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How to Visit the Cave and Basin Historical Site in Banff

The Cave and Basin Historical site in Banff is a combination of fascinating geography, science, and history which makes it a unique and cool place to visit. It’s also home to an endangered species found nowhere else in the world which makes this place even more special. 

Front view of Cave and Basin Historic Site
Cave and Basin Historical Site

Visiting the Cave and Basin Historic Site is easy. Located within the Banff townsite, it’s quick and accessible to get to, budget-friendly, can be experienced within one to three hours, and great for all ages. The Cave and Basin is open year-round so it can be visited in any season, and the best part is reservations are not required which makes it a great place to spontaneously visit. 

I enjoy hanging out at the Cave and Basin because it’s one of the easier and hassle-free places to get to in Banff. It doesn’t receive the volume of people as other areas of Banff so it’s a bit quieter and it’s one of the flatter areas for walking, running, and biking. 

Now that I’ve let my secret hangout place out of the bag, keep reading for a rundown of how to visit the Cave and Basin Historical Site to ensure you get the most out of your time and visit.

Know Before You Go

There are two important things to know before visiting the Cave and Basin Historic Site: 

It is no longer a public bathing site. The thermal waters are now enjoyed at the Upper Banff Hot Springs. No matter how tempting, and inviting the water looks in the Cave and the Basin, resist the urge to touch and keep your hands away – the water supports a sensitive ecosystem.

It smells bad. Really bad. There’s no getting away from it bad. The minerals that make the thermal waters special also make them stinky – bacteria poop, also known as hydrogen sulphide (kind of makes you second guess wanting to jump in). While the smell never goes away it does become tolerable. 

Getting There

The Cave and Basin Historic Site is located on the west side of Banff at 311 Cave Avenue. From Banff Avenue (the main street through Banff) cross the Bow River bridge (stone bridge) to a t-intersection. Turn right onto Cave Avenue which ends at the Cave and Basin Historical Site.

The Cave and Basin can be accessed by car, bus, bike, or foot. 

parking lot at Cave and Basin historic site

Car

Parking is free at the Cave and Basin. 

There are 150 parking spots with a few Tesla charging stations located by the gift shop. 

Wheelchair parking spots are available up the road by the entrance to the main building (past the gift shop which is located at the bottom of the hill).

Bus

The Roam bus Route 4 (called the Cave and Basin route) goes to the Cave and Basin; however, it only runs from May to October.

Walk or Bike

The Cave and Basin is 2.0 km from Banff townsite so about a 20-30 minute walk or a 7-10 minute bike. The length and time could be a bit longer depending on your departure location. 

From the Bow River bridge take the Cave and Basin Trail – a delightful, flat trail with a mix of pavement and hardpacked dirt, that meanders through the trees – which will take you directly to the site. 

There are several bike racks at the site where you can lock your bike. 

What is the Cave and Basin Historical Site?

The Cave and Basin Historical Site is exactly what its name suggests. A cave and a basin, of thermal water, that were discovered in the late 1800’s by three prospectors working in the area on a transportation route for the railway. 

The discovery not only uncovered a geological wonderland, it also led to the creation of Banff and Canada’s first national park.

The Cave and Basin site has indoor and outdoor components. The indoor component, consisting of the main building, requires a fee to access (except the gift shop) while the outdoor areas are free to access and explore. 

Entrance to Cave and Basin historic site

The main building, and entrance to the facility, is the original public bathing house. From inside you can visit:

  • The Cave
  • The Basin
  • The Story Hall
  • The Swim Pavilion
  • The Gallery
  • Theatre programs

The outdoor components, which are free to access and explore include:

  • The Discovery Boardwalk
  • The Viewing Decks (on top of the main building)
  • Hiking Trails
  • Gift Shop (located beside the parking lot)

What to See

There’s no better way to visit the Cave and Basin. When deciding whether outdoor or indoor areas should be explored first, factors in your decision may be the weather, congestion, the amount of time you have, and simply personal preference

The Main Facility

When you walk into the main facility you will have the option of entering The Cave, the Book of Stories, or the swimming pavilion. Again, there’s no specific order in which you have to view everything. However, as the Cave is the most exciting feature of the site, it’s what most people choose to see first. 

The Cave

The Cave is the original pool of water discovered at the site and indisputably the showcase of the site. It was originally accessed through a hole, or vent, in the rock’s ceiling via a rope. Today the Cave is accessed through the south Belvedere of the main building

The entrance to the Cave is hard to miss with its purple mosaic sign and black wrought iron gate. Before entering, take the time to read the education displays and panels located outside the entrance so you have a deeper understanding of the impact and significance of what you are seeing when you enter the Cave. 

Passing through the iron gate to the Cave, you will follow a concrete path through a rock tunnel. The rock ceiling is low in places, so if you are taller than 5’7 mind your head. The tunnel to the Cave, and the Cave itself, are dark although there are some ambient lights. 

Entrance to the cave at Cave and Basin Historic Site
Entrance to The Cave
Walkway through cave at Cave and Basin historic site
Walkway to The Cave
cave and thermal pool at Cave and Basin historic site
The Cave

The Cave and the viewing area around it are not large so there is not a lot of space. In the summer, it can be squishy and humid (and smelly). As there’s not a lot to do in the Cave other than take a few photos, you won’t need to spend a lot of time here. 

The Story Hall

The Story Hall is located next to the Cave in what used to be the bathing pavilion changerooms. This area features fun and educational exhibitions and displays about the history of the area, the impacts of the national park system, and a look at what’s ahead for the area’s sustainability. 

cabin exhibit in Story Hall at Cave and Basin Historic Site
Story Hall Exhibit
Deck area where swimming pool used to be at Cave and Basin historic site
Former site of the swimming pool.

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The Swimming Pavilion

From the Story Hall, you can walk out to the swimming pavilion which housed the swimming pool complete with waterslides, swimming events, and even the first stand-up paddle boards. 

While the pool has long since been filled, an outline remains on the ground to show where the pool walls used to be. Today, the space is used to host events and activities.

The Basin

The Basin is located outside within the confines of the main building; however, it can also be viewed from above on the Discovery Boardwalk.

The Basin was where people went too for a soak in the healing thermal waters. Now, the Basin serves as the home of a special endangered species known as the Banff Springs Snail which only lives in the thermal water of the Cave and Basin. The snails are very tiny but can be spotted sitting on leaves and deposits in the water. A Parks Canada employee is on deck to assist in finding them. 

The Basin bathhouse and surrounding area is a rebuilt replica of what existed on the site in 1887. 

Thermal basin at Cave and Basin historic site
The Basin
endangered Banff Snail
The endangered Banff Snail can be spotted in the Basin.

The Gallery

The Gallery now stands in place of the Basin bath house. It contains an education seating area with a view of the Basin where you can enjoy educational videos and books or sit and take a break. This is where you can view and access the theatres.  

Outdoor Attractions

The outdoor attractions at the Cave and Basin site are free to enjoy and it’s worth time to explore them. 

Viewing deck at Cave and Basin historic site

Viewing Deck

The Belvedere Viewing Deck is located on top of the main building. Facing the entrance, to the far left is a set of stone stairs that takes you to the viewing deck. From the deck, you can see down to the swimming pavilion and take a rest in one of Banff’s red chairs to enjoy the mountain valley scenery. 

Discovery Boardwalk

The Discovery Boardwalk is accessed from the viewing deck. It’s a delightful walking route that leads you to the site of Banff’s first ‘Hotel’ and the top of Cave’s vent. 

stairs on viewing deck at cave and basin historic site
Discovery Boardwalk entrance from the Viewing Deck
site of Banff's first hotel
Banff’s first Hotel
Thermal pool at cave and basin historic site
Thermal pool
Boardwalk with view of mountains at cave and basin historic site

The Boardwalk goes past several thermal pools, and streams, with informational signs that provide insight into the area’s geographical landscape and ecosystem. 

The Boardwalk does climb up so there are stairs to climb and descend. As the Boardwalk is made of wood it can be slippery in wet or snowy weather.

My favourite time to do this walk is in the winter when the steam rising from the water makes it easy to see. 

Hikes

The Cave and Basin Historical Site has several family-friendly paths great for hiking and biking. I prefer these trails for running and biking because they are flat, picturesque, and don’t tend to be as crowded as the more popular trails along the river and near the Banff Springs Hotel.

However, every rose has its thorn. Some of the trails are shared with the nearby horse stables. For the most part, the trails are split between a walking side and a horse side. However, expect to dodge horse droppings along some sections and chewed-up conditions if it’s been muddy – which considering most of the trails are in a marshland is most of the time.

If you can get past the horse droppings and mud, the trails are great! Oh, and bring bug spray

Sign showing directions to hikes at cave and basin historic site
Cave and Basin Trail – 2.0 km (20 -30 minutes)

This trail will get you to the Cave and Basin from Banff. It follows Cave Avenue and goes past the Buffalo Museum (the building that looks like a trading post) and the Banff recreation grounds. 

Sundance Trail/Sundance Canyon – 8.7 km out and back (1.2 to 3 hours) 

The trail starts on pavement – which is underwhelming (compared to other Banff viewings) and a bit long – until you get to the canyon. Then the trail turns to dirt and becomes more scenic and interesting as it gently climbs through rocky and forest areas to a water-filled canyon and waterfalls. 

There are bike racks at the end of the paved trail so you can bike the paved section, then lock your bike and hike the dirt trail to the Canyon. 

There are washrooms located about halfway through the hike.

Marsh Loop – 2.6 Km (30-45 mins)

An easy flat trail with a mixture of boardwalks, gravel, and dirt (sometimes mud). As the hike meanders through marshland, it’s a great place to see birds and fish, especially at the bird blind and fish viewing platforms.  

Time Required to Visit

The Cave and Basin Historical Site can be visited in 1.5 to 3+ hours. You can visit in less time but you won’t get the full understanding of the historical impact or what makes it so special. 

One and a half hours will allow for a quick exploration of the outdoor viewing deck and Discovery Boardwalk and all areas of the main building with a cursory glance at a few of the information plaques and scoot through the gift shop (which isn’t that big). 

Three hours will allow you to do all of the above, including a tour, and hike some of the nearby trails like the Marsh Loop and Sundance Canyon.

View of mountains from viewing area at cave and basin historic site

Plan for 4+ hours if you want to thoroughly explore and learn everything there is to know about the site, including any onsite program offerings or activities, enjoy one or two of the hikes, and partake in a picnic.

Fees and Operating Hours

Admission is free with a Discovery Park Pass

  • You must show your Pass at the site entrance. This seemed weird to me because then there’s no proof of Park Pass purchase in your vehicle, but I’ve never received a ticket for not having a Park Pass while visiting this site.

Admission Prices

  • Free for youth under 17
  • Adult ~$9.50 CDN
  • Senior ~$7.00 CDN

A Thermal Waters Pass will get you entry into the Cave and Basin Historical Site and the Upper Banff Hot Spring at a lower price. However, check to see if this is the best savings option for you before purchasing it as it only provides savings in certain instances. 

Operating Hours

The Cave and Basin is open year-round, except Christmas Day.

Hours of operation are seasonal and facilities can be rented out for special events so check the Parks Canada website for operating hours before you arrive.

Typical hours of operation are:

  • May to October daily from 9:30 AM to 5:00 PM
  • October to May Thursday to Monday 11:00 AM to 5:00 PM

Tours and Programs

The Cave and Basin offers several tours and programs. The tours and programs of the day are posted on an event board outside the main entrance as well as the Parks Canada website.

There are two standard tours: the Cave and Basics Tour (30 mins) and the Natural History Tour (45 mins). The tours are free with admission and don’t require a reservation. I’ve never taken either one so I can’t say if they are worth taking.

Tips for Visiting

There’s no food service at the Cave and Basin Historical Site, so if you plan to stay over a meal you will have to bring your food and enjoy one of the picnic sites. The gift shop sells limited snacks and drinks (chocolate bars, packaged ice cream).

There is a water fountain in the main building.  

A visit to The Cave and Basin pairs well with a soak in the Banff Upper Hot Springs. I would recommend visiting the Cave and Basin first to learn about the history of the hot springs and how they shaped the history of the area, then finish up with a soak in the thermal waters at the Upper Banff Hot Springs. 

If you want to experience soaking in a Cave and Basin landscape the Fox Hotel in Banff has a Cave and Basin-themed hot pool.

outdoor area at Cave and Basin Historic Site

Is There Anything Else I Should Know?

Are you traveling to Banff and need a game plan so you don’t miss out on the best things to do? Check out our itinerary

Most travelers want to visit the most popular sites and still avoid the crowds. We have a detailed itinerary that gives you a step-by-step game plan so you can get to the best places at the right times!

MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO
BANFF

BANFF TRIP PLANNER: To read or watch all of our content about Banff National Park, check out our Banff Homepage

THINGS TO DO: Don’t miss all that Banff has to offer including Lake Louise, Banff Hot Springs, the Cave and Basin Historical Site, and shopping downtown

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Find out how to get to Banff and what reservations
you may need

WATCH: Enjoy videos of gorgeous Banff National Park while learning our best tips for visiting by watching our Banff YouTube Playlist

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