Mountain peaks of Canadian Rockies as far as you could 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 – Sulphur Mountain Hike. The Sulphur Mountain overlooks Banff National Park and offers jaw-dropping views.

Sulphur Mountain Hike, Banff National Park

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.

This guide breaks down both – Sulphur Mountain Hike & taking the gondola. You can decide for yourself which option is best for you.

Love hiking? Read our post 20 best hikes in Banff National Park.

Our tips for hikes in Banff National Park:

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 Upper Hot Springs parking lot (1,561m), ending at Sulphur Mountain 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

TIP
Read our recommendation: Hiking packing list for summer in the mountains

How to get to Sulphur Mountain Trail

From Banff, you can drive yourself, take a public bus or take a 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 very quickly in summer.

You can take a public Roam bus Route 1 from Banff, which departs from Banff Avenue every 40 minutes and costs 2CAD per person (you need to have the exact change). If you show your Banff gondola ticket to the bus driver for Route 1, you get a free return ride, valid only from December 2 to March 31, 2022.

Another option is taking the free Banff Gondola shuttle:

  • departing daily from several places around Banff from July to September
  • departing Fridays and Saturdays only in winter from Elk + Avenue Hotel, Banff Park Lodge or Fairmont Banff Springs

Sulphur mountain hike vs. Banff gondola ride

Sulphur Mountain Hike (Banff Gondola Hike)

The Mountain Avenue from Banff leads to the base of the Sulphur Mountain, where the gondola and Sulphur Mountain Hike start. The only way up is hiking or gondola; you cannot drive up the Sulphur Mountain. However, there’s an old dirt road on the other side of the Sulphur Mountain, which you can bike up, or so I’ve heard.

The trailhead to Sulphur Mountain Hike starts at the Upper Hot Springs parking lot (above the Banff Gondola parking lot); it is signed and very well-trodden.

Sulphur Mountain Hike, Banff National Park

Sulphur Mountain Hike, Banff National Park

A series of several switchbacks will take you up the hill making the elevation gradual and easier. The trail itself is pretty boring since you’re in the forest the whole time. But on the other hand, you’re getting a 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’ll arrive at the upper gondola terminal. There is a rooftop observation deck, restaurant, snack bar and a gift shop.

From the terminal, it’s an additional 1 km 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.

Sulphur Mountain Hike, Banff National Park

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 the summer months, you might see a bear walking around. As Parks Canada recommends, always carry a bear spray no matter where we go in the Rockies.

In summer, the gondola operates from 8 am to 10:30 pm, so you have an option to hike up and take the gondola down for 30 CAD in 2021 (half the current full price). If you want to take the gondola up and hike down, you must purchase a full ticket.

The free gondola down after 7 pm in summer has been cancelled.

Sulphur Mountain Hike in winter

Do not let the minus temperatures discourage you; you’ll warm up very quickly, hiking uphill. Bear in mind that you might need crampons/micro spices if the trail is icy; you can rent them in town.

When we hiked up in November, the trail was covered in snow and very well-trodden, so we didn’t need them.

Honestly, this 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’s 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 centre.

The free gondola down in winter has been cancelled.

UPDATE
As of 2021, there is no free ride down on Banff Gondola.

Sulphur Mountain Hike vs Banff Gondola, Banff National Park

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Banff Gondola

The view from the gondola is beautiful. I used to take the gondola to work, and it was definitely the highlight of the day. But the Banff Gondola is a tourist trap. Many people don’t even know about the option of hiking up the mountain because it’s not advertised.

Keep in mind that the Banff Gondola is very popular, meaning you will most likely be herded in line to the gondola (I’ve seen it every day when I worked there, and it didn’t seem to be an enjoyable experience at all).

Since they introduced dynamic pricing, the closer the date, the more expensive the ticket, depending on whether it’s the weekend.

They encourage you to purchase tickets well in advance to get the best price, but in this case, you’re also risking you won’t see anything at all. For example, the year 2018, in particular, was unfortunate because there 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 keep in mind that views are generally better in the afternoon and not in the morning due to the morning fog.

Sulphur Mountain Hike, Banff National Park

Banff Gondola is the most overpriced attraction in Banff National Park (now also competing with Glacier Skywalk, which most tourists are disappointed by) – 58 CAD for an 8-minute ride up the mountain.

Only people who cannot hike uphill should take the gondola in both directions. We’ve seen people of all ages hiking up. And as always, I think you will deserve the view and be proud of yourself when you hike 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.

My recommendation

Sulphur Mountain Hike instead of the gondola and rather spend your money on Lake Louise gondola to see grizzly bears and hike in the meadows.

However, 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 of things to do with kids near Calgary.

Sulphur Mountain Hike, Banff National Park

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, go for a 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!

Other gondolas in Banff National Park

The below gondolas are better and cheaper options. In winter, they are all popular ski resorts.

Mount Norquay

If you don’t feel like hiking up the mountain and would like to see Banff from above, I suggest Mount Norquay Chairlift Experience for 37 CAD (in 2019, it wasn’t open the following years). Unlike Banff Gondola, a closed cabin, Mount Norquay is an open chairlift. You will get a similar view and also have the option of adding a guided climb via ferrata.

Sunshine Meadows

It takes you to the top in about 20 minutes, where you can hop on another chairlift and hike above the tree line with gorgeous trails to the alpine meadows and mountain lakes. Gondola & chairlift cost 45 CAD (in 2019, it wasn’t open the following years).

Lake Louise Gondola

Lake Louise ski resort (60 km from Banff) is one of the best places for spotting a grizzly bear in summer. Almost daily sightings are reported; see their calendar.  You can also see mountain goats and elks in the area.

The gondola ticket cost 49 CAD (in 2021) or 39 CAD for Alberta residents if you book tickets online 24 hours in advance or have an AMA membership. You can upgrade for the ride & dine package and have lunch at their patio with a view of Lake Louise in the distance.

The ski resort offers free parking and a free shuttle bus to the shore of Lake Louise.

My recommendation

If you only want to visit one gondola in Banff, I highly recommend choosing a gondola in Lake Louise.

I hope our breakdown of Sulphur Mountain Hike versus Banff Gondola is helpful, and you’ll enjoy your visit to Banff!

Essential info for Sulphur Mountain Hike & Banff Gondola

National park fees

When you enter any national park in Canada, you’re required to pay an entrance fee. You have a choice of either a daily pass or a yearly pass.

  • 10.50 CAD per person for a daily pass, 21 CAD for a group/family
  • 72.25 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

To have the most freedom and enjoy nature to the fullest while staying on a budget, we always recommend staying in the campgrounds. Banff National Park has many with picturesque scenery. Read our comprehensive guide about camping in Banff National Park for all camping info and lots of pictures of the campgrounds.

Packing list for Banff

We cover our recommended gear for year-round adventures in our comprehensive Banff packing list.

Road closure

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.

Trail report

Before you head out, check current trail conditions on Trail Report from Parks Canada.

Bear country

As always in the Canadian Rockies, you are in a bear habitat. You should always carry a bear spray (can be purchased at 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.

Additional reading about the Canadian Rockies

More hiking ideas:

Plan your trip to the Rockies:


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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About Maya Steiningerova

Heyo, I’m Maya! An adventure athlete currently living near the Canadian Rockies with my partner in crime Michal. I love running in the mountains, jumping in the ice cold lakes, mountain biking and trying not so common activities, such as mountaineering. By showing that an ordinary person can live an extraordinary life, my hope is to inspire you to live an adventurous life and provide you with tips and tools for your own adventure.