Sulphur Mountain (Sanson Peak)

Much like Ha Ling Peak, Sulphur Mountain is a summit that had never been on our radar. Home of the Banff Gondola and crowned with a wooden boardwalk and large summit station, the touristed highpoint sees hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors a day during peak season. With an hourly capacity of 650 passengers in each direction and the gondola running upwards of fourteen hours a day during the busy summer season, there’s the potential for more than 9,000 people to be ferried to the top in a single day. Needless to say, it’s not exactly the serene experience most wilderness enthusiasts are looking for.

If you’re seeking a mountaintop experience in Banff that doesn’t involve hiking, many visitors do, in fact, rave about the Banff Gondola. There are panoramic views, an interpretive center with Sky Bistro for dining and drinks, and you can enjoy a bird’s-eye view of Banff with no effort. It’s probably a great sightseeing opportunity if that’s the experience your looking for. For us, though, from a strictly hiking perspective, there’s nothing more dissatisfying than reaching a summit only to find it crowned with some sort of manmade structure or swarming with people who have arrived via road, cog, or lift. To be honest, even stumbling upon a deserted weather station or antenna makes my heart sink. For me, nature is an escape from the manufactured world, and any vague imprint of human activity detracts from that mental release.

Like Ha Ling, though, late season conditions pushed us to consider Sulphur Mountain. As fall rapidly transitioned to winter at elevation and low season for tourists had taken hold, we knew it was probably the most reasonable time to visit. Fortuitously, as I was adding it to my list of off-season trails, I stumbled upon the most exciting nugget of information: Each November, the gondola (and summit center) closes to visitors for two weeks of maintenance. Decision made. On a gorgeous Friday in mid-November, we headed to Banff to see if this magical combination of factors would work in our favor.

We set out from the trailhead near Banff Upper Hot Springs shortly after lunchtime. There’s really not much to note about the trail here. As you’d expect, it’s aptly designed to withstand the heavy foot traffic it so regularly sees. The entire three-mile (5 km) length is a well-graded path that zig-zags its way up the east side of the mountain via a series of 27 switchbacks. The route is entirely forested from start to finish, with views limited to one peek-a-boo glimpse of Mount Rundle. Additionally, the trail winds beneath the gondola cables, so you’ve got cabins dangling overhead the entire time. While it was merely a minor distraction to me and Stephan, Sanchez was totally floored by these strange objects passing by. She’d look up curiously as one floated past, then turn to me and Stephan with befuddlement. The cars were almost as curious as the tandem skydivers hollering down to her as they made their landing in Golden last summer.

After navigating the snow-covered switchbacks, we reached the summit station, removed our spikes (please do this if you’re hiking up here in winter), and made our way further north along the boardwalk to the highpoint. Although everyone refers to it as Sulphur Mountain, the ‘summit’ here is technically Sanson Peak. Sulphur Mountain’s true summit lies further southeast across a long ridge that requires some scrambling and careful route finding to reach.

As we made our way along the wooden walkway, we were able to enjoy some pretty nice views without the boisterous, selfie-stick-swinging company of others. In total, we counted just nine other hikers during our time at the top – a number we could happily handle. Relishing the comparative quietness, we looked down onto the footprint of Banff’s quaint downtown stretching out alongside diminutive Tunnel Mountain and the Bow River. At either end of town, Cascade Mountain and massive Mount Rundle soared overhead.

Further northeast, we could make out the western shores of Lake Minnewanka with Mount Aylmer’s distinctive crest towering above all other peaks in the range. On the other side of the lake, we got great views of the snow-capped summits of Mount Inglismaldie, Mount Girouard and Mount Peechee.

To the northwest, we had a stunning look at Mount Norquay, Mount Cory, craggy Mount Edith and the peaks of the Sawback Range. Further west, Mount Bourgeau (one of Stephan’s favorites) and Pilot Mountain looked particularly striking under a fresh dusting of snow.

If the views aren’t enough, you’ll even find a bit of history up here. A long-abandoned weather station dates back to 1903, and you can still peer through the glass at the time-worn interior. In addition to the meteorological post, Sanson Peak was once home to a second, more interesting piece of history – the Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station.

The Cosmic Ray Station was built atop Sulphur Mountain in 1956, in preparation for the 1957 to 1958 International Geophysical Year (IGY). At the height of the Cold War, the IGY was an eighteen-month project between Eastern and Western countries whose scientific collaborations had been brusquely severed due to political tension. During the IGY, sixty-seven countries cooperated in nearly a dozen scientific disciplines that included meteorology, oceanography, seismology, geophysics and astronomy.

The IGY not only proved that collaborative science could triumph in a time of political strife, but also saw numerous milestones and scientific advancements, including the launch of Sputnik, the official start of the Space Age, and the creation of the World Data Center – a repository for sharing scientific findings internationally.

Sitting at an altitude of around 2300 meters (7,500 feet), Sulphur Mountain’s Cosmic Ray Station was one of 99 such monitoring stations worldwide and was instrumental in advancing our understanding of how the sun affects Earth’s environment. While the station was removed in 1981, the spot atop Sanson Peak has been recognized as a National Historic Site of Canada. In its place, a plaque now stands commemorating Canada’s scientific contributions to this revolutionary 20th century year.

Whether you’re there for the views or the history, Sulphur Mountain does deliver as a unique Banff landmark – even if it’s not the most epic or tranquil hike you’ll find in the area. In terms of it being a built-up summit, it is what it is. At least with the gondola out of service and it being a weekday, it was a reasonably quiet day – a true rarity compared to the typical chaos. If you’re looking to have the quietest experience possible at the summit, we highly recommend trying to align your hike with this magical autumn window. Under the unique set of circumstances, we were able to peacefully enjoy some surprisingly good views of the major peaks surrounding the Town of Banff… not bad for a little off-season outing.

Total distance: 7.4 miles (12 km)
Elevation gain: 2,425 feet (740 meters)

If you’re looking for even more solitude on the trail, consider hiking the Westside Trail. Clocking in at around 10 miles (16 km) and 3,100 feet of vertical (960 m), it’s got around forty percent more distance and gain than the standard route. Had I not been in the middle of nursing some wicked quadricep tendonitis, we would have preferred to explore this trail. Just remember, if you’re hiking the trail in winter, always check conditions before heading out.

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