When most people think of Banff, they conjure up visions of big backcountry adventures. But mere steps from the tourist gondola is Sulphur Mountain, a family-friendly hike hiding in plain sight.
We step off the wooden platform of the gondola and onto a faint trail leading through the forest. Before long the crowds are far behind and the only sounds around are birds chirping and the breeze rustling through the trees.
Scrambling up the limestone slabs along the ridge, the fir, spruce, and Whitebark pine thin out, opening up views of the Sundance range and high peaks of Lake Louise. There are no trail markers but the blue sky and clear sight to the top let us see the way.
I’ve always said that there’s a lifetime of adventures to be had in the Canadian Rockies and the picture from the top of Sulphur Mountain only proves my point: there is nothing but a sea of rocky and snow-covered peaks as far as the eye can see.
Still, as I’ve gotten older and the family has grown, I’ve realized that I don’t always need to get out to (or have the time for) big mountain days; sometimes the most fun is found exploring places close to home—and maybe even just off the tourist path.
Pros and Cons of Hiking Sulphur Mountain
Banff: A Backyard Paradise
In between limestone outcroppings, just east of the continental divide, sits the town of Banff—which I’m going to guess you’ve heard of since it’s one of Canada’s premiere all-season outdoor destinations. This high-elevation municipality full of château-style hotels and boutiques is surrounded by mountains, including Rundle, Norquay, Cascade, and of course, Sulphur. Below is Bow Falls, a major waterfall along the Bow River. With the Canadian Rockies and Lake Louise at its doorstep, there’s plenty to do from skiing, climbing and hiking to biking and rafting. But that wasn’t always the case.
The area was first settled in the 1880s during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. In 1883, workers discovered natural hot springs on the lower slopes of one of the mountains (I’ll let you guess which one), and within a few years, the newly appointed federal reserve was being touted as an international resort and spa. Four years after that, Banff National Park was established, becoming Canada’s first and the world’s third.
Today, there are over 1,600 kilometers (1,100 miles) of maintained trails, which encompass some of the best alpine hikes in the Canadian Rockies. However, you don’t have to go big and bold to enjoy the park, a fact I’ve had the pleasure of discovering during my 20 years of guiding and climbing around Banff.
Making a homebase here
Growing up in the Rockies I spent my summers fishing and hiking with my family and skiing and snowboarding in the winters. When I was 20, I decided to take some time off from school to climb and then never went back.
Through my years as an IFMGA certified mountain guide, climbing has become less about the hard routes and first accents and more about the people I meet. In part, that’s what led me to start my own company here, Alpine Air Adventures, in order to dive more into the human connections and service side of mountain guiding. And of course, I love sharing all that Banff has to offer as well.
The Gondola is Your Gateway to a Family-Friendly Sulphur Mountain Hike
In just eight minutes, you can travel from the base of Sulphur Mountain to about 7,500 feet on the Banff-Sulphur Mountain Gondola. It is one of Banff’s most popular attractions, delivering you in a fully enclosed car to the state-of-the-art summit building. There you’ll find a 360-degree rooftop observation deck that gives you views of six mountain ranges, along with primo restaurants and cafes, including the fine dining of Sky Bistro.
Outside, the alpine boardwalk, known as the Banff Skywalk, offers an easy trip that takes you from the restaurants to Sanson’s Peak Meteorological Observatory—and back—in about a 40-minutes. For many, their visit to Sulphur Mountain ends there. It doesn’t have to.
Hiking to Sulphur Mountain: Just off the tourist trail
The push from the gondola to the summit normally takes between 3-4 hours and roughly follows the ridge crest. The hike is about 5.8 km (3.6 miles) out-and-back, with a lot of elevation gain in that span: roughly 1,068m (4,537 ft). Weather permitting, the return takes another 2-3.
One of my favorite things about this trail is that it is a beginner friendly hike and can be used as an introduction to the terrain if you plan on doing other, larger peaks. Scrambling over the siltstone rocks and passing a few exposed sections makes the climb interesting but still accessible to those with a good aerobic base.
While the craggy peak is easily seen from the observation deck, it’s rare to see other hikers on the route besides the occasional marmot, or squirrel, and if you’re lucky a bald eagle flying overhead. Popping out onto the nearly 7,500-foot summit offers a 360-view (on a clear day) of Banff National Park. If you’re lucky, you can see all six mountain ranges, with the great continental divide to the west, and a bit further on, the beginning of the Lake Louise Mountains.
A Local’s Tips for experiencing Banff
Peak hiking season
The end of May through September is the best time to hike Sulphur Mountain because the rest of the year the route and mountain is covered in snow and ice.
Where to stay
In the town of Banff there are many options for places to stay. If looking for a hote,l the best option is to look up the Banff Lodging Co which has 12 hotels throughout the town with different styles and prices. Another option is the Rim Rock Resort Hotel that sits at the base of the gondola. If you are looking for a cheaper option, there are also many international hostels throughout the town and nearby campsites, of which the most accessible to Sulphur Mountain is the Tunnel Mountain Village Campground.
Soak in your rest day
A great rest day for the entire family to enjoy are the famous Banff Upper Hot springs, the only springs still open to the public. The morning is the best time to visit to avoid the crowds at the peak of the day.
Where to get some grub
One of my favorite plans after a hike of Sulphur Mountain is to eat at Sky Bistro and Café which is located at the top of the gondola. However, if you’re looking to eat in town, I like Sushi House Banff for their sushi trains—a model Canadian Pacific train that circles the restaurant carrying sushi plates—and Park Distillery for campfire-inspired dining and glacier water spirits.
The weather in the Canadian Rockies and constantly changing and rain and storms can approach quickly so it’s always important to bring rain gear and an extra jacket with you even on a blue bird day. If you forgot anything or need to pick up some new gear while in Banff, Monod Sports is the best place to go for all your gear needs.
How to get there and around
Traveling to Banff with or without a car is easy! The town of Banff sits just an hour and 25 minutes from the Calgary Airport. If you don’t rent a car the Mountain Park Transportation Company provides a direct shuttle service from the airport to downtown Banff and once in the park public transit buses run frequently to almost any destination and are easy to use. Banff National Park is actually beginning to limit the number of private vehicles that enter the park every season so it is even easier and most cost effective to rely on the public transportation system for your stay.
Permits and passes
To get into the park you need a National Park Pass which is available on the Parks Canada website and has multiple durations for passes.
Depending on the season and how far in advance you book your trip, gondola tickets can cost from $40- $60 per person.
Banff National Park is located on the traditional territories of the Iyârhe Nakoda Nations, the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Tsuut’ina, Ktunaxa, Secwépemc, Mountain Cree, and Métis. For centuries, these tribes have lived and hunted in the Rocky Mountains and it is considered a sacred place where the natural hot springs bring healing. When European settlers arrived in the 17th century, many tribes were forced to different lands. With the construction of the railroad and establishment of national parks, an exclusionary policy of no traditional hunting was introduced. Over the past 50 years, this has been reversed and Parks Canada is working to rebuild their relationship with the Indigenous peoples of the area. It’s always important to know who’s lands we are recreating on and to not ignore the history.
An Endless Playground
Banff has offered me some of the best climbing and memories from my time in the mountains and Sulphur is still one of my favorite places to come back to for its accessibility. If you’re looking for something accessible right from town but off the beaten path, or a family-friendly day out, the Sulphur Mountain hike is a hidden gem within a park full of them.