The Banff Hot Springs represent the most famous example of direct-use geothermal energy in Alberta’s history. In essence, hot springs are pools created by geothermally heated groundwater from deep within the Earth’s crust. The process begins when water seeps from the surface into holes and fissures in the rocks surrounding the hot springs. The water becomes saturated with minerals such as sulfur, and as it descends deeper into the ground, it gets progressively hotter due to the Earth’s internal temperature. Eventually, the heated water reaches a crack or fissure in the rock leading to the surface and is pushed upwards by the pressure of the descending water behind it. It then bubbles to the surface as a mineral-rich hot spring.
Archaeological evidence points to human habitation in the Banff area for more than ten thousand years, and the hot springs were certainly known to, and utilized by, the region’s indigenous peoples. The hot springs were also central to the most important turning point in the region’s modern history—the decision by the Canadian government in 1885 to reserve ten square kilometers (approximately four square miles) of land surrounding the hot springs. This step was taken at the urging of Canadian Pacific Railway president William Van Horne, who had visited the region in 1883 and saw the vast potential Banff had as a tourist destination. This initial reservation of land was expanded to 674 sq km (approximately 260 sq. mi.) in 1887 when the Canadian government passed legislation establishing Rocky Mountains
(now Banff) National Park. This was the first national park established in Canada, and only the second in North America (the first being Yellowstone National Park in the United States).
In ancient times, people were drawn to hot springs because of the supposed medicinal benefits of soaking in warm, mineral-rich water. The popularity of hot springs enjoyed a tremendous resurgence in the nineteenth century, with hundreds of spas built across Europe and the United States. These spas became very popular tourist destinations, and much of the early development of Rocky Mountains Park focused on the health benefits of the hot springs. During the parliamentary debate surrounding the designation of the park, advocates pointed to the presumed therapeutic powers of the water as a key reason to establish the park. The luxurious crown jewel of the park, the Banff Springs Hotel (built in 1887-88), installed pipes to draw water from the hot springs for use in its swimming pool and treatment rooms. The Canadian Pacific Railway’s doctor, Robert George Brett, established a sanatorium at the hot springs where he treated his patients. Entrepreneurs went so far as to bottle and sell water from the hot springs to eager tourists.
In short, the hot springs were central to the early promotion and success of Banff National Park of Canada, and they remain one of its most iconic attractions to this day, attracting over 300,000 visitors a year.