Sunday, 27 July 2014

Summer gondola riding in Banff

There's LOTS of things to do in the Banff area if you're coming for a visit. One thing I always recommend to people is to get to the top of a mountain, and the easiest way to do that is to take one of the sightseeing gondola rides that are available. The choices are the Sulphur Mountain Gondola, the Lake Louise Gondola/Chairlift, or the Sunshine meadows hike.

Sunshine is a fantastic experience, but you still have to hike and climb a minimum of 200 m after the bus ride to get to the actual top of a mountain pass, to get that truly panoramic view. The hikes up there are glorious (which I wrote about here and here and here), and if you are a hiker just visiting, there's no better option than to start your day up high, and hike Simpson Pass/Healy Pass, towards Citadel Pass & Quartz Ridge, or any of the other options. But that's hiking.
Looking back at the village
If you don't hike, the Sulphur Mountain gondola is an option, and it's just outside of the Banff townsite. You get to the peak of Sulphur Mountain, though there's not much to do up there other than a short walk to to old cosmic ray station. The 360° views are stellar, especially of the Banff townsite, but that's about all there is up there. The owners are planning on renovating the top station, which would be good because it's old and decrepit. The ride costs $37 these days.
Me, my mom and daughter on Sulphur in ~1999

With my Auntie Eva, too
A better option is the Lake Louise Gondola/Chairlift. You don't get a 360° panorama because you don't get to the top of a mountain. But you do get a 180° view, which has more mountains than you can count, and multiple glaciers to see, plus the lake itself.
The lake and a bunch of glaciers
At the top is a pretty good set of things to do. 
  • There's a pretty good wildlife interpretation museum that cover off all of the critters in the neighbourhood, from bears to lynx and beyond. It's a bit dark, and has an overload of info, but is generally well done;
  • There are interpretive talks (free) and guided walks ($5);
  • There are a few "short self guided walks", all less than 2 km with limited altitude gain. They all go to various viewpoints and overlooks;
  • The restaurants at the top and bottom are both pretty good (the one at the top has a killer deck). They feature a $14 lunch buffet that is only $4 when added to the $30 gondola ride charge, which is a very good deal.
The Sulphur gondola is a fully enclosed gondola, and you have that option at Louise, but you can also ride in the open on the chairlift, which is WAY better (especially on a sunny warm day when gondola cabins are like ovens). Because unlike the Sulphur option, where all that you see riding up is better views of the Town of Banff, Louise is hugely active bear habitat. Daily bear sightings are common.
A bear from the chair
Open views from the chair
In general, the views from the lift are better, and the ride more interesting, at Louise.

So Louise is cheaper, has good food deals, has better views, offers significant wildlife sighting options, and has better things to do at the top (and bottom) than the Sulphur Mountain gondola. If you can only do one, Louise is a better option.