Mountain peaks of Canadian Rockies as far as you can see, view of Spray & Bow Valleys, Lake Minnewanka and the Town of Banff. While the gondola is the most popular attraction in Banff, there’s a more active and budget option for how to get to the top – the Sulphur Mountain Hike. The Sulphur Mountain overlooks Banff National Park and offers jaw-dropping views.
Hike up the Sulphur Mountain, or take the gondola for the best view of Banff. I have experienced both several times all year round since I’ve worked at the Upper terminal of Banff Gondola, lived in Banff and am now just an hour away from Banff National Park.
Because Banff National Park is the most visited national park in Canada, it’s understandable why Banff Gondola is one of the most popular attractions. The ride up to Sulphur Mountain only takes 8 minutes; it’s accessible for all, with a stunning view of Banff and many amenities at the upper terminal.
Sulphur Mountain Hike is also one of the best hikes in Banff National Park because the trail is accessible year-round, it’s well-trodden, without any cliffs, exposure or technical sections, and you can even buy a one-way ticket down the mountain if you’re tired after hiking up.
This guide breaks down both – the Sulphur Mountain Hike and the Banff gondola. You can decide for yourself which option is best for you. First, I explain everything you need to know about the Sulphur Mountain Hike, then all the details about Banff Gondola and some alternative gondolas available in Banff National Park.
You’ll find here:
- How to get to Banff Gondola & Sulphur Mountain trailhead
- Sulphur Mountain Hike summary
- Sulphur Mountain Hike in summer & in winter
- Banff Gondola (including insider tips for purchasing tickets)
- Other gondolas in Banff National Park
- Essential info for visiting Sulphur Mountain & Banff National Park
How to get to Sulphur Mountain
From Banff, you can drive yourself or take a public or free shuttle bus. It takes around 10 minutes to drive from downtown Banff to the Upper Hot Springs parking lot. You can also park at the gondola and walk to the Upper Hot Springs parking lot. Even though Gondola and Hot Springs have big parking lots, they fill up quickly in summer.
While we could always easily park by the gondola, we intentionally never visited during the peak summer weekends. If you’re hiking the Sulphur Mountain, get there early. But if you’re visiting Banff Gondola during the summer day, I highly recommend one of the below options to avoid being stuck in congestion.
Sulphur Mountain/Banff Gondola with free shuttle
The free Banff Gondola shuttle operates:
- Weekends from May 20 to June 25
- Daily from several places around Banff from in summer
- Weekends from September 9 to October 9
It’s available if you’ve pre-purchased your Banff Gondola ticket. If you’re visiting outside these dates or want to hike Sulphur Mountain, the next option is for you.
Getting to Sulphur Mountain & Banff Gondola by public bus
The public Roam bus on Route 1 operates daily to and from Banff Gondola year-round. From May 20 to October 9, it’s free with a pre-purchased ticket; otherwise, it costs 2 CAD/adult and is free for kids. It departs from Banff Avenue every 20-30 minutes during summer.
Sulphur Mountain Hike summary
- Distance: 5,5 km one way (it took us 2 hours up sulphur with breaks)
- Elevation gain: about 700m
- Difficulty: very easy trail and moderate rating because of the distance & elevation
- Best time to go: hiking available all year round
- Gear: water bottle (you can fill up inside the upper gondola terminal), windproof jacket, running shoes (the trail is easy), bear spray, microspikes in winter
- The starting point is the Upper Hot Springs parking lot (1,561m), ending at Sulphur Mountain’s upper gondola terminal (2,300m) or Sanson’s Peak (2,440m), which is 1 km further in distance.
- If you’re up for the challenge, the current record on Strava app from over 600 people is 32 minutes from the parking lot to the upper terminal.
Read our recommendation: Hiking packing list for summer in the mountains
Sulphur Mountain Hike (Banff Gondola Hike)
The Mountain Avenue from Banff leads to the base of the Sulphur Mountain, where the Banff Gondola and Sulphur Mountain Hike start. The only way up is by hiking or gondola; you cannot bike or drive up the Sulphur Mountain.
There’s an old dirt road on the other side of Sulphur Mountain, which you can hike up if you’d like to hike without others, and if you’re lucky, it’s not closed.
The official trailhead to Sulphur Mountain Hike (often called Banff Gondola Hike) starts at the Upper Hot Springs parking lot (above the Banff Gondola parking lot), signed and well-trodden.
Several switchbacks take you up the hill, making the elevation gradual and easier. The trail is boring since you’re in the forest the whole time. On the other hand, you’re getting good exercise and occasional views of the Rundle Mountain, Spray & Bow Valleys, and Banff. The best thing is that you can hike all year round.
After 4,5km of switchbacks, you arrive at the upper gondola terminal. There are restaurants, interactive displays, a small theatre, hiking trails, a gift shop, a boardwalk, observation decks, and several events throughout the year.
It’s an additional 1 km from the upper terminal on a boardwalk to the Cosmic Ray Station on Sanson’s Peak. It’s a nice interactive boardwalk on the ridge to the old weather station – Sulphur Mountain view at its best.
We’ve seen people of all ages hiking up. Since the trail is free and accessible all year round, consider hiking up, and if you’re too tired afterward, take the gondola down.
To take it a bit further and leave the crowds behind, you can hike to the summit of Sulphur Mountain (2,451m) – the 3 km trail starts past the helipad.
Sulphur Mountain Hike in summer
During summer, you can refresh at a waterfall, a small scramble about ¾ of the way up. Be aware that you’re in a bear country. Although the trail gets busy during summer, you might see a bear walking around. As Parks Canada recommends, we always carry bear spray no matter where we go in the Rockies.
In summer, the gondola operates daily from 8 am to 10 pm, so you can hike up and take the gondola down for half the price. You must purchase a full ticket to take the gondola up and hike down.
The free gondola down after 7 pm in summer has been cancelled. But if you’re a Bow Valley local, you get a free ride down when you show your ID.
Sulphur Mountain Hike in winter
Do not let the minus temperatures discourage you; you’ll warm up quickly hiking uphill. Remember that you might need microspikes if the trail is icy; you can rent them in town.
When we hiked up in November, the trail was covered in snow and well-trodden, so we didn’t need them.
Sulphur Mountain Hike is the best winter hike in Banff National Park (together with Johnston Canyon Ice Walk). It’s unlikely that you will be hiking alone, so the trail won’t be under deep snow, and you can warm up by the campfire on the observation deck with a gorgeous view (or inside the building, of course).
Sulphur Mountain Hike is a popular local spot in winter for training. When I worked in the gift shop on the upper terminal, a local guy visited us and said he was running up the hill every week as a part of his winter training. It only took him 45 minutes up.
The view of the white winter wonderland is spectacular. You can take a break at the gondola terminal, warm up, buy snacks or visit the restaurant. Since the reconstruction a few years ago, the upper terminal also has an interactive indoor center.
The free gondola down in winter has been cancelled.
There is no free ride down on Banff Gondola in summer or in winter.
The 3 most popular tours in Banff National Park
These are the three most popular activities for visitors of Banff National Park. They’re all great options, especially for first-time visitors.
- Banff Gondola – Take in the views of Canada’s most popular mountain town while admiring the panoramic views of the surrounding mountain peaks.
- Lake Minnewanka Cruise – sail across the beautiful glacier-fed Lake Minnewanka while learning about its history and wildlife.
- Lake Louise and Moraine Lake Sightseeing Tour – On a guided tour, enjoy the most beautiful lakes in Canada. You get to explore the famous Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise Hotel, Lake Louise with Victoria Glacier in the background, and then Moraine Lake with a walk along its shoreline.
Banff Gondola is an eight-minute ride up the Sulphur Mountain and one of the best things to do in Banff. During the ride, you see Banff town& Bow Valley, and on the other side, Rundle Mountain and Spray Valley.
The best thing is that thanks to Banff Gondola, getting up a mountain is available to everyone, including wheelchair users, older people, and babies & kids.
The view from the gondola is beautiful. I used to take the gondola to work, which was definitely the day’s highlight. But the Banff Gondola is not a budget-friendly attraction, so I mentioned hiking up Sulphur Mountain as a first option.
Banff Gondola is very popular year-round, especially in summer. If you want an enjoyable experience, I recommend taking the Banff Gondola in the evening. Otherwise, there are insane crowds and lines. I’ve seen it every day when I worked there, and it didn’t seem to be an enjoyable experience at all.
Since the company introduced dynamic pricing, the closer the date, the more expensive the ticket, depending on whether it’s the weekend.
While they encourage you to purchase tickets well in advance for the best price, I don’t recommend that because you’re also risking, you won’t see anything. For example, 2018 and the summer of 2023 were unfortunate because there often were no mountain views due to wildfires and smoke.
It can also rain or snow any day of the year. Because the view from the top is crucial for your enjoyable experience, I suggest purchasing gondola tickets the same day or a few days in advance. Check the weather forecast first, and remember that views are generally better in the afternoon and not in the morning due to the morning fog.
Banff Gondola tickets can cost anywhere from 50 CAD to 70 CAD, depending on the season. You can check availability and purchase your tickets here.
Banff Gondola with kids
If you have kids, Banff Gondola is amazing. Kids love riding in a gondola, and the interpretative centre on the upper terminal with a mirror bear statue on the observation deck and binoculars make it even better. It’s one of my recommendations for things to do with kids near Calgary.
There’s also a special deal for visiting with kids – a kid’s ticket is free with a paying adult for the first two hours of the day!
Banff Gondola also hosts events at the upper terminal throughout the year. The most popular event at Banff Gondola is Mountaintop Christmas. It runs from mid-November till mid-December, and the upper terminal offers decorating cookie stations and crafts, Christmas movies, and free pictures with Santa. And if you visit before noon, kids are free.
Sulphur Mountain Hike vs. Banff Gondola – my recommendation
Sulphur Mountain Hike instead of the Banff Gondola. If you’re fit, I recommend hiking the Sulphur Mountain in the morning to catch a parking spot. After you enjoy the boardwalk and views from the top, you can hike down or purchase a gondola ticket down the mountain.
What you save on Banff Gondola, you can spend on Lake Louise gondola to see grizzly bears and hike in the meadows.
Bonus after the Sulphur Mountain Hike
What’s better for your sore legs than jumping in the water after a sweaty hike? The Sulphur Mountain was named after the hot springs at its base. If you choose winter for the hike, visit Banff Upper Hot Springs and enjoy the mountain view while you rest in the pool.
In summer, swim to Johnson Lake, probably the only lake in Banff with a comfortable temperature. And if you’re like me and love to challenge yourself, choose any lake you like and take a refreshing ice dip. Your muscles will thank you!
FAQ about Sulphur Mountain
How long does it take to hike up Sulphur Mountain?
It usually takes 1.5-2.5 hours to hike up, including breaks. It’s about 30 minutes longer if you walk the boardwalk to Sanson’s Peak.
Is Sulphur Mountain a hard hike?
Absolutely not. The Sulphur Mountain Hike difficulty is moderate because of the many switchbacks below the Banff Gondola, the 700-meter elevation and distance. There are no difficult, technical or exposed parts of the trail.
Even though the most popular hiking app, AllTrails, says it’s difficult, it’s why so many locals call it AllFails.
What’s on top of Sulphur Mountain
- Ski Bistro offers excellent dining, which I enjoyed trying at their Christmas event, and I highly recommend it.
- Learn about Sulphur Mountain and Banff National Park through the interactive displays at the upper terminal.
- The 1 km boardwalk to Sanson’s Peak featuring an old weather station is very much worth it, with incredible views.
- The gift shop has an amazing selection of local souvenirs (as opposed to ‘made in China’ souvenirs, which was the #1 complaint I heard when I worked in the gift shop)
- A hiking trail to the summit of Sulphur Mountain – the 3 km trail starts past the helipad and leads to the Sulphur Mountain Summer (2,451m)
Other gondolas in Banff National Park
The below gondolas are other options in Banff National Park. In winter, they are all popular ski resorts.
If you don’t like hiking up the mountain and want to see Banff from above, I suggest the Mount Norquay Chairlift Experience for 43 Cad. Unlike Banff Gondola, a closed cabin, Mount Norquay is an open chairlift with a similar view.
For adventurous spirits, consider adding a 2.5 or 4-hour guided via ferrata climb.
The enclosed gondola at Sunshine Meadows takes you to the top in about 20 minutes, where you can hop on a chairlift and hike above the tree line with gorgeous trails to the alpine meadows and mountain lakes. The gondola & chairlift cost 65 CAD.
Lake Louise Gondola
Lake Louise ski resort (60 km from Banff) is one of the best places for spotting a grizzly bear in summer. You can also see mountain goats and elks in the area.
The huge parking lot at Lake Louise ski resort also serves as the Park & ride for all summer shuttles to Moraine Lake and Lake Louise.
View the full blog post: The Ultimate Guide for Visiting Moraine Lake
The Lake Louise gondola ticket costs 60 CAD. You can upgrade to the ride & dine package and have lunch on their patio with a view of Lake Louise in the distance. If you’d like to visit Moraine Lake and Lake Louise as well, they offer packages during summer:
- Gondola & Lake Louise shuttle for 89 Cad
- Gondola & Moraine Lake shuttle for 99 Cad
View the full blog post: Guide to visiting Lake Louise Summer Gondola
Essential info for Sulphur Mountain Hike & Banff Gondola
National park entrance fees
When you enter any national park in Canada, you must pay an entrance fee. You have a choice of either a daily pass or a yearly pass.
- 50 CAD per person for a daily pass, 21 CAD for a group/family
- 25 CAD per person for a yearly pass, 145.25 CAD for a group/family
The yearly Discovery Pass is valid for all National parks in Canada. You can purchase it at the gate when you enter the national park, in the Visitor’s Centre or online here.
Staying in Banff National Park
We always recommend staying in the campgrounds to have the most freedom and enjoy nature while staying on a budget. Banff National Park has many campgrounds with picturesque scenery. Read our comprehensive guide about camping in Banff National Park for all camping info and pictures of the campgrounds.
Packing list for Banff
We cover our recommended gear for year-round adventures in our comprehensive Banff packing list.
For trail closures due to wildlife presence or avalanche dangers in Banff National Park, check out the report from Parks Canada.
Accurate road conditions can be checked here.
Before you head out, check current trail conditions on Trail Report from Parks Canada.
As always, you are in a bear habitat in the Canadian Rockies. You should always carry a bear spray (can be purchased at the Visitor’s Centre or outdoor stores), know when and how to use it and make noise while hiking and running (so you don’t surprise any bears)! Carefully read these instructions on how to behave around them.
I hope you enjoyed our travel guide and breakdown of Sulphur Mountain Hike versus Banff Gondola and found it helpful. Enjoy your visit to Banff and the views from Sulphur Mountain.
Our favourite hikes in Banff National Park
- Johnston Canyon Hike to Ink Pots
- Rockbound Lake Hike
- Aylmer Lookout Hike & Bike Trip
- Glacier Lake Trail
- Mount St. Piran Hike
- Healy Pass Hike with Egypt Lake
More hiking ideas for the Canadian Rockies
- 15 best day hikes near Calgary
- Hiking in Jasper National Park: 17 best hikes for all levels
- Hiking in Yoho National Park
- Comparison of hiking Ha Ling Peak vs. Mount Lawrence Grassi
- Little Lougheed Hike in Kananaskis
- Galatea Lakes Hike
- Grassi Lakes in Canmore
Plan your trip to the Rockies
- Epic travel guide to the Canadian Rockies
- Adventure travel guide to Banff National Park
- Adventure travel guide to Yoho National Park
- Adventure travel guide to Jasper National Park
- Icefields Parkway itinerary: a scenic drive from Lake Louise to Jasper
- Banff itinerary for 3 days
- Banff on a Budget
Sulphur Mountain Hike or the gondola ride? What did you choose? Let us know about your experience in the comments below.
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