The weather report says "very chilly". Snow pants are ready, and many layers piled by the back door. It’s a Saturday morning in early November in Calgary and winter has landed early. In this part of the country that means, “Get yourself to the mountains.”
And so we eat toast at the kitchen island and look over the route to the Banff Gondola. We’re city people and it's the weekend.
The four of us pile into the car (water bottles for the two kids, coffee for the two parents, hats and mitts for everybody) and hop on the highway out of town, leaving behind our sheltered Garrison Green neighbourhood for the day. Adventure awaits!
As a family, we’re pretty new to Calgary. But Township Road 241 leading to Bragg Creek and then Banff is already a well-worn route for us. As we drive, the kids ask questions about the Gondola. My oldest daughter, when asked by her younger sister, describes it as a “flying elevator”. My husband Rob verifies that it is, in fact, fully enclosed. It also seats four and climbs to an elevation of 2,281 metres, he says. That's high!
Rob and I relax and sip coffee in the front as we watch the white mountains slowly draw in from the west. They are peaceful greeters and they lure us happily away from the city.
Photo: The Mains family took the scenic route from Calgary to Banff along the Bow Valley. Photo by Aimee Lorefice Mains
A dreamy day trip
Aside from the drive from Calgary through the Bow Valley, which was beautiful and full of photo opportunities for the kids, it was also a short, easy drive to the Gondola from the town of Banff.
We pull into a spacious parking lot near the entry (the “Lower Terminal”) and board the gondola cabin with little fanfare. No lineup for tickets and none for the Gondola either. Coming before noon has lots of perks, not the least of which is that kids ride free*! We boarded at 11:30 AM.
Photo: Margaret and Maria Mains gaze down at cars that "look like ants" below. Photo by Aimee Lorefice Mains
The ride up is fun. It gets the heart racing a little. The upper windows of the Gondola open! The cabin wiggles a little as you pass through the cable towers! Otherwise, it’s a calm ride, eight minutes all in.
As a family of Calgarians on our first trip to the Gondola, we learned a lot. Here are some of our recommendations:
Ride before noon this winter and the kids go free*.
Get your Junior Explorer Booklet at the bottom before you board. They can be hard to find at the top.
Find the friendly staff. Our kids loved Kasey and the large Rice Krispies squares she presided over. A friendly Gondola employee, Kasey greeted us in the Northern Lights Café minutes after we stepped out of our glass cabin with a wave and a pot of warm chocolate. Then, she took the kids to decorate the squares with gummy worms and Smarties. Afterward, we wipe chocolate from our faces and make a beeline for the boardwalk. Find out more about craft activities and other events here.
Do the hike to Sanson’s Peak with the kids. It’s about a kilometre there and back from the Upper Terminal, entirely along a boardwalk. Lined with railings and with plenty of spots to sit, there are interpretive signs along the route. It's named after naturalist Norman Sanson, who made many trips to the weather station at the peak. Read about the six mountain ranges that surround you as you walk, or just look out at them—the views of the mountains, the Bow Valley and Lake Minnewanka below are about as good as it gets.
After the hike…
the kids were anxious to check out the interpretive centre and stamp their Junior Explorer Booklets. There was lots of cool stuff, like a Rock Detectives game, where they guessed the type of rock on the screen based on clues. There were close-up videos of bears and cougars, an explorer’s rope-tying display, stories about young trailblazers, fossils and packing for camping trips, weather-watching, bear prints and poop, all tied together with a final short film of the whole experience, set to a Disney-like orchestral score, in the Above Banff Theatre.
But we didn’t get to it all right away…
We took a lunch break to refuel in the Northern Lights Café, a lovely place to sit, snack and stare out the window. Lots of hot and cold choices.
The Mains family in the classic Banff Gondola photo. "It was a full day and the kids loved it." Photo by Aimee Lorefice Mains.
Plan to linger long in the Northern Lights Café. Floor-to-ceiling windows line the arching room. (Again, those views!) There’s just enough activity to people watch and no competition for a table.
After lunch, we head back to the Above Banff Learning Centre so the kids can get their last few stamps in their Junior Explorer Booklets. We climb up to the observation deck for a few more family photos. The friendly team at the top helps us into our flying elevator and snaps a quick photo before we lift off, this time snuggling in our cabin and waving to passersby, proud of our newfound sense of adventure. Then we soar back to the Lower Terminal
Final Note for Parents:
We left Calgary at about 9:45 AM, reached the Gondola by 11:15 AM, and departed at 3:30 PM with coffee and hot chocolate from the Lower Terminal coffee shop for the road home. It was a full day and the kids loved it. We were back to Calgary in time for supper.
In the Kids’ Words:
“The exhibits were awesome, I learned all four types of knots: the clove hitch, taut-line hitch, bowline and figure eight. I also learned how mountains were made, and why the layers are on the mountains. Also, there are 40 Gondola cabins that go along the rope.”
*Kids go free offer: 1 free child per paying adult when riding before noon.
“It was fun that we got to see cars that look like ants. I used to think I was afraid of heights but now I’m not. The bear paws were bigger than daddy’s hand!”