The discovery of natural hot springs on Sulphur Mountain set in motion a series of events which ultimately led to the creation of Banff National Park, and the entire national park system of Canada. Due to the national importance of this discovery, the Cave and Basin is now a national historic site of Canada.
With a captivating chance to step into some Banff history, incredible natural scenery and some very enjoyable walking trails, a visit to the Cave and Basin national historic site is highly recommended for all visitors to Banff.
This post contains compensated links.
Banff Cave and Basin
- Banff Cave and Basin History
- 9 Things to do at the Cave and Basin in Banff
- Inside The Cave and Basin Building
- 4 Easy Walks at the Banff Cave and Basin
- The Healing Waters of the Cave and Basin Hot Springs
- Cave and Basin Facilities
- Visit the Cave and Basin with Kids
- The Endangered Banff Springs Snail
- Additional Historic Sites in Banff
- How to Get to the Cave and Basin in Banff
- Banff History Reading List
- See the Best of Banff
- Cave and Basin FAQ
Banff Cave and Basin History
It’s hard to understate the importance of the Cave and Basin national historic site to Canada. The discovery of these natural Banff hot springs ultimately led to the creation of the Canadian national park system, which to this day is considered one of the best park systems in the world.
In November 1883, William and Tom McCardell along with their friend, Frank McCabe discovered a steaming vent hole on the lower slopes of Sulphur Mountain. Keep in mind that back in the 19th century, hot water was a scarce luxury and the discovery of natural hot springs was an incredible commercial opportunity for these adventurous men.
On a ladder made from a tree trunk, William McCardell bravely inched his way down into the steaming vent hole and discovered a pool of warm water below eerie stalactites hanging in the fog. As a reward for this bravery, he stripped down and was the first to swim in these luxurious Banff hot springs.
The men immediately built a rough shack out of logs adjacent to the cave’s vent hole. At first, they visited the cave regularly, but in 1885, William McCardell lived there for 1-2 years to protect their claim over the hot springs.
When several other men registered claims to these now-famous Banff hot springs, the federal government stepped in. In 1885, the Canadian Parliament set aside this site as a reserve for all Canadians. In recognition of their time spent to protect their claim and the improvements made at the site, Frank McCabe and William McCardell received $675 (roughly $18,500 in 2021 money) from the Canadian government.
Upon creation of the reserve, the government immediately began development, creating an access tunnel into the cave along with a bathhouse adjacent to the Basin. And then, in 1887, history was made, when this reserve officially became Banff National Park, Canada’s first national park!
9 Things to do at the Cave and Basin in Banff
The Cave and Basin national historic site attracts a wide variety of visitors. Many visit the Cave & Basin to see the famous hot springs which led to the creation of Banff National Park, while others come to learn more about the events leading to the creation of Banff National Park.
Even if you are not interested in the Banff history found at this national historic site, the natural beauty surrounding the Cave & Basin attracts visitors looking for a beautiful picnic spot or enjoy one of the many easy Banff hikes which originate at the Cave and Basin.
The main building and the Discovery Boardwalk are must-do attractions at the Cave and Basin national historic site, but we recommend spending more time here to enjoy the natural beauty of the area.
1. The Cave and Basin Building
Whether or not you are a Banff history buff, all visitors to Banff should visit the Cave and Basin building. The main attraction of the Cave & Basin building is the natural hot spring cave which William McCardell first explored (and swam) in 1883, but you’ll also want to take the time to explore the many interesting exhibits about the Cave & Basin and the creation of Banff National Park and the Canadian national park system.
2. The Discovery Boardwalk
With a historic importance on par with the main Cave & Basin building, the Discovery Boardwalk is an easy Banff walking trail you cannot miss. This short Banff hike leads visitors to the site where the Cave and Basin steam vent was originally found.
Beyond the hot springs cave vent, follow the wooden boardwalk along the natural hot spring to its origin. Here you can watch the hot spring waters bubble up from the surface of the mountain and see if you can spot the tiny, endangered Banff springs snail.
3. The Marsh Trail
The perfect companion to the Discovery Boardwalk, the Marsh Trail is another easy Banff hike – this time below the Cave & Basin national historic site. Follow the flow of the natural hot springs from the Cave and Basin complex to the Bow River.
Along the way you’ll enjoy passing hot spring waterfalls, beautiful Banff mountain views and a unique opportunity to visit fish and waterfowl viewing platforms.
4. Bike or Hike to Sundance Canyon
Sundance Canyon is a wonderful, more natural alternative to visiting Banff’s Johnson Canyon. While Johnson Canyon is an extremely popular boardwalk hike into the heart of a mountain canyon, Sundance Canyon remains in its natural state for visitors to enjoy.
The 3km bike or hike to Sundance Canyon is a beautiful trail along the Bow River. The 2km hiking loop around Sundance Canyon showcases the wild and rugged nature of a Banff mountain canyon.
5. Hike the Marsh Loop Trail
The Cave and Basin Marsh Loop trail is a short hiking trail which gets you closer to the warm waters of the hot spring marsh. You’ll enjoy a beautiful 3 km walk in-between the Cave and Basin marsh and the Bow River, showcasing the natural wonders of the area.
6. Have a picnic at the Cave & Basin
There are many beautiful picnic spots in Banff, but you’ll be interested to know that some of the nicest picnic tables in Banff are located at the historic Cave & Basin site. That may sound funny, but it’s true. How often do you see a picnic table with back rests?
If you are looking for a scenic spot for a picnic in Banff, the Cave & Basin offers a large number of picnic tables (as mentioned, some are really nice), and offer outstanding views of the surrounding Banff scenery.
7. Visit the Viewing Platforms
As you near the entrance to the Cave and Basin national historic site, you’ll see a set of stairs leading up to your right. Take a moment to climb these stairs to stand atop the Cave & Basin and enjoy the outstanding views from this vantage point. In addition to the Banff scenery, you’ll be delighted to discover a pair of the iconic Parks Canada Red Chairs sitting in the upper viewing platform.
8. National Internment Exhibit
The historical significance of the Cave & Basin as the birthplace of Banff National Park and Canada’s national park system is well known. You may be interested to learn more about a darker side of Banff history which occurred at the Cave and Basin.
When WWI broke out in 1914, Canada interned many immigrants from enemy countries such as Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria. The national park budgets were cut during the war, so to help with park maintenance and construction work, the Parks Commissioner obtained permission to use enemy alien internees as low-cost labour.
An enemy internment camp was located at the Cave & Basin from November 1915 to July 1917. The National Internment Exhibit is a fascinating look at a difficult time in Canadian history.
To find the National Internment Exhibit, simply walk west of the main Cave and Basin complex on the Sundance Trail.
9. Cave and Basin Lantern Tours
Perhaps one of the most unique tours in all of Banff, the Cave & Basin lantern tour is a fun opportunity to visit this national historic site in the dark, with only a lantern for light. Listen to stories of discovery and Banff history, accompanied by lights, sounds, some fog and even a ghost!
As you stand in the damp cave in the darkness, all your other senses come alive. A unique and fun activity to do in Banff in summer, the Cave and Basin lantern tours are offered three times per night from June – September.
Inside The Cave and Basin Building
The Cave & Basin is a must-see attraction in Banff National Park. In addition to seeing the hot spring cave which William McCardell first explored in 1883, you’ll learn a tremendous amount about Banff National Park.
The Cave Story Hall
Your first stop in the Cave and Basin is the Cave Story Hall. Here you will be introduced to many of the elements which make a visit to the Cave and Basin national historic site special. You’ll learn about life in the thermal spring (including an introduction to the Banff springs snail), the cave and the adventurous railway workers who discovered it.
The cave is arguably the star attraction at the Cave and Basin national historic site (although the steam vent from the Discovery Trail gives it a run for its money).
Visitors enter The Cave via a long hallway which gets progressively darker the deeper you get. The brick walls soon give way to natural rocks, then suddenly you are standing in the place where Banff National Park was born.
While the cave has been altered for the purposes of safe visitation, you can still easily imagine the railway workers lowering themselves into this steaming cave from above.
Spherical in shape, the cave still has natural hot spring waters flowing into it on side opposite the viewing area. The cave is partially illuminated through the steam vent at the top, where the CPR workers first lowered themselves down.
The Story Hall
After your imagination goes wild in The Cave, take a moment to explore the Story Hall. The highlight of this room is the 4 large video screens which come alive with visually stunning stories about the creation of Canada’s national park system. The videos are supplemented with a wide variety of exhibits, artifacts and information about our nation’s national parks.
The Outdoor Pool
I love standing in the Cave and Basin outdoor pool and imagine what a visit to this stately hot spring would have been like back at the turn of the century. The original hot spring pool has long since been filled in, but the area around the swimming pool retains its original form. I don’t actually have a great imagination, but the abundant life size pictures surrounding the pool area help prompt your imagination as to what a visit to the Cave and Basin hot springs would have been like.
Your final stop at the Cave and Basin national historic site is the Basin. Considering it makes up half the name of this place, the Basin is content to let the cave take all the attention.
The Basin is a small outdoor thermal spring pool just outside the Cave. There’s not much to say about the Basin as it’s simply a small pool of thermal water, outside of the fact it’s a good opportunity to try and spot the tiny, endangered Banff springs snail.
4 Easy Walks at the Banff Cave and Basin
1. Discovery Trail Boardwalk
Coupled with the main building, the Discovery Trail walk is one of the must-do attractions at the Cave and Basin national historic site. Unlike the main Cave & Basin building, the Discovery Trail (also known as the Upper Boardwalk Trail) is completely free.
The Discovery Trail boardwalk begins at the exit to the Cave and Basin. If you don’t wish to visit the Cave & Basin building, you can still enjoy this historically significant hike by walking to the far western edge of the main building.
A short set of stairs takes you above the buildings to a viewpoint where you’ll enjoy great views of The Basin, Mt. Cory (2,802 m), Mt. Norquay (2,522 m) and Cascade Mountain (2,988 m).
From this viewpoint, follow the wooden boardwalk until you reach the façade for the hotel which used to occupy this land. Walk through the front door of the hotel and you’ll be standing in front of the famous Banff cave vent which started it all.
If you are lucky enough to visit Banff in winter, you’ll be able to see what Frank McCabe, William and Tom McCardell stumbled upon in November 1883; a column of steam rising from the vent hole. In the winter, you can also feel the heat coming off the steam from these natural Banff hot springs. Even today, it’s easy to feel the excitement that these explorers must have felt upon this this significant discovery.
The boardwalk follows the path of the natural hot springs upstream. You’ll pass several ponds and streams along the way. Stop and look for the tiny fish and the endangered Banff springs snail which call these warm (and slightly radioactive) waters home.
The Cave and Basin Discovery Trail ends at a small natural pool, where you can literally see the hot springs water bubbling up to the surface.
This is a great spot to see the Banff springs snail floating on the leaves in the pond. Look closely, but please don’t touch the snails or the water.
Even without the immense historical significance of this Cave and Basin trail, the chance to walk along a scenic boardwalk through natural mountain hot springs, which are home to a tiny, endangered snail, is a Banff experience you cannot miss. Without question, the Discovery Trail at the Cave & Basin is one of the best free things to do in Banff.
2. Marsh Trail (Lower Boardwalk Trail)
If, after enjoying the Discovery Trail above the Cave & Basin, you are looking for another enjoyable easy walk, we recommend the 0.5 km March Trail.
The Marsh Trail begins just below the old Cave and Basin swimming pool. The trail follows a wooden boardwalk into a lush forest. The reason for this unusually lush forest becomes apparent almost immediately as the Lower Boardwalk trail passes several waterfalls from the natural hot springs above.
These warm spring waters support animal and plant life which normally only appear at more temperate climates. For example, 6 species of orchids grow near these hot spring waterfalls. In addition, you’ll often see species of birds in these unfrozen waters year-round, when they would have otherwise flown south.
One of the many informative interpretive signs along the Marsh Trail describes the challenges of the Banff Longnose Dace minnow, who similar to the Banff springs snail, adapted to grow in these warm waters and nowhere else on earth. Sadly, COSEWIC now lists the Banff Longnose Dace minnow as an extinct species.
The Marsh Trail runs parallel to the Bow River for a good portion of the trail. Here. You’ll enjoy excellent views of the Banff Rocky Mountains beyond the river. It’s also a good spot to look for ducks swimming in the marsh reeds adjacent to the river.
You’ll arrive at a trail junction after approximately 300 m of walking. Follow the stairs down to the bird and fish viewing areas for an enjoyable Banff wildlife experience.
As the Lower Boardwalk Trail enters the marsh, you’ll arrive at the many platforms for fish viewing. Get down on your hands and knees to look at the multitude of tiny fish which live in these warm waters. If you look closely, you’ll also spot many Banff springs snails in these waters.
Beyond the fish viewing platforms, the Marsh Trail arrives at the bird blind. This tall wooden structure allows visitors to hide behind the walls of the blind and look through the narrow slits at the plentiful waterfowl. In the summer you are likely to see Red-winged Blackbirds, Green-winged Teals, Yellowthroats and Ruby-crowned Kinglets. In the winter, Robins, Snipes, Mallards and Kingdeer enjoy these warm waters.
3. Marsh Loop
If you’d like to get a better look at the warm water wetlands you viewed from the Marsh Trail, continue your journey along the Marsh Loop. This easy Banff hike is only 2.7 km long and leads you along a trail which intersects the Cave and Basin warm water marsh and the icy-cold Bow River.
The Marsh Loop has a wide variety of scenery for a short Banff hike. The stunning views of the mountains reflecting in the glasslike Bow River are our favorite part of this Cave & Basin hike, but you’ll also enjoy walking through sections of lush forest or open meadows bursting with wildflowers.
One note of caution though, the Marsh Loop is also used by horseback riders, so perhaps leave your good shoes at home.
4. Sundance Canyon Hike or Bike
We love doing the Sundance Canyon hike from the Cave & Basin as it feels like a more rugged version of the extremely popular Johnson Canyon hike. The 4 km walk from the Cave and Basin to Sundance Canyon is an easy walk along the paved Sundance Trail through a forest and along the banks of the beautiful Bow River. The Sundance Trail is also one of Banff’s kid-friendly biking trails.
Once you arrive at the end of the Sundance Trail, you are in for a treat as the Sundance Canyon hike is truly spectacular. The hiking trail ascends a short, but relatively steep trail where Sundance Creek violently rages its way through Sundance Canyon. With a beautiful cascading waterfall, followed by dramatic rapids, below a towering canyon wall, this is one of the most scenic spots in all of Banff National Park.
A popular way of visiting Sundance Canyon is to bike the 4 km along the Sundance Trail and then hiking the 2km loop around Sundance Canyon. For more tips, read our full post on the Sundance Canyon Hike.
The Healing Waters of the Cave and Basin Hot Springs
In our modern world, with near limitless travel and entertainment options, hot springs continue to be very popular attractions. So, imagine how exciting a visit to the Banff hot springs would have been back in the late 19th century!
In addition to being a rare source of hot water, many creative healing properties have been attributed to these natural Banff hot springs at the Cave & Basin.
In 1906, the Department of the Interior claimed, “Invalids from every-conceivable place come here-for treatment, which in almost every case results in a cure.”
While in 1918, a publication promoted sulphur waters as effective treatment for “diseases of the skin, gout, chronic rheumatism and syphilis, for the treatment of stiff joints, and gunshot wounds, and in- poisoning. by mercury or lead.”
These health claims has been questioned over the years, but today hot springs baths are recognized as treatment for relaxation therapy and muscular problems.
Swimming is no longer allowed at the Banff Cave and Basin, but you can still soak in the relaxing thermal waters of Sulphur Mountain at the nearby Banff Upper Hot Springs.
Another fun idea is to stay at the Fox Hotel in downtown Banff, which has a Cave & Basin themed indoor hot pool.
Cave and Basin Facilities
As you’d expect with one of the top attractions in Banff, the Cave & Basin has good facilities for visitors to Banff.
The Cave and Basin has a very large parking lot. Unlike most parking spots in downtown Banff, you’ll enjoy free Banff parking at the Cave and Basin.
Parks Canada is trying to encourage visitors to get around Banff without a car, so you’ll find a large number of bike racks at the Cave and Basin. It’s only a 7-minute bike ride from the heart of downtown Banff to the Cave and Basin.
Be sure to stop at the well-stocked gift shop on your way out of the Cave & Basin. Here you’ll find a wide variety of Banff souvenirs to remind you of your visit to Banff National Park.
Visit the Cave and Basin with Kids
We live with our family near Banff and know all the best things to do in Banff with kids. We tend to shy away from the major tourist attractions, but we make time to visit the Cave & Basin with our kids as it’s such a fun thing to do in Banff with kids. To make things even more enticing, kids under 17 enter the Cave and Basin for free!
Upon entry to the Cave & Basin, kids will be given a souvenir necklace and an activity book. Once inside the Cave & Basin, kids will love walking the dark hallway into the Cave, and watching the fun videos on the four large screens inside Story Hall.
Even if you don’t do a lot of hiking in Banff with kids, we recommend taking the time to take your kids on the two boardwalk trails. The Discovery Trail is a fun opportunity to see the cave from above and follow the path of the natural hot spring to its source. The Marsh Trail gives kids a fun opportunity to see the special marsh wildlife up close.
If your kids are up for it, we love doing a bike and hike to Sundance Canyon to enjoy the raw beauty of this rugged Banff canyon.
The Endangered Banff Springs Snail
Did you know that the one of the most fascinating wildlife species in Banff is also one of its smallest? The tiny little Banff springs snail (Physella johnsoni) only lives in a small handful of thermal springs on Sulphur Mountain, including several at Banff’s Cave and Basin.
The average Banff springs snail is about half-the size of your small fingernail. They can typically be found in the thermal springs at the Cave & Basin by looking really hard at the floating leaves etc. in the water. The tiny Banff snail can often be found floating atop the leaves.
In 2000, the Banff springs snail became the first mollusc in Canadian history to be declared an endangered species by COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada). It’s endangered status makes it one of the most threatened species in Banff National Park.
Historically, the Banff springs snail could be found in 9 thermal springs in Banff National Park, but by 1996, they were extirpated in all but 5 of them. Parks Canada has done excellent work to support the endangered Banff snail and it can now be found in 7 of its 9 original thermal hot spring locations.
While it’s a thrilling experience to look for and then eventually spot the tiny, endangered Banff springs snail at the Cave and Basin, we implore you to leave them and their fragile habitat alone. Banff gets millions of visitors a year, and even if a tiny fraction of visitors disturbs the Banff springs snail or its thermal spring home, it could spell the end of this special species forever.
The good news is that when visitors to Banff National Park respect the wildlife, good things can happen. The Black Swift bird is another of Banff National Park’s endangered species. This threatened bird nests at Johnson Canyon, another of Banff’s top tourist attractions. In 2021, it was announced that the number of Black Swift nests found at Johnson Canyon is growing. Let’s all do our part to give future generations the thrill of seeing the tiny Banff springs snail at the Cave and Basin.
If you’d like to learn more about the Banff springs snail and the challenges it faces, the COSEWIC report is (sadly) a very good resource.
Additional Historic Sites in Banff
If you are a Banff history buff, don’t miss these other Banff historical sites!
Bankhead Ghost Town
A visit to the Bankhead ghost town in Banff National Park is a unique opportunity to take an easy 1 km walk through an abandoned coal mining town. Back in the early 1900’s, Bankhead, Alberta was a thriving town of nearly 1,000 citizens built next to the operations site of an anthracite coal mine – some of the best quality coal in the world!
Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station
Did you know there is such a thing as a cosmic ray station, and that we actually have one of them in Banff National Park?? Built in 1957, scientists studied space particles and cosmic rays entering the Earth’s atmosphere from the Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station.
The study ended in 1978, but today visitors can visit the remains of the Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station National Historic Site at the far end of the Sulphur Mountain boardwalk. If interested, you can visit the Cosmic Ray Station by hiking to the top of Sulphur Mountain, or the much easier route via the Banff Gondola.
Banff Springs Hotel
Arguably the most famous piece of Banff history, the Banff Springs Hotel is a must-see while in Banff. The Castle in the Rockies is synonymous with the development of Canada’s railway system and is a very important part of Banff’s history.
How to Get to the Cave and Basin in Banff
The Cave and Basin national historic site is nestled in-between the Bow River and the lower slopes of Sulphur Mountain. Although it seems remote while you are there, the Cave and Basin is actually very close to to the Banff townsite.
You have several options on how to get to the Cave and Basin:
- Drive: With a very large parking lot, it’s quite easy to drive to the Cave and Basin. From the centre of downtown Banff, it’s a 6-minute drive to the Cave and Basin.
- Walk: When you are in a beautiful destination such as Banff National Park, why drive when you can walk? It’s a short and enjoyable 2 km walk from downtown Banff to the Cave and Basin. Once you cross the Banff pedestrian bridge, there’s a dedicated walking trail all the way there. It should take the average adult about 25 minutes to walk to the Cave and Basin.
- Bike: If you are traveling on two wheels, it’s almost as fast to bike to the Cave and Basin as it is to drive. The Cave and Basin has lots of bike racks, so ride your bike there if you can.
- Bus: If you are visiting Banff without a car, you can reach the Cave and Basin via the Roam public transit system. In fact, Roam bus route #4 is called the “Cave and Basin” route.
See the Cave and Basin location on a map.
Banff History Reading List
See the Best of Banff
Cave and Basin FAQ
What are the Cave and Basin Hours?
Between May 15 – September 26 the Cave and Basin is open daily from 9:30 am to 5 pm. During the winter, the Cave and Basin has more restricted hours, being open Wednesday to Sunday (and holiday Mondays) from 11 am to 5 pm.
Confirm the Cave and Basin hours before you go.
What Does the Cave and Basin Cost?
Admission to the Banff Cave and Basin is free for holders of an annual Discovery Pass and for kids under 18 years old. An admission fee is applicable to all other visitors to the Cave and Basin.
Check the current Cave and Basin cost.
Is there a Cave and Basin Website?
While there isn’t a dedicated Cave and Basin website, Parks Canada has a lot of great Cave and Basin information on their National Historic Sites website.
Can you swim at the Cave and Basin?
No, swimming is not allowed at the Banff Cave and Basin. Visitors to the Cave and Basin were able to enjoy swimming off and on between 1902 and 1986.
Today, visitors to Banff National Park who wish to bathe in the thermal waters of Sulphur Mountain visit the Banff Upper Hot Springs, a few kilometers south of the Cave and Basin.