About 500m south of town, just before the junction with Spray River, the Bow River plunges into a churning melee of white water at Bow Falls. Though the drop is relatively small – just 9m at its highest point – Bow Falls is a dramatic sight, especially in spring following heavy snowmelt.
Paved trails run along both sides of the river, and make a lovely leisurely afternoon stroll from Banff; in summer go early or late in the day to avoid the endless procession of coach tours. The west bank viewpoint is the best place to watch the waterfall in full thundering flow, while the east bank trail leads to another famous viewpoint at Surprise Corner, with a view across the falls toward the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel. It also marks the start of the Hoodoos Trail, which leads along the Bow River to a landscape of bizarre rock pillars shaped by eons of natural erosion.
The river itself begins 100km upstream as meltwater from the Bow Glacier, flowing south through Banff en route to the prairies and Hudson Bay far beyond. The river has been known to First Nations people for well over 10,000 years; to the Cree Nation, it was known as manachaban sipi (literally ‘the place from which bows are taken’).