The Three Most Accessible Peaks Near Banff, Alberta (or How to Impress Your Friends by Climbing Three Mountains in a Single Day)

There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. (German proverb)

The weather forecast promised rain and thunderstorms for the Banff area, so I wasn’t jazzed about scrambling up a mountain. Lightning is pretty to watch, but if it’s powerful enough to tear apart oxygen molecules and rearrange them, imagine what it can do to your body. You don’t want to be smelling ozone while you’re on a summit ridge.

I thought I might do an easy hike to the summit of Stoney Squaw Mountain (elevation 1884 meters), just north of Banff. I had never been there before, and surprisingly, I had never even heard of it. But there it was, staring out at me from my trusty 1:100,000 scale Banff and Mount Assiniboine map. The trail looked like it started just below the Mount Norquay ski hill parking lot. There is a trail there, but it disappears into nothing. I did a lot of scrambling up and down trees and rock for an hour, winded and filthy, trying to find the route before finding my way back to the trailhead. I thought I must have missed a turn on the trail, so I tried again. While I was scrambling up and down trees and rocks, winded and filthy a second time, I was reminded about that quote from Albert Einstein.

You know, the one about stupidity.

Back at the trailhead, I was as mystified about the trail as the tourists were about my sudden appearance out of the woods, so I drove all the way up to the Mount Norquay ski hill parking lot. The sign at the kiosk there read, “Stoney Squaw Summit – 2.2 kms”. Aha!

In less than an hour, I was up and down this easy trail, albeit without a single photo, what with me being engulfed in clouds and all.

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A couple of baby Mountain Sheep near Stoney Squaw Mountain. They were so playful, and a joy to watch as they found their footing on the cliff near the road.

Well, it wasn’t yet noon, and although it was raining lightly, there was no lightning yet, so I thought I’d walk up Tunnel Mountain, the smallest mountain in the Canadian Rockies at 1690 meters. The Stoney Indians called this mountain Tatanga, for Sleeping Buffalo. It looks like one too, from a certain angle.

Tunnel Mountain doesn’t actually have a tunnel running through it. Back in 1882, Major Rogers was surveying this area for a new Canadian Pacific line and suggested the easiest route would be straight through the mountain. It was a major engineering blunder, of course, as anyone can see who is standing on top of the mountain. The plan for the line was changed, but it’s still referred to as Tunnel Mountain today.

From the top parking lot on Buffalo Street, it is only a 1.8 kilometer hike to the summit. This also took less than an hour to do, although the elevation gain was a little higher than Stoney Squaw Mountain.

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When you see this interestingly-shaped tree, you’re almost at the summit of Tunnel Mountain.

I looked at my watch. It was only just lunch time. I ate a peanut-butter-and-banana-filled bagel and checked the weather report. The little lightning icon was still showing on my phone, so I headed over to Sulphur Mountain.

There’s a 5.5-kilometer trail that goes from the lower gondola to the upper gondola, and from there, you can hike to the top of Sanson Peak at 2270 meters. This isn’t the highest point on Sulphur Mountain – for that you have to do a long ridge walk south-east to the true summit – but it’s a peak in its own right. It was named after Norman Sanson, who climbed this peak weekly and then bi-weekly for 28 years to collect data from the weather observatory at the top. If you climb this even once, you’ll know how impressive that is. Sanson also, despite lacking the technical training, became the curator of the Banff Museum for 36 years. He hiked for more than 32,000 kilometers in these mountains; it’s what he loved to do most. The epitaph on his tombstone simply reads, Gone Higher.

It was in the parking lot at the Sulphur Mountain parking lot that I got this crazy idea. More than 21 years ago, when I was arguably at my fittest playing for the military national soccer team, I recall hiking up this trail to the upper gondola in 53 minutes. I can’t be sure if that was the correct time, but it’s the one in my memory banks.

I decided I wanted to beat that timing. Of course, if I were to fail, I was already listing my excuses – climbed two mountains already that day, scrambled up two mountains the previous two days, poor weather, just ate lunch, my age, missing a chunk of flesh from my calf from a slip on scree, etc.

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The trail zigzags below the gondolas a few times.

Well, I made it to the top in an hour and four minutes. Twenty-one years cost me 11 minutes. And about triple the recovery time. Sheesh, I thought I was going to die from the exertion of it; it was everything I could do to keep that bagel down.

I might have been slower, though. But on the ascent, where the trail switchbacks pass under the gondolas, Asian children, so full of life, wonder, and joie de vivre, screamed hello over and over to me. It felt like I had my own cheering section. (Thanks kids!)

From the top of the gondola to Sanson Peak is an easy 700-meter walk up wooden steps and along a boardwalk, with excellent interpretive kiosks along the way. There were a lot of tourists, but it was manageable. The trail tops out at the Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station, where people were lined up taking pictures.

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The Sulphur Mountain Cosmic Ray Station, and the summit of Sanson Peak.

Now, let’s pretend this is you. You’re at the summit, and you’re reveling in the glory of your accomplishment. You’re happy, but exhausted. You’ve just climbed three mountains in one day, after all.

And no one can ever take that away from you.

Also, your ego won’t complain when the tourists say, “Hey, I saw you on the trail from the gondola. Great job hiking up here!”

But now you’re looking at those gondola cars and wondering. Hmmm. Well, here’s the good news. If it’s before 10:00 am or after 6:30 pm, you can take the gondola down for free. If it’s between those times and you’re really desperate, you can pay $24 plus tax to go down.

Since it was still early afternoon when I was up there, I opted to walk down in the rain, cheering the people coming up with my air pompoms.

What a great outing, despite the weather. And the lightning didn’t come until early evening. Thanks Mother Nature.

The details and field notes for these climbs are below the pictures. Enjoy!

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From Tunnel Mountain. SS – Stoney Squaw Mountain, N – Mount Norquay, P – Parking Lot trailhead

 

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From Sanson Peak. T – Tunnel Mountain, C- Cascade Mountain, R – Mount Rundle, B – Bow River, M – Lake Minnewanka

 

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The upper gondola station, and the true summit of Sulphur Mountain, from Sanson Peak.

 

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Banff Springs Hotel.


IF YOU GO
:
• Stoney Squaw Mountain. From the intersection of Highway 1, drive up Mount Norquay Road for 5.4 kms. The trailhead is right there as you turn right into the parking lot. The trail itself is a bit tricky. After walking for about 20 minutes at a fast pace, you’ll top out on a rocky feature. There is a trail that continues ahead and down to the highway and a trail that leads off to the right and goes nowhere. You need to turn left at this rock outcrop and you’ll see a well-worn trail heading back the way you came. There is no sign, but this trail will take you to the summit in about ten minutes.
• Tunnel Mountain. Approaching the bridge on Banff Avenue in downtown Banff, turn left (east) on Buffalo Street and follow it for 2.4 kms to a parking area on the left. You’ll be alerted just before the parking lot by a viewpoint sign. The trailhead is obvious, just on the opposite side of the road from the parking area. The trail is straightforward to the top.
• Sanson Peak (Sulphur Mountain). Cross the bridge on Banff Avenue, staying in the right lane, but turning left at the lights across the bridge. After turning, within 100 meters, you’ll turn right onto Mountain Avenue, following the Sulphur Mountain signs. Follow Mountain Avenue for 3.5 kms to the parking lot, where you’ll see the trailhead on the right. The trail is easy to follow, and the switchbacks make this less of a grunt than it could be.

FIELD NOTES:
• These may be quick and easy hikes, but the weather can change quickly. You can’t really see the weather coming at you from the west until it’s on top of you, so make sure you bring appropriate clothing.
• Bring water. I can promise you that two-thirds of the way up Sulphur Mountain, you’ll be ready to trade your BMW for a glass of water if you don’t have any. Side story: I climbed up here once with a military buddy years ago. We passed a whole summer hockey school of kids, climbing without any water at all. They were exhausted and parched. We shared what water we had, and when we caught up to the two coaches, my friend tore a strip off them like they had never had in their lives. I’d repeat what he said, but this is a family-friendly blog. :)

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