People come from around the world to bask in the summertime splendor of Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies. So why was it that after more than 20 years of living in the...

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BANFF, Alberta — People come from around the world to bask in the summertime splendor of Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies. So why was it that after more than 20 years of living in the Northwest, I made it here only recently?

Forest fires weren’t the reason. I visited in late July, a couple of weeks before smoke from blazes in Alberta and British Columbia began clouding the normally clear skies.

Time wasn’t a factor. Three hours, door-to-door. That’s how long it takes to reach Banff via a quick flight from Seattle to Calgary and a 75-mile drive or ride in an airport shuttle bus.

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It was the crowds. Banff has just 7,000 year-round residents but attracts 4.5 million visitors a year. Apart from ski season, late summer and fall are the best times to visit, but if your idea of visiting a national park is getting away from people, locals will advise you to steer clear of Banff Townsite, the touristy town center.

“Most of the time, you can’t even walk around,” our airport shuttle driver told us. “The town is just jampacked.”

I considered this when my husband and I made plans to meet my Ohio mother for a long weekend, but I gambled on staying in town anyway, mostly because I knew we’d be able to walk nearly everywhere.

CAROL PUCCI
Morning is the best time to beat the crowds and enjoy a soak in the Banff Upper Hot Springs outdoor pool. It’s one of three hot springs resorts in the Canadian Rockies run by the parks department.

Banff Townsite lies within the park boundaries, and restaurants, shops and art galleries are nestled in a dramatic mountain setting. Most first-time visitors are surprised to find so many opportunities for hiking, biking, canoeing, visiting museums and just enjoying nature just a short walk, bike or bus ride away.

Nearly everyone who visits this area takes at least a day to rent a car or arrange transportation to nearby Lake Louise, hike some backcountry trails or drive along the scenic 143-mile Icefields Parkway, which connects Banff to Jasper National Park. But we were looking forward to parking the car for a few days and relaxing, and as we strolled along Caribou Street (there’s also a Bear Street, a Wolf Street and Moose Street) our first afternoon, something seemed different.

Nearly all the hotels posted vacancy signs, and when we walked into Coyotes Grill, a popular downtown breakfast and lunch spot, we were immediately shown a table — no lines, no wait.

Normally hectic Banff Townsite had taken on a relaxed, almost off-season feel.

Fewer visitors

Tourism has plummeted this year, mainly due to a big drop in the number of Japanese group tours, a huge part of the town’s seasonal business. SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), which hit Canada earlier this year, caused most groups to cancel, leaving hotels with empty rooms and restaurants with plenty of tables.

RANKIN HARVEY, BANFF / LAKE LOUISE TOURISM
The restaurant atop Sulphur Mountain in Banff offers good food and great views. It can be reached via a gondola that takes eight minutes to get to the top.

“Most summers we’d get 100 tour buses a day,” our shuttle driver told us. “This year, we were lucky to see three or four.”

With fires in the area abating and crowds thinner than usual in town, this month and next should be ideal times to take advantage of a quieter-than-usual late summer and early fall.

The vacancy signs are still up and hotels are offering discounts, but check first with park rangers on weather conditions. Drifting smoke has been a problem, especially for those with respiratory problems. Banff received some rain recently, which cleared skies. Trails that had been temporarily closed were reopened, but conditions can change quickly.

Here are some suggestions for close-in explorations that don’t require a car. ( If you get tired of walking, Banff Transit’s shuttle buses connect most of the major sites, hotels, nearby trails and campgrounds.)

River walking

Avoid busy Banff Avenue and start your walk (or bike ride) out of town the way the locals do — on a quiet path that runs along the Bow River, the longest river in Banff National Park. Begin at the foot of Wolf Street and Bow Avenue, three blocks west of the Visitor Information Centre.

Rent a canoe here and paddle north along the glassy Bow or nearby Echo Creek, or continue strolling south along the river bank. Stop at the Whyte Museum (403-762-2291 or www.whyte.org) on Bear Street for a fine-arts overview of the history and culture of the Canadian Rockies.

If you’re around at 3 p.m., consider joining the museum’s daily 90-minute walking tour of Banff historic sites ($7 Canadian, or $5 U.S., based on current exchange rates). Otherwise, cross the Bow River Bridge in the center of town and head east, west or walk straight ahead. Each direction leads to several destinations worth exploring.

Cascade Gardens

Directly across the bridge is what looks like an elegant private residence. Open the iron gate and discover Cascade Gardens on the grounds of the Banff National Park Administration. The park building houses Canada Place, a museum about Canada’s heritage, but the gardens are the main reason to visit.

Most of more than 50,000 flowering plants are in bloom July through September. Slate walkways lead to shaded benches and quiet reading spots; waterfalls, gazebos bridges made of stone and knobby burl wood. Admission is free.

Cave and Basin

About a 20-minute walk west of the bridge, along a shaded path and horse trail that parallel Cave Avenue, is the birthplace of Canada’s national park system.

Cave and Basin National Historic Site is the spot where three workers for the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1883 laid claim to the first thermal hot springs on nearby Sulphur Mountain. The resort was later acquired by the government, named Rocky Mountains Park of Canada and later Banff National Park.

A 30-minute film traces the history of the hot springs, and if you can put up with the smell of sulfur, you’re free to explore the cave where the springs were discovered. An inviting bathing pool is filled with water but swimming is no longer allowed. There are two hikes in the vicinity — a paved trail to Sundance Canyon with views of the Bow River, and the Marsh Loop trail, where the warm mineral water sustains an array of plant and animal life.

Bow Falls

A half-mile east of town along the river bank is Bow Falls, a 33-foot waterfall behind the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. There’s a small swimming beach here, and it’s worth the uphill climb to visit the historic hotel (also reachable from downtown via one of Banff Transit’s buses), wander though the lobbies furnished with antiques or and have a drink on the outdoor deck overlooking the falls.


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Getting there: Horizon Air flies nonstop from Seattle to Calgary. Flight time is about an hour and a half. See www.alaskair.com or call 800-547-9308. Banff is 530 miles from Vancouver. The drive takes about 12 hours.

Airport shuttle services provide transport to and from Calgary and Banff hotels (1 1/2 hours). Contact Rocky Mountain Sky Shuttle, 403-762-5200, www.rockymountainskyshuttle.com; Banff-Canmore Airport Express, 877-992-2633, www.banffairporttaxi.com or Banff Airporter, 403-762-3330, www.banffairporter.com. Reservations recommended.

Visitor information: Contact the Banff/Lake Louise Tourism Bureau at 403-762-8421 or see www.banfflakelouise.com for information on hotels, tours, summer packages, dining and sightseeing suggestions. See also www.canadianrockies.net

Wildfire information: For fire update information see www.pc.gc.ca/agen/special/
fire_E.asp. For telephone updates and other park information, contact Parks Canada at 800-748-7275 or see www.pc.gc.ca

Lodging: Banff has a range of hotels, motels and B&Bs in the town center and beyond. Check on packages that combine a room with activities such as riding, biking or rafting.

The tourism bureau carries a daily vacancy update on its Web site (www.banfflakelouise.com) along with phone numbers and information on B&Bs, cabins and backcountry lodges.

Transportation and tours: The public-transit system runs shuttles 7 a.m. to midnight through Sept. 30. Buses stop at major sites and campgrounds. Fare is $1 Canadian (70 cents U.S.) for adults; 50 cents (35 cents U.S.) for children.

Rocky Mountain Sky Shuttle operates service between Banff and nearby Lake Louise. Round-trip fares are $34 Canadian ($24.50 U.S.) for adults; $32 Canadian ($23 U.S.) for seniors and youths and $17 Canadian ($12 U.S.) for children.

Several outfitters run river-rafting and float trips, guided hikes and tours to Lake Louise. Contact the tourism bureau for information.

The biggest tour operator in the area is Brewster, which runs tours to the Columbia Icefields April through mid-October. Call 877-423-7433 or see www.brewster.ca

Upper Banff Hot Springs: The hot springs is 2.5 miles south of town on Mountain Avenue. Summer hours are 9 a.m.-11 p.m. daily. Suit and towel rentals are available. Admission is $7.50 Canadian ($5.40 U.S.) for adults; $6.50 Canadian ($4.70 U.S.) for seniors and children. Disabled access. Information: 800-767-1611.

The 770-room Banff Springs, built in 1888, resembles a Scottish mountain castle. Considering the cost of the rooms ($300 U.S. and up), spending an hour or so here enjoying the view is a surprisingly affordable. We found the deck uncrowded on a weekday afternoon; drinks and a snack came to less than $20 U.S.

Sulphur Mountain

Behind the hotel are two of Banff’s top attractions. The Banff Gondola (403-762-2523 or www.banffgondola.com) transports visitors to the summit of Sulphur Mountain, 7,486 feet above sea level. Just below, is the Banff Upper Hot Springs, an outdoor spring-fed hot pool run by the national-park system.

It’s a quick eight-minute ride to the top of Sulphur Mountain ($21.50 Canadian or $15.40 U.S. for adults; $10.75 Canadian or $7.70 U.S. for children) in glass-enclosed carriages; alternatively, there’s a steep 3.4-mile trail that leads to the summit. At the top, there’s an observation deck (with disabled access), hiking trails and a self-guided interpretive walkway to Sanson’s Peak.

The best time to avoid lines going up is late afternoon, but that’s also when the greatest number of people are returning. Consider timing your visit to allow for some sightseeing, followed by an early dinner in the Panorama restaurant. Instead of spending an hour standing in line, we relaxed and watched as the early-evening sunlight colored the mountains a dusty rose. By the time we finished dinner, there was no longer a wait to get back down.

Upper Banff Hot Springs

Below the gondola on Mountain Road is Banff Upper Hot Springs, one of three Canadian Rockies hot-springs resorts run by the park system. The others are Miette in Japser and Radium in Kootenay National Park, 83 miles from Banff.

First developed in 1901, the pool and bathhouse complex were renovated in 1996. Water flows out of the bedrock at 117 degrees and is cooled to 104 in steaming modern pool with choice mountain views.

There’s room for about 150 people, and the idea is to soak rather than actually swim. (Recommended time is about 20 minutes.)

“We try and squeeze as many as we can in without using Vaseline,” a lifeguard said. We avoided the crowds by going before breakfast; at 9:30 a.m., there were only 20 people in the water.

Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or cpucci@seattletimes.com.