By Naomi Witherick
To get to the top, hitch a ride on a sightseeing lift. In minutes you’re whisked from the valley floor to heights of up to 2,400 m/7,874 ft where peaks stretch as far as the eye can see.
But gondolas and chairlifts give way to more than awesome views. While all five rides in Banff and Jasper national parks promise perfect mountaintop moments, each offers differences.
New Height, Historic Site
If you’re looking for a multi-facetted visitor experience and a taste of mountain heritage, try Banff Gondola. The impressive new Summit Complex sits a short walk to a National Historic Site that dates back to the 1890s.
Take the eight-minute ride in an enclosed gondola where everyone gets a window seat. At the high ridge of Sulphur Mountain, you emerge into the three-storey complex, awarded Where magazine’s 2016 Best New Attraction. The interpretive centre features hands-on nature displays, while the dazzling film at Above Banff Theatre displays remote park scenery.
And, of course, there’s the view. Admire sweeping mountains, the Bow and Spray rivers, and the historic Banff Springs Hotel through 360° windows and atop huge terraces. Then follow the boardwalk to the Cosmic Ray Weather Station, the national historic site where mountaineer Norman Sanson recorded climatic patterns in the late nineteenth century.
Getting hungry? Find coffee and snacks at Castle Mountain Café (check out the quirky branded mugs), or made-to-order lunches in Northern Lights Café. A favourite place to dine in Banff is Sky Bistro, a full service restaurant with taste of Canada menu, local beers and spirits, a modern interior and stunning views. Find meal and gondola packages at skybistro.ca.
BEST Dining. Shops. Families. History.
• Book at BanffGondola.com to save 10%
• Want exercise? Walk up, ride down
• Watch for the resident herd of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep
• After, soak at neighbouring Banff Upper Hot Springs
Nearest and Dearest
Mount Norquay, the Canadian Rockies’ original ski area, has been a favourite family destination since 1926. Its North American chairlift was built in 1948. Although it has been renovated many times since, the ‘Big Lift’ is still considered one of the most historic of its kind on the continent.
Today, Norquay’s charm includes a relaxed atmosphere that makes for a cherished day out. The open chair rises over eight minutes to 2,136 m/7,007 ft. Watch the scenery unfold; on one side is rugged Cascade Mountain, on the other Mount Rundle, Bow River and Banff townsite.
The chair sets down at much-loved Cliffhouse Bistro, an eclectic 1950s venue accessible only by the lift. The menu features Chef Morne’s “good simple food” with an alpine twist. Take a window seat for the best view. And, stroll the walkway to mountain’s edge.
Fancy an epic add-on? The top of Norquay’s sightseeing chairlift is the starting point for exhilarating via ferrata guided climbs. A Signature Canadian Experience, the course of fixed cables, grips, ladders and bridges allows even first time climbers a safe, high-alpine thrill.
BEST Views. Dining. Climbing.
• Take the free, hourly shuttle from Banff to the lift base
• Cliffhouse Bistro food/drink specials are Mon to Thurs
• Book your via ferrata climb in advance
Trek on the Wildside
For venturing further, the Sunshine Village Gondola & Standish Chairlift is a good bet. These lifts access gorgeous Sunshine Meadows, one of Lonely Planet Discover Canada guidebook’s top five hiking areas in Canada.
Ride the eight-person gondola past the looming cliffs of Mount Bourgeau to Sunshine Village at 2,164 m/7,099 ft. Thronged with skiers in winter, the village is grassy and tranquil in summer. Then take the chairlift to the lookout atop Mount Standish for views of Rock Isle Lake and Mount Assiniboine, the ‘Matterhorn of the Rockies’ and highest peak in the area.
From here, follow gentle trails that descend to the meadow with colourful wildflower carpets in the summer and golden larch trees in the fall. Try the relatively easy 7-km/4.3-mi loop to lovely Rock Isle, Larix and Grizzly lakes. The route straddles the Continental Divide, traverses rocky ridges and crosses streams.
Back at the village, relax with a craft beer and pub fare at Mad Trapper’s Saloon & Patio, Sunshine’s original 1920s log-built lodge.
Rather than return to town, why not continue your escape with a night at Sunshine Mountain Lodge? The resort’s luxurious hotel is open for its first summer season in decades. Dine at Chimney Corner Restaurant and have a quiet soak in the largest outdoor whirlpool in Banff.
BEST Hiking. Wildflowers. Overnight stays.
• The gondola operates Fri to Mon June 30 to Sept 4; Tues to Thurs a shuttle bus offers village access. The chairlift runs daily
• Shuttle buses run daily from Banff townsite
• Add on a 45- or 90-minute guided hike
• White Mountain Adventures offers guided hike packages with Banff shuttle
Where the Wild Things Are
Hoping to spot grizzly bears? Lake Louise Gondola, known as ‘Home of the Grizzly,’ reports bear sightings almost every day.
Choose either an enclosed gondola or open chair for the 14-minute ride to the Whitehorn Mountain perch at 2,088 m/6,850 ft. Watch for grazing bears on the open slopes below. At the top are stellar views of Lake Louise, Victoria Glacier and Temple Mountain.
Stroll to the Wildlife Interpretive Centre where kids can get their hands on furs and antlers, and get up close to display mounts of lynx, cougar and wolves. Bring your questions; Association of Canadian Mountain Guides interpreters eagerly dispense wildlife facts.
Or turn the stroll into a hike. Options range from short jaunts through wildflower-strewn mountainside meadows to a summit trek guaranteed to increase your heart rate. Don’t want to go it alone? Choose from three guided hikes.
There are many dining options at the base of the Lake Louise Gondola. Classic breakfasts, burgers and sandwiches, Japanese fare and Starbucks coffee are served at Lodge of Ten Peaks, the second largest log building in Canada. Breakfast and lunch buffets are fortés at Whisky Jack Lodge. Kids play lawn games while adults relax with a beer on the deck at Bear’s Den Smokehouse & Patio in the Kokanee Cabin.
But for the best meal with a view, choose Whitehorn Bistro at the top of the Gondola. Canadian cuisine is served inside or on the huge deck with a panoramic mountain outlook.
BEST Wildlife. Hiking. Families. Dining.
• Guided 45-minute Trail of the Great Bear hikes go on the hour
• Ride & Dine packages are value priced
• Show your Louise Plus Card for discounts
• Kids as young as 18 days and up to 6 years are entertained at the day-care
• For a real Canadian mountain experience, trek to an overnight stay at Skoki Backcountry Lodge
Top of the World Feeling
If you’re looking for epic views, Jasper SkyTram delivers. The longest and highest guided aerial tram in Canada rises up Whistlers Mountain to 2,277 m/7,470 ft and the best vista in Jasper National Park.
See six mountain ranges and peaks up to 80 km/49 mi distant that include Mount Robson, the highest in the Canadian Rockies. The panorama encompasses Jasper townsite and the Athabasca River. Pyramid Lake and Lac Beauvert present as dazzling blue gems within the pine-coated valley.
The SkyTram was built in 1964 and still holds a vintage essence; the base and summit buildings have retro-aesthetic appeal. During the seven-minute glide to the top, a flight attendant in the 30-person capacity tram car provides live commentary on the area’s landscape, nature and history while you take in the 360° view. Questions are welcomed.
At the top, stroll the boardwalk with Parks Canada interpretive signs. Then, hike 1.2 km/.75 mi to the summit and beyond to Indian Ridge. Rocks that fringe the mountain edge are home to marmot, pika and bighorn sheep.
Find sustenance at glass-enclosed Summit Café where snacks and meals are served with a view. Back at the base, have a Starbucks coffee and patio BBQ as you gaze out at Pyramid Mountain. It’s a perfect end to the day.
BEST Views. Hiking. Dining. Stargazing.
• Bring Fido! Obedient dogs are welcome
• Book your guaranteed flight time online to avoid the line-up at the base
• Find Parks Canada red chairs as you hike
• Ride the SkyTram shuttle bus from town
• The concierge books other Jasper tours
• In the fall, Jasper Planetarium hosts telescope stargazing
My Favourite Mountaintop Moment
Sitting on a bench atop Mount Norquay, I closed my eyes and breathed. The sun’s warmth pressed into my face, the scent of wildflowers stirred my senses, and the only sound was the gentle soundtrack of nature.
I was visiting on an unusually quiet afternoon in July. The lack of tour buses meant there were just a handful of visitors admiring the view beside me — a welcome escape from downtown Banff’s summer crowds.
Opening my eyes, I examined the view. Sunlight
illuminated one side of Mount Rundle while a rainstorm swept up the valley on the other side, a rare sight I was lucky to encounter. Looking down on the weather below from my elevated perch was incredible.
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