It’s early June and the mountains are calling. Canada’s highest public paved road is snow free but closed to motor vehicles until June 15th. What to do? Join the steady stream of cyclists and pedal to the summit of Highwood Pass!
We rode mountain bikes from the winter gate in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park to the summit of Highwood Pass in 2016. I have clear memories of the last few km to the summit: steep and challenging. This time, we rode our cyclocross bikes (new in 2017) and found it considerably easier going. That’s not to minimize the challenge; the highway gains more than 500 meters elevation over 17 km. But narrower, smoother tires make a big difference! The day we rode, almost all the other cyclists we saw were on road bikes. We saw only two mountain bikes – and they had electric assist!
Load your bike and travel the TransCanada Highway between Calgary and Canmore. Turn south onto Highway 40, aka the Kananaskis turn off. Drive about 45 minutes to the locked gate and park safely along the shoulder. At the time of writing, there is no public transit option.
NOTE: There is a second winter gate, at the other end of Highwood Pass. Near Longview, it’s about a 45 minute drive from Calgary. It’s a longer ride, but the elevation gain is more gradual. For more on this option, check out this blog post from HikeBikeTravel.
The two sides of the winter gate are chained together. Some cyclists lift their bikes over the chain. Others carry their wheels around one end post or the other. But most tilt their bikes at an angle and lift them through the gate.
Mr. GeoK opted for the tilt and through method before setting his GPS to record the ride. We arrived around 9:30 and you can see behind him that fewer than a dozen cars were parked along the north-facing shoulder.
Off we rode, under beautiful blue sky. It felt amazing to be on a wide-open road, rolling along, with mountains on either side.
Mr. GeoK got ahead of me, and he deliberately stopped to take this photo of me chatting with another rider that I’d overtaken. I’m always happy to chat with people we meet while out hiking or biking. This fellow has ridden Highwood Pass more than 10 times and has seen at least one bear on half his rides. We did not see any bears the day we rode, nor any other wildlife. But we did enjoy riding to a soundtrack of birdsong – something possible only when the highway is closed to motorized vehicles.
We ended up overtaking quite a few riders, including this loose group. Of course, we were also overtaken – mainly by folks on road bikes with clip shoes, but also a couple of electric-assist mountain bikes.
As when we ride the Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail, Mr. GeoK and I regularly leapfrogged one another, to allow for plenty of photos. 🙂
We reached the summit in about 90 minutes. Lucky for us, one rider was well ahead of the rest of his group, and was happy to take our photo with the summit sign – proof we made it!
Continuing on from the summit sign, we made a brief stop at the Highwood Pass Day Use Area to use the facilities, and then rode another kilometer or so to the trailhead for Arethusa Cirque. After ditching our bikes in the woods and transferring our lunches from our underseat bags to our packs, we headed up into the woods.
The trail was only partially free of snow. We should have packed gaiters, but since we didn’t, we both ended up with soaking wet feet because the snow came in over the tops of our boots. At one point, the snow was so deep that I opted for crawling (instead of post holing).
We crossed the meadow and the creek and ascended part way up the talus field below the cirque, where we selected a flat boulder for our picnic spot. It offered a lovely view across the valley to Highwood Ridge.
Mr. Geok, done with lunch, was ready to get moving again.
One end of the cirque wall.
I was determined to get a photo with the creek in it!
Even though we were kind of expecting a fair number of people at the summit sign on our return, there were more than we’d figured on. It was kind of a bicycle traffic jam!
There is one short stretch where avalanche debris crossed the highway, but cyclists before us had cleared a path. Mr. GeoK photographed me clearing the debris patch on the way up, but I like this photo from the descent, that shows Highwood Ridge in the background, better.
My top speed on the way down reached 65 kph (40 mph). Mr. GeoK topped me, with a top speed of 72 kph (45 mph). I don’t like to contemplate a wipe out at that speed. 🙁
It took us 40 minutes from the summit to reach the gate. Some 50+ vehicles were parked, on both shoulders of Highway 40 and also along the turn into the camping/Kananaskis Lakes area.
Forest Under Stress
The weather cooperated and we’ll definitely ride Highwood Pass again. Maybe next year we’ll try riding gate to gate (109 km total distance with double the elevation gain). The only sad note? We were shocked to see how many dying trees there are in the Kananaskis Valley – mostly pines (pine beetle kill, presumably), but also some spruce. There’s a definitely orange-red tinge to swaths of trees in this panorama shot.
Bike: 2 hrs, 45 minutes to cover 38 km with 771 meters total elevation gain
Hike: 1 hr 45 minutes to cover 2.2 km and take a long lunch break with 136 meters total elevation gain
I consider this a great conditioning ride and love the fact that it’s closed to motorized traffic until June 15th. There are wide shoulders on either side, so would be a comfortable ride throughout the summer/early fall. But the birdsong soundtrack would be missing from the experience, and so would the bicycle traffic jam at the summit.
Have you ridden Highwood Pass? If so, do you have a preferred side of the pass, or do you enjoy riding gate to gate?
2 thoughts on “Bike & Hike: Highwood Pass and Arethusa Cirque”
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