Sulphur Mountain is one of the most well-known mountain peaks in Banff with a surprisingly few options of how to reach the summit. There are breathtaking panoramic views of the Bow Valley and many of the area's mountains peaks can be seen from up top including Tunnel Mountain, Cascade Mountain and Rundle Mountain. Visited by thousands of tourists, hikers and locals each year, there is a wide spectrum of reasons to choose from why the mountain is so popular!
Originally Sulphur Mountain was referred to as Terrace Mountain on George Dawson's 1886 map of the area. As a Canadian scientist and surveyor, the Canadian government tasked George Dawson with the responsibility of mapping out and surveying the Canadian Rockies, noting major rivers, mountain passes and of course mountain peaks between 1883 and 1884. The peak of Sulphur Mountain itself was named Sanson's Peak in 1948 after Norman Sanson, Banff's zookeeper, meteorologist and curator of Banff Park Museum. For 30 years, Norman walked up Sulphur Mountain to the meteorological observatory building to diligently check on the observatory recording equipment. Originally, Sanson was from Toronto and was the son of a clergyman. He traveled west with a group known as the Queen's Own Rifles who turns out were associated with suppressing the North West Rebellion of 1885. What a feat! As Norman settled out in Banff, he took employment as a bookkeeper and was introduced to Mr. Mecleod who was the park meteorologist and the curator of Banff Park Museum at the time. They became close friends and Norman took over Mr. Mecleod's positions both as curator and meteorologist when he passed away in 1896.
Sulphur Mountain has actually been home to 2 research facilities on top of Sanson's Peak. The first was built in 1903. This is the building that still exists today that visitors can peak through the windows and see the rustic furnishings of the observatory and historical artifacts. The second facility was built in the winter of 1956-1957. A small laboratory was built on Sanson's Peak by the National Research Council as a contribution on Canada's part to the International Geophysical Year. The facility was meant to study cosmic rays and therefore was name the Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station. The cosmic ray station was in operation until 1978. The building was not removed until 1981 and a plaque now stands to mark the location along with interpretive signs.
The name of “Sulphur Mountain” itself was adopted in 1916 because of the sulphuric hot springs found on the lower slopes. Originally, the hot springs were commercially built for the public where Banff's Cave and Basin is. Now a national historic site, the Cave and Basin is a tourist site that can be visited to see pictures of the old pool, see an endangered snail species and of course visit the originally cave of hot springs that was originally first discovered leading to the hot springs public opening. The cave does smell strongly of sulphur and is very humid and warm inside but it is a must see if you are visiting Banff.
Now the public hot springs, referred to as Banff Upper Hot Springs, is on the east of Sulphur Mountain where its parking lot is above the gondola's parking lot. It is perfect for a hot dip any time of the year, especially after a long hike!
The Banff gondola is one of popular ways of getting to the top of Sulphur Mountain for those who are willing to pay over $20 for a round trip. It is great for people of all ages and there is a gift shop and cafeteria and 2 restaurants up top, although we do not quite recommend the buffet. For all you can eat, there is not much to choose from for the hefty price you pay but that is simply our opinion! There is a boardwalk you can walk to the observatory as well. The great thing about the gondola is that if you hike up, chances are you can most likely get a free ride down, at least we have both times we have hiked up the mountain!
As we mentioned before, there are a few ways up Sulphur Mountain. The first being the gondola, the second and third is hiking up the trail under the gondola as well as hiking the back of Sulphur Mountain via the Cosmic Ray road. The last route is longer but much more scenic and well worth the exercise as the view from the top is just that much more rewarding. After starting at the Upper Banff Hot Springs parking lot and going all the way around through parts of Banff to the back of Sulphur Mountain, we treated ourselves to a nice cold beer and popsicles; the best reward of all!
There is also a scramblers' route to Sulphur's true summit on the southern slopes of the mountain but we have not had a chance to conquer that route yet!
Sulphur Mountain via Cosmic Ray Road Trip Log
If you are interested in doing just the trail itself, skip this section and jump down to the bolded trail head start.
You have a few options with this trail. It has one great advantage of offering a free ride down. As of June 2010 if you hike up you get a free ride down which your knees will thank very much. One problem that arises with this choice is that your start point is the cave and basin and your finish point is the lower terminal of the gondola which is near the hot springs. You can either park at the Cave and Basin and hike up, get a free ride down and hike/hitch hike/taxi it back... or how we did. We parked at the hot springs, hiked about 4.5km downhill, hiked the trail, enjoyed a beer and ice cream at the top, took a free ride down, and hopped into the pool for a great soak.
If you choose to take this route it offers a great workout early in the season when most peaks are still snow capped. The hike down to the cave and basin is pretty straight forward. You will basically walk back everything you drove up all the way past the T intersection at the bridge and continue on the road till you reach the Cave and Basin.
We took what we thought was a shortcut through the Cascade Gardens but looking at the GPS afterwards it did not seem to cut out much time at all. Might be quicker to just follow the road. Bright side was that the scenery was a fair bit nicer and the lush grass made for a pleasent break.
-- Official trail head start --
From the parking lot head up the path to the Cave and Basin Historical Site.
You will want to walk past the building and after a short ways you will reach the true trail head. Follow the signage for sundance canyon trail. The first 2.4 km of the trail is part of sundance canyon trail . Follow this paved trail for 2.4 km.
At the sign indicating that there is 0.8 km left to sundance canyon, an old access road that appears to head steeply up is visible on your left. Take this access road. The rest of the 5.8 km are a steady climb on the backside of sulphur mountain.
As you climb up, spectacular views open up to the west. If you're lucky you may just see marmots popping out of the rock fall. We were lucky to see a few and even see a couple of them fight!
The trail eventually turns into a single track for a short awhile before returning back to its usual wide nature. Once you reach the large, and only zig zag you are nearing the top.
The sight of the stairs leading to the old weather station at the summit of Sulpher Mountain signifies the end of your long trek.
Enjoy the panoramic views of the magnificent mountain ranges around you and the interpretive signs of the mountains important history.
Once you mosey around The wooden plateforms all the way to the summit. You will find the old Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station perched right at the top. For this reason the road you follow all the way up from Sundance Canyon is called 'Cosmic Ray road'.
From the top you can choose to hike down the same trail back, take the trail down underneath the gondola, or what we suggest is to just hop on a gondola and get a free ride down! To end off your day on a perfect note, take a dip in the Banff Hot Springs at the bottom of the gondola.
GPS Plotted Route
This is the GPS track overlay heading up Sulphur Mountain from the backside. Since we did the whole loop from the hot springs, if you are starting at the Cave and Basin the route only starts around the top center going counter clock-wise finishing on the bottom right right before the straight line which would be the gondola. Start / finish indicated by the black line.
This is the GPS graph of the elevation change for the loop. The official trail had starts around the 5km mark and finishes at the summit.
Click here to download the GPS route in GPX format. You may have to right click and select "Save Link As" if your browser does not download it automatically. Be sure to save it as a .gpx file.
What were your experiences hiking Sulphur Mountain via Cosmic Ray Road?
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