Located in the Bow River Valley, almost completely encircled by the grounds of Banff Springs Hotel and Banff town site, Tunnel Mountain is a very popular hike and snowshoe outing. Whether you're in town for a while and jog up for a morning workout routine or visiting with the family, the steady switchbacks make for an easy accent of Tunnel Mountain. It can be done in winter and summer time, snowshoes might be helpful if a large dump of snow came the day before but generally the steady stream of visitors keeps the trail compacted and easy to walk on. As you near the top you are greeting with amazing views of the valley below and the massive peaks above. While still having trees on its summit, once on top, the entire Banff town site panorama is visible.
When you look at Tunnel Mountain from the north and the east, the mountain has a resemblance of a sleeping buffalo. This resemblance is precisely why the Stoney people have long called the mountain “Sleeping Buffalo”. When James Hector came through the Banff area in 1858 during his 2 year expedition to survey and map the area, he named the mountain “The Hill”. Many speculate that this name came from the mountain being the smallest peak adjacent to the town of Banff.
The name Tunnel Mountain eventually came about from what surveyor Charles Shaw described as “the most extraordinary blunder I have ever known in the way of engineering”. This was a reference to an idea that was proposed during the surveying of the area for the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). In 1882, Major A.B. Rogers of Rogers Pass led a team of surveyors to survey the area for the CPR construction. The importance of the project put pressure on the Major and most likely he decided that the easiest path for the CPR to build the railway was to simply just follow the Bow River. However, the team encountered the problem of the Bow River being wedged between Rundle Mountain and Tunnel Mountain. The steepness of the cliffs of the two mountains and the river crossings that the railway would have to pass through posed a problem. Major Roger's team proposed the idea of constructing a 275m tunnel through the small mountain.
When the idea was suggested to the General Manager of William Cornelius Van Horne, he was infuriated exclaiming, “Are we going to hold up this railway for a year and a half while they build their damned tunnel? Take it out!” The idea of the tunnel was completely scrapped and an alternate route was found north of Tunnel Mountain. This route avoided two long hills and incidentally shortened the railway by a mile which resulted in the CPR saving millions of dollars. Although the tunnel was not to be built, the name “Tunnel Mountain” remained with the small mountain to this day.
The summit of Tunnel Mountain has been visited by several celebrities and people of importance such as royalty. The fire lookout that was once on Tunnel Mountain was known as “King's Lookout” after being hiked by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth during their 1939 Royal Tour.
Other individuals to climb Tunnel Mountain have commented on the panoramic views that the summit offers. The co-founder of the Alpine Club of Canada, Arthur O. Wheeler, expressed the beauty of the views when he hiked Tunnel Mountain by commenting:
“Although only 5500 feet in altitude above sea level, the summit is a magnificent viewpoint, covering the Bow River valley both east and west. The Chief advantage is that, set at a position...midway between the valley bottom and the crests of the encircling mountain ranges, it does full value in perspective to the depths and to the heights.”
Arthur O. Wheeler
The first person to climb Mount Assiniboine, James Outram, who hiked Tunnel Mountain in 1990 also commented on the astounding beauty from the top of the peak by mentioning “the view will never be forgotten”. Ashes have also been scattered on the mountain belonging to the famous wildlife artist Carl Rungius who dearly loved the view of Banff and the valley.
It is said that a local resident, Anne Ness, was the most “devout admirer” of Tunnel Mountain and the panoramic view from the summit. Over 40 years, Anne hiked to the summit over 8000 times which came to an average of 200 ascents a year. Her daily routine was to climb the mountain twice a day; once during the day when there was a lull at work and once again in the evening. We dare say that the view from the top is well worth the many trips she made up Tunnel Mountain and justifiably a hike everyone should experience when they are in Banff.
Tunnel Mountain Trip Log
Once parked at the parking lot. The trail starts immediatly behind the lot and heads up hill as soon as it starts. The trail heads up through the trees and starts making long sweeping switchbacks.
After a few minutes of walking up hill through the switchbacks you come to a quaint little viewpoint over looking the valley below. The trail continues upwards once again and crosses over Tunnel Mountain Drive.
As you cross over the road the official trailhead for the Tunnel Mountain hike/snowshoe trail starts. There is a small parking lot up here as well but the recommended lot is the one at the bottom of the hill as this one is more for the stop on the side of the road tourist that gazes at the view.
The trail continues to take long switch backs along the mountain side as it ascends. The trail narrows subsatantially but is still easy to walk on and not very steep. Even on slightly higher elevation there is still so much local traffic on here that snowshoes are not required even in winter most times as long as you stay on the path.
Once the trail makes a final u turn there are numourus viewpoints along the northeast edge. The trail does widen at this point
After a few short switchbacks you make it to the summit. There is a small tablet that you can read to get a summary of the history on top of this mountain. The viewpoint itself that overlooks Banff is a small sloping clearing. The area is covered in pine trees so with a little exploring you can get a good vantage point to see in all directions.
Return the same way.
GPS Plotted Route
From the GPS overlay on the map you can see where the trail crosses Tunnel Mountain Drive again. Since it is more so parking for a viewpoint its recommended to not pack it up with cars and part at the bottom in the designated parking lot for Tunnel Mountain.
While it looks a little steep the trail is only 2km long one way with plenty of switchbacks to help you along the way.
Click here to download the GPS route in GPX format. You may have to right click and select "Save Link As" if your browser does not download it automatically. Be sure to save it as a .gpx file.
What were your experiences hiking Tunnel Mountain?
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