Mountain peaks of Canadian Rockies as far as you could see, view of Bow Valley, Lake Minnewanka and the Town of Banff. The Sulphur Mountain overlooks Banff National Park and offers jaw-dropping views. While the gondola is the most popular attraction in Banff, there’s a more active and budget option how to get to the top – Sulphur Mountain Hike.
To have the best view of Banff from the Sulphur Mountain you have an option of hiking up or taking the gondola. I have experienced both all year round since I’ve worked at Upper terminal of Banff Gondola, lived in Banff and later just an hour away from Banff National Park.
This is a breakdown of both – hiking the Sulphur Mountain & taking the gondola. You can decide 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:
- 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
Sulphur Mountain Hike summary
- Distance: 5,5 km one way (it took us 2 hours 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, micro spikes 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: 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
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 driving 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 from Banff, which departs from Banff Avenue every 40 minutes and costs 2 CAD per person (you need to have the exact change). Another option is a free Banff Gondola shuttle departing from Elk + Avenue Hotel or Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel until October 14.
Sulphur Mountain Hike (Banff Gondola Hike)
The trailhead starts at the Upper Hot Springs parking lot (above the Banff Gondola parking lot), it is easily visible and very well-trodden. A series of many switchbacks will take you up the hill making the elevation gradual and easier. The trail itself is quite 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, Bow Valley,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 here, it’s additional 1 km on a boardwalk to the Cosmic Ray Station on the Sanson’s Peak. It’s a nice interactive boardwalk on the ridge to the old weather station – Sulphur Mountain view at its best.
Hiking Sulphur Mountain 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 months, you might see a bear walking around. We 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 25 CAD 30 CAD in 2019 (half the current full price). If you want to take the gondola up and hike down, you would need to purchase a full ticket.
If you hike in the afternoon, you can take a free Banff Gondola down after 7 pm.
Hiking Sulphur Mountain 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 in winter (together with Johnston Canyon). 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 outside with a gorgeous view (or inside the building, of course).
Sulphur Mountain Hike is a popular local spot in winter for training. I remember when I worked in the gift shop on 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 by the fire pits on the observation deck, buy snacks or visit the restaurant (I suggest you bring your own snack, the food at the upper terminal is overpriced). Since the reconstruction, the upper terminal also has an interactive indoor centre.
Free ride down on Banff Gondola is offered all day during the winter season (after October 9 until May long weekend).
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, if you ask me, 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 everyday 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; also depending if it’s weekend or not.
They encourage 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, year 2018 in particular was unfortunate because due to wildfires and smoke, there were no mountain views. 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 few days in advance when you check the weather forecast – keep in mind that views are generally better in the afternoon and not in the morning due to the morning fog.
I think 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. I believe only people who cannot hike uphill should take the gondola 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: hike up Banff Gondola/Sulphur Mountain and spend your money on Lake Louise gondola to see grizzly bears.
Bonus at the end
What’s better for your sore legs than jumping in 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 which has 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.
And if you really don’t feel like hiking up the mountain and would like to see Banff from above, I would suggest Mount Norquay Chairlift Experience for 37 CAD (in 2019). Unlike Banff Gondola which is closed, Mount Norquay is an open chairlift. You will get a similar view and also have an option of adding a guided climb via ferrata.
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).
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 costs 38 CAD (in 2019) or you can upgrade for ride & dine package and have a lunch at their patio with a view of Lake Louise in the distance.
The ski resort offers free parking and also a free shuttle bus to the shore of Lake Louise.
Know before you go
- National park entrance
When you enter Banff National Park, you’re required to pay an entrance fee. You have a choice of either a daily pass or a yearly pass.
As of 2020, the fees are:
- 10 CAD per person for a daily pass, 20 CAD for a group/family
- 69.19 CAD per person for a yearly pass, 139.40 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.
- 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 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:
- 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
- 100 things to do in Banff National Park
- 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
I hope this breakdown is helpful and you’ll enjoy your visit to Banff!
So what is it going to be? Hike or ride the gondola?
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