagreements quickly ensued over rights to the land. After a tense legal battle, Alexander Burgess, the Deputy Minister of the Interior, rejected the claims of the feuding parties, believing that Cave and Basin should remain under the control of the government for the sake of public interest.

William Pearce was the one to submit a proposal outlining the boundaries for a nature reserve on Sulphur Mountain, officially marking the creation of Banff National Park. As well intentioned as these developments might have been, it's important to note that zero regard was given to the rights of Indigenous Peoples, whose presence in the Rocky Mountains dates back thousands of years. This erasure must be acknowledged when discussing the otherwise momentous occasion of Canada’s first national park.

In 2013, Parks Canada commissioned Roland Rollinmud, a Stoney First Nations artist, to create a painting for display near the entrance to Cave and Basin. It shows traditional Indigenous uses for the hot springs, giving visitors a more complete depiction of the history of the site. You can read more about how the Nakoda peoples have maintained a connection to their ancestral land in Courtney W. Mason's book Spirits of the Rockies: Reasserting an Indigenous Presence in Banff National Park.

Today, Cave and Basin is open year round. Parks Canada offers free guided tours, as well as a special lantern tour on Saturday nights from May through August.

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