BANFF – Parks Canada is limiting the number of visitors to iconic destinations like Lake Louise in Banff National Park in order to meet safety regulations to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
With Banff, Yoho and Kootenay national parks reopening to day visitors on Monday (June 1) for the first time since March 25, Parks Canada is currently allowing only 100 vehicles at a time in the parking lot at Upper Lake Louise, which usually handles about 450 vehicles.
“We’ll limit parking in some of our busy places in order to enable physical distancing,” said Jed Cochrane, Parks Canada’s visitor experience manager for Lake Louise, Yoho and Kootenay.
“Coming to Banff National Park and some of our iconic spots will still look the same – the mountains are still the mountains and the beautiful places are still the beautiful places – just the way that we visit them is changing.”
On Saturday (May 30), visitors flocked to Lake Louise even before the June 1 reopening of the park to day visitors.
As a result, Parks Canada was forced to turn vehicles away from Upper Lake Louise once the parking lot reached what the federal agency deemed an unsafe capacity.
“It was a nice day and there were lots of people out,” said Cochrane, referring to the sunny day that saw the temperature reach 27 C in the Bow Valley.
“We were turning cars away in order to keep the parking lot at a capacity we thought was appropriate right now for meeting guidelines we’re getting from health agencies.”
While the number of vehicles is presently limited to 100, Parks Canada expects that will increase as they get a better handle on what the lakeshore and washrooms can handle in terms of the two-metre physical distancing requirements.
During a typical summer prior to the COVID-19 public health crisis, Lake Louise would see thousands of people crowding the lakeshore throughout the day, leading to complaints about visitor experience.
“I have no doubt that Lake Louise is going to be a very popular place to visit this summer,” said Cochrane.
“We’re going to do this cautiously and carefully and grow it slowly, and we’ll watch what happens with regards to people’s abilities to physically distance.”
Presently, there is no timeline for opening Moraine Lake, another tourist hot spot in Banff National Park.
The road typically opens shortly after the May long weekend, but the huge snowfall over winter has caused delays in getting it open this year.
“In the last few days we were able to get the avalanche danger mitigated and get the road cleared up there,” said Cochrane.
“We now have some infrastructure work happening with new bathrooms going in and some work on the road.”
For now, the shuttle bus service from the intercept parking lot off the Trans-Canada Highway east of Lake Louise to the hamlet and Upper Lake Louise, which was scheduled to launch on April 1, is temporarily suspended.
“We’re looking for some guidance from health agencies and other agencies around how to do bussing in a safe way,” said Cochrane.
“We’re also unsure if the demand is going to be there given the current worldwide travel restrictions.”
Flaggers will be posted at some of the park’s busiest locations throughout the summer. For now, they are in place for weekends only, but that may change to include weekdays in the coming weeks if visitation picks up.
“Right now, we’re not expecting high visitor numbers on weekdays given that it’s still a little wintry in Lake Louise and the bulk of our visitors that are coming are from the local area,” said Cochrane.
“The people coming from all over the world to see Lake Louise is obviously not happening right now.”
These types of measures will likely be in place at other popular tourist locations in the region when they open, like Takakkaw Falls in Yoho National Park and Johnston Canyon along the Bow Valley Parkway in Banff.
For now, the eastern end of the Bow Valley Parkway remains closed, with access to Johnston Canyon Trail available only to those who bike or hike the road.
In addition, one lane of the Lake Minnewanka Loop will be set aside for cyclists, and vehicles will be limited to driving one-way counter clockwise, once safety measures are in place.
While hiking trails and day-use areas began opening on June 1, Banff and Lake Louise visitors centres, Cave and Basin National Historic Site, the Upper Hot Springs and Banff Park Museum remain closed.
As for camping, all campgrounds and camping facilities in Banff remain closed until at least June 21. All existing reservations up until June 21 will be automatically cancelled and refunded.
Dave McDonough, superintendent of Banff National Park, said Parks Canada will continue to monitor and adapt the reopening of the park as the phased approach rolls out.
“We will look at it and adjust as we go,” said McDonough.
Banff National Park, which is the busiest in Canada’s national park system, typically saw more than four million visitors pre-COVID-19 pandemic.
But with the U.S. border closed and international travel restricted, Cochrane said Parks Canada is unsure what visitation will look like this year.
That said, he said Parks has been actively watching visitor use and demand in neighbouring provincial protected areas in Alberta and B.C. where there has been overwhelming responses to campgrounds reservations.
“We know Canadians are looking to experience what their parks have to offer,” said Cochrane.
“We know that some places like Lake Louise will continue to be in high demand for people to come up and see.”
While the Alberta government’s first phase of relaunching the economy allowed some businesses to open on May 14, Parks Canada, the Town of Banff and Banff Lake Louise Tourism encouraged visitors to stay away until June to allow more time to get safety measures prepared.
Some businesses have opened, including the Banff Springs Hotel and Chateau Lake Louise, which opened their doors on June 1. The Banff Springs Hotel closed its doors for the first time since the Second World War.
Other popular tourist attractions such as the Banff Gondola is scheduled to open on June 4 and boat tours on Lake Minnewanka are looking to a June 15 opening for the summer.
In the townsite, the Town of Banff is getting ready to launch its downtown closure to vehicles on the 100 and 200 blocks of Banff Avenue and a portion of Caribou Street on June 5.
This initiative, scheduled to run into September, is designed to allow visitors and residents to be able to meet the two-metre physical distance requirements and give struggling businesses a helping hand.
“First and foremost, this is about public safety,” said Mayor Karen Sorensen.
“It’s about social-distancing and pedestrian flow, but it also gives space on the sidewalks because we do expect some of our restaurants and retailers are going to have lineups,” she added.
“We have businesses hanging on by a thread, and these are incredibly unusual circumstances, and we are trying to do all we can to keep the businesses that have made it through this so far sustainable.”
With the townsite and national park now open, Banff Lake Louise Tourism (BLLT) continues work on the long road of rebuilding the devastated local tourism industry.
“We are at the cusp of shifting from the response stage to the recovery stage and there is definitely change and improvement afoot,” said Leslie Bruce, BLLT’s president and CEO.
“People will travel again and they most certainly want to come here.”
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