- 5.5 km to summit
- 650m elevation gain
- Moderate hike with steep switchbacks
- Many facilities available at summit: cafeteria, bathrooms, observation deck, interpretive centre, theatre
- Gondola free to ride down in wintertime; in the summer is half-price during the day and free before 10:00am or after 7:00pm (but within operating hours)
Amidst a week of training, working and meeting new colleagues (and making friends!), I took the day off I had to revisit a familiar hike: Sulphur Mountain. Located at the end of town, on which the Upper Hot Springs and the Banff Gondola are located, this is a good workout with rewarding views right at our doorstep.
The Sulphur Mountain trail begins at the Upper Hot Springs parking lot. Officially the trail is 5.5 kms with a 655m elevation gain (one-way), but my Garmin VivoActive HR watch tracked it as 5.08 km with a 672m elevation gain. A conservative estimation is 1.5-2 hours needed to complete it, although most people of good health can finish it a bit faster. It took me 1 hour 24 minutes this time around, mainly because of the amount of snow pack on the upper portion of the trail. At this time of year, there was still a solid amount of snow left, being trudged on by everyone and leaving a slippery trail in its wake. I passed a gentleman who had his cleats clipped to his backpack when he was clearly struggling up the slippery snow. I gently made a comment about how I would use them and wish I had them, and his reply was something to the effect that he’d planned on using them for the way down. That’s great, but why not also use them on the way up if you have them?! Use every advantage you have! His wife chuckled and called out that maybe it was a good idea after all and they paused as I passed them.The trail begins its steep switchbacks right from the get go, and winds its way steadily up the mountain. They are relatively short at the beginning, so you feel the burn pretty quickly. For those who enjoy this kind of feeling, it pumps you up for the rest of the hike! For those who dread it, rest assured the switchbacks eventually even out and gradually grow longer, making the elevation gain easier to swallow.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a hike where you get amazing views throughout the hike. You can spot Mount Rundle and the town through the trees at various points, but a waterfall halfway up is one of the few key sights along the way. But, it is pretty cool once you’re under the gondola line and can catch them with Mount Rundle in the background.
I will never get over the views at the top of this mountain. Whether you’ve never been to the top of a mountain or you have, whether you rode the gondola up or hiked it, this is one of the most accessible mountain summit panoramas that are worth every penny or minute. From the summit of Sulphur Mountain, you can walk the 1 km boardwalk to Sanson’s Peak – named after Norman Sanson, a man who hiked the mountain (pre-gondola!) more than 1000 times over the course of 30 years in the name of weather recording and science.
Once you’ve succeeded in making it to the top, you’re rewarded with a modern building with all the facilities you could expect: an interactive interpretive center, a multisensory film theatre, a casual cafeteria, a fine dining restaurant and a rooftop observation deck. There is something for everyone, and the building does really elevate your experience.
The icing on the cake is that if you hike up to the summit, in the winter and during the off-peak hours in the summertime you can ride down the gondola for free – saving yourself 64$/32$ and a tough descent on the knees!