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.
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.
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Sulphur Mountain hike summary
Distance: 11 kilometres 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.
Elevation gain: 655 metres (2,149 feet)
Elevation at the upper gondola terminal: 2,260 m (7,413 feet)
Time needed: 2.5 – 4 hours depending on your fitness level
Level of difficulty: Moderate to difficult depending on conditions (like snow) and how fit you are.
Trail conditions: The Sulphur Mountain hike can be done on a year-round basis but always check Banff trail reports before you go.
Boardwalk: 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.
Solo hiking: The Sulphur Mountain hike is a good one for solo hikers as it’s usually a busy trail, except perhaps on a cold winter day.
Gondola option: 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.
Access and transportation to Banff’s Sulphur Mountain trailhead
You can drive or take Roam Transit to the trailhead for Banff’s Sulphur Mountain hike.
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 Banff Sulphur Mountain hike around the schedule to a certain extent, but buses run frequently.
Facilities and amenities for Banff’s Sulphur Mountain hike
The lower Banff Gondola terminal by the parking lot offers washrooms, a Starbucks cafe, a gift shop, and an information centre.
When you get to the top of Sulphur Mountain, you’ll find bathrooms, Sky Bistro – which is a lovely spot to have a meal, Northern Lights Alpine Kitchen – a buffet-style restaurant, and an outdoor patio in the summer.
What to take on the hike up Sulphur Mountain
It is usually quite a bit colder (up to 10ºC colder) and windier up at the top of Sulphur Mountain, so plan accordingly. No matter what the season, I’d recommend a fleece or midweight layer and a wind-proof jacket. In winter, pack a warm coat, mittens, and a hat.
At all times of the year, carry the hiking essentials and let someone know where you are hiking.
The Sulphur Mountain hike from the bottom to top is easy to follow. Start hiking up the Sulphur Mountain trail (really a service road at the start) beside the big sign saying Sulphur Mountain.
In the winter, this part of the Sulphur Mountain trail can be very icy and microspikes 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 Sulphur Mountain 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 Sulphur Mountain hike.
Banff Gondola to Sanson Peak hike
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 2,270 metres (7.748 feet). 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.”
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.