This year, we cycled the Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail from mid-May through mid-October, when the trail officially closed for the winter. Thanks to a wide range of extensions available on either end, our rides ranged from 53 to 86 km and included a good mix of destinations in both Canmore and Banff.
Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail
The Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail runs roughly parallel to the TransCanada Highway from the Visitor Centre in Canmore to the east end of Banff Avenue – a distance of just over 20 km. The ride west from Canmore to Banff is a little harder than riding the other way, due to prevailing winds and elevation gain (130 meters total, 75 meters net).
Starting from Canmore, highlights of the route include:
Just across the road from the Visitor Centre in Canmore, amenities at the east end of the Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail include permanently installed tire pump, bike stand and basic tools and the ECO Totem ride counter. We have a habit of checking the daily counter every time we go past this point. On the 2017 May long weekend, the lifetime number of trips surpassed 500,000 and by the end of October it ticked past 600,000. If you’re curious about the how use of the trail has increased over the 7 years since it opened in 2010 or wonder which months are busiest, you can check the stats here.
Pedaling west from the ride counter, enjoy a 10+ minute warm-up riding the mostly flat, sometimes curving pathway between the Visitor Centre and the Banff National Park east gates. Along the way, listen for a hawk so you’ll know when to search for its nest atop a power pole beside the rail line. There’s a very small hill at the Canmore sign. In 2017, Parks Canada installed a sign welcoming trail users to Banff National Park.
The Big Hill
Just west of the vehicle entry to Banff National Park is the toughest stretch of the westbound ride. A slow, steady climb soon steepens – but it doesn’t last long! Gear down, stand up if you have to, be ready to breathe hard for a minute or two – as soon as you take the second corner on the hill, you’re at the top! Those opting to take a water break here should be careful to pull all the way off the path or continue a short distance to where lines of sight open up again. For those in good shape, the 20 m elevation gain is NBD!
Valley View Rest Area
This rest area is a great place for a quick stop to enjoy a full front view of Mount Rundle and snap a #sharethechair photo with a pair of Parks Canada’s red adirondack chairs. If you need an actual pit stop, the pit toilets are at the east end of the rest area, not far from the motorized vehicle turn off/onto the TransCanada Highway.
(Almost) All Downhill from Here
Continuing towards Banff from Valley View rest area, the first noteworthy trail feature is the “dip” – where, if you’re not paying attention and your riding buddy is just the right distance ahead of you, riders disappear from view for a few seconds when the drop down into a drainage channel and then re-emerge on the far side. How much you enjoy the “dip” depends on what kind of bike you’re riding: on a mountain bike, you’ll have to pedal like crazy on the way back up but on a cyclocross or road bike, it’s pure fun!
Next up, thanks to the big downhill, you’ll find out how fast you’re comfortable going. Once the trail flattens out, enjoy steady pedaling past the old 6-mile marker, the hoodoos on the far side of the highway, and the beaver pond, all while enjoying a great big view of Cascade Mountain. If you’re lucky enough to come around the corner past the TransAlta power station at about the same time a train starts to slow down for the big corner near Cascade Ponds, you might want to put on a burst of speed and race the train!
Final Push to Banff
Just past the first gate with electrical mat (to discourage wildlife from getting out onto the highway), the trail drops below highway grade. If you’ve been riding into a headwind since Canmore, this stretch provides a short break from the wind.
Just before the second gate with electrical mat, the trail branches, with the right branch crossing under the highway to Cascade Ponds, which we use as a turnaround point if we’re looking to keep our total ride under 3 hours.
Continuing through the second gate, the trail makes a big turn to the left and then you’re in for a long shady stretch of pathway running parallel to Banff Avenue all the way to motel row. We’ve seen elk and horseback riders along this stretch. Also, some of the vehicles turning off Banff Ave onto Tunnel Mountain Road move at a good clip, so we make a habit of carefully looking in all three directions.
Extensions In and Around Banff
Vermillion Lakes Road
Our favourite extension in and around Banff is to ride across town (using side streets) to Mt Norquay road and then along scenic Vermillion Lakes Road to the very end, where there’s another short stretch of Legacy Trail that connects to the Bow Valley Parkway. Many ride the Parkway, some all the way to Lake Louise, but we have never (yet) ventured beyond the gate at the end of the pathway. This extension adds up to 30 km (return) to the total riding distance, depending how far we ride along Vermillion Lakes Road.
Sundance Canyon Trailhead
Another option is to ride along Muskrat Street to the pedestrian bridge over the Bow River. Turning right and riding upstream parallel to the Bow River eventually leads to the parking lot for Cave and Basin National Historic Site. From there, you can ride all the way to the Sundance Canyon trailhead. If you’re not wearing clip shoes and you have a bike lock, it’s possible to lock up your bike and do the Sundance Canyon hike before pedaling back. Even if you opt to skip the hike, the long hill down from the canyon trailhead can be an enjoyable “coast” on a hot day. This option adds roughly 25 km to the total riding distance.
Other options in Banff include any of the several museums, a stop for lunch or a short extension to Bow Falls.
Extensions In and Around Canmore
At the Canmore end, pathways on the south side of the Bow River lead all the way to Stewart Creek golf course – via the Three Sisters Multi-Use Pathway or the Highline Trail (experienced mountain bikers only). On the north side of the river, paved pathways lead to Cougar Creek (and beyond).
The first few years we rode the Legacy Trail, it was on mountain bikes – very doable and a pretty good workout. The last couple of years, we fly along the trail on our cyclocross bikes, kitted out with enough bags that we don’t have to wear backpacks. As Mr. GeoK likes to say, it’s like he’s a kid again with nothing to worry about except pedaling as fast as he can! That being said, spandex-clad road cyclists with clip pedals regularly pass us (or at least me).
We’re looking forward to the future connection to Canmore Nordic Centre Provincial, which we hope will be completed in 2018.
Have you ridden the Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail? What have we missed? Is there another option at either the Banff or Canmore end that we should try?