In the town of Banff, Alberta’s natural beauty queen of a mountain resort, there is a sleek and modern Gondola that carries visitors smoothly up the side of Sulphur Mountain. The gondola ride only takes a few minutes, as the suspended car glides up the side of the steep rocky peak to the summit. Sitting inside the metal and glass bubble, tourists can relax and ascend to the summit with ease – snapping photos of the panoramic view through the glass.
But we were having none of that.
The Hard Way
When Lee and I, both cheapskate backpackers, heard that we could catch a free ride down the gondola if we hiked our way up – we jumped at the opportunity to save a few bucks. Some might say that the $35.95 charge is worth the ride, but our thriftiness meant that we experienced a refreshing and exhilarating climb.
Lee and I are not athletes or seasoned mountain hikers, but with our moderate level of fitness we were able to make our way to the summit in just under two hours. The trail is mostly switchbacks, which means that you won’t have to climb straight up a steep trail, but you will end up covering a lot more ground as you go back and forth. Just as we started to feel the burn in our legs after the first burst of climbing, we saw a jogger running back down the mountain with weights attached to his arms and legs – making our efforts look puny in comparison.
The Banff Sulphur Mountain trail is well maintained and as it zig-zags back and forth through the pine forest, the views that you can spy through the trees get increasingly impressive. The trail follows underneath the path of the gondola most of the way up, so we had a lot of fun waving at the people in the cars.
Gear up for the chill!
We knew we were nearing the summit when we started to see snow around the edges of the path. Even on a warm early autumn day in September, once you get high in the mountains you will start to feel the chill – so make sure that you wear multiple layers of clothing so that you can bundle up. Also, a hat to protect your ears from the cold wind at the summit is not a bad idea either.
The summit and its breathtaking views
When you reach the top of Sulphur Mountain, you have the option of exploring the 1km side trip along the easy and flat boardwalk trail, which will take you from the Observation Deck to the Sanson Peak Weather Observatory and the Cosmic Ray Station. This is where you will see some of the most incredible humbling Rocky Mountain vistas. Jagged grey peaks, so tall that clouds float around their tops, surround a green valley be-speckled with pale blue lakes. The town of Banff is dwarfed by its larger-than-life surroundings, a small cluster of buildings nestled at the foot of great stone giants.
Gliding down in Gondola
When we made our way down the sulphur mountain summit, we found out that the rumour was true – our ride down was free once we explained that we had hiked up. However, we visited during the autumn and this might not be true in the summer, so make sure that you call in advance to check. The gondola effortlessly glided us down the mountain, taking 8 minutes to cover the same distance that had taken us two hours. However, despite my aching legs I was happy we had made the climb – the views are always much sweeter when you know you have earned them.