GONDOLA SIGHTSEEING EXPERIENCES – 360° of WINTER

Winter sightseers at the top of the Lake Louise Ski Resort gondola in winter.

The Banff Gondola and the Lake Louise Ski Resort provide gondola sightseeing experiences year round to two of the most scenic viewpoints in the Canadian Rockies. These organizations both provide a quick, easy way to get a 360° birds eye view of the mountains even in winter on their gondola’s. It is a must-do sightseeing & photography activity for when you visit Banff National Park! I recently had the chance to go to both locations and was impressed by the opportunities to capture unique photographs, especially on the longer telephoto lens, as well as the world class guest service that’s provided to you along the way. I’ll share more details on my gondola sightseeing experiences here in the Rockies at both the Banff Gondola and the Lake Louise Ski Resort below, including details on where to find and book your tickets on both of these gondolas, what to expect when you arrive, and talk about some of the photographic opportunities you should aim for when you get to the top!

THE BANFF GONDOLA

The Banff Gondola is located at the base of Sulphur Mountain at the end of Mountain Avenue in Banff. Take local transit if you can as it can get busy in town and the parking lot up there.

GETTING THERE

The Banff Gondola is serviced year-round by Bow Valley ROAM Transit Services on Route 1. Buses run regularly, with stops along Banff Avenue. Contact ROAM Transit for information at roamtransit.com. $2/ RIDE | $1/ AGES 6-13. If you are driving, from Banff Ave, travel south to the end, turn left after the bridge onto Spray Ave. Stay right onto Mountain Ave and follow that to the end where you will find the Banff Gondola parking lot. Please note parking at the Banff Gondola is very limited.

BOOK A TICKET ONLINE

Click here to book a ticket – prices range from $40 – $60. Book online to get the best deal. Check operating hours here before you go.

WHAT TO EXPECT

It’s a steep 10+ minute ride up the Banff Gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain at 2281m (7486ft). The staff at the loading and unloading areas are friendly and helpful and will probably talk to you about the photo opportunities once they see the tripod attached to your bag. In the building at the top there is a restaurant (Sky Bistro – make a reservation as it is one of the most popular one’s in Banff), a gift shop, a coffee shop and a big viewing deck where I like to go first to see the view and take a few photos before making a plan to walk over to Cosmic Ray Station at the higher elevation of 2383m (7818ft). It’s a great base as you can warm up inside easily just next to the viewing deck. Once ready head off along the boardwalks with it’s many side lookouts. The snow loaded trees look amazing from here. My favourite area is hanging out by the Cosmic Ray Station at the end because the views are unobstructed and include 6 mountain ranges! Watch the lights come on down in Banff from here!

ALPENGLOW FESTIVAL

Mid February to Mid March every year. Head to the top for an even more amazing Banff gondola sightseeing experience. Check their website for the latest details and times for any of the associated activities. These could include live music, specialty cocktails & snacks, s’more roasting on the rooftop fire pits and the use of professional telescopes! It is suitable for all ages and is usually happening from afternoon until close.

PHOTO TIPS + BEST TIME

3pm-8pm so you can capture the transition from afternoon light to sunset to blue hour to stars. Bring your tripod as you will need it to keep the image quality high as darkness settles in. Just make sure to not leave it unattended for even a moment as it can be windy.

Take the full range of lenses from ultra-wide to telephoto as there is space to explore and get different perspectives. Walk across to Cosmic Ray Station 0.5km away on the boardwalks. Keep your eye out for the alpenglow in the opposite side of the sky to where the sun has set during blue hour. This will appear over in the Lake Minnewanka direction. Also watch out for the aurora as it gets really dark which could appear over in the Cascade Mountain direction. Check the SpaceWeatherLive app for the current aurora data.

Learn how to exposure bracket before you go so you can capture a more complete range of light as the lights of Banff town come on. It is the perfect place to put these skills into practice. Using a cable release will help keep the frames aligned for blending the exposures together later on.


THE LAKE LOUISE SKI RESORT GONDOLA

The Lake Louise Ski Resort is located in Banff National Park, 2 hours (184 KM or 115 miles) west of Calgary and 40 minutes (60 KM or 36 miles) west of the town of Banff.

GETTING THERE

Once in the small town of Lake Louise it is only 5 minutes up to the resort. It’s on the opposite side of the valley from the lake. Use one of the free shuttles from there as parking can get busy on the weekends especially.

BOOK A TICKET ONLINE

Click here to book a ticket in winter – prices range for $17 – $40. Combine a sightseeing ticket with a sunny tube park ticket for a great half day (when tubing is open)! If you are looking for ski lift tickets or If you arrive in summer check out the reservations page here. The sightseeing option on the Grizzly Express Gondola is open from 10am – 3.30pm.

WHAT TO EXPECT

It is a 10+ minute scenic gondola ride up to the shoulder of Whitehorn Mountain at 2088m (6850ft). In summer time you can look for grizzly bears beneath you but in winter keep your eyes open for lynx. Make sure to use the washroom at the base area before getting on the gondola as there aren’t any facilities at the top. Likewise, there isn’t a place to warm up or any food or drink available so come self sufficient and ready to get a real open air mountain top experience! The gondola staff will point out any hazards and area’s where you are allowed to be once you arrive, as well as share in your stoke for the views and answer any of your questions. Bring along some ice cleats for your feet to walk around safely and mind the skiers & boarders. The vibe is electric and upbeat. If you are lucky you will find a nice area off to one side in which to set up and start taking photos in every direction of the countless mountains. Temple, Victoria, Balfour, Lefroy & Aberdeen to name just a few of the ones that are glacially capped! This is a rare opportunity to slow down and capture the beauty of the Canadian Rockies without attachments to your feet ready to whisk you down the mountain. Bring a hot drink in a thermos and the mint slices (ordered from Australia on https://www.getdinkum.com).

PHOTO TIPS + BEST TIME

10am when the Lake Louise gondola sightseeing experience opens for the day is the best time to go! Early morning side light on the peaks in the Lake Louise area should be perfect. If you go in the weeks around the winter solstice on December 21st that is quite close to sunrise as well (~8.45am). After fresh snowfall any time of day would be great as there are trees around the gondola top which look amazing snow covered providing clean winter foregrounds..

Take your telephoto lens to capture the distant peaks and any winter atmosphere – inversions, ice fog/haze, and swirling cloud. I recommend anything from 70 – 600mm. Wind carved snow patterns and lone trees can be more easily isolated on the longer lenses too. Since you won’t be walking too far zooming with your lenses from a safe location is the way to go. Challenge yourself to find some minimalistic scenes once you have taken in the grand landscape. It’s not often you have your photography gear with you at the top of the ski resort so take full advantage of it.


A FINAL NOTE

If you are visiting either of these locations in winter make sure to gear up as it is much colder and windier at the top. Use my recommendations on winter gear as a guide and take more warmth than you think you will need.

Also make sure to follow Alberta Health and social distancing/mask wearing guidelines that are in effect at the time of your visit.

Have fun up there and share your gondola sightseeing experiences in the comments below!


If you would like to join us next winter on a weekend adventure to the top of both of these gondolas for 360° of winter photography then sign up to my mailing list below. It is where you will hear about it first and have priority booking access!

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