The Banff Sulphur Mountain Gondola is pretty world famous and commonly seen as one of the must-do attractions on a visit to the Canadian Rockies… But is it really worth it? Here is our extremely honest review!
The Tourist Trap:
Banff locals usually refer to the gondola as a “tourist trap” – a name that implies that only visitors that don’t know any better go there. That sounds pretty conclusive, but then again, they also call incredible places like Lake Louise and Johnston Canyon tourist traps too – two places that really are worth visiting and battling the crowds for.
So I suppose it’s fair to say that tourist traps are worth the crowds or extortionate prices when the reputation matches the actual experience.
Is that the case for the Sulphur Mountain Gondola? Here are our thoughts on our recent experience:
#1: The Price
The cost of an adult ticket to ride the Banff Gondola is
$66 CAD for 2019 from $42 per adult in the evening, or $53-$69 for a standard rate.
This might not seem ridiculous to you – but let’s compare that to the cost of some of the other lesser known attractions in the area:
– The Mount Norquay Sightseeing Chairlift $30: Get a view unhindered by a boardwalk and massive crowds. Plus, experience one of the best views in Banff and have the option of adding the adrenaline pumping via ferrata tour on top.
-The Lake Louise Summer Sightseeing Gondola $32: Not only do you have a very high chance of seeing a Grizzly Bear on your way up. You can also upgrade to a $50 Ride & Dine Package, which includes a delicious buffet with your tour!
For the roughly the same price you would have paid at the Banff Gondola, you get a chance of bears, comparable views AND food. Kind of a no-brainer IMO!
Sell sell sell
The price of refreshments at the new multi-million dollar restaurant facilities at the top of the mountain are a little expensive. We really felt that this place was designed to squeeze every single penny out of its captive audience, but in all fairness, the food is actually pretty good.
If you decide to go up there, make sure you try the whoopie pie in the Castle Mountain coffee Co. shop on the ground floor (if they haven’t already sold out!). It’s pretty amazing. You can also get an entire plate of brownies/small cakes for $9, which was actually a pretty good deal!
Going back down forces you through the giftshop, after which you’ll have your photo taken. This is then pushed on you when you reach the second gift shop at the bottom. The experience certainly felt like it was less about being closer to nature and more about having you trapped up a mountain with as many gift shops and restaurants close-by as possible.
This is where we really felt like the experience became a tourist trap in the truest sense of the word, and we couldn’t help but wonder if the goal was to offset the cost of their needlessly expensive new building; certainly the old experience was nowhere near as commercialized.
#2: The View
If you’re going to come to Banff, you really need to get to the top of a mountain one way or another. And let’s be honest, the view from the Banff Gondola really is stunning. There’s no doubt about it.
If time is limited, money is no object, and you’re looking for more of a ‘disneyland’ experience (which sometimes is no bad thing, especially if you have small kids), then this most certainly will tick all the boxes.
But in my opinion, the view pales in comparison to the free views you can find elsewhere in the Park. In the 2-3 hours it takes for you to wait in line (in peak season), get up the gondola, walk around the boardwalk and wait for your ride down (another major downside, but I’ll get to that later), you could have been halfway up any other mountain in the area for a free and arguably better view.
Here are a few suggestions:
-The East End of Rundle (EEOR) in Canmore
-Rawson/Sarrail Ridge in Kananaskis
–Sentinel Pass at Moraine Lake
–The Big Beehive in Lake Louise
You can also check out our guide to 33 of Banff’s easiest hikes and walks for a few more ideas!
Hikes don’t need to take all day, and some even have tea houses en-route (Big Beehive).
Of course, it’s not fair of us to not consider those visitors that might not be able to hike for one reason or other. Indeed, it was nice at least to see that the gondola was wheelchair accessible, even if the vast majority of the actual boardwalk at the top of the mountain isn’t. If an actual hike isn’t on the cards then this certainly is the most convenient way to get on top of a mountain, but we would certainly recommend other less crowded gondolas/chairlifts if you’re looking for a less busy experience. Note, the Norquay Gondola is a ski chairlift, so isn’t necessarily as comfortable/accessible as the Sulphur one.
#3: The Service
Canadians are known for being extremely polite and friendly, but on our 2018 visit, our experience was that a few of the staff that worked at the Gondola weren’t as well mannered or as well endowed with the polite Canadian attitude.
Whilst there were definitely some cheerful staff, our visit last year left us with a fairly sour taste in our mouths. This year, I’m happy to report that we gave it another chance and the staff were far more pleasant!
I think a lot of this has to do with the time of year you visit. If you visit in peak season, it’s visibly exhausting for the staff to manage the hundreds of unruly tourists, and it’s clear that tempers may fray and patience may be low. Come during off peak season and the staff have far more time and energy to make you feel welcome. Our two experiences from different times of year have been markedly different in fact.
Our terrible summer experience:
When we asked if we could come back down from the top a little earlier, we were told that if we didn’t like our pre-determined downloading time that we could always “walk down the mountain” by an extremely rude member of staff scanning our tickets. We weren’t trying to make a big deal out of it, but we were on a time crunch as our friends had a flight to catch. I doubt he would have, or at least I strongly hope that he wouldn’t have suggested an elderly or disabled person take on that 5km trek so flippantly!
Kind of put a downer on the whole experience.
Our fantastic off season experience (before May 19):
It’s a little known fact that if you hike up during winter (before May 19), the ride down the gondola is free. This can make a normally prohibitively expensive experience extremely reasonable indeed. We did this twice this year before the summer season, as the hike is one of the first hikes to become ‘hikeable’ after winter, and is a great way to dust off the old cobwebs and stretch your legs after winter. This time, our experience was fantastic. The visitor centre was relatively quiet and all the staff are attentive and full of energy. It’s a little chilly up top, but the crowds are manageable and the experience is generally pretty pleasant.
2020 Update: If you didn’t buy a round trip ticket at the bottom, you won’t be able to come into the building at all or use any of the facilities! Sorry hikers, this is for COVID, so they can keep a lid on the number of people in the building at any one time
My only gripe this year (2019) was that the gondola was originally listed on the website as free until May 19th (the end of the May long weekend), so a friend and I decided to hike up on the 17th to get one last ride in. When we were ready to head down, we walked in to the gondola station and were told that the ride down was no longer free and the website had been changed that morning.
Felt like a bit of a bait and switch to be honest, but to give credit where it’s due, I think they recognized that what they’d done was a little misleading, so they let us down anyway!
#4: The Experience
For something like this, your experience will really depend on your tolerance for crowds and your prior mountain experience. If this is the first mountain you’ve ever been up, and you don’t expect to be hiking during your visit, the views will blow your mind.
If, on the other hand, this isn’t your first rodeo and you’ve been up mountains before, the experience will likely be underwhelming and frustrating for you. Sulphur Mountain is a small mountain with a high concentration of visitors. Why not aim for a bigger, quieter mountain instead!
After all, you probably came to the Rockies to experience nature with your family, not with 300 other people.
As for what the interpretive centre adds to the attraction; Sure there are cool features like the 3D movie theatre, but did you really just take a gondola to the top of a mountain to sit in the dark and watch a film about being in the mountains?!? I mean.. WHAT?!
Edit: (actually, I kind of understand the video now after hiking up in complete whiteout this year… there were no views from the top so I can see how the video was helpful to the visitors…literally all of whom were videoing it from their phones! tut tut)
On reflection, I do also see the appeal of dinner on top of a mountain. It’s very romantic and unique, and well worth giving a try.
Overall though, if you ask us, we really recommend getting off the beaten path, getting out of your comfort zone and experiencing Banff as it’s intended to be.
A place to escape the hustle and bustle of normal life and reconnect with nature. Our strong views against the Sulphur Gondola have certainly softened a little this winter, but overall I would say there are still more authentic mountain experiences to be had here.
For many, this is the perfect combination of nature and relaxation though, and I think it’s fair to say that our views are biased towards those that are more active. After many conversations with many tourists, I’m starting to realize that the Sulphur Gondola really does check all the boxes in many cases, especially with large family groups comprised of young children or elderly parents.
We hope you found our honest review helpful, balanced, and not too negative, and that now you’re able to make a more informed decision.
One final plea: Please think twice about where your money is going when you pay for these attractions. There are certain businesses that are slowly muscling into Banff and doing their best to turn the park into a monopoly and a theme park. Banff is a national park dedicated to the preservation of the animals that live within it. It’s a privilege to be able to return to nature and see nature as it was thousands of years ago, and we think that it’s important to really consider whether our money should be funding its commercialization.
You may not be surprised to hear that all opinions expressed were entirely our own!
What are the Sulphur Mountain Gondola Opening Hours?
|AUGUST 4 – SEPTEMBER 7|
|Banff Gondola||Daily: 10 AM – 10:30 PM*|
|Sky Bistro||Mon–Thur: 4:30 PM – 10:30 PM**|
Fri–Sun: 11 AM – 10:30 PM**
|Northern Lights Alpine Kitchen||Mon–Thur: 11 AM – 3:30 PM† / 4:30 PM – 7 PM†|
Fri–Sun: 11 AM – 3:30 PM† / 4:30 PM – 8 PM†
|Castle Mountain Coffee Co.||Daily: 11 AM – 5 PM|
|Peak Patio||Fri–Sun: 12 PM – 8 PM|
|SEPTEMBER 8 – OCTOBER 12|
|Banff Gondola||Daily: 10 AM – 9:30 PM*|
|Sky Bistro||Daily: 11 AM – 9:30 PM**|
|Northern Lights Alpine Kitchen||Daily: 11 AM – 8 PM†|
|Castle Mountain Coffee Co.||Daily: 10 AM – 6 PM|
Thanks so much for this info! I’ll be heading to Banff in a few months, and I was dubious about paying so much for the Banff Gondola. Your post has helped me make up my mind to do something better with my time! Cheers 🙂
Hey Stef, glad this post helped you make your decision! We hate to see visitors getting ripped off when there’s so many free things around the park to enjoy. Hope you fall in love with Banff as much as we have! 🙂
Hi, I’m so glad I found your post! The info is very helpful as I am planning my trip to Banff in August, thank you so much and keep up the awesome work!
August is such a great time to come, I’m sure you’re going to love Banff! If you need any more tips on planning your trip just let us know or search our blog 🙂
Thanks for the informative post. It will be the Lake Louise gondola for us in three weeks if we have enough energy after the ascent of Mt. St-Prian 🙂
Thanks for the info. Especially the prices. I guess we won’t be going up any mountains with 4 kids & a very fixed income. Those prices are nuts.
It makes me sad. We went to Banff every summer when I was little & it was a bit touristy, but nothing like you describe. And I think the gondolas we’re about $10. Maybe less, I was only about 9 the last time we went.
I was really looking forward to taking my kids, but I guess that’s out the window.
You’re welcome, but yes, sorry to disappoint! It is sad. There was a time when locals could ride for free but even that got scrapped in the past few years. I think it’s a product of the ridiculous crowds we get here now. They know they can charge whatever they like and enough people will still pay. There’s always the option of walking up Sulphur Mountain, but it is a 10km round trip. Sometimes they let people come down for free but you might be forced to pay half price.
There are so many expensive attractions now in Banff but imho, the best things are free! There’s still a whole boat load of free things you can get up to as long as you don’t mind a bit of walking!
This was SO helpful. Thank you!
My 19 year old son is travelling solo across Canada and is going on a trail ride this week, just outside Banff. He is staying over the weekend (fri/sat/sun) probably at the WMCA as everywhere seemed to be out, before joining friends in Calgary next week. He doesn’t know a soul there so I was looking at interesting stuff and thought the Sulphur Mountain gondola and hot springs, etc, etc. looked good (and I’m sure it’s great for families with younger kids) – until I found your advice…… now I’m going to suggest the Mount Norquay chairlift, and maybe the Via Ferrata, instead.
If you had any other suggestions for 2 days in Banff without transport (there seem to be a good network of shuttle buses) I’d be gateful.
Thanks for the comment, I’m glad it was helpful. We did the Norquay gondola a couple of weeks ago and you still get a fantastic view of the valley and the town with none of the crowds. I would probably advise against paying for any gondola at the minute though as the forest fire smoke is so terrible you won’t be paying for a very good view! With a bit of rain I’m sure it’ll improve. If he’s looking for more explanation and history of the town and a more panoramic view then the Sulphur one is still probably the best bet in Banff, but we prefer the Norquay one because it’s quiet and cheaper (also, yes, you can also do the more adventurous via ferrata there!).
One pro of the Sulphur gondola for your son is that it’s very close to the YWCA, the Hot Springs and Cave and Basin. He’ll be within walking distance of all of them (if he doesn’t mind a bit of a walk). It’s a bit further to get to the Norquay lift from where he is.
If budget is the issue, he could just walk up Sulphur mountain! It’s free and he’ll still get to use all the facilities that he’d usually pay for once he’s at the top. Around 5km each way (1.5-2hrs each way).
Without transport he could also rent a canoe from the Canoe club, go horseback riding, cycle to Johnston Canyon, hike tunnel Mountain, catch sunrise at Vermillion Lakes or do the bus loop to Lake Minnewanka. He could even take a bus to Canmore and do one of the hikes there. Loads of options!
Hope that helps!
My boyfriend and I are traveling to Banff next month and really appreciate this info. If you have any other recommendations please post!!!
I’d really recommend the via ferrata if it’s still open! We did it last month and it was absolutely fantastic!
I see that the gondola ride my be a waste of money? What about the glacier tour. We are going to Banff next week. What are some good things to do without getting caught in the tourist trap?
So sorry to just get back to you! The Gondola is good if you have no alternatives for summiting. I generally think you can get better views for free though! I’ve heard the glacier tour is good, although probably nothing compared to say, Iceland glacier tours. My current favourite paid tourist attraction is the via ferrata. Definitely worth the money if you ask me!
Very nice overview. I even looked into hiking to the sop of the SM but found that the the hike is boring, will find something better to do with my time.
Yes, the hike is very boring! No views until you’re at the top! With that being said, if you’re the kind of person that enjoys a cup of coffee and a snack at the top of a hike, this is the best place to do that! It’s also a good early season hike because most other hikes are still inaccessible in May/early June. I generally do it a couple of times each year to get back in shape and get some exercise before the more interesting hikes open up again.
Thank you so much for this article! We are going to be in Banff in August on a weekend with elder parents and I am already dreading the crowds. I think it’s better we avoid Sulphur Gondola this time and do other things that lets us be amidst nature.