Banff National Park holds the honour of being Canada’s oldest national park. Established in 1885, it covers 6,641 km2 of Canada’s Rocky Mountains and is neighbour to British Columbia’s Jasper and Kootenay National Parks. I’ve dedicated much of my travel time to this region of Canada over the last few years, though it would probably take me a lifetime of visits to even be satisfied with my personal percentage of ground covered.
When it comes to navigating Banff National Park, I’m pretty comfortable with getting around without the use of a map. Honestly, it’s not that hard. With one main highway running through its core it’s nearly impossible to get lost. This time around though, we were also driving the Icefields Parkway — a highway I’d only ever been on once before that offers spotty cellphone reception, thanks to the beautiful mountains surrounding you. During our time on this highway, on the return drive to Banff from the Athabasca Glacier, I had a mission to complete: find Panther Falls.
My first visit to Panther Falls was memorable, to say the least. Our tour guide, John, had pulled off the highway in what seemed liked a random spot, and as we hopped out of the van I noticed this sign:
He then announced that we were going to take a short hike to a waterfall. Thinking we were going to see the namesake of the sign, a short walk didn’t seem too bad. But then we started trudging through a snowy forest, along a cliff’s edge and around rock faces, to reach a roofed cutout in the mountainside. Like the open end of a cave, this sheltered area was hundreds of feet above the valley floor, nestled right beside a very powerful waterfall. This, however, was not Bridal Veil Falls. This was Panther Falls, and we had it all to ourselves.
Fast forward almost two years to the date of that first visit, and I found myself keeping my eyes peeled for that lowly mountain sign, hoping to share with Gary the magic that emanates from this place.
We eventually found the sign, and at first I was unsure if we were in the right spot as the place looks completely different when it’s not under a blanket of snow. However, a short distance away is a much smaller sign pointing the way to Panther Falls. An immediate feeling of relief and pure joy came over me, so with a “Brace yourself” to Gary, I started to lead the way through the trees.
When I first got the idea to bring him here, I introduced the idea by asking him “How are you with heights?”, to which he replied “Is that a serious question?”. To me, it was a relevant question to ask because heights freak me out and during the hike to the falls you have to deal with pretty high and very scary precipices. However (and I realized this afterwards), to ask Gary this question is a bit silly. He’s a linesman and is up hydro poles forty to fifty feet in the air on a daily basis. He wanted to scale every rock face we came across in that forest and would stand at the cliff’s edge to see how far down it went. I should have known better.
Nearing the waterfall the trail takes an S-shaped route around a piece of mountainside that juts out, leaving only a few inches between your head and the rock. You not only have to squat and duck walk around this point, but you’re also hugging the rock face as the trail narrows to a width of about two feet wide before it drops off the side of the cliff. Reaching this point, I told Gary to “hug the wall” before I led the way around the bend. Once you’re through that nerve-racking corner, the trail opens up to a rock platform and right in front of you is the gushing, roaring waterfall. You can’t help but stop in your tracks and take a moment to absorb the scenery once you make it to this point. So, after I had my moment and Gary still hadn’t shown up, I panicked and forced myself to go back around the bend. The cheeky bugger was standing there, literally doing what I had told him to do with the slightest hint of a smirk on his face. Boy was hugging the wall, giving some love to the mountain gods. “What?” he asked, before he broke into a smile. I just walked away.
Panther Falls is mesmerizing, regardless of season. During my first visit the falls were partially frozen and ice stalactites hung from the rock platform’s roof. This time we could have picnicked at the water’s edge for hours, and I doubt we would have had any visitors.
Staring at the falls, you can’t help but let yourself go into a daze, fighting between watching the falls through a blurry stare and trying to focus on the water as it comes over the edge and drops far below.
Making the hike to Panther Falls also lets you view Bridal Veil Falls off in the distance. It’s like nature’s way of giving you an amazing two-for-one deal.
If I lived anywhere near this place, I’d probably visit on a weekly basis. All I’d need would be a blanket to get cozy, a pillow to sit on, a carafe of hot coffee and a good book to keep me company. Quite like Lake Louise, Panther Falls is also a holy place. Someone was feeling very generous when they created Banff National Park. It’s like Candy Land for nature lovers.
I may have to push my personal boundaries to get there, but visiting that waterfall is rewarding and soul-enriching. If you ever happen to be in the area, look for that shabby roadside sign and brace yourself for a view you’ll never forget.