A Rocky Mountain High — 150 Years and Counting

 Swiss guides in Banff

Swiss guides in Banff

Stretching almost 5,000 kilometres through two countries, the Rocky Mountains dominate the skyline from peak to valley. This impressive mountain chain, incorporating at least 100 separate ranges, is known to all as 'The Rockies'. Extending from the jagged peaks of British Columbia down the continent to southern New Mexico, this enormous natural monument can be seen from space.

Visitors today are just as impressed by the awe-inspiring vistas of these diverse ranges as were the first humans who scaled their snow-peaked heights and fished and canoed their glacial lakes and rivers.

As Canada celebrates its 150th birthday we look back on the first tourists to visit this spot and realize that the area's natural beauty and magnificence hasn't changed since time long ago.

The Rockies developed a reputation as a tourist haven with the first trans-Canada mass transportation system.

 Canada's first transcontinental train

Canada's first transcontinental train

Less than 20 years after Confederation a train arrived at Port Moody, British Columbia, the first one, in fact, to travel on the new tracks through the Rockies linking east and west. The journey had taken 139 hours, as passengers travelled from Montreal in the east all the way to the Pacific coast.

What must those early passengers have thought as they left the cityscape behind and entered the great wilderness of Alberta? As they left the vastness of the prairies, they would have been greeted by the towering expansive mountains. Perhaps from the window they may have spied in the distance some of the wide range of native wildlife that share the natural resources, including elk, bighorn sheep, deer, bears, coyotes, wolves, moose, lynx, and mountain lions.

 Bighorn Sheep

Bighorn Sheep

These premier visitors would set the trend for future journeys as the Canadian Rockies quickly became a world-class tourist destination for travellers who love to hike, explore, climb, fish, hunt, camp, and appreciate this beautiful and vast land.

Many of these first visitors were from Switzerland, mountaineers lured by the promise of fresh powder and unchartered slopes. The Rockies were a challenge for even the most experienced climbers and featured such diverse terrain that the Canadian Pacific Railways used the slogan “50 Switzerlands in one” in their advertising efforts.

These Swiss guides brought with them expertise, specialist equipment and a love for the sport. They became their own tourist draw and brought legitimacy to the Rockies as a mountain adventure destination, Banff being designated by the Canadian government as the country's first national park in 1885. 

Their exploration of the area won them fame and honours, with many peaks still bearing the name of the Swiss guide who scaled them. An entire mountaineering industry was built on the work of these early European adventurers.

 Johnston Canyon

Johnston Canyon

As well as climbing there were other activities that brought visitors to the Rockies and continue to do so today.

Natural points of interest, if well cared for (which invariably means leaving them alone) can last for millennia. Those magical sights that captivated tourists long ago still feature high on the must-see itinerary of a modern visitor. Whether it’s taking in the turquoise waters of Lake Louise, walking through the natural tunnel at Johnston Canyon, or watching the tumbling waters at Athabasca Falls in Jasper Park, or Bridal Veil Falls in Banff, the Rockies continue to leave visitors spellbound.

 Banff Upper Hot Springs

Banff Upper Hot Springs

After a hard day of physical exertion travellers over a hundred years ago took a dip in the therapeutic warming waters of the Banff Upper Hot Springs. At 5,200 feet elevation it is the highest hot springs in Canada, and with 100% natural spring water,  it still draws visitors from near and far each year. The gift shop sells “heritage bathing suits” so that you can fully immerse yourself in the experience of a traveller of the late nineteenth century.

On the mountains not much has changed in 150 years, the Rockies still represent all the rugged beauty of nature at its best. People come here to be amazed, to remember how beautiful a sunset can be, to dip their toes in an icy lake and to climb the sharp sides of a giant cliff face. They come to escape the sprawl and artificial clutches of modern busy city life. They come to experience silence and to feel grateful for things that haven't changed in centuries.

Now, as we celebrate Canada 150 the appeal of the Rockies has never been stronger. Listen carefully and you’ll hear the call, it’s time to go explore.