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!
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:
The cost of an adult ticket to ride the Banff Gondola is
$49 Canadian $66 CAD for 2019.
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!
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 coffee shop on the ground floor. It’s pretty amazing. You can also get an entire plate of brownies/small cakes for $9, which didn’t seem like a terrible 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.
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 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
Check out our top 5 hikes near Banff for more on some of these!
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/ authentic experience. Note, the Norquay Gondola is a ski chairlift, so isn’t necessarily as comfortable/accessible as the Sulphur one.
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.
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.
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.
My only gripe this year 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 underhand so they let us down anyway!
At the end of the day you want to return home and tell people that you experienced the Canadian Rockies, right? Standing in line for hours and overpaying for views is probably not going to be the cherry on the cake for your holiday then, I’m guessing. 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)
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 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, 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!