Sulphur Mountain -- Banff. Trail details: Take Banff Ave through town to Mountain Ave. Park in the Hot Springs parking lot, trailhead is NW part of parking lot.
If you've been to Banff, Alberta -- heck, if you've seen a photo of Banff, Alberta -- you've probably seen a photo of Sulphur Mountain. While not as photogenic as my personal favorite, Mount Rundle, Sulphur Mountain is where all the action is -- the Banff Springs Hotel, the Hot Springs, the Sulphur Mountain Gondola. The Cave and Basin is located on the west side of the mountain -- a historic spot for the National Park system of Canada.
Dave and I had to hike it. What better way to spend a 6 year wedding anniversary?
Sulphur Mountain intimidated us for a long time. It is a long way up from the parking lot, and when thousands of people a year will fork over about $16 a pop to take the gondola up instead of hiking, it makes you wonder if they know something we don't.
One thing I didn't know was that the old ski lift machinery still stands on the mountain. As we encountered what I thought was a fire break, we instead saw relics from a bygone era...(look for the wires among the tree... can you imagine riding a chairlift up this narrow channel?)
Only a few steps later, we hiked under the gondola lift. The trail is largely switchbacks up the east side of the mountain, and crosses under the gondola run many times:
I call this my tourism shot... the gondola backed by Mt. Rundle:
Looking down the Mount Rundle range. Sulphur is a steady climb of switchbacks, but an excellent one for views:
Sulphur is also a very popular hike, so the odds are the only wildlife you're going to see are the little guys who are used to being fed.... like this critter:
The trail has plenty of wildflowers as well. First up the Yellow Columbine (aquilegia flavescens). A little blurrier than I would like, but still a nice shot:
We also saw lots of what appears to be a Dwarf Mountain Groundsel (senecio fremontii):
About halfway up the mountain, the gondola starts to hover awfully close to the trail:
Neat little illusion where it looks like the gondola is coming right at you as you hike by:
One switchback went around the north side of the mountain, and we got a beautiful view of the town of Banff, with a very tiny looking Cascade Mountain in the background:
The top platform of Sulphur Mountain is where the trail ends, as well as where the gondola lift terminates. There's an observation deck complete with gift shop and restaurant. As you can imagine, it's quite busy during the summer. It's a bit of a shock going from mountain hike to tourist crowds in the space of a minute, and it diminishes the payoff just a little.
But the view can't be beat. That "bump" beside the river, in the middle-left of the shot... that's Tunnel Mountain... a short but decent hike in its own right:
The top of Sulphur Mountain used to be a ridgewalk, but the area is extremely sensitive and the trail was destroying the unique vegetation. This boardwalk was built to connect the two peaks of the mountain (the old lookout still stands at the other peak):
Looking back at the Visitor's Centre from the lookout. Mount Rundle in the background:
Again, in the midst of the most popular tourist spot in Alberta, yet there's nothing but pristine wilderness everywhere you look:
It's a beautiful area, and maybe too well loved. Much of Sulphur Mountain Trail suffers from overuse due to its popularity. Also, because so much of the trail is simply switchbacks up the mountain, many people take "shortcuts" which only lead to more trail degradation and erosion. There are signs throughout the trail asking hikers to please not cause more damage, but throughout the hike we saw numerous people cutting through the trail and "shortcutting".
This is what the terrain starts to look like when its eroding:
Despite the crowds, and the popularity and sometimes dismaying disregard for the area.... it's a beautiful hike, and should be done at least once. Especially since the Hot Springs reside right at the trail head!