This Banff Upper Hot Springs review is part of the series 100 Baths, my search for the world’s best spas and public bathing rituals. Read more and see the list here!
It’s the highest elevation natural hot spring in Canada. And the oldest. It costs less than $10 to enter. It’s accessible by public transit. You can rent a super cute vintage swimsuit to use if you don’t have one. Oh, and it’s surrounded by the glorious Rocky Mountains, offering postcard perfect views. Which, if you ask me, makes the hot springs in Banff one of the most must-do experiences in Canada.
About 4 million tourists visit Banff National Park in Alberta each year, many of them staying overnight in the resort town of Banff. This summer I was one of them, and at the top of my wish list was a soak in thermal waters that have been serving inhabitants of this region for more than 10,000 years.
A bit of Banff Hot Springs History
There are two hot springs you can visit in Banff. The Banff Upper Hot Springs is a modern thermal-fed pool where the public can soak surrounded by Rocky mountain views. The Cave and Basin Historic Site is the original hot springs, which is no longer swimmable but preserved as an educational experience.
Before this trip, I didn’t know that Banff National Park was the very first national park in Canada, dating back to 1885. Or that the whole reason it was created was because various settlers who thought they had “discovered” the Cave and Basin hot springs while working on a railroad were arguing over who should own them. To resolve the conflict, then-Prime Minster John A. Macdonald dedicated 26 square kilometres around the natural wonder as a public park.
Soon Canadians and other travellers “discovered” what the Indigenous people already knew: these natural waters are rich in restorative minerals, and a fine place to gather, take a load off after a long hike, and enjoy the views.
What to expect at Banff Upper Hot Springs
The hot springs are located 4km outside of town near the top of Sulphur Mountain. Like everything in Banff, it’s inside a national park. It’s operated by Parks Canada, and not as commercial venture, so the site is fairly basic — meant to preserve the natural environment, while making it accessible to as many people as possible. (So don’t expect spa services or a fancy restaurant. There’s a single pool, with no lounge chairs or other amenities.)
My friend from Alberta who has been many times gave good advice: go early. The parking lots can fill up fast, they don’t sell advance tickets, and there’s a capacity limit on the pool. I didn’t want to find myself queuing outside in the hot summer sun, so we arrived right at 10am as it opened and found a short line-up that moved quickly. Within minutes, we changed into our suits and slipped into the waters.
Two things surprised me right away. First, the facility has a no shoes policy – including any kind of sandals or flipflops. You must carry all footwear starting at the front entrance and move about barefoot. (This didn’t bother me but I know some people might not like that.) Second, the water is really very hot!
How hot is it?
The Banff Upper Hot Springs pool was registering about 40 degrees Celsius on the day we visited. Is this too hot? I think that’s a personal preference, but for me, I found it challenging to relax in.
Maybe my body is extra-sensitive to the heat right now — I’ve recently been through cancer treatments and this was my first hot pool since chemotherapy. Maybe I’ve become too accustomed to man-made spas with multiple pools in the 25-40 degree Celsius range, where you can acclimatize before getting into the hottest ones, and cold plunge in between. I just know I couldn’t stay in the pool as long as I wanted to.
That being said….did I mention the views? And how cheap it is? I don’t want to leave the impression that because it was too hot for me your shouldn’t go. There aren’t many pools this affordable in the world with such majestic surroundings. It’s meant for all ages and we did in fact see families with kids, couples and friends across the spectrum hanging out and relaxing. This is a true gem of Canada that feels like a community pool for the entire country to enjoy.
And the minerals? They claim the top five minerals found in these waters are Sulfate, Calcium, Bicarbonate, Magnesium, and Sodium. So in the hopes of absorbing their restorative properties I sweat it out for as long as I could!
All things considered, there’s a good reason that Banff has one of the most famous hot springs in Canada. I recommend about 30 minutes to an hour to spend here. If you can’t make it first thing in the morning, take the bus because parking nearby is limited. My only regret is not renting one of their vintage “heritage” swimsuits for the full retro Canada Parks experience. Next time!
Know Before You Go
My last visit was July 2022. Always check their website for latest info.
Where: Banff Upper Hot Springs is located near the top of Sulphur Mountain, 4 km south of the town of Banff at 1 Mountain Ave, Banff AB T1L 1K2. Parking is free but limited. Take the local public transit, route 1 bus.
When: Open every day from 10am to 8pm. Last entry at 7:30pm. First come, first served – no reservations or advance tickets.
What to Bring: Your swimsuit and towel if you have them – or rent on site. Water bottle and sunscreen. Cameras are allowed and you’ll probably want pictures of the views. Locker is included. No food or drink allowed by the pool but there is a café upstairs open from noon to 5pm. Note that management allows all type of swimwear as long as it’s different from what you showed up in, including “long-sleeved shirt and pants, T-shirt and shorts or other swimwear that allows patrons to feel confident and comfortable, whether for cultural, religious, or medical/health reasons or personal preference.”
How Much: It’s a very good deal: Adult $9.25, 3-17 years $8, children under 3 are free. Family passes available. Note that all visitors to Banff (including the hot springs) must purchase a National Parks pass – currently $10.50 per person or $21 per group.
Want more spa inspiration? Lonely Planet’s Wellness Escapes is a lovely hardcover filled with eye candy photos of hot springs, saunas, spas and other wellness resorts from around the world. These are expensive and often remote destinations, but even if you never get there, you can use this as a starting point for researching dream trips.
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