Banff Gondola is one of the best-known attractions in Banff National Park. An experience accessible to everyone, the gondola is much more than just a fun ride. In addition to great views from the top of Sulfur mountain, here you’ll find four floors of facilities and a unique one-mile long boardwalk. Although I am not usually a fan of “touristy” attractions, this one was worth the money. However, keep in mind that timing is key. Show up at the wrong time and your experience will be both very crowded and more expensive. In this guide will review all the most valuable travel tips for the Banff Gondola.
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A Brief History of Sulfur Mountain
Today’s massive Sulfur mountain was once the floor of an ancient sea, but seventy-five million years ago things began to change. The tectonic plates under the sea collided, eventually creating mountains and valleys around Banff National Park. And of course, the change didn’t stop there. Earth is constantly evolving – plates continue to collide and to diverge.
Also See: Banff National Park Guide and Map.
The Sulfur mountain’s name originates from the hot springs at its base. Before the 1800s, this was Native American land. At the time, the first nations used the springs for both recreation and spiritual rituals. In 1883, Canadian Pacific Railway workers discovered the hot springs. Prompted by this discovery, Canada established the first national park in its history – Banff National Park. The tiny reserve area was centered around the hot springs and gradually expanded out.
In 1901, Canada’s Department of the Interior began to build an observatory on Sulphur Mountain. The 7.9-meter building was completed two years later and Norman Sanson was appointed the weather observer. Mr. Sanson kept a close eye on the weather changes in Banff, but eventually, the observatory grew obsolete and closed. Named in his honor, the former home of the observatory is today known as Sanson Peak. During your visit to Banff Gondola, you can walk to the peak from the observation deck via the mile-long boardwalk.
Banff Gondola Parking
There are two ways to get to the Banff Gondola. The first is to take a shuttle from downtown, the second is to drive yourself. The gondola is located only a few minutes outside of Banff, so it’s a quick ride. However, the gondola is very busy midday. The parking lot is not just full – the roads practically shut down. The best time to visit Banff Gondola is after five pm. In the late afternoon, you’ll find plenty of parking and no lines for tickets. In addition, if you are lucky, you will discover a special event in the evening. For instance, I visited during the Sunset Festival. This event is scheduled to run every day after 6 pm until September 2nd, 2019.
Banff Gondola Shuttle
Alternatively, instead of driving yourself, take the free shuttle from downtown Banff to the gondola. Keep in mind that the shuttle doesn’t run after 5 pm in the summer. However, in the evening you can take the inexpensive public Roam bus right to the foot of the mountain.
How much Does the Banff Gondola Cost?
It ain’t cheap. In fact, while working on my master article on Banff National Park, a few reviewers pointed out to me they were a little shocked by the price of the gondola. Regular admission (daytime) is $70 CAD per adult, $35 CAD for kids 6 to 15. Evening admission (after 5) is $55 CAD per adult, $28 CAD for 6 to 15.
The ultimate explorer pass might be a good deal – in addition to the gondola, it includes the Columbia Icefields, the Skywalk, and Lake Minnewanka cruise, all for $208 per CAD per adult. The Ultimate Explorer pass is only good for after five pm for the gondola. You can buy the pass at the gondola or at the other featured attractions.
Can You Hike to the Top of Sulphur Mountain?
Yeap, you most certainly can. I didn’t – but you can ;). I didn’t hike because I had too much equipment to carry with me. However, the hike is a reasonable 5.5 km from the parking lot and you are gaining a lot in elevation. Although most websites say it’s about 2 hours, after talking to other hikers it seems that it’s closer to 2.5 hours. In addition, you can also hike up and take the gondola down or vice versa. You can buy a pass at the top of the mountain – but keep in mind that the cost is the same as taking the gondola both ways.
Sulphur Mountain Interpretive Center
One of the things that make the Banff Gondola experience so different from others is the rich facilities you’ll find at the top. The Banff Gondola Museum/Interpretive center is one such experience. Although technically designed for kids, as an adult I found it fascinating. The exhibits review and explain the history of the mountain, nature and future challenges for Banff National Park. The center takes up an entire floor, so there is a lot of ground to cover here.
In addition, your tickets include admission to the Above the Banff Theater IMAX experience. You’ll find the theater next to the interpretive center.
Banff Gondola Restaurants
In addition to the interpretive center, at the top of the Banff Gondola, you’ll also find 2 restaurants, a coffee shop, and an occasional rooftop barbecue.
Although many similar gondola centers only offer cafeteria-style food, at the pricy Sky Bistro you’ll find high-quality cuisine with a view. If you are going to dine here, a packaged deal makes sense. The lunch or dinner package includes Banff Gondola tickets, an appetizer, and entre and the gratuities. Keep in mind that sometimes the restaurant closes for weddings and other functions. Book this experience at least a week in advance (they recommend 30 days). The cost is around $220 CAD for dinner for 2 people.
Northern Lights Cafe
Alternatively, check out the Northern Lights Cafe. This high-end cafeteria-style dining option is less expensive but also well-reviewed. The package cost is around $150 CAD for 2 people. This cost also includes the gondola ride. You can only book a reservation for dinner, but you can walk in and enjoy lunch at other hours. The dinner package is a bargain since the gondola tickets alone for 2 people would run you $110 CAD.
Castle Mountain Co
A third restaurant at the Banff Gondola is the Castle Mountain Coffee Co. This one is open from 8 am to 8 pm, so if you are coming early in the morning to beat the crowds, this is a good spot for breakfast.
Special Events Barbecue
In addition to the other options, during special events such as the Sunset Festival, you’ll find an open rooftop bar and barbecue. I really enjoyed a good burger and wine as I watched the sunset over Sulphur mountain. For days and times of the events check the Banff Gondola website.
The Sanson Peak Boardwalk
It takes only half an hour to walk over from the Banff Gondola center to Sanson peak. This pleasant, mostly flat with some stairs walk is accessible for many people, including children. I did this first during the evening and later as the sun set. It was perhaps my favorite experience in Banff Gondola. The boardwalk was mostly empty. Along the way, you’ll encounter interpretive signs that explain the history of Banff National Park and Sulphur Mountain.
Banff Gondola Ride Packing List
The air up here is a good ten to twenty Fahrenheit colder than in the parking lot, so be sure to pack properly. This is especially important if you want to enjoy outdoor activities such as the Sunset Festival. I saw a lot of people freezing while listening to music. Here is my recommended packing list.
- A light jacket
- Fleece Sweatshirt
- Water-Resistant Base Layers
- Water Bottle (you’ll find several water stations in the Gondola)
- Water-resistant hiking sneakers
Banff Gondola is a great activity worth doing during a trip to Banff National Park. However, a bit of smart planning means you’ll encounter fewer lines and spend less on the experience.
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