Come feel the warmth, and learn the history, of the Cave and Basin

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Written by Patrick J. Smith posted on Friday, October 2nd, 2009

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The interior of the Cave and Basin is warm, welcome and utterly enchanting.

The interior of the Cave and Basin is warm, welcome and utterly enchanting.

No historical tour of the Banff area in Banff National Park is complete without a trip to the hot springs of the Cave and Basin National Historic Site.

The Cave and Basin is actually located at the lowermost of nine sulphurous hot springs, which are gathered in three groups on the northeastern flank of Sulphur Mountain. And while human habitation can be traced back as many as 10,000 years ago – hey, they’re hot springs, certainly a welcome sight to any indigenous men living on the edges of an ice age! – we are going to confine ourselves here with with its discovery by the Palliser Expedition in 1859 and subsequent events.

The springs were discovered in 1859, true, but the Cave and Basin, an underground cavern so large whole groups of people can fit in comfortably, wasn’t known until Joe Healey in 1875 came across it.

Eight years later, two Canadian Pacific Railway workers, William McCardell and Frank McCabe, brought more attention to the cavern by descending via a felled tree through the skylight entrance. The next year, they made a small cabin nearby with the idea of commercial applications, and so the notion of tourism in the Cave and Basin was born.

That particular plan dissolved in a legal storm of claims and counterclaims of ownership, a morass that engulfed not only the Cave and Basin but the entire Banff region and was so convoluted that the Canadian government was compelled to step in to rule on ownership and compensation.

But the allure of the cavern had already been established. Workers in 1886 drilled an artificial tunnel into the Cave and Basin to make visiting the cavern easier. Bottled water from the cavern was sold in 1912 with the assertion that it carried curative powers. The popularity of the site grew so quickly that in 1914 a naturally heated swimming pool was opened in the cavern and remained open until 1994.

Today, the Cave and Basin is a treasure trove of the developmental history of Banff National Park. On the site you will find a replical of an 1887 bathhouse, the structure around the restored swimming pool (though you still can’t swim in it today), and many interpretive displays and hiking and snowshoe trails.

And if you’re looking for more hot springs (which, given the temperatures the Canadian Rockies can reach, we wouldn’t blame you for one bit!), the Banff Upper Hot Springs is a separate facility just 5 kilometers southeast of the Cave and Basin.

Hey, on a cold day in the high country, hot springs can be a very welcome sight. When you add to it the Cave and Basin’s historical significance, it is certainly a fine way to spend a fun, informative and refreshing afternoon.

Alberta Adventure Guide

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