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An Eternal Bond with the Banff Sulphur Mountains

By Raj Patel

Last Updated: 04 Aug 2021

Living in Canada for over two decades, I have traveled extensively in the province of Alberta and British Columbia. Calgary in Alberta has been my home for the past 15 years and that’s how long my relationship with Sulphur Mountains is. Alberta province is one of the most beautiful regions in not only Canada but across North America. Travelers from across America drive to this paradise to experience the beauty of this scenic city. One of my favorite indulgences when I want to take a break with friends or family is to head to Banff National Park located in the Rocky Mountains.

My first visit to the Sulphur Mountains was way back in 2006. I had done a trek which takes approximately 4 hours to the summit. It was my first encounter with the spectacular views from the top and I knew that this was just the beginning of many more trips. I have a lot of family and friends visiting and that has given me the chance to visit Sulphur Mountains over and over again, but these times by gondola.

Iconic place for picturesque restaurant/observatory on Sulphur Mounatin in Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada

My first trip to Sulphur Mountains way back in 2006

Canada is a rather cold country where it snows for almost 4-5 months in the year. Summers are beautiful and the best time to visit Sulphur Mountains, especially the months of July and August. The sweeping vistas at Banff National Park are just one part of the allure. There are numerous summer activities that are hosted in the Canadian Rockies. My most preferred activity is of course to visit the Sulphur Mountains.

A striking view of the majestic snow-covered peaks from Sulphur Mountains

A striking view of the majestic snow-covered peaks from Sulphur Mountains

Banff National Park is the first and oldest national park in Canada established in 1885. It has expanded from a 26-square kilometer hot spring reserve to 6641 square kilometers of majestic mountain peaks, turquoise colored glacial lakes, abundant wildlife and a resort town. It boasts of a rich heritage as one of the world's most awe-inspiring and unparalleled mountain scenery nestled in the heart of the striking Canadian Rockies.

A bird's eye view of Bow River Valley and Banff City from Sulphur Mountains

A bird's eye view of Bow River Valley and Banff City from Sulphur Mountains

The Sulphur Mountains have a fascinating history. One of the earliest pioneers to scale the Sulphur Mountain was Norman Bethune Sanson. A park meteorologist and museum curator, he first climbed the mountain on snowshoes in 1896 to record weather observations for the Banff area. Later, in 1903, a trail was built from the Banff Upper Hot Springs to the summit and a stone observatory was constructed on the summit ridge. Sanson spent the next thirty years of his life on the Sulphur Mountains doing his research. He is believed to have hiked to the top of the mountain over a thousand times and with his last one in the summer of 1945, at the age of 84! The stone observatory still stands strong to this day on the peak to the northwest.

The walkway leading from the peak to Sanson's Peak

The boardwalk, a 2-km stretch connecting the summit to Sanson's Peak

One can explore the Sulphur Mountains in two ways, one is by gondola and the other is by hiking to the top. Most people choose the gondola route for two reasons, one is the convenience and the other is the spectacular views of the valley and the Bow River enroute. I have done a hike a couple of times and it is a fabulous experience for the adventurous. The trail to the top takes about 4 hours and is a rather challenging one. On our way to the top, we were treated to some of the most striking views and were lucky to spot wildlife like deer, moose, bear, and mountain goat. During the summer, a light jacket and comfortable shoes is all you need for the hike, maybe a support stick for the nervous ones, no other special gear. Both my hikes, one in 2006 and the other in 2016 were one of my most cherished experiences.

A picturesque view while hiking up the Sulphur Mountains

A picturesque view while hiking up the Sulphur Mountains, a perfect blend of nature!

A mountain guide and visionary, John Jaeggi saw the potential of Banff and the need for tourist facilities. He immigrated here from Switzerland in 1924 to pursue the dreams he had for this exotic place. He started the first teahouse on the summit in 1940 and what he started way back then has evolved into the fabulous location in its current avatar. The Sulphur Mountain Gondola was his idea and it was inaugurated in 1959. It was the first bi-cable gondola in North America and the first of its kind in Canada. Today, it is the only bi-cable gondola in Canada.

 Banff Gondola ride from the base to the summit of Sulphur Mountains

The thrilling Banff Gondola ride from the base to the summit of Sulphur Mountains

The Banff gondola famously known as the Sulphur Mountain gondola is the most popular and well known. The scenic gondola ride to the summit at 7,486 feet is an 8-minute ride that climbs 2,292 feet to the summit ridge. We glided over while enjoying spectacular views of the Bow River, Banff City and the jaw-dropping landscapes. At the summit we were presented with one of the most stunning views of the mountain ranges. There are restaurants, observation decks, interpretive boardwalks, and hiking trails at the summit that provide visitors with an amazing experience. The redevelopment of this new upper terminal was completed in 2016. The new visitor center is a state-of-the-art interpretive center that has so much more to discover and hosts a wide range of activities for the entire family.

Sanson's Peak, the highest point on Sulphur Mountain

The view from Sanson's Peak, the highest point on Sulphur Mountain

From the summit we took a short 2-km walk along the boardwalk that led us to Sanson's Peak where there is the meteorological observatory also known as the old weather station built in 1903. It was interesting to walk around the building and peer through the windows to see its rustic interiors. The Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station was also built here in 1956-1957 which is now a national historic site. Besides the astounding views we got a glimpse of some amazing local history. We were lost in the 360-degree view of the mountain ranges and the vistas of the surroundings. It is a surreal experience.

A rich green carpet covers the Sulphur Mountains from above

The staggering mountain ranges as seen from the viewing deck in Sanson's Peak

A hike up to the summit is for the more energetic and adventure-spirited. For those seeking a relaxing experience, the gondola is the perfect option. Having experienced both a hike and the gondola ride, I feel the ideal way to experience this truly spectacular location is by a "hybrid" option. What do I mean? Well, hike up to the summit and take the gondola when going back down! This will give you an all-round experience. While in Banff National Park, a pitstop at Banff City is a must. The serene town surrounded by gigantic mountains makes for a dreamy getaway.

Here I am at Sulphur Mountains again, I have lost count of how many times I have visited before!

Banff National Park is indeed a hidden gem amidst the scenic beauty of Canada. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, this ancient treasure is as old as 120 million years. My rendezvous with the Sulphur Mountains is forever. It is my go to place whenever I need a break and want to surrender to the forces of nature. So when is my next visit, you wonder? Well, as soon as my next visitor comes along...

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Things To Consider

Canada, being a cold country, has snowfall for 4-5 months in the year. A visit to Sulphur Mountains is best enjoyed in the summer months, especially July-August.
Banff is a thriving arts & culture center. Banff Centre and the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies are some of the places of interest for artists.
Considering that Sulphur Mountains have all types of visitors, the restaurants serve a variety of cuisines. One can choose from various dining experiences.
A visit to the Sulphur Mountains is very safe. The gondolas that take visitors to the summit have been operating for several decades and maintain high levels of safety and precautions.
While the common way to the summit is by the gondola, the more adventurous can hike to the top. It is a moderate hike without any fixed trail and is very exciting. Not something most visitors attempt.
Ensure you are wearing the most comfortable shoes. It is cold up there so make sure you have your jackets.

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