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Standing High Above Banff On Top Of Sulphur Mountain

It’s often hard to get a real sense of scale in the valley between high mountain peaks. While still breathtakingly beautiful and outrageously tall, you only see the immediate mountains around you. Scale the top of a mountain peak and you’ll see a completely different world–one that is awesome in the true sense of the word and one that you’ll have to be careful doesn’t knock you off your feet. After all, it is a very long way down!

The View From Sanson's Peak

The ‘view from the top’ from Sanson’s Peak on Sulphur Mountain.

The first chance I had to scale a mountain on my 10-day trip into the Rockies was in Banff. This ski resort town nestled in Banff National Park had many mountains just begging to be climbed and one very easy way up them (provided you’re happy to wait in line)–the Banff Gondola ‘Mountaintop Experience.’

At the Bottom, Looking Up
At the Top, Looking Down

I say it’s an easy way up but certain members of my family didn’t agree. The gondola climbs steeply up the side of Sulphur Mountain and it’s often a very, very long way down to solid ground. Add to that the fact that there were 2 people in the gondola car that wanted to capture the sweeping views on both sides–meaning we kept lurching from side to side–and it made for a very wobbly ride up.

Looking Back

Looking towards Banff from partway up the gondola.

Nearly There

The view between the mountains as we near the top.

As soon as we reached the top (at a height of 2,281m) and everyone had opened their eyes again, we all agreed that the ride up was completely worth it. Each side of the gondola station presented us with a unique, seemingly never-ending mountain panorama. The clear air even had a hint of pine to it, which wasn’t surprising, given the treeline came very close to the ridge we were standing on.

Banff From Above

Looking above the treeline at Banff below.

There are a few activity choices once you arrive at the top of the mountain (aside from just gawking at the amazing views). It may be tempting to kick back in the restaurant, which has wrap-around windows that will let you look outside while still being sheltered from the elements (convenient in winter), but I highly recommend first walking the Banff Skywalk.

Banff Skywalk

Looking down the boardwalk from the Sanson’s Peak side back towards the gondola station.

This “interpretive boardwalk” (essentially, a wooden boardwalk with plenty of signs to describe the local wildlife you may see and what you’re seeing in the valley below), spans 1km along the ridge to Sanson’s Peak, which is actually a second peak of Sulphur Mountain. The walk drops down into the trees before climbing along the rocky western face of the ridge.

The 'Cosmic Ray Station'
Between the Trees

At Sanson’s Peak, we found out that the peak is named after one of the area’s original meterologists, Norman Sanson. Sanson was apparently an interesting character who lived in tweed coats–not the most versatile hiking gear–yet he made over 1000 trips up the 6km trail to the summit to read his instruments and work out the most up-to-date weather conditions. While the observatory straddling the peak (also called a “Cosmic Ray Station” due to its significance in observing cosmic rays in the 1950s) is no longer in use, it still stands as a moment to Sanson’s dedication to and love for Banff.

Chipmunk!

One of many chipmunks running around the mountain.

All along the boardwalk, we could see chipmunks scuttling along the rocks, frenetically picking up objects, gnawing on them, and then running on to the next thing that caught their eye. Apparently bighorn sheep and marmots are common sightings as well, but we weren’t lucky enough to see any (although we did see quite a few bighorn sheep in the middle of the highway the next day!). After living in Australia for 6 years, I was pretty excited just to see the chipmunks!

Rocky Mountain High

Tourists wander the boardwalk at the top of Sulphur Mountain.

We’d worked up quite an appetite by the time we got back to the gondola station. Since we knew that the crowds at the cafe at the base were massive (and that the view from the top would be much better anyway!) we chose to eat at the aforementioned cafe with wraparound windows. There was also a restaurant available, but the cafe was pricey enough!

The Cafe

The wide windows of the cafe.

I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical as to the value of the gondola–after all, $35.95 a person is quite a lot for a trip you could do on foot for free–but in the end, it was absolutely worth that price. I was able to satisfy my need to go hiking in the mountains (even if there were many more people around than I’m used to on the track), and my family was able to have the mountaintop experience on a perfect day without the exertion of hiking a track that increases over 700m in elevation.

Oh Canada!

Yeah, I’d be staking claim to this land too if I could.

The Banff Gondola ‘Mountaintop Experience’ runs year-round with brief winter breaks for maintenance. It is open daily and the hours range from 8am-9pm in the summer to 10am-5pm in midwinter. Tickets can be bought individually for $35.95 ($17.95/child) or can be purchased in tandem with other ‘Explore Rockies’ activities (including the Lake Minnewanka Cruise, the Glacier Explorers trip onto the Athabasca Glacier, and the newly-opened Glacier Skywalk platform on the Icefields Parkway).  Hikers that climb the mountain can buy a one-way pass downhill for $17.95 ($8.95/child).

 

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