on February 28, 2009
On the morning of our anniversary, the grey skies were clearing, and Castle Mountain was easily visible as we left the drive from Storm Mountain Lodge. That boded well for the day, and 25 minutes later the skies were perfectly blue as we entered Banff. After a quick breakfast at Cake Company on Bear Street, we headed for the Banff Gondola, figuring we would take advantage of the nearly clear day and the relatively early hour.Not many people are moving at 9 am on a winter’s day in Banff, even when the weather is gorgeous. We headed down Banff Avenue, crossed the Bow River, and headed left on Mountain Avenue up into the foothills of Sulphur Mountain.The Upper Hot Springs is also at the end of Mountain Ave., but both parking lots were empty as we pulled in at quarter to ten. It was a perfect day to head up the mountain, but we had 15 minutes to wait before the gondola cars started running. Despite the weather, only a handful of other people arrived for the 10am opening. We chatted with a young family from Sydney, whose 10-day holiday in the Rockies had become five days in Seattle and five days in Banff due to the freakish snowstorms that had shut down the Pacific Northwest over Christmas. (We met others with similar stories throughout our trip; they all were in pretty good humor despite their ordeals).We were the first ones in line, and right at ten our small gondola headed up the hill. The cars seat four people, but two fill them up just fine. It’s an eight-minute trip to the top of the mountain, and the view just got better the higher we climbed. Behind us was the Fairmont Banff Springs, and past that its golf course, whose fairways were easy to make out along the river’s edge. Beneath us was beautiful, snow-covered forest, and we could make out the trail to the summit criss-crossing underneath our straight-line path. In those eight minutes, we covered a mile and ascended 2,200 feet. Like most cable-cars, you’re never too far off the ground, so that mild acrophobes like me can always get a quick hit of reassurance by looking down at the trees just under the car. Atop the mountain is a modern, 1980’s concrete-bunker of a facility, whose tiers hold the top of the cable, a pair of restaurants, an observation deck, and a trailhead across the ridge. It was too early for the restaurants, but the gift shop was ready and happy to take our money. We left that for later, and headed out on the observation deck.It was pretty windy, and at least 10 degrees colder than down below. But the view in each direction was spectacular. Looking across to Mount Rundle, or down at its feet at the Springs Hotel, or 90 degrees east out the Bow Valley, it was hard to imagine a better winter day. Taking pictures minus one layer of gloves was a little chilly, but I’ll take the view that day, with the mountains partially covered in snow, over a greener and warmer view in midsummer.We spent an hour or so at the top, buying and mailing postcards, and having my wife talk me out of the 1-km ridgeline boardwalk across to the weather station to which Norman Sansom, Banff’s depression era ranger, climbed over 1,000 times. I had a hard time passing, because it was also the site of a significant cosmic ray detector placed there during the International Geophysical Year of 1958, but the boardwalk wasn’t cleared, and the going was pretty snowy.On the way down, we watched our gondola's shadow pass over the trees below, reveling in the perfect skies we’d enjoyed. It was a good start to a great day.DetailsThe gondola is about 15 minutes from downtown Banff. Cross the Bow River and bear left (otherwise you end up on Cave Avenue, headed for the Cave & Basin), and then bear right on Mountain Avenue. Soon, you’ll begin climbing, and eventually you’ll see the Rimrock Hotel, indicating that you’re almost there. Tickets are now $29 for adults (they went up after New Year’s), and I looked in vain for any discount coupons. You can purchase in advance through the Brewster website, but in winter time that’s not a necessity. In summer, I would probably head out on the ridgeline trail immediately after exiting the gondola: I’m sure that the observatory is crowded when the weather is warm.
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