First Nations people lived for millennia in scattered nomadic tribes in the areas that later became Jasper, Banff, Glacier and Waterton Lakes. In the late 18th century European expeditions edged unstoppably west. Exploration quickly led to exploitation, and some of the pristine land was mined for minerals, while other parts were earmarked by cross-continental railroad companies. All four parks were inaugurated between 1885 and 1910 through an unconventional alliance between foresighted conservationists and railway entrepreneurs eager to market the region as America’s very own Swiss Alps.

Banff National Park

The history of Banff National Park begins in 1875 with the selection of Kicking Horse Pass, just west of the present-day park, over the more northerly Yellowhead Pass (in present-day Jasper), as the route for the nascent Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR). It was during the building of this railway in 1882 that three railroad laborers, William and Tom McCardell and Frank McCabe, stumbled upon the Cave and Basin hot springs at the base of Sulphur Mountain.

While Stoney Aboriginals had known about the springs and their supposed healing powers for centuries, it took the entrepreneurship of the trio to bring the waters to national attention. But, caught up in an acrimonious battle over ownership rights, the workers’ tentative proposal to develop the springs as a lucrative tourist destination was rudely quashed by a Canadian government that had already, surreptitiously, made similar plans of its own.

In 1885, as the last spike was driven into the transcontinental railway at Craigellachie in British Columbia, a 26-sq-km (10-sq-mile) federal reserve was established around Banff Springs by the Conservative government of John A MacDonald. Sensing a tourist bonanza, not just from the recuperative springs, but from the astounding mountainscapes that surrounded them, the fledgling CPR was quick to jump on the bandwagon. ‘If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists,’ announced CPR president William Van Horne portentously in 1886. His idea was to build a luxurious chain of grand hotels across the railway network that would lure in wealthy tourists and repay the railway’s outstanding loans. The plan clearly worked. Opened in 1888 as the grandest and most expansive hotel in the chain, the chateau-style Banff Springs Hotel was a runaway success and quickly established itself as an icon of Canadian architecture.

By 1888 over 5000 tourists had been ferried into the embryonic park to be rejuvenated in the magic spring water, and Banff Town listed 300 permanent residents, as well as churches, hotels, saloons and shops. The national park, which had been Canada’s first – and the world’s third – when it was created in 1885, was expanded in 1892 to include the area surrounding Lake Louise and, before long, Banff had spawned another of Van Horne’s fairy-tale hotels, the beguiling Chateau Lake Louise.

Welcoming the Masses

A coach road was opened to Banff in 1911, and the following year public traffic was allowed into the park. Suddenly the wilderness was accessible to all kinds of visitors, rather than just wealthy Victorians, and the opportunities for outdoor recreation multiplied. Campsites were set up on Tunnel Mountain and at Two Jacks Lake, and affordable lodging began to appear in the Bow Valley. Pursuits diversified: skiing, the arts and short-lived sports like ice boating all drew participants and spectators. A road was built to Norquay ski slopes, and Lake Louise soon began to welcome skiers as well. The year 1917 saw the initiation of the Banff Winter Carnival, a week of everything from dances to dogsled races.

Throughout WWI, immigrants from enemy countries were detained in camps below Castle Mountain and near Cave and Basin hot springs. Forced to labor, they established much of the infrastructure throughout the park, including making horse trails car-friendly. In the 1930s similar work was taken up by relief workers during the Depression, when the Icefields Pkwy was first initiated. Relief workers also built gardens in Banff Town and an airfield for private planes.

The National Parks Act, passed in 1930, established the boundaries of the park much as they are today, along with many of the conservation laws that are still in place. While the number of tourists to the park diminished during WWII, Banff became a popular honeymoon destination in the 1940s and 1950s, attracting returning war veterans and their brides. By 1962, when the Trans-Canada Hwy officially opened, the park had begun to market itself as an international holiday destination.

Balancing Act

Banff gained further global recognition as a summer and winter resort with the 1988 Winter Olympics in nearby Calgary. Although events were actually held at Nakiska ski resort in Kananaskis Country and the Nordic Centre in neighboring Canmore, the Olympics drew tourists and publicity to the park. Banff Town’s economy boomed, further strengthening the tourism infrastructure. In 1990, after more than a century of being governed federally, Banff Town was granted the right to become a self-governing community. That year, the CPR train service, which had played such an important role in the town’s late 19th-century take-off, was discontinued. Tourism in Banff has continued to grow over recent years, but greater numbers of visitors have led to worries about ecological imbalance. As a result, the public zeitgeist has changed and the park today energetically promotes environmental as well as economic concerns.

Jasper National Park

First Nations peoples traditionally used the land that is now Jasper National Park as seasonal hunting and gathering grounds. It wasn’t until the 1800s, when fur traders began to push west across the continent, dislocating various indigenous groups, that some First Nations tribes began utilizing the Athabasca Valley as a more permanent base.

Soon after, a dispute with Piegan people, over access to Howse Pass near present-day Banff, led British-Canadian explorer David Thompson to look for a new route across the Rockies to link up with lucrative trading centers on the west coast. Veering north during the winter of 1810, he trudged with his party through deep snow to the top of Athabasca Pass, crossing the Continental Divide in January 1811.

Before departing for Athabasca Pass, Thompson left fellow explorer William Henry in the Athabasca Valley, where he established Henry House, the region’s first staging post, situated close to Old Fort Point, near present-day Jasper Town. In 1813 the Northwest Company established a more permanent post, 40km (25 miles) to the east, at Jasper House on Brulé Lake, which remained in operation until 1884.

In an effort to build good trade relations, the traders were encouraged to take Aboriginal wives. In doing so, a distinct Métis (French for ‘mixed blood’) culture was formed, and the unique language of Michif arose. Descendents of the Métis continued to farm in the Athabasca Valley well into the 20th century, greatly influencing the area’s development. In 1910 they were given compensation payments and forced to leave their land, which by then had become a federal reserve.

Adventurers & Mountaineers

In the early 1860s, around 200 pioneers set out from Ontario with their sights on the gold rush in British Columbia. The Overlanders, as they would come to be known, passed through Jasper and struggled over Yellowhead Pass, the park’s present-day boundary with Mt Robson Provincial Park. The planned two-month journey turned into six months of near starvation. Poorly equipped and inexperienced, a number of men died en route, some swept away by turbulent rivers, others succumbing to hypothermia. The only woman to accompany the group managed to survive, giving birth upon reaching Kamloops.

With the fur trade in decline and a new national park in Banff prospering to the south, mountaineers and adventurers began heading into Jasper’s rugged wilderness in search of unnamed peaks and fabled glacial lakes. In 1906 Irish-born mountaineer and surveyor AO Wheeler founded the Alpine Club of Canada and began organizing periodic assaults on Mt Robson. Three years later he was instrumental in helping two colorful local characters, Reverend Kinney and Donald ‘Curly’ Phillips, in their brave but ultimately abortive attempt on the summit. The mountain was eventually conquered by Austrian Conrad Kain in 1913.

David Thompson

The history of Jasper National Park will always be synonymous with indefatigable British-Canadian explorer David Thompson, born in London in 1770, but resident in Canada from 1784, where he was nicknamed ‘Stargazer’ by First Nations people and ‘the greatest mapmaker who ever lived’ by those who had the good fortune to follow in his footsteps.

Thompson developed his prodigious navigational skills working as a fur trader, first for the Hudson Bay Company and later for its bitter rivals the Northwest Company, with whom he was mandated the task of establishing fur trading posts along the hotly contested US–Canada border. In 1806, in response to the American-sponsored Lewis and Clark Expedition, Thompson was sent west to establish new Northwest Company posts closer to the Pacific, a journey that soon turned into a race over which group would reach the mouth of the Columbia River first. The explorer’s biggest challenge was crossing the Rocky Mountains through precipitous terrain still largely controlled by Native American tribes. Thompson found his preferred southern route over Howse Pass near Banff blocked by the hostile Piegan tribe, forcing him to tack north toward the uncharted lands of what is now Jasper National Park. Enlisting the help of a local Aboriginal, Thomas the Iroquois, Thompson forged a route across Athabasca Pass in January 1811, becoming the first white person to cross the Rockies via a northerly route. For the next 50 years, until the advent of the railway era, Athabasca Pass became the preferred route of fur traders making for the Pacific.

Mary Schäffer

Breaking the mould in an era when most women didn’t even have the right to vote, Mary Schäffer was a rather unlikely park pioneer who, according to some, was Jasper’s and the Rocky Mountains’ first real tourist. A spirited Philadelphia widow, Schäffer first ventured to Jasper in the early 20th century to – in her own words – ‘turn the unthumbed pages of an unread book.’ Her quest was an elusive mountain lake known to the Stoney people as Chaba Imne. Guided by a map sketched from memory by Stoney Aboriginal Sampson Beaver 14 years earlier, she became the first non-Aboriginal to set eyes on Maligne Lake in July 1908. Her subsequent book about her brave and sometimes turbulent adventures, Old Indian Trails of the Canadian Rockies, was republished on its 100th anniversary in 2011 and still resounds with poignant, poetic aphorisms.

The Emergence of a Park

Jasper’s founding, rather like Banff’s, is closely entwined with the development of the railway. Passed over in the 1880s by the CPR in favor of Kicking Horse Pass in Banff, Jasper got its revenge in 1903 when Wilfred Laurier’s government gave the go-ahead for the Grand Trunk Pacific Company to build a line from the west coast through Yellowhead Pass. All too aware of how the railway had significantly boosted the fortunes of Banff, the Ministry of the Interior opportunistically created Jasper Forest Park in 1907, the Rocky Mountains’ fifth – and Canada’s sixth – national park.

Built between 1910 and 1913, construction of the railway reached the tiny settlement of Fitzhugh at mile marker 113 in 1911, bringing an immediate influx of adventurers, mountaineers and railway workers. Almost overnight the burgeoning town jumped from a population of 125 to around 800 and was promptly renamed Jasper after Jasper Hawse, a fur-trading manager who had been based at the Jasper House trading post in the 1820s.

Before the passage of the National Parks Act in 1930, the park faced far fewer limitations on its industrial and commercial development. Consequently, in the 1910s, local outfitters and guides, eyeing a potential business bonanza, sprang up all over the Athabasca Valley intent on bringing the wilderness to the masses. Plans for an enlarged town were laid out, a school was built, and clearing began for roads and climbing trails. The first grocery store opened in 1914, meaning that residents no longer had to wait for a month’s supply by train from Edmonton. The following year, 10 crudely constructed tents were set up for visitors on the shores of Lac Beauvert, an encampment that would soon metamorphose into the Jasper Park Lodge.

In 1910 a coal mine was established at Pocahontas, near the eastern boundary of the park. A small mining town grew up in the vicinity, but was short-lived. The coal that was mined from the area burned at a high heat and was virtually smokeless, making it useful for warships during WWI. But, with the war over by 1918, and competition heating up with larger operations in the industrial east, the mine was shut down and the town dismantled by 1921.

Sharing the Limelight

The road from Jasper to Edmonton was opened in 1928, and by the onset of WWII legions of Depression-era workers had completed the legendary Icefields Pkwy linking Jasper to Lake Louise. In 1930 the National Parks Act was passed, fully protecting Jasper as the largest park in the nation, and tourists began visiting in droves; famous guests included King George VI, Marilyn Monroe and Bing Crosby. By 1948 the Athabasca Glacier had become a major sight, and the Banff-based Brewster brothers manufactured a ski-equipped Model A Ford truck to cart tourists out over the ice.

Since the 1950s, Jasper’s tourism infrastructure has been gradually strengthened. Major highways into the park have been paved and roads to sights like Maligne Lake and Miette Hot Springs have been cleared or upgraded. In 1961 the Marmot Basin ski area got its first rope tow while, three years later, the Jasper Tramway took its first trip to the top of Whistlers Mountain.

Since 2001 Jasper Town has been governed jointly by the Specialized Municipality of Jasper and Parks Canada. These days there are strict development laws in place (eg no second homes are allowed) and, in 2010, the two bodies drafted the town’s first Community Sustainability Plan.

Glacier National Park

The ancestors of Montana’s present-day Native Americans have inhabited the Glacier region for over 10,000 years. At the time of the first European contact, two main indigenous groups occupied the Rocky Mountains region. The valleys in the west were the hunting grounds of the Salish and Kootenay people, while the prairies in the east were controlled by the Blackfeet, a fiercely independent warrior tribe whose territory straddled the border with Canada. Linked spiritually to the land, the Blackfeet knew Glacier as the ‘Backbone of the World,’ and within the area of the park, many sites – including the oddly shaped Chief Mountain – were considered sacred to the people..

In the mid-18th century, when trappers and explorers began to arrive out west, the Blackfeet controlled most of the northern plains and adjacent mountain passes. Although they resisted the European invaders at first, a catastrophic smallpox epidemic in 1837 dealt them a deadly blow, wiping out 6000 of their 30,000 population. Eventually both the Blackfeet, and Salish and Kootenay, were forced into one-sided treaties that sequestered them to reservation lands.

A romantic wanderer, James Willard Shultz spent many years living among the Blackfeet people, whom he considered his relatives and closest friends. As a result, he became one of the first European American men to lay eyes on much of Glacier’s interior. In the 1880s he introduced the area to Dr George Bird Grinnell, a leading conservationist who lobbied Congress vociferously for a decade until, in 1910, President Taft signed the bill that created Glacier National Park.

From Gilded-Age Railroads to Modern Age Cars

Visitors began coming regularly to the park around 1912, when James J Hill of the Great Northern Railway instigated an intense building program to promote his newly inaugurated line. Railway employees built grand hotels and a network of tent camps and mountain chalets, each a day’s horseback ride from the next. Visitors would come for several weeks at a time, touring by horse or foot, and staying in these elegant but rustic accommodations.

But the halcyon days of trains and horse travel weren’t to last. In response to the growing popularity of motorized transportation, federal funds were appropriated in 1921 to connect the east and west sides of Glacier National Park by a new road. Over a decade in the making, the legendary Going-to-the-Sun Rd was finally opened in 1932, crossing the Continental Divide at 2026m (6646ft) Logan Pass and opening up the park to millions.

That same year, thanks to efforts from Rotary International members in Alberta and Montana, Glacier joined with Waterton Lakes in the world’s first International Peace Park, a lasting symbol of peace and friendship between the USA and Canada.

WWII forced the closure of almost all hotel services in the park, and many of Glacier’s rustic chalets fell into disrepair and had to be demolished. Fortunately, nine of the original 13 ‘parkitecture’ structures survived and – complemented by two wood-paneled motor inns that were added in the 1940s – they form the basis of the park’s accommodations today.

Over the years, the Going-to-the-Sun Rd has been the primary travel artery in the national park and, for many, its scenic highlight. Still sporting its original stone guardrail and embellished with myriad tunnels, bridges and arches, the road has been designated a national historic landmark. In the 1930s a fleet of bright red ‘Jammer’ buses was introduced onto the road to enable tourists to gain easy access to the park’s jaw-dropping scenery; the same buses (although now environmentally upgraded to run on propane gas) still operate today.