This past summer when 30 riders turned out for the Freewheel Cycle Shop ride, they broke into three separate groups. Newer riders banded together to explore the Jasper classics – such as Fire Escape and Water Tower – on the Pyramid Bench. Another group headed to the intermediate-rated Valley of the Five Lakes trail, which locals simply call Valley of the Five. My group of 10 had a more ambitious goal: the Overlander.
The Overlander trail starts 15 km east of Jasper, Alta., at a roadside turnout where bighorn sheep often gather. The panoramic views of the Canadian Rockies are beautiful but best ignored; the singletrack is carved across a scree hillside that wouldn’t stop a tumbling cyclist until the rider splashed into the cool waters of the Athabasca River.
“When I first rode the Overlander,” says Jasper Park Cycling Association (JPCA) chair Matt Staneland, “I was absolutely blown away by how much the trail changes with the geology. Scree slopes, rocky bits, super flowy treed areas – it just keeps changing. I love the section near the far end with all the big rock-ledge features.”
Our motley crew of bikes included everything from steel-frame single speeds to carbon-fibre full-suspension rigs. The terrain was so varied – descents: fast but technical; climbs: unforgiving and without switchbacks; and flat sections: caked with mud – that by the time the trail dropped into the aspen forest and rolling grass meadows near the long-abandoned Moberly cabin, it was hard to say which bike held the advantage. All were equally filthy, as were their riders.
Variation in terrain is a common theme in Jasper. The Saturday Night Lake Loop, locally called the 20-mile loop, is anchored by rocky climbs and super-smooth descents. But there are log bridges and muddy flats mixed in to slow a rider down. Valley of the Five to Wabasso, another classic commonly suggested to beginner and intermediate riders, is so smooth that local mechanic Derek Anderson likes to claim it seems downhill in both directions. While these trails, and dozens more, are in the Parks Canada– produced “Mountain Biking Guide in Jasper National Park” map, don’t expect to find the endless web of unofficial trails there – such as Razorback and Magic Ridge – that are purpose-built singletrack that make Jasper an underthe- radar mountain bike destination.
“It’s amazing, when I go to events around western Canada, how many people I’ve talked to who have no idea about the cycling here in Jasper,” says Staneland. “There are more than 180 km of singletrack accessible from my back door without having to drive anywhere. That’s amazing.”
In August 2012, Parks Canada announced its plan to shut down many of these trails under the Three Valley Confluence wildlife management plan. The threat prompted the fragmented local riding community to band together. “I’ve always felt that Jasper needed something like the Jasper Park Cycling Association,” says Staneland. “The uproar about trail closures provided the spark needed in the community to get the JPCA off the ground. Now we intend to make it stick and be a strong and valued voice within the community.”
The organization scored an early victory, too, ensuring that most threatened trails were adopted into the official network and designated as “wilderness use trails” rather than closed. Now with more than 90 members and still growing, the JPCA continues to work closely with the park to preserve and improve cycling opportunities.
Jasper National Park sees roughly two million visitors annually, but few come for the cycling. Most are interested in the national park’s many natural wonders: grizzly and black bear viewing; front-country hikes, including Maligne Canyon and Jonas Pass; whitewater rafting on the Sunwapta and Athabasca Rivers; Harley Davidson sidecar motorcycle tours; and the Columbia Icefields. Reader’s Digest subscribers have even voted the Maligne Lake boat experience as Canada’s best cruise, and it is easy to understand why. The 90-minute boat trip is the quintessential Rocky Mountain experience that gives everyone the opportunity to unplug and explore the far reaches of Jasper National Park’s backcountry wilderness.
Scenic drives along the Icefields Parkway, and both the Edith Cavell and Maligne Lake Roads take in fantastic roadside attractions, such as the Maligne Canyon, Angel Glacier and Athabasca Falls. Each one doubles as an excellent road cycling route, too, but it’s the wilderness singletrack that makes cycling in Jasper National Park an adventure.
In July and August, there are nearly 17 hours of daylight, which means the ambitious cyclist can pack multiple rides into a single day. Our ride on the Overlander stretched beyond twilight and we found ourselves riding back to town in the dark. The other two groups had beat us to the Jasper Brew Pub. All Freewheel Cycle group rides end with a free pint of local brew, but between reliving past rides and planning new ones, the night rarely ends with a single round.
How to get there
Jasper is located on the northern section of the Trans- Canada Highway, roughly halfway between Edmonton (364 km) and Prince George, B.C., (375 km). Highway 93, best known as the Icefields Parkway, links Jasper to Banff, Alta., (288 km) and Calgary (417 km).
Where to stay
As a tourist destination, Jasper has plenty of accommodation options to suit any budget. Check out the website jasper.travel for a comprehensive list of hotels and the latest discounts and deals.
Where to eat
Patricia Street and Connaught Drive make up Jasper’s core and both are lined with restaurants. Try the Bear’s Paw Bakery and The Other Paw Bakery Cafe for fresh-baked carbohydrates and espressos; Cassio’s for Italian fare; Evil Dave’s Grill for what they call “comfort food with a twist;” and either Papa George’s or Fiddle River for Alberta game, such as venison, elk, trout and bison.
Where to shop
Freewheel Cycle (618 Patricia St.), Jasper Source for Sports (406 Patricia St.) and Vicious Cycle (630 Connaught Dr.) are all full-service cycle shops and each runs free group rides throughout the summer.