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Lake Minnewanka holds the distinction of being the largest lake in Banff National Park. The 17-mile-long lake lies between scenic mountain ranges and supports a wealth of wildlife along its shores. Only three miles north of the Town of Banff, this spectacular lake provides rustic recreation to a large number of active visitors each summer. Located on the eastern side of the Continental Divide, Lake Minnewanka's waters fill the valley of the Cascade River, with little access to most of the shoreline except on foot. At almost 5,000 feet in elevation, the climate is harsh in winter, but summers are delightfully cool; breezes blowing down the long reach of water keep pesky bugs away, making it a favorite for back country camping via canoe.
The only lake in Banff National Park that allows motor boats, Lake Minnewanka is famous for its excellent lake trout and Rocky Mountain whitefish. The lunker-class lake trout make this one of Canada's ten top lake trout fisheries, so large numbers of avid anglers seek out the services of fishing guides in nearby Banff. All fishermen in Banff National Park are required to hold either a single-day permit or an annual permit obtained at any of the park's information centers, campground kiosks or sauna pools, as well as local tackle shops. Lead tackle, chemical baits, and natural baits are forbidden. Non-fishermen can also enjoy and explore the lake from the regularly-scheduled tour cruises that ply the waters during the summer months. A boat launch is located on the southern shore for those who wish to bring their own boats, or visitors can rent small aluminum boats with motors from the tour operation.
The long narrow lake is excellent for sailing, although the distance from 'civilization' makes the lake less populated than would be the case in more populated areas. The most popular watercraft for exploring and camping is the canoe or kayak. Care must be taken to watch for sudden winds creating waves, but hugging the shoreline and exploring the inlets are the best ways to view wildlife and enjoy the picture-perfect scenes created by the sharp nearby peaks reflected in the lake's surface. Mount Aylmer at 10,374 feet is the highest mountain in this area of the park and is located a few miles north of the lake.
The wildlife is spectacular in Banff National Park. The park has 56 recorded mammal species. Grizzly and black bears inhabit the forested regions and sometimes require the closing of the popular trail along the north side of the lake to avoid confrontations. Cougar, lynx, wolverine, weasel, northern river otter, wolves, elk, mule deer and white-tailed deer are common in and around Banff, while moose tend to be more elusive, sticking primarily to wetland areas and near streams. Mountain goats, bighorn sheep, marmots and pika are widespread, with the bighorn sheep often sharing the only road in the area, the Lake Minnewanka Loop. Other mammals such as beaver, porcupine, squirrel, and chipmunks are the more commonly observed smaller mammals. Bald eagles, golden eagles, red-tailed hawk, osprey, falcon and merlin are the most common predatory bird species seen, while huge numbers of other small songbirds and shorebirds are right at home along the wooded lakeshore.
A hiking and mountain biking trail runs along the northern shore of the lake, passing Stewart Canyon and six back-country campsites (permits required). Tour operators offer guided horseback tours in the area. Although there are no organized campgrounds at Lake Minnewanka, two campgrounds are provided at Two Jacks Lake just downstream from the lake.
The lake was originally a much smaller natural lake. The lake was first called 'Water of the Spirits'; First Nations tribes living along the lake spoke of a half-man, half-monster lake creature that some of the original settlers swore they had seen. The lake lay in Stewart Canyon along the Cascade River and was fed by glacial streams flowing from Mount Inglismaldie, Mount Girouard and Mount Peechee on the south side of the lake. The lake was a popular resort location, and a small wooden dam was built across the outlet in 1895 to stabilize water levels at Minnewanka Landing. In 1912 the dam was rebuilt and enlarged for hydropower, drowning Minnewanka Landing. A second expansion of the dam increased the size and depth of the reservoir considerably to supply hydro power to Calgary and Banff. Now under 60 feet of water, the old village site and 1912 dam are a favorite with scuba divers who enjoy exploring the old foundations, original dam blockhouse, and even an old potbellied stove sitting on the lake bottom.
The nearby town of Banff lies completely within Banff National Park, and all lands belong to the park system. Only those with a demonstrated 'need' to live here are allowed to live in the town. The town is centered around park visitors. Banff offers several types of lodgings such as hotels, inns, resorts and spas, and is supplied with all kinds of shops, recreational facilities and historical venues. Some of the 'must-see' attractions are the Banff Center, the Whyte Museum, the Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum, Cave and Basin National Historic Site, and several art galleries. An annual Dragon Boat Festival is held on Lake Minnewanka each summer and draws many spectators and participants. Banff's original hot springs still attract visitors. There is no real estate available in Banff or along Lake Minnewanka unless one wishes to operate one of the licensed recreational facilities. But Banff makes an excellent home location for a week or two of exploration within Banff National Park. Located on the Trans-Canadian Highway, Banff is easy to get to nearly year round and provides winter activates such as skiing , ice skating, snowboarding and ice fishing on the smaller local lakes. One look at the spectacular rugged peaks of the Canadian Rockies and you'll want to stay awhile and explore Lake Minnewanka. We'll be expecting you!
*The surface acreage is estimated conservatively by Lakelubbers. Other statistics - volume, average depth, catchment area, and more - are not available.
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