Something’s not right here. It’s a late Sunday morning in July and as I hop off my road bike for a quick photo I have to suddenly duck out of the way of a not-so wayward snowball. My riding partner on the day can’t resist the urge to play in a roadside snow bank and I’m the target. For an hour and a half we could see the mountaintop snow getting closer and closer and finally, as we near the summit of the highest paved road in Canada, we come across accessible snow.
Remembering the snowball-fighting days of my childhood, I successfully avoid taking a face full of snow and then reach down to launch a counterattack. Welcome to the Alberta’s Canadian Rockies, where you can throw snowballs in the morning and swim in picturesque lakes in the afternoon.
Finding and riding Canada’s highest paved road was something I had been wanting to do for some time, and after a bit of research I found out the piece of roadway holding that title belonged to Kananaskis Country, Alberta – where Highway 40 heads south off of the Trans-Canada Highway near Canmore and up and over the Highwood Pass.
While the highest paved road in the U.S., Colorado’s Trail Ridge Road, tops out at more than 12,000 feet, Canada’ equivalent peaks at more manageable 7,239 feet. That’s still high enough, however, to afford some incredible vistas, a legendary climb and enough wildlife sightings to make some zoo-goers jealous.
The road leading up to the Highwood Pass summit runs through Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. There’s a gate 17 km from the summit closing the road off to cars from Dec. 15 to June 15, but it’s open year-round to cyclists, not that you could do this ride in the middle of winter. We started the climb 10 km further back down the road where a gas station and parking lot makes a good place to launch from. However, you can make this climb as long as you’d like as the summit is about 66 km from the Trans-Canada Highway and there are numerous parking lots along the way to start from. The road is mostly uphill that entire stretch and it has a wide paved shoulder that is perfect for cyclists. In the summer, there’s a fair amount of traffic in the area, but drivers are friendly and give plenty of space.
The climb itself is difficult, but not horribly steep. You’re rewarded with constantly-changing views and regular guest appearances by Rocky Mountain Sheep. Elk, grizzly bears and other animals are also known to be in the area. Once you get to the summit, you’re rewarded with a road sign marking the spot and a nearby parking lot with washrooms. Unless it’s an unusually hot day, you’ll likely find the temperature to be significantly cooler at the top, which can make the early part of the descent quite frigid. Because there aren’t many tight turns, the ride down is fun and quite safe.
The great thing about this part of the world is that if road biking isn’t your forte, some of Canada’s best mountain bike trails are also right around the corner. Less than an hour away from the Highwood Pass is the Canmore Nordic Centre, home to the 2010 and 2011 national mountain bike championships. With 30 km of singletrack, an additional 60 km of doubletrack and links to dozens of more trails in the Canmore and Banff area, you’ll never get bored. Remarkably, these well-groomed and incredibly flowy trails are completely free to ride and the park is open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. The Nordic Centre’s trails are very well-marked and are rated by difficulty level. Worth noting, bears in the area are something to be aware of. Riding in groups of four or more, making noise while you ride and carrying bear spray are all ways to stay safe.
Air Canada and Westjet both fly into Calgary Airport, where Canmore is less than an hour and a half away by car along the Trans-Canada Hwy. Banff is 20 minutes north and the Highwood Pass is just south of Canmore on the Kananaskis Trail. The Canmore Nordic Centre is on the edge of town and there are plenty of signs directing you to the park. If you didn’t travel with a bike, Trail Sports at the centre has a full fleet of Rocky Mountain road and mountain bikes available.
Where to stay
There are plenty of hostels, hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts within 20 minutes of Canmore. In town, the Hostel Bear (www.thehostelbear.com) has lodging starting from just $30 a night and discounts for groups. For something a little nicer, check out the Rocky Mountain Ski Lodge (www.rockyski.ca) or the Paintbox Lodge (www.paintboxlodge.com). Just outside Canmore is Dead Man’s Flats, where you can find the Kiska House, a quaint and affordable bed and breakfast, as well as the Bighorn Motel a cyclist-friendly and inexpensive place to stay.
Places to eat
Definitely no shortage of places to eat in the area. For breakfast, check out the Summit Café in Canmore. There’s also the Communitea Café for great food and coffee and the Crazy Weed Kitchen, more of an upscale, but casual restaurant. Banff also has many options ranging from fast food to fancy feasts.