Sulphur Mountain & Sanson Peak

January 29, 2021

What better way to celebrate a friend’s birthday than to go hiking? Rosalie was turning 31, and she wanted to hike. We first went up Tunnel Mountain, which was delightful. Not wanting to drive that far for only a short hike, we used unashamed peer pressure to do another hike. Rosalie finally relented, and went across the valley to start our second hike of the day to Sulphur Mountain.

Sulphur Mountain is so named because of the two sulphur hot springs found at its base. If it were not for these hot springs, Banff would probably not exist. Sulphur Mountain is also famous for its gondola that whisks thousands of tourists to the peak of this mountain every single year. The views truly are stunning, but as one of the few touristy things to do in Banff, do not expect to be alone. The place is packed, even on a cold day in January during Covid.

This is the view of Sulphur Mountain from Tunnel Mountain across the valley.

Back in the day, if you hiked up Sulphur Mountain, you got a free ride down in the Gondola. Those days are so over. It’s now full price, even if you’re only going back down. Dogs are not allowed inside the building or on the gondola. I was there with three other friends and two dogs, so one or two of us stayed outside with the dogs. It was chilly, but we drank our hot tea outside in the wind shadow of the building.

Sanson Peak is the end tip of Sulphur Mountain that overlooks the Banff townsite. This was a meteorological observatory, and later, the Cosmic Ray Station to study cosmic rays. The peak is named after Norman Sanson, who made over 1,000 trips to the top of Sulphur Mountain.

Gear

In the summer, hiking boots, poles and your regular day pack kit will suffice.

In the winter, micro-spikes are essential. It’s a low grade, but the trail is heavily used. It was snow when I was there, but I can see the whole thing being iced up throughout the winter.

Bring food and water because the gondola is not always open, especially in winter. Or, it might be open, but too busy to get served.

Trail Etiquette

With such a heavily used trail, if everyone follows the same ‘rules’ it is not only safer, but everyone knows what to expect.

The downhill hiker has the right of way. Uphill hikers can stand aside when they see a downhill hiker coming. Downhill hikers are moving faster, and will get out of the way faster than the uphill hiker. This prevents undue log jams.

When meeting other people on the trail, please pull over to the side closest to the mountain. As we were the uphill hikers, it should have been us that moved over, but they spotted us first and hauled their big dog into the snow.

No shortcuts. Please do not be “that guy” who short-cuts down the side of the mountain. With the thousands of people on the trail annually, the amount of damage people do to this environment is stunning. If you are hiking the trail, it’s because you want some exercise. So get your full value, and walk every step. Cutting the trail destroys the vegetation, causes soil erosion, and undermines the trail system. Don’t do it.

I didn’t see anyone take a short cut while we were hiking, but I saw lots of places where people had slid down the short cuts. Popular trails take the worst beating. Please don’t add to the problem.

Overview

From either the lower gondola parking lot, or the upper hot springs parking lot, go to the trail head near the entrance to the hot springs. Hike up to the gondola platform. On the other side of the gondola building is the boardwalk to the top of Sanson Peak. Return the way you came.

Parking and Trail Head

Depending on the time of year, when you arrive, and how busy it is, you can find parking at either the lower Gondola parking lot, or the upper Hot Springs parking lot.

The trail head is located near the entrance to the Banff Hot Springs.

The upper parking lot is behind me. The Hot Springs are straight ahead. This new sign makes is really easy to find the trail head.
This is the view immediately past the giant Sulphur Mountain trail head sign.
A few feet further down the trail is the original trail head sign. There is no water on the trail. Do not rely on the gondola to get you down as it’s not always running. During Covid, you also have to prebook your gondola trip. Dogs are not welcome inside the building or the gondola.

Main Trail

This is the easiest trail description I think I have ever written. From the start of the trail head, simply hike up the mountain until you get to the top. It is a lovely trail, at a nice grade the entire way.

Other than the gondola occasionally passing overhead, there is not much excitement on this trail. Make sure you invite a good conversationalist to join you on this hike.
Under the gondola lines is one of the best places for viewing Mt. Rundle across the valley.

On the way down, we counted 29 switchbacks. We had heard the tally was 27, but we counted every major turn from the top to the bottom. Don’t let that number scare you – the more switchbacks the better, as it eases off the grade.

Gondola Building

At the top of the ridge is the new gondola building. This four story building has an open deck on the roof for viewing. As it’s Covid, most everything was shut down, but we could still get a hot drink from the cafe. We left two of our friends there to warm up, while Sonya and I took the dogs over to Sanson Peak.

In the winter, please take off your micro-spikes before you walk on the wood platform.

The hiking trail leads to this side of the gondola building. Please remove your spikes here, and do not walk on the wood with metal spikes.
We viewed Sanson Peak as we walked along the Gondola terrace.
Nice big deck at the top of the gondola.
There is an observation deck on the roof of the gondola building. Aura and Rosalie are waving down at us.

Sanson Peak

It has probably been 25 years since the last time I was here. Back then, you just hiked over to the old metrological hut. Now, there is an extensive and impressive boardwalk with interpretive signs along the way. As it was already a long day (second hike of the day, and we started late), I can’t say we poured over these signs, which is a shame because that is something I would normally do.

The start of the boardwalk to Sanson Peak. This is a wooden deck, and no spikes are needed/wanted, even in winter. As you can see, there are a LOT of interpretive signs. If you’re coming up, plan to leave some time to read all about the area.

It is an extra 1 KM to Sanson Peak on the boardwalk, and it features 367 steps!

Total distance from the trail head to Sanson Peak is 6.3 km. Elevation gain is 742 m (2,448′). Time to the top was approximately two hours.

This is the view from the top of the old observatory on Sanson Peak. This is looking west along the Bow Valley as the Trans Canada highway continues towards Lake Louise.
Straight ahead is Mount Norquay, with the ski resort on the right hand side.
On the left is Cascade Mountain with its head in the clouds. The little bump in the middle is Tunnel Mountain. Behind it is Lake Minnewanka.
A full view of Mount Rundle.
Looking back at the Gondola building.
This shows the view from the top of Sanson Peak.

Sulphur/Sanson Return

From Sandon Peak, return the way you came back to the gondola building.

On the way down, we stopped at the Red Chairs. Dogs and photo courtesy of Sonya Laing.

From here, you can either pay to go back down in the gondola, or you can hike back down.

On the way down, I couldn’t remember how many switchbacks there were, so we decided to count them Sesame Street style using the Count Dracula voice and his “Ha Ha Ha” laugh. I realize I have just seriously dated myself. As the birthday girl Rosalie is from Quebec, and her friend Aura is from Mexico, we decided to count the switchbacks in French and Spanish. Sonya and I would attempt the numbers, and Rosalie and Aura would patiently correct us at every corner. As I mentioned above, we counted 29 major turns in the trail.

Sulphur Mountain is a classic Banff hike for tourists and locals. The views from the top of the surrounding Bow Valley are stunning, and the history of Sanson Peak as a research station is well worth the time and effort to explore. If you don’t like crowds, then consider either going really early in the morning, midweek, or in the winter.

If you found this post useful, please do me a huge favour and click the Star button to “Like” it. You can also follow my blog, follow me on Instagram, or join my FaceBook page Al’s Adventurers.

Alisen

Totals – Tracked on Strava

Date: January 29, 2021
Group:  Four (Alisen, Sonya, Rosalie and Aura)
Distance: 12.32  km
Elevation:  735 m (2,425β€²)
Time:  4 hours (includes lunch, & breaks)

The trail starts at the upper parking lot near the Hot Springs, and winds its way up the side of Sulphur Mountain. Once at the top, it’s another 1 km to the Sanson Peak lookout.
Please ignore the first KM. Sonya forgot to lock the car, so she ran back at the 500 m mark. As you can see, all those switchbacks make for a pretty easy grade up and down – not too hard on the lungs on the way up, and not too hard on the knees on the way down.
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Posted in Adventures, Hiking
35 comments on “Sulphur Mountain & Sanson Peak
  1. I had wondered about doing this yesterday. We did it last May or June and the views were awesome. However, I’d read there was an avalanche risk when hiking Sulphur mountain in the winter. I’m guessing that it’s only if you take the trail that doesn’t pass under the gondola? We did Jura Creek instead πŸ™‚ Great post and info!

    • alisendopf says:

      Jura Creek is a great winter option πŸ™‚ I’ve been there in the summer as it’s the hiking route to Loder Peak. So glad you got out.

      You are absolutely correct to always be checking for avalanche danger. With this trail being SO busy all year round, I would think Parks would close it if it was in danger of sliding. That being said, the slope is 100% treed, which makes me think it hasn’t slid in over 100 years.

      There is indeed a slide path beside the trail (over by the waterfall), but you would really have to go out of your way to hit that.

      It was a lovely day in Banff. I would recommend in the winter as the crowds were less.

      Take care Ann!
      Alisen

  2. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

  3. K. Joseph says:

    it sounds like a really nice hike. Enjoyed the pictures. Great view from the top.

    • alisendopf says:

      Thank you! If you ever get a chance to visit Banff, this mountain will be patiently waiting for you. It towers over the townsite, and is in just about every photograph. So glad you enjoyed the virtual trip.

      • K. Joseph says:

        I have been to Banff – under very different circumstances – in an ambulance on the last day of a six day bike ride in 2017! Would love to come back and explore that part of the world again.

      • alisendopf says:

        After reading that comment, I whisked over to your blog to find out what happened. Yikes! I’ve done that before, but never with such tragic consequences. Did you go over your handlebars?

      • K. Joseph says:

        It was all a blur! I think I went over. Conked out for a short while. Helmet cracked. (I still have it!) Broke a bunch of stuff!

      • alisendopf says:

        Broken helmet – is that why your blog is called Splattered Brains??? πŸ™‚

      • K. Joseph says:

        😊 No, but I could have been prescient when I created the blog in 2015! Actually, just after the accident, a couple of my co-riders apparently thought the same thing you did. I was told that they got upset about it.

  4. Abirbhav says:

    Sulphur Springs gave some indication that this place would see some action from the geological point of view.. Banff is truly a place of not only great natural beauty, but also one of intense geological activity. And I am all in for geology..!!
    The Sulphur springs you mentioned are simply hot springs or full blown geysers? Was missing the photographs of those sulphur springs from this yet another adrenaline pumping trail of yours.. πŸ˜€ πŸ˜€
    You are truly amazing, Madam..!! Love your adventures. Hope to follow those one day, soon..!!
    Take Care and be blessed.. πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

    • alisendopf says:

      Thank you for your interest!

      They are just springs, not geysers. The most famous geyser is Old Faithful in Yellowstone Nat Park in the USA. I included a link to the “Cave and Basin” in the article. This tells the story of how the hot spring was ‘discovered’ by CPR railway workers. The federal government soon stepped in, and created our first national park – Banff.

      We have surprisingly few hot springs compared to other areas. The neighbouring province of British Columbia has more hot springs. Lucky them – they have it all over there πŸ™‚

      • Abirbhav says:

        Well, don’t thank me.. I am always interested in your travel stories.. ☺️☺️
        Noted your points.. I like hot springs and it’s interesting to find several of them, as you pointed out, in Canadian Rockies. But I like Geysers more.
        There is one geyser in India as well. I will share the link with you, with the hope that you find it decent. India doesn’t have too many geysers like the ones in US Rockies or countries elsewhere (just 2 I can think of, both in the Himalayas)
        Good for people in BC though, they will get a supply of hot water during winters.. πŸ˜‰

      • alisendopf says:

        Geysers are pretty interesting! I’d be interested in the Himalayan geysers.

      • Abirbhav says:

        I have written about one I visited.. I shared the link in one of the comments to this very post.. Hope you find it interesting.. ☺️☺️

  5. Alicia says:

    I have hiked Sulphur Mountain in the summer and it was a blast! Never done it in the winter time before. Curious to try it out now from your post!

    • alisendopf says:

      I agree – I think it is a favourite summer destination, but for a low risk winter hike, I really enjoyed it. Please let me know if you try it in the winter. I LOVED that I could get a hot drink at the top. So rare in Canada.

      Someone on my facebook page suggested going up the main route, then heading back down on the other side. You end up at the Cave and Basin, so it would be a hot spring to hot spring traverse πŸ™‚ The backside is closed right now, and you’d need two cars, but I think it would be a worthy trip.

  6. Very nice post Alisen!

    Looks like you had a good time in a not that difficult hike in the snow.
    Nice to see the photo of the Red Chairs and the dog! πŸ™‚

  7. Agreed, what better way to celebrate a birthday than by going on a hike (especially these days). I’ve hiked up Sulphur Mountain in the summer and was huffin’ and a puffin’ for a good portion of it. I can’t imagine how much more challenging it would be in the winter with all the snow and ice and extra layers. The views at the top are breathtaking.

    • alisendopf says:

      I think you must have hit most of the Banff / Lake Louise highlights on your trips out west. Good for you! You’re only huffing and puffing because you are used to living a sea level πŸ™‚

      We got lucky on our trip – no ice, and not much fresh snow. I really do despite a slog through deep snow.

      • I’ve been to Banff three times now and still feel like there are more areas and hikes to explore. I’m trying to convince my husband to move out west for the summer since we’ll likely still be working from home.

      • alisendopf says:

        Ooohhhh!!! That’s a great idea! So many great places to live too. Canmore is expensive, but you can rent at Exshaw and Cochrane. Both are accessible. There is also Golden that puts you close to the National Parks and the Columbia Valley. There is SO much to explore in Kananaskis Country too. Do let me know if you can convince him πŸ™‚

      • There are so many options! And yes, will keep you posted. It would be such a shame not to take advantage of being able to work remotely.

  8. moragnoffke says:

    I enjoy following along for the virtual tour, love the photos. πŸ‘πŸ‘‹πŸ§‘

  9. denise421win says:

    Such a great way to celebrate and beautiful photos,,, with breathtaking views

  10. Hi Alisen,
    Nice to meet you. Beautiful site and pictures.
    Makes me glad I visited Banff years ago before covid and crowd. Truly a gem.
    Thanks for the kind follow. I am now following you as well!
    πŸ™ Cindy

    • alisendopf says:

      Hi Cindy, Glad to hear you enjoyed Banff. It’s so beautiful here, even with crowds I can’t help loving it. I think the energy agrees with me πŸ™‚

      Thank you for the follow as well.
      Have a wonderful weekend!!!
      Alisen

  11. Your friend must be so happy 😊. Imagine going trekking on birthday. I will do that one day with my family.
    I read with great respect how you not only trekked but are concerned about environment, etiquette and lots more as you trek.
    My compliments and respect.

    • alisendopf says:

      Yes, Rosalie was very happy! She’s a sweet person and I was happy to do this for her.

      I don’t normally go into trail etiquette, but this trail is very busy as it’s in the heart of Banff. Every little bit of education for locals and tourists alike is needed.
      Enjoy!

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