Conquering Banff’s Sulphur Mountain the Hard Way

 

Few visitors leave Banff, AB without visiting the top of Sulphur Mountain. The summit at just over 700 metres, affords sweeping views of the city of Banff, as well the majestic Banff Springs Hotel – one of the top hotels in Banff – and the surrounding mountains.

Getting to the top of Sulphur Mountain requires making a crucial decision, though: how to get to the top. Many visitors choose to buy a ticket to ride the Sulphur Mountain gondola, which sweeps them to the summit in less than ten minutes. Others, though, seek more of a challenge and choose to exercise their muscles with a vigorous hike up the mountain. With a wide, well-maintained trail that meanders through dense forest and offers glimpses of the view that waits at the top, the hike to the top of Sulphur Mountain is moderately challenging and ideal for those who want to see even more of the Canadian wilderness.

The view from the peak of Sulphur Mountain. Photo credit Andrew Bowden CC BY-SA

The view from the peak of Sulphur Mountain. Photo credit Andrew Bowden CC BY-SA

The Trail

[Also see our travel article “Travel Guide to the Canadian Rockies“]

The South East Ridge Trail, the primary trail to the top of Sulphur Mountain, begins at the Upper Hot Springs parking lot, 3.5 kilometres from downtown Banff. At the base of the mountain, the trail is wide and shaded, and relatively flat. As the trail snakes up the mountain, following the same path as the gondola, it gets progressively steeper; the portion before the summit is the steepest part of the ascent, but a series of switchbacks keeps the hike relatively manageable.

The trail ends at the Upper Summit Gondola Terminal. From the terminal, you can walk along a boardwalk to Sanson Peak. The nearby peak was named for a local meteorologist, Norman Sanson, who made the hike to the top of Sulphur Mountain more than 1,000 times to make weather readings. There is still a small, stone weather station open for exploring.

A view of Sanson Peak from Sulphur Mountain. Photo credit Andrew Bowden / CC BY-SA

A view of Sanson Peak from Sulphur Mountain. Photo credit Andrew Bowden / CC BY-SA

At the summit, you’ll also find a restaurant, snack bar and facilities. After making the hike – which takes anywhere from two to five hours, depending on your pace – the restaurant is often a welcome respite and the ideal place to relax and refuel before heading back down the mountain. You can either hike back down to the base, a trip that takes a few hours, or hop on the gondola for a short trip back to your car.

The restaurant inside the gondola station at the summit of Sulphur Mountain. Photo credit Tony Hisgett.

The restaurant inside the gondola station at the summit of Sulphur Mountain. Photo credit Tony Hisgett.

Preparing for Your Hike

As with any strenuous exercise, the hike to the top of Sulphur Mountain can be challenging for someone who is out of shape or unprepared for physical activity. However, in terms of hikes, Sulphur Mountain is manageable for most people, especially if you come prepared. Dress appropriately with solid, broken-in hiking shoes, and dress in layers, as there can be a substantial temperature difference between the base and the peak; even in the summer, you might encounter patches of snow and ice near the summit. And while you can get water and other refreshments at the top of the mountain, bring along plenty of water and light snacks to keep your energy up as you hike.

While you can take the gondola ride to the top of the mountain at any time of the year, weather permitting, hiking Sulphur Mountain is best left to the summer months. Heavy snow in the winter makes the trail difficult to traverse, and the danger of an avalanche is quite real.

Don’t forget to bring your camera and binoculars on your hike up Sulphur Mountain. The area is prime bird watching territory – Clark’s nutcrackers and Canada Gray Jays are common – and it’s not unusual to see plenty of wildlife, including bighorn sheep, near the summit.

Hiking up Sulphur Mountain is an ideal way to enjoy the Canadian Rockies and get a different view of the town of Banff. If you’re up for a challenge and have the time – a round-trip hike will take the better part of a day – skip the lines at the gondola and enjoy the pristine Canadian wilderness and fresh air on the trail instead.

 

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Rebecca grew up near Banff, and has hiked the trail at Sulphur Mountain every summer since she was old enough to walk.