Banff was first settled in the 1880s, after the transcontinental railway was built through the Bow Valley. In 1883, three Canadian Pacific Railway workers stumbled upon a series of natural hot springs on the side of Sulphur Mountain. In 1885, Canada established a federal reserve of 26 km2 (10 sq mi) around the Cave and Basin hot springs, and began promoting the area as an international resort and spa as a way to support the new railway. In 1887, the reserve area was increased to 673 km2 (260 sq mi) and named “Rocky Mountain Park”. This was the beginning of Canada’s National Park system.The area was named Banff in 1884 by George Stephen, president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, recalling his birthplace near Banff, Scotland. The Canadian Pacific built a series of grand hotels along the rail line and advertised the Banff Springs Hotel as an international tourist resort.The Banff townsite was developed near the railway station as a service centre for tourists visiting the park. It was administered by the Government of Canada’s national parks system until 1990 when the Town of Banff became the only incorporated municipality within a Canadian national park.
An Internment camp was set up at Banff and Castle Mountain in Dominion Park from July 1915 to July 1917. The prisoners of the internment camp were used as free labour to build the infrastructure of the national park.In 1985, the United Nations declared Banff National Park, as one of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks, a World Heritage Site. Banff remains one of the most popular tourist destinations in Canada.One of the most notable figures of Banff was Norman Luxton, who was known as “Mr. Banff”. He published the Crag and Canyon newspaper, built the King Edward Hotel and the Lux Theatre, and founded the Sign of the Goat Curio Shop, which led to the development of the Luxton Museum of Plains Indians, now the Buffalo Nations Museum. He and his family helped organize the Banff Indian Days and the Banff Winter Carnival.
There are a number of mountains located immediately adjacent to the townsite which include Mount Rundle (2,949 m or 9,675 ft); Cascade Mountain (2,998 m or 9,836 ft); and Mount Norquay (2,134 m or 7,001 ft). Mount Norquay has a ski slope as well as mountain biking trails on the Stoney Squaw portion, and Via Ferrata (an assisted climbing experience). A tourist attraction, the Banff Gondola, is available to ascend Sulphur Mountain (2,281 m or 7,484 ft) where a boardwalk (Banff Skywalk) beginning from the upper terminal connects to Sanson Peak. Sulphur Mountain is also the location of the Banff Upper Hot Springs.Lake Minnewanka located six minutes north of the townsite is a day use area with a variety of activities. Mountain biking, hiking and fishing are allowed in this part of the park. A Lake Cruise, motor boat rentals and a small food concession are available at the marina.Tunnel Mountain (formerly known as Sleeping Buffalo Mountain) (1,690 m or 5,545 ft) is situated within the townsite and has a summit that can be scaled in less than half an hour. It was named Tunnel Mountain because surveyors initially wanted to make a tunnel for the Canadian Pacific Railway right through the mountain, instead of following the Bow River Valley. Located on the side of Tunnel Mountain is the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, which hosts events, including outdoor concerts, dance, opera and theatre.