Lake Minnewanka & Lower Bankhead Ghost Town

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Beautiful Lake Minnewanka is the largest lake in the Canadian Rockies.  It’s 28 kilometers long (17 miles), and 142 meters deep (466 feet).  Normally, it would be an impressive sight, but on this day, the clouds were quickly turning into drizzle and rain, and the whole scene was somewhat miserable.

It’s always a shame when you know there are beautiful mountain peaks surrounding you, but you can’t see them thanks to the fog.

There’s a large picnic and recreation area at the western end of Lake Minnewanka.  You can hop aboard a boat tour here, or hike the northern shoreline.   The lake extends eastward, into the eastern-most corner of Banff National Park.

Present-day Lake Minnewanka is formed by a dam that was built in 1941.  That dam replaced a smaller one, built in 1912.  When the new dam went into service, water levels rose, covering the old dam and the old resort village of Minnewanka Landing (built in 1888 at the edge of the much smaller, pre-dam Lake Minnewanka).  With so much to see underwater, Lake Minnewanka is now a popular scuba-diving location. 

There’s one unintentional attraction at Lake Minnewanka.  Be sure you pause to appreciate the privy — because Canadians paid a hefty price for it.  The washrooms at the Lake Minnewanka Day Use Area are likely the most expensive outhouse in the world.  The Calgary Herald reports, the facility cost $1.8 Million (CAD) — much of the money going into “green” features, like those solar panels on the roof.  The Herald estimates the energy savings from those green features will pay off in the year 2584.

Lower Bankhead

While the rainy weather wasn’t ideal for a visit to Lake Minnewanka, it was appropriate for my final stop of the day.  The ghost town at Lower Bankhead is just off the Lake Minnewanka Loop Road.  Lower Bankhead contains the remnants of an old coal-mining operation, built by the Canadian Pacific Railway to provide fuel for the locomotives.

From the parking area at Lower Bankhead, a trail drops down the hillside, then loops around the old buildings and foundations.  One of the first places to see is the old Lamp House.  The miners’ lamps were stored here.  Every morning, the miners would check out a lamp, then head into the mine.  If, at the end of the day, a lamp was missing, the mine’s operators knew someone was missing — and they would start a search.

The huge, thick concrete foundations are all that survive of the power house.  This is where electricity was generated for the town and the mining operations.

This building was used to make coal briquettes.  Since the coal at Lower Bankhead was brittle, it had to be combined with “pitch” that was hauled in from Pennsylvania.  Once the mixture was made into briquettes, the coal could then be used by locomotives and for home heating.  However, the cost of making the briquettes made it difficult to turn a profit.

400 car loads of coal were hauled out of the mines at Lower Bankhead, during the mine’s most productive days.  These are some of the original coal cars.

Coal mining operations started at Lower Bankhead in 1903.  Production peaked in 1911, when 450 men produced half a million tons of coal.  The CPR leased the land from Rocky Mountains Park (which was later renamed Banff National Park).

On the foundation of the old tipple, there’s a sculpture of sorts, made with junk from the abandoned town.

Because it was chilly, and drizzling rain, I was the only one walking around Lower Bankhead.  It added to the spooky, abandoned feeling of the town, but I was quickly realizing that I needed to crawl into a warm bed and call it a day.  So that’s exactly what I did.  In the morning, I would devote Day 3 to hikes and attractions close to Banff, before venturing further north the following day.

Coming from Calgary, take the first Banff exit, then head towards Lake Minnewanka.  There will be a turnoff for Lower Bankhead.  If you continue straight, you’ll reach Lake Minnewanka, then loop back around.

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