Sunday, July 20, 2014

Backyard Bucket List: Banff Gondola and Upper Hot Springs


It's that time of year again - the time of year where we pack up our vehicle to the brim with suitcases, tennis rackets, good food, water sprinklers, board games, and beach toys, and head off on a beautiful drive through the Rocky Mountains of Canada to enjoy a week's stay in Invermere, British Columbia. This is our seventh year renting a cabin in the valley with my husband's family, and our first year doing so with a baby in tow.  (The car, incidentally, seemed MUCH fuller this time around!)

Banff Gondola, Sanson Peak, things to do in Alberta
My family on our first holiday together - here's to many more in the future!

Making the five and a half hour journey through the mountains seemed like a bit of a stretch with a six-month-old, so my husband and I decided to split the trip into two days and sojourn in Banff for an evening.  This way, our little one would have some time to enjoy her freedom from the car seat, and we'd have a chance to do a little 'backyard' tourism.

Our first night ever in a hotel with the baby was a great success (she really enjoyed swimming in the hot tub), and we woke the next morning bright and early, ready to have a fun day out and about in Banff.

Our first stop was to the Banff Upper Hot Springs, located about five minutes from downtown Banff up the side of Sulphur Mountain.  Avy-Bear loves a good swim, and we thought it might be a nice way to start the day for her.  The hot springs are super easy to get to, with clearly marked signage and a big, open parking lot.  We grabbed our bags, locked up, and headed inside.  There weren't very many people there - it was 9:06 a.m. and the hot springs opened at 9:00 a.m.  It is recommended that during the holiday seasons people arrive early if they don't want to be sitting in a crowded pool.  At 9:00 a.m. we were maybe sharing the pool with about 20 others.

things to do in Alberta, natural hot springs Alberta, Banff tourism
The Banff Upper Hot Springs at 9:00 a.m. - all ours!

The pool is a balmy 40 degrees Celsius, making it a nice, hot soak. You are only recommended to stay submerged for 10 minutes at the most, due to the temperature.  We popped in and out of the water much more frequently, considering we had a wee baby with us. The view around the hot springs is gorgeous, and although the springs themselves are very developed and commercialized, you do feel like you are soaking in the middle of nature.  On one side of the springs, there is a deck with a balcony that overlooks the Rocky Mountain range, and it is very calming and peaceful to sit there while you cool down from the steaming waters.

Rocky Mountains Alberta, things to do in Alberta, Banff tourism
Cooling off on the hot springs deck during a quick sun shower.

We only stayed for about an hour before deciding to leave.  The cost to soak in the pool is $7.30 for adults, and $6.30 for youths and seniors.  Avy was free, as are all kids 3 and under.  Since the price is quite reasonable, leaving after an hour didn't seem like a waste.

On our way out, we found a little 'pool' built into the side of the trail leading to the parking lot - you could dip your feet in and the temperature was just as warm as the commercialized pool.  Unfortunately, it is not big enough to swim in, but it sure felt nice on the feet!

things to do in Alberta, Banff Upper Hot Springs, outdoor hot spring
Enjoying a dip in the 'natural' hot spring at Banff, just off the main path.

After a quick breakfast and a stroll around the extremely busy downtown, we headed to the Banff Gondola.  This tourist attraction is quite popular, so it is suggested that you book tickets in advance (although I did see some people buying their tickets right there - whether they had to wait 2 hours to ride to the top is unknown to me). Tickets were $35.95 per adult, and $16.95 for children 6 to 15.  Avy, again, was free.

Our tickets were for noon, so we had a twenty minute wait before we were to line up to board our gondola. The line-up seemed really long, but it moved quite quickly and efficiently.  The gondolas are small - they hold four people and you must sit during your ascent to the top of the mountain.  Two attendants slow the gondola enough for you to hop on, and then send you on your merry little way.  Thus, the line moves at a snappy pace.  My husband had our daughter strapped to his chest, and the attendants were generous and let us board the gondola alone, without another couple.

Excited to be going up the Banff Gondola!

We had fun on the way up - the view is amazing, the mountain incline sharp. We watched hikers winding their way up the steep slope, and waved to people going down the gondolas across from us. Avy enjoyed the smooth ride and watched the scenery with great interest.

going up the Banff gondola, things to do in Alberta, Rocky Mountains Alberta
The view from the Banff Gondola, going up Sulphur Mountain.

It had been raining that morning while we were soaking in the hot springs, and the mountain range in the distance had been hazy with clouds and the remnants of a few major forest fires around B.C.  However, during our ride up the side of Sulphur Mountain, the skies cleared and we were able to see all the way down the valley.

Banff gondola, Rocky Mountains Alberta, things to do in Alberta
The view of Banff and the Rocky Mountains from the top of Sanson Peak.

The ride up the gondola lasts about ten minutes.  Once at the top, there are gift shops, a restaurant, and a snack shop.  You can stick around the gondola station and view the vista from the observation deck, or you can partake in a 20 minute hike to the summit of Sanson Peak.  We chose the latter.

Sanson Peak hike, Banff Gondoloa, things to do in Alberta
Starting our hike to Sanson Peak.  The wooden trail made it very enjoyable.

The hike was fantastic, and I highly recommend that if you take the time to go to the top of Sulphur Mountain, then you best better do the hike to the weather observation station at Sanson Peak.  A well-built, smooth wooden boardwalk acts as a trail to the peak, made of 28 switchbacks allowing you to climb to the summit with ease.  There are about 10 look-out points along the way, offering stunning views and photo opportunities.  A word of warning: there are a lot of stairs, going both up and down both ways, and the trek to Sanson Peak is NOT wheelchair or stroller friendly.  Unfortunately.

Another family photo from one of the lookout points along the trail.

At the top of Sanson Peak, it was super windy. Avy stopped to have half a bottle, but we had to cap it and turn around, leaving the peak behind us and finding a sheltered bench so she could finish her lunch.  If you go to the peak, pack yourself a hoodie or windbreaker to protect yourself from the elements at the top.  After all, you are standing on top of a mountain!

Rocky Mountain trees, Rocky Mountain valley, Banff Gondola, Sulphur Mountain
A view of a Rocky Mountain valley, covered in trees.  It is still hazy from all the forest fires.

It is estimated that visitors spend an average of 2 hours at the top of Sulphur Mountain.  We were up there for about an hour and twenty minutes, and were ready to head back down.  (We didn't explore the gondola station very long, so I can easily see people spending two hours in total up at the top.)  On the way down, the attendants take a photo of you sitting inside the gondola, and then try to sell you a copy at the bottom. We didn't fall for that.  It was expensive, and besides, we were seated with two strangers and I had no desire to pay good money for a photo with two unsmiling, unknown people.


We continued our journey to Invermere after the gondola, which was a good thing for Avy, who was in desperate need of a nap.  However, it was a great way to spend a day in Banff.  How lucky are we to live so close to such a beautiful location?

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