The Sulphur Summit

Banff Gondola

Norman Bethune Sanson has likely summited Sulphur Mountain more times than anyone else. The former curator of the Banff Park Museum first climbed the peak in 1896 to record weather observations from an elevated position. He subsequently trekked to the summit more than one thousand times over the next thirty years to record weather data for his job as the federal government’s official weather observer. If not for the sulphur-rich thermal springs (which are the basis for the entire national parks system in Canada) located near its base the whole mountain would likely be named in his honour. Instead the northern end of Sulphur Mountain carries the name Sanson Peak in recognition of the man who spent more time than most perched high above the town of Banff. Today you can walk in Sanson’s footsteps and follow the Sulphur Mountain Trail (six-kilometres one-way and 750m gained in elevation) that switchbacks its way to the summit or you can opt to ride the Banff Gondola, which is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the park.

Banff Gondola
The Banff Gondola on Sulphur Mountain. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon

In just eight minutes you can travel from parking lot to mountain top inside a fully-enclosed gondola cabin. The original gondola was opened to the public in 1959, making it the first bi-cable gondola in North America and the first gondola of any kind in Canada. Over the ensuing years the gondola and summit complex have gone through various reconstruction and rejuvenation projects in order to keep up with demand, offer world-class visitor experiences, and to maintain minimal impact on fragile alpine environments and wildlife. After easily accessing the summit you’ll be awarded with breathtaking views of six different mountain ranges and experience an entirely new perspective on the town of Banff. The summit facility also features restaurants, interactive exhibits in the Above Banff Interpretive Centre, a multi-sensory theatre, and a 360-degree rooftop observation deck, so there’s more than enough to keep everyone entertained.

Banff Gondola
A solo Larch Tree overlooking the town of Banff far below the Summit Complex. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon

From the summit complex there are a couple of trails waiting for you to explore. The most popular is the one-kilometre Mountaintop Boardwalk, which is a self-guided interpretive trail that leads to the Sulphur Mountain Weather Observatory. The historic stone structure was built back in 1903 and was in operation until the mid-1930s. The observatory is still perched atop Sanson Peak allowing visitors to peek through the windows and catch a glimpse of a time gone by. The more ambitious will likely tackle the South East Ridge Trail that runs south past the complex and eventually leads to Sulphur Mountain’s true summit.

Banff Gondola
In honour of Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations these Canada 150 signs were erected across the country, including the Sulphur Mountain Summit Complex. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon
Banff Gondola
You will also find two sets of Parks Canada Red Chairs on top of Sulphur Mountain. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon
In the mid-1950s Sanson Peak was chosen as the site for a Cosmic Ray Station that was built in conjunction with the International Geophysical Year (1957-1958). The Cosmic Ray Station, one of nine that were constructed across Canada, was built by the National Research Council and was completed in 1956. Due to its high elevation Sulphur Mountain was considered the most important station in Canada. In 1960 the University of Alberta at Calgary took over the station and it closed for good in 1978. The station was completely dismantled in 1981 and a plaque now marks the site’s location. Today the spot where the cosmic ray station once stood is now a National Historic Site of Canada.
Banff Gondola
The historic stone weather observatory has been standing in this spot for over 100 years! Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon
Sulphur Mountain is a prominent feature on the landscape and has been a stunning backdrop for countless photographs taken from downtown Banff. Experience this mountain in a new way aboard the Banff Gondola and heighten your senses as you gaze in wonder at the scenery as it unfolds around you.
Banff Gondola
The Summit Complex as viewed from the weather observatory. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon
To learn more about the Banff Gondola or any of the other Rockies Attractions please visit the Brewster Travel Canada website or you can purchase the Ultimate Explorer Pass that provides admission to four of Brewster’s top attractions. You can also connect with Brewster on social media (FacebookTwitterInstagramYouTubePinterest, and Vimeo) and don’t forget to share all your gondola photos using the hashtag #BanffGondola. To learn about the other destinations on the Ultimate Explorer Pass please read my stories on the Minnewanka Lake Cruise and the Glacier Adventure and Glacier Skywalk.
*featured image (top) is Sanson Peak with the weather observatory on top as viewed from the Summit Complex. Photo Credit: Tyler Dixon
Tyler Dixon
About Tyler Dixon 163 Articles
Tyler is originally from Saskatchewan, and yes he cheers for the Roughriders, but don’t hold that against him as Calgary has been his home for the past eight years. He is a teacher working at a wilderness- based treatment program for youth working to overcome addiction. Tyler is also a volunteer with the GOT Parks initiative, which aims at reconnecting Canada’s youth with our national, provincial, and territorial parks. During his time away from work, Tyler enjoys outdoor activities, such as hiking, biking, and snowboarding, team sports, travelling, photography, spending time with good friends, and being at home with his wife and German Shepherd, Rome.