Hot springs represent the raison d’etre for our national park system. The first park in Canada was a tiny 26 sq. km. (10 sq. mi.) reserve around several hot springs at the base of Sulphur Mountain, named the Banff Hot Springs Reserve. Two years later, the reserve was enlarged to include Devil's Head Lake (today's Lake Minnewanka) and the Banff townsite and it became the Rocky Mountains Park of Canada. Our first national park was renamed Banff National Park in 1930. Banff is the third National Park in the world behind Yellowstone in the U.S., and Royal National Park in Australia. It’s interesting to note that the first National Park in the world, Yellowstone, was also set aside for its thermal features.
There are many springs in the Rockies. Springs are defined as
places where groundwater is discharged at a specific location. They vary
dramatically as to the amount of water they discharge. Some of the water may
have traveled great distances underground before resurfacing as a spring. Many
of the larger springs in the Rockies are the result of long cracks, or joints,
in sedimentary rock.
When we talk about hot or thermal springs, these are defined as
springs where the temperature of water lies significantly above the mean
annual air temperature of the region." A mineral spring is defined as one that contains a reading of 400 parts/million
of total dissolved solids. Both types of spring are found from Mexico to Alaska.
In the case of the thermal springs in the Rockies, their
formation tends to be quite consistent. As rain falls on the surrounding peaks,
it percolated into the rather porous sedimentary rocks. As it descends through
the rock, it picks up a variety of materials, everything from radium to sulphur.
Also, as it moves further beneath the surface, it heats up from the primal heat
of the Earth. Eventually, it encounters a large thrust fault, or crack. As water
descends behind it, it forces the now heated water to ascend along the
fault-line to surface as a hot or warm spring. In Banff, it is the Sulphur
Mountain Thrust Fault that is responsible for the 8 hot and warm springs along
the lower slopes of Sulphur Mountain. Also critical in the creation of a hot
spring, is an express route to the surface. If the water moves slowly from depth
to the surface, it will cool back down before it bubbles out as a spring.
Luckily, since many of these springs occur in limestone formations, The openings
allowing the water to the surface may be enlarged by dissolving of the limestone
to create a virtual pipeline to the surface. This assures a quick trip and warm
Like most mountain environments, hot springs support an
abundance of life even long before they reach the surface. The sulphur smell is caused by anaerobic bacteria
living deep beneath the Earth’s crust (see next topic). Once the springs surface, they offer
opportunities not found elsewhere. The warm water allows an abundance of algae
and bacteria to live. For many years a species of fish, the long-nosed dace,
survived only in the outflow of the Cave & Basin Hot Springs. Unfortunately,
it has now joined the dodo bird in the realm of extinction. Numerous other
species of tropical fish survive in the outflow from the Cave & Basin in a
small section of Vermilion Lakes.
The warm water also allows an abundance of life surrounding the
waters to survive. It creates a microscopic world where the climate is warmer
than the remainder of the Rockies. Plants like watercress, not found elsewhere
in the Canadian Rockies, thrives in the warm runoff. Reptiles like the garter
snake, and amphibians like long-toed salamanders also survive only adjacent to
these warm runoff channels. It’s a world unlike any other area of the
Just where does that odour come from? It reminds you of rotten
eggs and clears your sinuses better than nasal mist. The smell is a result of H2S
(Hydrogen Sulphide), a gas similar to natural gas. It results from anaerobic
bacteria converting some of the dissolved sulphur in the water to H2S.
Springs like the Upper Hot Spring and Cave & Basin in Banff, and Miette Hot
Springs in Jasper, exhibit this pungent stench. The presence of H2S
indicates that the water has penetrated to great depths. As the water percolates
deeply into the crust, pressure increases, and this allows anaerobic bacteria to
convert sulphur in the form of sulphate to the sulphide of H2S. This
normally is followed by a quick trip to the surface in order to retain the H2S created. A slow surface route may retain the gas only if the passage excludes
oxygen, allowing the anaerobic bacteria to continue their work. There must also
be a large initial concentration of H2S created at depth. This can be
seen in springs like Radium where the water reaches the surface through aerated
caves which allow the H2S to oxidize before it reaches the
surface – the end result – no smell.
For more than a hundred years, hot springs in the Rockies have
attracted untold numbers of visitors to their healing waters. There's something
very soothing about soaking in a pool of water heated by the primordial heat of
the Earth itself – especially at a time when the health of that Earth itself is
in question. Over the past few years, the future of these facilities has been in
question as the debate over their cost and profits, compared to their historical
significance is regularly and routinely discussed within the higher echelons of
The first white men traveled through the Banff area in 1841.
That year, George Simpson, in charge of North American operations for the
Hudson's Bay Company, passed through as part of a round-the-world journey. He
never mentioned anything about any hot springs. Neither did Reverend Robert T.
Rundle who entered the area shortly thereafter. He is remembered in the name of
Banff's most famous peak.
The first non-native discovery of Banff’s springs was in 1865
with the arrival in the Bow Valley of two American fur traders, Benjamin Pease
and Peter Younge. Pease was able to speak Sioux (a language similar to Stoney),
and was told of the springs by local Indians. Development wasn't really an
option as the area was still completely remote with no reasonable access, so the
springs remained undisturbed until the railway chugged its way west. With this,
came more and more people. On a cold morning in November of 1883, three workers,
Frank McCabe and William and Thomas McCardell, noticed steam rising from the
side of Terrace (now Sulphur) Mountain. As they checked out the source of the
steam they became the modern discoverers of the Cave and Basin Hot Springs.
Being good capitalists, they quickly built a small bath-house
and filed a homestead claim. Unfortunately, homesteads weren't recognized in the
Rockies. They then tried a mineral rights claim. Unfortunately again, mineral
springs were not considered a mineral resource. All of this brought the area to
the attention of William Pearce, the mine Superintendent in Calgary. Upon
investigating, he was so impressed that he, along with William Van Horne of the
C.P.R., began to agitate for the creation of a park.
Finally, on November 2, 1885, the Banff Hot Springs Preserve was
set aside. It was only 26 square km, but two years later would be significantly
enlarged and renamed Rocky Mountains Park – Canada's first National Park. It was
also the third such park in the world behind only Yellowstone in the U.S. and
Royal National Park in Australia.
Like Banff’s hot springs, Miette Hot Springs were well known
to local natives. Passing fur traders often soaked in their healing waters.
Miners from nearby Pocohontas who first built a rough trail to the springs in
1910, followed with a small bath-house three years later. The first pool was
built in 1919, but the area remained remote until a road was completed in 1933.
Radium hot springs, like all the rest, was long known before it
was developed. In fact, it played an integral role in the location of highway
93. This highway was routed to take it past the springs. Although a tent was
erected in 1890, a small pool was built in 1914. A more permanent structure was
built in 1923, after completion of Highway 93 and the creation of Kootenay
Today, these parks look very different. With millions of visitors each year making their way through the gates, the connection these pools provide to our history is becoming more and more vital. We must ensure that these landmarks will continue to soothe the aches and pains of travelers for many years to come.
All Material © Ward Cameron 2005