Summiting Sulphur Mountain and Relaxing in Banff Upper Hot Springs


There are two ways to reach the top of Sulphur Mountain in Banff National Park: hike 3.4 miles uphill navigating your way up a dirt trail studded with roots and rocks, or ride the Banff Gondola.

Neither Luke nor I had ever climbed a mountain before.  He’s considerably less ambitious than I am when it comes to physical activity, but I somehow convinced him to hike up Sulphur Mountain.  I think his decision to do this was based mostly on the fact that A) I’ve always wanted to climb a mountain and doing it would make me happy and B) hiking meant he wouldn’t have to ride the gondola.  (Spoiler Alert:  He ended up riding the gondola anyway!)

Since dogs weren’t allowed in the summit buildings, on the gondola, or at the hot springs, we decided to take Patronus to a daycare place where he could play with other dogs for a few hours.

We arrived and parked at the Sulphur Mountain and Banff Upper Hot Springs area just after 10: 45 A.M. and began what would be our first ever mountain hike.  “Enjoy your workout!” the parking lot attendant said cheerfully.  He was polite, but the word workout felt a bit ominous.

The trailhead was located in the corner of the upper parking lot.  It didn’t waste any time ascending up the mountain.  Basically, the entire hike was completely uphill.

Having come from an area with low elevation and virtually no hills, the trek up the mountain wasn’t an easy one.  Since we were total noobs when it comes to climbing mountains, we were ok with stopping a few times for some water and to catch our breath.

The higher we climbed, the better the views got.  Beyond the pines we could see mountain tops, occasional views of the gondola, and look down upon the valleys below.  While the sun kept us warm, the air became crisper and more heavily scented of pine as we climbed to the top.

As we continued our ascent, Luke started getting tired and grouchy.  I tried to be encouraging and cheer him up by mentioning that there would be snacks at the top of the mountain, but he responded by saying that there were also snacks at the bottom of the mountain that he could have been eating without having to do the work of hiking uphill for 3.4 miles.  Rather than stay and listen to him complain, he told me to go on ahead of him and wait for him at the top.

I was a bit reluctant to listen to him, but I also really had to go to the bathroom and couldn’t find a convenient place to do so off of the trail, so I agreed and trudged on through.  At one point, I considered taking a detour off one of the switchbacks, but then I remembered that all of the toilet paper was in Luke’s pack.  Oops!  I had to wait until I reached the top.

The Banff Gondola over Sulphur Mountain.

I met several other hikers while on the trail, many of which were from Calgary, but some of which were other out-of-towners who had come to explore Banff.  For some reason I had this idea in my head that most of the people would be judging me for stopping to catch my breath and climbing at a slower pace than many of them, but the opposite proved to be true.  Many of the other hikers proved to be encouraging, friendly, and knowledgeable!

I officially reached the summit of Sulphur Mountain at 1:11 P.M. with Luke not too far behind me.  Although the hike itself had proved to be quite a challenge for me, the feeling of reaching the top and looking down upon all of the distant mountains, forests, and buildings below was incredibly rewarding and something I have always wanted to experience.

As I stepped off of the trail and onto the first viewing platform, the first thing somebody said to me was, “Did you seriously just walk all the way up here?!”  I suddenly felt self conscious, like people thought I was crazy, so I just responded by saying, “Yeah, it makes the snacks taste even better!” and walked away.  Yay for social awkwardness!

View of the mountains and fire tower.

At the summit of Sulphur Mountain there are various lookout points as well as a building with educational programs, restrooms, a gift shop, and restaurants with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the mountainous landscape below.  You can also hike a little bit further to a historic lookout tower further across the mountain.

While we did not see (or get eaten by) any grizzlies, we did manage to see a couple of mountain goats.

Mountain goats on Sulphur Mountain.

When he made it to the top, I greeted Luke with a bottle of ice cold water and we decided to enjoy a delicious lunch of prime rib (for him) and curry (for me) before taking some time to enjoy the summit.

View from the top of the summit building.

One thing many people don’t know about Luke is that he is not a fan of heights.  While he thought the views from the top of the mountain were pretty cool, he wasn’t all too excited to ride the gondola back down.  Luckily (for me) he was too tired to hike the 3.4 miles down to our car, so the gondola it was!

Hike Details:

Trail Distance:  5.6 Kilometers (One Way)
Difficulty:  Moderate (Uphill w/ Switchbacks)
Highlights:  Mountain Views, Summit Buildings, Gondola Ride
Map:  All Trails

When we made it back down to solid ground there was just enough time left to soak in the hot springs for a bit before picking Patronus up from daycare.

The hot springs felt like swimming in a pool-sized hot tub surrounded by mountains, and the water had a slight smell of sulphur and minerals.  The hot water felt amazing on our tired muscles after the day’s hike, and we totally wished we would have more time to stay longer!  (I would have also loved to have taken a photo, but the signage said that it was prohibited inside the swimming area.)

Patronus was very happy to see us when we came to pick him up, but he seemed like he enjoyed having some time to play with a bunch of other dogs.  From that point on, he was all about playing with the other dogs who were also there to explore Banff!

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