On March 12, Parks Canada announced two amazing road cycling opportunities for 2021. Between Twitter, Facebook and articles in the Calgary Herald and Rocky Mountain Outlook, it turned into a big Fri-yay for pedalheads.
Starting late May, and similar to 2020, the Bow Valley Parkway (aka Highway 1A) will be closed between Banff and Castle Junction. We rode this stretch several times in 2020, and describe several distance/route options here. There are two changes for 2021: ROAM transit Route 9 buses will run between Banff and Johnston Canyon and there will be no parking at the 1A exit off the TransCanada. Parks Canada recommends parking at the Fenlands Recreation Centre or train station in Banff.
New in 2021 is a 3-week road cycling pilot project. Each Monday through Thursday from May 1 to May 20 the Lake Minnewanka Loop will be closed to vehicles. That means for 12 days this spring, there’s another amazing road cycling opportunity in Banff National Park!
Parks Canada recommends parking at Cascade Ponds Day Use Area. From Calgary, take the TransCanada Highway west and take the first exit for Banff. Instead of going towards the Banff townsite, turn the opposite direction and follow the signs to Cascade Ponds. There are pit toilets just off the large parking lot and another set of pit toilets off the smaller parking lot.
Cascade Ponds Day Use Area has about a dozen picnic tables with BBQ-style firepits, as well as a loop trail around the ponds. So a picnic and walk could round out a trip to cycle the Lake Minnewanka Loop.
Lake Minnewanka Loop
Distance: 17 km
Elevation gain: about 200 meters
Starting from Cascade Ponds, the Lake Minnewanka Loop ride is about 17 km, with roughly 200 meters elevation gain. There’s a short stretch of road from the Cascade Ponds parking lot to the t-junction where vehicle access will still be permitted. Beyond the t-junction, service vehicles will still have access to the Lake Minnewanka Loop, so stay alert and obey all rules of the road.
The big decision? Whether to ride the loop clockwise or counterclockwise!
We’ve always ridden counterclockwise. Why? Because the first time we decided to try riding the Lake Minnewanka Loop road, we got to chatting with another cyclist before leaving Cascade Ponds. He recommended riding counterclockwise for two reasons: 1) riding counterclockwise puts all the scenic goodies are on the uphill part of the ride, so there are ready-made good excuses to take a rest break; and 2) if you ride early enough, you may get lucky and spot deer or Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep (usually between Two Jack Lake and the historic site pullout above the spillway.
On the other hand, a good friend always rides the loop clockwise, to enjoy the scenery while gently coasting downhill.
Counterclockwise Route Description
From Cascade Ponds, turn right (north) and ride about 650 meters along flat road to the T-intersection. Turn right onto Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive.
Enjoy the gentle downhill towards a beautiful meadow with a stream.
Passing the meadow, the road makes a U-curve to the right and starts climbing – quite steeply. This is the toughest hill riding counterclockwise.
Mount Rundle comes into view, looming ever closer as you near the top of the steep section.
The road rounds a left corner and then it’s relatively flat, with some fairly wide open views. We’ve stopped a couple of times to photograph Mount Rundle along this stretch before reaching the junction for Johnson Lake.
Side Trip to Johnson Lake
Opting for the side trip to Johnson Lake adds about 5 km to the riding distance and 60 meters elevation gain. It’s downhill going to Johnson Lake and a steady climb to return to Lake Minnewanka Scenic Drive. Be sure to stop just past the one-lane bridge to look at the pipes feeding the water tower and the TransAlta power station beside Highway 1 on the way to Banff.
There are bike racks at Johnson Lake, so you can make a “bike and hike” out of the trip if you lock up your wheels and do the 3 km walk around Johnson Lake.
Two Jack Lake
Two Jack Lake is one of the most photographed spots in Canada. Pop down into the day use area and dip your hands in the water to cool off or stop just off the road to snap a scenic picture or two.
If you’re lucky, you may see deer or Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep between Two Jack Lake and the small parking lot above the Lake Minnewanka outlet (where keen eyed cyclists will see a National Historic Event plaque marking the Palliser Expedition).
Depending on the date, Lake Minnewanka Cruise boats may not be running, but starting early May they should be at the docks so you can at least get a photo.
There are some great photo spots at Lake Minnewanka, too, include a pair of red “share the chair” Adirondacks and some shoreline spots.
Another “bike and hike” option would be to lock up your bike here and walk to the bridge over Stewart Canyon. If you’re on a mountain bike, this trail is open to mountain bikes. Past Stewart Canyon, seasonal restrictions on bikes come into effect in early July.
Upper Bankhead/C-Level Cirque
Departing from Lake Minnewanka and continuing counterclockwise, you’ll notice the forest feels a little closer on both sides. This stretch of the loop back to the T-intersection is closed to vehicles during the winter months and into early spring, to give wildlife more room to roam.
Your next opportunity for a stop is at the Upper Bankhead Day Use picnic area. There’s another “bike and hike” option from here: C-Level Cirque. It’s the most demanding of the “bike and hike options” in terms of hiking distance and elevation gain (up to 10+ km with >700 meters total elevation gain).
The final option for a stop when riding counterclockwise is Lower Bankhead, with the opportunity to take a walk through remnants of Banff National Park’s coal mining past.
Option to Extend Your Ride
If you’d like a longer ride, we recommend parking at the visitor centre in Canmore and riding the Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail from Canmore to Cascade Ponds and continuing on to ride the Lake Minnewanka Loop. Total riding distance is 56 km, with 449 meters total elevation gain. Bonus = metric half-century bragging rights. 🙂
And while none of these Relive video recaps are from the pilot project period, here are virtual ride-alongs from 2020, in July, August and October, all starting from Three Sisters/Stewart Creek in Canmore to Lake Minnewanka Loop via the Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail.