Many of our favourite hikes are up in the Highwood Pass area of Kananaskis Country: Arethusa Cirque, Pocaterra Cirque/Ridge and Grizzly Ridge, to name a few. The area is closed to vehicles from December 15 through June 15 each year. But it’s not closed to bicycles!
With our teenage son joining friends for the better part of a day in Kananaskis Country, Mr. GeoK and I had to figure out how best to spend the 4 or 5 hours between dropping K off and then picking him up again. My first impulse was a short hike. But when Mr. GeoK suggested we try riding from the winter gates to the summit of the highest paved road in Canada, I was pretty quick to agree to try.
Around 11 a.m., we joined more than a dozen vehicles parked along the shoulders of Highway 40 just downhill of the winter gate. Several riders were just starting their 17 km ride to the summit, but by the time we unloaded our bikes and got ourselves organized, they were well along the first incline.
After a slow and steady climb, we took our first break at about the 5 km mark (I needed to stretch my hamstrings). The next hill was a little steeper, so we took another short break at the 8 km mark. Then it was a pretty nice ride, with amazing mountain scenery, lots of ups and a couple of downs, not too bad at all.
But a couple of km from the summit, with 180 meters still to climb, the grade steepened and it was time to dig a little deeper and pedal a little harder. I had our GPS mounted on my handlebars and started counting off every 10 meters of gain as I geared down a little more and kept on pedaling.
Almost exactly 1 hr 30 minutes after we started riding, we reached the summit. A few people riding road bikes had passed us and were already there when we arrived. Others came up a few minutes later. We were at the summit sign for less than 10 minutes and at least 15 riders either rode up or started back down. Pretty much everyone got a picture with the summit sign, and we were no exception!
We figured the ride down wouldn’t take more than about half an hour and since we still had 2.5 hours before it was time to pick up our son, we continued on to the Highwood Meadows Day Use parking lot to enjoy the picnic lunch we’d packed along. It’s was kind of strange seeing the parking lot absolutely empty! And it was kind of chilly; I was glad to switch out my cycling helmet for the toque I’d packed.
Over lunch, Mr. GeoK observed that if we hustled, we could continue a bit further south and hike up to the meadow at Arethusa Cirque and still get back in time to collect our son at the appointed time. So off we went. But we didn’t get much further than the trailhead because about 5 meters along we encountered a patch of snow roughly 30 cm deep, with plenty more snow on the trail beyond that. I’ve torn my ACL and didn’t have my knee brace along, so we did the prudent thing and turned back.
In the end, it’s a good thing we opted out of slogging up to the meadow. It started snowing as we began our ride back towards the winter gates. A little further on the snow changed to ice pellets and we learned that riding into ice pellets at speeds approaching 50 kph makes it seem like you’re riding into a swarm of really angry hornets who want nothing more than to sting your face a thousand times! I was really thankful the ice pellets only lasted about 5 minutes!
But it wasn’t the weather that made our ride down take a little over an hour. The main reason was that we kept playing a kind of leapfrog, with one riding ahead, then stopping to photograph the other as they approached and then rode on by.
And the other reason was that we came upon a herd of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep licking salt off the road. We did our best to be Wild Smart, sticking to the shoulder, moving slowly, and stopping a fair distance away before getting out our cameras. But many other cyclists rode by and the sheep kept moving, so we ended up within meters of some of them – a rare treat.
In the end, we finished our ride with just enough time to pic up our son as scheduled.
Mr. GeoK and I agree that we’ll do this ride again. It’s only possible to do it without vehicles on the road for a few weeks each year…from springtime when the snow’s off enough to make it passable and mid-June, when the winter gates open. From the date of publication, there are two more weekends to do the ride before the gates open for the summer of 2016. Don’t expect solitude! In the four hours we were on the road, we estimate we encountered somewhere around another 100 riders, many on road bikes, some on mountain bikes. We rode our mountain bikes (pumped up the tires more than usual) because they have a lot of gears! Our hybrid bikes with road tires have only 11 gears, which would have made the ride up quite difficult.
Total distance = 39 km (24 miles); 34 km to the summit sign and back
Elevation gain = 720 meters (total); 500 meters (net) to the summit sign
Difficulty = moderately challenging, with some extended climbs. I’ve read that if this somehow ended up as part of the Tour de France, the length and grade of the final climb to the pass would earn it a Category 1 rating. But that also means an easy ride back down. We reached a top speed on the way down of 54 kph!!