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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
From Sandon Peak, return the way you came back to the gondola building.
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.
Totals – Tracked on Strava
Date: January 29, 2021
Group: Four (Alisen, Sonya, Rosalie and Aura)
Distance: 12.32 km
Elevation: 735 m (2,425′)
Time: 4 hours (includes lunch, & breaks)