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View from the top of the Banff Gondola with Tunnel Mountain in the foreground and Lake Minnewanka in the back right
View from the top of the Banff Gondola with Tunnel Mountain in the foreground and Lake Minnewanka in the back right

Sulphur Mountain Hike in Banff National Park

A year round hike with a great view on top

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The Sulphur Mountain hike beneath the Banff Gondola is a Banff classic though it took me over a decade of living in Alberta to do it. It’s not a wild or even pretty hike since a good part of the trail is under or near the Banff Gondola. Also, most of the trail is in the trees, except for a pretty view part way up and of course the expansive view once you reach the summit. You can expect to run into a lot of people at the top of the gondola so people who love solitude on a hike should give this one a pass. There is a longer alternative route to the top via the Cosmic Ray Road – where chances are good you won’t see a soul. 

Sulphur Mountain hike summary

  • The Sulphur Mountain hike can be done on a year-round basis but always check Banff trail reports before you go. 
  • You get a great workout as you climb 665 metres (2182 feet) over 5.5 km one way. It’s a minimum of 11 km return. There is the option to continue from the Banff Gondola all the way to Sanson Peak and back. I would recommend doing that. It will add approximately 1.2 km to your hike.
  • There is a 600-metre long-boardwalk that takes you from the top of the Banff Gondola to Sanson Peak – with many viewing platforms along its length.
  • The hike is moderate to difficult depending on conditions (harder in snow) and your fitness level. 
  • It’s a good hike for solo hikers as it’s usually a busy trail, except perhaps on a cold winter day.
  • It is usually quite a bit colder and windier up at the top of Sulphur Mountain, so plan accordingly. 
  • In winter, taker icers and poles. At all times of the year, carry the hiking essentials.
  • You can hike up Sulphur Mountain and take the Banff Gondola down (or take the gondola up and hike down), but you’ll pay for the privilege. It’s a full fare going up and a half fare if you just use the gondola to come down. However, pricing fluctuates for the Banff Gondola on a day by day basis depending on demand.
  • Once you reach the top, you can get snacks or eat in the restaurant. Read about my Banff Gondola  – Sky Bistro experience here.
  • Leashed dogs are allowed on the trail but not on the gondola.

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Starting up on the Sulphur Mountain hike
Starting up on the Sulphur Mountain hike

Sulphur Mountain hike trailhead

You can drive or take Roam Transit to the trailhead. From downtown Banff drive south on Banff Avenue and cross the Bow River Bridge. Turn left onto Spray Avenue and then right on Mountain Avenue. You will probably see signage for the Banff Gondola and the Upper Hot Springs. Continue for 3.2 km to reach the Upper Hot Springs parking lot. The trailhead is on the right near the intersection of the entrance to the parking lot and the road up to the Upper Hot Springs.

The parking lot can get crazy busy so if you want to avoid parking headaches hop on a Roam Transit bus. There is a stop just a few feet from the trailhead. A local one-way fare for an adult is $2 and $1 for a senior. There are fare boxes that accept both US and Canadian currency down to a nickel. You will need to plan your Sulphur Mountain hike around the schedule to a certain extent, but buses run frequently.

The Sulphur Mountain trailhead is well marked
The Sulphur Mountain trailhead is well marked
The Roam bus stop is just feet from the Sulphur Mountain hike trailhead
The Roam bus stop is just feet from the Sulphur Mountain hike trailhead

Sulphur Mountain hike details

Distance: 11 kilometres return – add another 1.2 km return to visit Sanson Peak

Elevation gain: 655 metres (2149 feet)

Elevation at the upper gondola terminal: 2260 m (7413 feet)

Time needed: 2.5 – 4 hours depending on your fitness level

Difficulty: Moderate to difficult depending on conditions (like snow) and how fit you are

Dogs allowed: Yes, on leash. Dogs can’t ride down on the gondola.

Return on gondola: Purchase a downloading ticket at the base of the gondola or up on top based on availability. 

Water and food: Take water as none is available on the trail. You can purchase food at the top and bottom of the Banff Gondola.

Avalanche risk: Check Banff Avalanche reports before you go. Proceed at your own risk. 

Map: Gem Trek Banff Up-Close

Sulphur Mountain hike description

The Banff Gondola trail from bottom to top is easy to follow. Start hiking up the trail (really a service road at the start) beside the big sign saying Sulphur Mountain. In the winter, this part of the trail can be very icy and microspikes (Amazon, Mountain Equipment Co-operative) come in handy. Switchback left after just 100 metres. You’ll see another map and a warning about avalanche danger and dogs on the Banff gondola.

Follow the boot beaten trail as it switchbacks 27 times up the steep mountain to reach the backside of the Banff Gondola station. In warmer months, you can see a small waterfall, 2.3 km into the hike.

Dogs are allowed on the trail but not the gondola
Dogs are allowed on the trail but not the gondola
Avalanche warning sign - so do use common sense and avoid after a large amount of snow; hiking the trail is at your own risk 
Avalanche warning sign – so do use common sense and avoid after a large amount of snow; hiking the trail is at your own risk
A not so pretty section under what must be the old route the gondola took
A not so pretty section under what must be the old route the gondola took
A steady climb via switchbacks to the top
A steady climb via switchbacks to the top
The Banff gondola was not as noisy as I expected
The Banff gondola was not as noisy as I expected
Some peek a boo views along the way
Some peek a boo views along the way
Arrival at the back side of the Banff Gondola
Arrival at the back side of the Banff Gondola

Banff Gondola to Sanson Peak

If you’ve got the time, I’d recommend continuing to Sanson Peak. Simply wander around the gondola building to reach the boardwalk. There are lovely views from here too. Follow the boardwalk for about half a kilometre until it ends at Sanson Peak, at an elevation of 2270 metres. The peak is also the site of a historic meteorological station called the Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station National Historic Site. From here you get excellent Bow Valley views. 

At the top of Sanson Peak there is lots of informative signage related to cosmic ray research. Cosmic rays are thought to be the cause of the Northern Lights. Research was done up here from 1960 – 1978 by the University of Calgary. For those of you as unfamiliar with cosmic rays as I am this description seen on a sign might help. “Cosmic rays are energized particles traveling at close to the speed of light after being accelerated by our sun or exploding stars in distant galaxies.”

Walk around the gondola building to reach the boardwalk
Walk around the gondola building to reach the boardwalk
View from the top of the Banff Gondola with Tunnel Mountain in the foreground and Lake Minnewanka in the back right
View from the top of the Banff Gondola with Tunnel Mountain in the foreground and Lake Minnewanka in the back right
Heading toward Sanson Peak via a boardwalk
Heading toward Sanson Peak via a boardwalk
You can see the boardwalk up Sanson Peak
You can see the boardwalk up Sanson Peak
The Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station National Historic Site
The Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station National Historic Site
Views looking west from the top of Sanson Peak are superb
Views looking west from the top of Sanson Peak are superb
Sunset views from the boardwalk just below Sanson Peak in summer
Sunset views from the boardwalk just below Sanson Peak in summer
Heading back to the trailhead with the dogs
Heading back to the trailhead with the dogs
There is a small faded sign sticking up out of the snow to mark the Sulphur Mountain trailhead
There is a small faded sign sticking up out of the snow to mark the Sulphur Mountain trailhead
Snow levels on the bottom third of the trail in early April
Snow levels on the bottom third of the trail in early April

Where to stay in Banff

The closest hotel to the Sulphur Mountain hike is the Rimrock Resort Hotel but it’s not within walking distance of many Banff attractions.

Downtown Banff has loads of good hotels including the Moose Hotel & Suites, the Fox Hotel and Suites and Canalta Lodge.

Location map of the Sulphur Mountain hike:

                                                 

Further reading on hikes in Banff National Park and nearby

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

The year round 11 km return Sulphur Mountain hike via the Banff Gondola Trail

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