No bigger than an apple seed, the endangered Banff Springs Snail is the only visitor welcome to swim in the original Banff hot springs. At a whopping 3 to 5 mm in size, these wee creatures call Cave and Basin Banff home. They find safe haven in the birthplace of Canada’s National Park system.
Seeming to lack a sense of smell, the rotten egg sulphur aroma of the thermal spring water is no concern for the tiny creature. Found nowhere else in the world, the Banff Snail inhabits one of Canada’s most beautiful locations.
May 2021 – The Cave and Basin National Historic site is currently closed to visitors. Boardwalks and Cave and Basin hikes in the area are open. Details of the Banff Cave and Basin closure are here.
Before making plans for Banff activities or things to do in Banff National Park, consult travel information and advisories provided by Banff Lake Louise Tourism.
What is the Banff Cave and Basin?
Now a national historic site, the Cave and Basin is the lowest of nine hot springs on the northeast side of Sulphur Mountain, in Banff National Park. Best known for the Banff Sightseeing Gondola, the peak is also home to the Banff Cave and Basin.
The geothermal waters spring forth from a depth of 3 kilometres 1.86 miles). The Cave and Basin is the largest of these thermal Banff Caves.
Archaeological evidence in the area confirms Indigenous peoples habitation of the area for over 10,000 years.
In 1859 the first recording of the specifics of the thermal springs came from James Hector. As part of the Palliser Expedition (British North American Exploring Expedition), exploring and surveying western Canada.
In 1875, Joe Healy, an American explorer also came upon the Cave and Basin site.
The Birthplace of Banff National Park
In 1883, a trio of railway workers from the Canadian Pacific Railway, also found the thermal hot springs. After the bravest of the three, or perhaps drawing the shortest straw, climbed down a tree, through the open hole in the top of the cave, their dream began.
From the Cave and Basin self guided tour…
“Hesitantly, William McCardell inched down this hole on a tree-trunk ladder. His brother Tom and partner Frank McCabe waited above.
Down among the eerie sulphurous mists, he found a cave of hanging stalactites and a clear warm spring welling up from below. He stripped and swam in the pool.”
Imagining the potential profit of bringing tourists via the railway, thus began their development of the Banff cave and thermal waters.
So as the railway began opening up the wide expanse of Canada, wealthy globe trotters began adventuring to the Rocky Mountains.
Frank McCabe and brothers William and Tom McCardell, began envisioning travelers soaking happily in thermal pool bliss. As a result, the three began their money-making plan for the Cave and Basin.
Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, held a very different vision. After conflict arose over claims to the Banff Cave and Basin, he created a 26 square kilometer (10 square mile) reserve.
This would be the beginning of Canada’s National Park system. The hot pools and surrounding land would be protected as Canada’s first national park.
Banff National Park is Canada’s busiest, seeing over 4 million visitors a year.
Visiting the Cave and Basin Banff
The address of Banff National Park Cave and Basin is 311 Cave Avenue.
If driving from the center of Banff, go over the Bow River bridge and turn right on Cave Avenue. The museum, cave and outdoor Cave and Basin trails are at the end of the road.
For a small entrance fee, or free with a valid annual Discovery Park Pass, you can walk through the Banff Cave and Basin and upper streams. Bathing in the waters is strictly forbidden at the Cave and Basin.
At the site, visitors can expect displays, a film presentation, a tunnel into the cave and basin and outdoor boardwalks.
If you want to soak in the thermal waters, the Banff Upper Hot Springs provide facilities for public bathing. Please check for the latest restrictions and information here.
More about the Banff Springs Snail
Perhaps it is the glorious beauty of the Banff area that attracts the snail. In reality, the Banff Springs snail (Physella johnsoni) thrives in the thermal springs of Banff National Park.
Liking their environment somewhat cooler than a bathtub you or I might enjoy, their preferred water temperature is 30 to 26 degrees Celsius. (86 to 79 Fahrenheit)
Researchers report declining Banff Springs snail numbers with lower seasonal temperatures. The lowest population of the snail is spring. A cold, Canadian winters can be hard to endure for anyone let along a tiny snail.
Summer’s warmer weather sees a rise in Banff snail numbers.
At the same time, Banff National Park begins its busiest tourist season with an influx of millions of visitors. Respecting the fragile habitat of the Cave and Basin’s thermal pools is essential for the survival of this tiny creature.
Swimming in the pools or disturbing the habitat in any way is strictly forbidden by Parks Canada.
What does it matter if a tiny snail becomes extinct?
Joining the class of threatened species in 1997, in 2000 COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) upgraded the snail’s decline to endangered.
Now bearing the sad title of most at-risk species in Banff National Park, the Banff Springs Snail is more at risk than grizzly bears, woodland caribou and wolverines.
Who will miss a snail one can hardly see with the naked eye? Size isn’t everything when it comes to measuring the health of an ecosystem. A healthy population of tiny Banff snails means a healthy thermal springs ecosystem.
The Cave and Basin historic site is one of the last opportunities to learn what unique characteristics allow life to survive in this harsh environment.
With virtually no oxygen, massive amounts of dissolved minerals, warm thermal water and unique bacteria, the Banff Springs snails adapt and thrive.
As species on the planet disappear at a frightening pace, Banff National Park is working diligently to ensure the survival of one of its tiniest inhabitants.
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