Rockies ::  Banff-Louise :: Sulphur Mountain

 

Classic view of Banff and Bow Valley from Sanson Peak -- highest point of Sulphur Mountain

View from Sulphur mountain rising above Banff Townsite is visual synonym with Banff NP.  Cave and Basin National Historic Site at its base is the birthplace of Canada National Parks.  Today Brewster operated gondola deposits thousands of tourists each summer to the summit, effortlessly granting one of most expansive views in the Canadian Rockies.  Hiking is still pleasant option during scheduled gondola maintenance times when you have to work for the views and often can have them to yourself.  Popular trail switchbacks under the gondola line;  more mellow (and far more scenic!)  option is from the back utilizing old Sulphur Mtn. Service road.  With 2 cars both can be combined for very satisfactory loop trip.  Most choose to take (free) ride down.   Regardless of the way up, visit to Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray station perched on top of Sanson Peak and accessed via easy boardwalk from upper gondola terminal is a must. 

 
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Gondola Trail  (TBA)

TBA

TBA

Cosmic Ray

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Cosmic Ray

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Abstract

Overall Difficulty D3 Moderately steep ascent via old service road.  Hike is without difficulties, but overall distance and elevation gain guarantee a fair amount of workout.
Snow Factor S2 Forested westerly aspect does not pose significant avalanche danger.  Frequented by local skiers in winter months. 
Scenery Spectacular summit views of Banff townsite and many well-known surrounding peaks.  Sunny westerly slopes with great views of Sundance range.
Trail/Marking Excellent Paved wide trail to Sundance Canyon followed by old service road, occasionally narrowing to trail. All junctions are marked
Suggested Time 5-6 hrs If returning the same way.  Ascent usually takes ~3 hrs (more in winter);  descent is twice as fast
Elevation

Start: 1400m (Cave and Basin)         Max: 2300m  Total: ~920m

Round Trip: 19km   (descent same way, on foot)
Gear Light hikers sufficient when dry.  Snowshoes often not required in winter.
Water Dry ascent so carry all the water - 2L recommended.   You can refill in gondola terminal on top (when open).
Dog Friendly Yes Dogs not allowed in gondola if you are planning to ride down
 

Gallery

View back in lower part as road crosses old burn area Zoom view of Mt. Edith (R) and Mt. Cory (L) Typical section halfway up; travel is open with great views Wide switchback about 30 minutes from the top
Boardwalk below Sanson Peak Cosmic Ray Station Peek inside Cosmic Ray Banff and Bow Valley
Cascade Mountain lit by last rays of the setting Sun Zoom to Lake Minnewanka;  Mt. Aylmer (3162 m) above Upper Gondola Terminal Burning sunset skies above Sundance Range
Mt. Edith and Mt. Louis (center) Descent into the Sunset    

Summary

"Cosmic Ray" is fancy name for old Sulphur Mountain service road that runs along its backside.  It got its name due to high-altitude geophysical laboratory built on Sanson peak and later utilized as Weather observatory.  This road is well seen as one drives east towards Banff past Sunshine ski-area junction.  Access is via Sundance canyon trail starting from Cave and Basin National Park Headquarters.   Its main advantage are open and sunny west slopes that are more scenic than more frequently used front side.  Hike is easy, but total elevation gain of over 900m requires certain level of stamina.  It is better to utilize Cosmic Ray for descent, if doing the loop.  In that case be aware that distance from Cave and Basin parking and Lower Gondola terminal is over 4km and will have to be walked if you have only 1 vehicle.

 

From Cave and Basin parking lot walk through the complex (swarming with tourists in summer months) and find Sundance Canyon trailhead at opposite end.  ((Lower boardwalk is popular bird-watching marsh walk, and well-worth if you have time).  Follow wide paved path enjoying open views across Bow Valley towards Mt. Norquay along the way.  After ~25 minutes you come to marked 4-way junction.  Sundance Canyon continues straight; turn left onto Sulphur Mountain road that starts ascent immediately.   After couple of switchbacks you cross old burn area and settle for long diagonal ascent.  Views here back towards Mt. Edith, Mt. Cory, Mt. Bourgeau and Pilot Mountain are well worth a break.   There is possibility of some deadfall higher up, but it presents difficulty only for descending skiers.  After about an hour of walking road finally switchbacks left, then in 10 minutes right and soon reaches the upper boardwalk.  Welcome back to civilization.

 

Turn left and ascent the stairs to top of Sanson Peak; this area is extremely busy during full tourist season, but in winter --depending on your timing-- you can have it to yourself.  Finally reach the Cosmic Ray station.  Structure is not in use anymore and is now recognized as National Historic site.   Views are fantastic, specially during the sunset -- see the gallery above.  Upper Gondola terminal is 10 minute walk east, and if open can offer (pricey) refreshments and food --- did you bring any money?   Finally either return the same way (twice as fast), or ride the gondola down.  Hike down Gondola trail is steep and recommended only for ascent.