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?
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 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.
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 gaudy 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!
Let’s recap: For the EXACT SAME price you would have paid at the Banff Gondola, you get bears, better views AND food. Kind of a no-brainer IMO!
Don’t even get me started on the absurd price of refreshments at the new multi-million dollar restaurant facilities at the top of the mountain. We really felt that this place was designed to squeeze every single penny out of its captive audience. You can’t even get back down the mountain without being herded through a giftshop and being forced to pose for a tacky photo (which they later try to sell you). 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 true sense of the word, and we couldn’t help wonder if the goal was to offset the cost of their needlessly expensive new building; certainly the old experience was nowhere near as commercialised.
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), 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, 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 easily scaled any one of these mountains for a better view:
-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 outside wasn’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 commercialised authentic experience.
Canadians are known for being extremely polite and friendly, but 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 experience of them was pretty negative overall.
Be prepared to deal with snarky staff power tripping over their control of tickets and lines. These guys are fed up with the never ending swathes of tourists, and we felt like they were just waiting for their shift to end so they could go and get wasted downtown. Because why move to Banff if you can’t party, right?
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 “walk down the mountain” by an extremely rude (and possibly hungover) Australian 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 infirmed person take on that 5km trek through deep snow so flippantly! J (Don’t worry, I’ve lived with Aussies in Banff my entire life – they can take the heat.)
Finally, you want to return home and tell people that you experienced the Canadian Rockies, right? Standing in line for hours, overpaying for views and being subjected to sub par visitor service is probably not going to be the cherry on the cake for your holiday. 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?!
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.
One final plea: please think twice about where your money is going when you pay for these attractions. There are certain corporations 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 should really consider whether our money should be funding its commercialisation. I would strongly recommend putting your valuable vacation time to better use and spending your hard-earned money elsewhere!
You may not be surprised to hear that all opinions expressed were entirely our own!