NOTE: Parks Canada opened Highway 1A to vehicle traffic on September 1, 2021. Public feedback re: future years’ cycling opportunities is open until September 9, 2021. We have our fingers crossed that there will be many days each year to ride this scenic route without vehicles on the road.
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Have you heard about the latest pandemic perk in Banff National Park? Starting June 1, 2020, Parks Canada closed the Bow Valley Parkway to vehicle traffic between Banff and Castle Junction. So if you’re looking for a highway ride with no vehicles zooming past, it’s a great time to cycle through a small piece of Canada’s beautiful Rocky Mountains. The Restricted Activity Bulletin is in effect until further notice, so be sure to check the current status before you go.
We headed out early on June 11 to ride from our Canmore home base in the Three Sisters/Stewart Creek area to Johnston Canyon and back.
We started on the Three Sisters multi-use pathway, which offers views of some of the most-recognized mountain peaks in the Bow Valley, including the Three Sisters…
…and Mount Lawrence Grassi / Ha Ling.
Across from the Canmore Visitor Centre we paused long enough to check the trip counter for the Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail. We were users 9 and 10 that morning.
Riding west from Canmore, our first stop was Valley View rest area, where the pit toilets are open and the view of Mount Rundle is always stunning. There is a selfie opportunity here at the Parks Canada red chairs situated at the east end of the rest area.
Continuing towards Banff, we noticed new wiring and signs along a stretch of wildlife fencing. Parks Canada is testing electrical fencing to see whether it deters bears from digging under/climbing over to feast on the dandelions that grow along the trail.
Our next stop was in Banff, for a photo at the big Banff sign across from the Fenlands Recreation Centre.
Vermillion Lakes Road is always a scenic highlight. We were too late for sunrise, but Mount Rundle is stunning any time of day. And we spotted a Cinnamon Teal duck at the second wharf.
At the far end of Vermillion Lakes Road, where vehicles turn around in the cul-de-sac, there’s another stretch of the Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail. It’s a short connector to the Bow Valley Parkway but you have to stop twice to get through large gates meant to keep the wildlife off the highway.
At the Banff end of the Bow Valley Parkway, we spotted a few private vehicles in the small parking lot, and a similar number of Parks Canada trucks. Signs and barriers made it clear that private vehicles could not proceed. Parks Canada, emergency, contractor, railway and utility vehicles still have access, and we encountered 4 or 5 vehicles during our return ride to/from Johnston Canyon.
Once past the barricade, we spotted some work by local artist, Fraser McGurk.
After a short pause to admire his signature style, we headed off to enjoy the ride along fresh asphalt. We took our time, stopping at every point of interest and viewpoint. At Muleshoe Picnic Area we discovered another set of “share the chairs”.
There are peek-a-boo views of Mount Bourgeau and Castle Mountain, but with the forest growing quite close along both sides of the road, we think Highwood Pass offers more-scenic-bang-for-the-buck. Of course, Highwood Pass opens to vehicles on June 15, so if you’re after a vehicle-free highway ride summer of 2020, the Bow Valley Parkway is a better option.
Parks Canada trucks patrolled the Parkway quite regularly. At one point, a ranger stopped to let us know there was a black bear in the area.
Turns out there must have been two black bears in the area, because it was several km on (where the road splits) when we spotted this beauty. Why did the bear cross the road? To get to (the dandelions on) the other side! We waited for it to browse a bit longer and then move several meters off the road before riding past as quickly as possible on the far side of the single lane.
We each carried bear spray in a bike handlebar holder where it’s within easy reach. But the bear pretty much ignored us so we didn’t even pull it out.
At the Johnston Canyon parking lot we took a bit of a rest break and fueled up for the ride back.
About a half dozen cyclists pulled in while we were there, hinting at the 70 to 80 riders we encountered on the ride back to the Legacy Trail Connector. So it was no surprise that the small parking lot was full and vehicles were parked along the shoulder (about 25 vehicles in total).
After another short snack break along Vermillion Lakes Road, it was time to buckle down and ride for home. These photos of me taken near the beginning and end of the ride show how much this ride drained me. We were users 338 and 340 at the end of our ride.
I had to stop once to stretch out my hamstrings, which were cramping up over the last few km. Mr GeoK had no issues with muscle cramping and throttled back his speed to keep an eye on me.
I’m happy to report that we did it! Our longest ride ever! As for whether we’d go again? Absolutely!
Distance = 112 km return
Elevation gain = 588 meters total
Time = 6.5 hrs, including 1.5 hours for snack and photography stops
Maximum speed = 66 kph
Not everyone has 6-7 hours for a bike ride. And not everyone wants to ride 100+ km. So here are several ways to take advantage of the current Bow Valley Parkway vehicle closure, depending on your level of fitness, the amount of time you have and whether you’d like to add a hiking component to your day:
1. End-to-End Ride
Return distance approximately 48 km, total elevation gain approximately 280 meters. There are several points of interest along the route. Pit toilets are available at the Johnston Canyon parking lot.
2. Ride the 1A to Johnston Canyon
Park in the small lot or along the shoulder of the Bow Valley Parkway just off the TransCanada at the Banff end. Our best guess is there is room for 25-30 vehicles here. The return ride is 35 km with total elevation gain of roughly 255 meters. Pit toilets are available at the Johnston Canyon parking lot.
3. Bike and Hike
Combine option 2 with a hike at least part way up Johnston Canyon. Since the catwalks at Johnston Canyon make it harder to maintain physical distancing, we recommend keeping a watch ahead for oncoming hikers and then holding back until the catwalk is clear. Another option – without those narrow catwalks – is to ride another km or so past Johnston Canyon to hike from the Moose Meadows parking lot and hike up to the Ink Pots.
NOTE: you can shorten the biking piece by starting at the Castle Junction end. Park at the Rockbound Lake/Silverton Falls parking lot and you’re looking at a mostly flat, 13 km (return) bike ride.
4. Ride from Banff
Level-up the scenery on your adventure by parking at the old train station or the Fenlands Recreation Centre in Banff. Ride out along Vermillion Lakes Road to the connector leg of the Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail and then onto the Bow Valley Parkway. Total elevation gain is about 290 meters and total riding distance is just shy of 50 km. Consider adding on a short ride through the Banff townsite to earn bragging rights to a metric-half-century ride.
5. Ride from Canmore
Park at the Canmore Visitor Centre and ride the Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail to Banff, through Banff to Vermillion Lakes Road and continue as per 4, above. Total elevation gain is about 490 meters and total riding distance is approximately 95 km. Extend your ride a couple of km past Johnston Canyon or throw in a side trip in Banff to visit Bow Falls to earn your metric-century ride achievement!
Remember, all visitors to Banff National Park need a valid park pass. Now choose your adventure and let us know how it goes by dropping a comment below or tagging @GeoKs on Twitter!