During the first summer of the COVID pandemic, Parks Canada closed Highway 1A to vehicles between Banff and Castle Junction. Biking the Bow Valley Parkway turned into a popular road ride – a way to get out into nature for fresh and exercise, whether alone, with family or friends.
For summer 2021, Parks Canada opened the Castle Junction to Johnston Canyon stretch to vehicles, but cyclists continued to enjoy vehicle-free summer access between Banff and Johnston Canyon. This made it harder for families to enjoy cycling on Highway 1A, due to the longer distance and hillier route compared to the short, relatively flat ride from Castle Junction to Johnston Canyon.
Beginning 2022, Parks Canada is running a three year pilot project for biking the Bow Valley Parkway, further restricting the experience:
- From May 1 through June 25, Highway 1A will be closed to vehicles between the Banff interchange and the Johnston Canyon parking lot. Bicycle access is limited to 8 am to 8 pm, as part of a broader wildlife conservation seasonal closure.
- For September, Highway 1A will be closed to vehicles between the Banff interchange and the Johnston Canyon parking lot.
- In a major change from 2020 and 2021, there is NO parking at the Banff end of Highway 1A. Parking options are the Fenlands Recreation Centre or train station visitor lots in Banff.
Prepare for a Great Ride
The May/June/September pilot program means you’re going to be riding during the spring and fall shoulder seasons. Consider packing more layers than you think you’ll need. We rode May 4th and my feet were very cold by the time we finished our 50 km route. That was despite wearing wool socks!!
We started our May 4th ride in full-fingered, insulated cycling gloves. Part way through the ride, we both switched to lightweight, fingerless cycling gloves.
Mother Nature treated us to light rain showers for the entire ride – light enough that DWR (durable water resistant) fleece-lined tights and sweaters were sufficiently dry and warm. But we should have packed a rain shell/rain pants given the weather forecast.
That being said, after riding for a while, I warmed up enough to delayer my pullover lightweight fleece. Mr. GeoK wore his fleece headband with ear flaps throughout the ride. I was warm enough without it for most of the ride.
Food and Drink
We usually pack a light snack and a couple of litres of water (each) for the 50 km ride from Banff to Johnston Canyon and back. You’ll know your family’s needs best. If you’re riding on a cooler day, consider hot chocolate or a favourite tea to help stay warm during your ride. And a few extra snacks can make all the difference when you’re encouraging little ones on the ride back to your starting point.
We’ve noticed that when they spot someone in trouble, cyclists usually at least slow down to ask if everything’s okay. Many are willing to pitch in to help with basic repairs, such as a flat tire or broken chain. Steps to avoid a breakdown in the first place include pre-ride bike checks, post-ride routine maintenance and regular tune-ups. Even better if you’ve got the training and tools to be a self-sufficient rider after a minor breakdown. Mr GeoK has the pre-ride bike checks, post-ride routine maintenance and basic repairs covered. We get annual tune-ups at the shop where we bought our bikes.
One other essential piece of gear when riding the Bow Valley Parkway is bear spray. At least one member of your riding group should have ready access to bear spray, just in case.
Route Options for Biking the Bow Valley Parkway
1. Short and Steep – Johnston Canyon to Hillside Meadows (Loop)
This short loop is approximately 10 km with around 150 meters total elevation gain. Park at Johnston Canyon and ride towards Banff, to where the divided highway ends. Then ride back on the other leg of the divided highway, creating a loop. Possible stops include the Pilot Pond rest area and/or Hillside Meadows (at the Banff end of the divided highway loop).
We’ve never stopped at the Pilot Pond rest area, because it’s such a short distance from our usual Johnston Canyon turnaround spot. But after viewing some Pilot Pond photos while researching this post, a stop here is on our “must do” list for an upcoming ride.
While short, the elevation gain on this loop (you ride uphill on both sides of the loop) makes it a poor choice for young kids and casual riders. On the other hand, it’s the only route that doesn’t involve sharing the road with vehicles for at least part of your ride. Also, we’ve reached coasting speeds well over 60 km/h on the downhill towards Johnston Canyon. So if you really don’t want to ride on a road shared with motorized vehicles or if you’re a speed demon/looking for a 10 km training loop you can ride as many times as needed to reach your distance goal, this one may be for you.
2. Short and Sweet – Banff to Backswamp (Out and Back)
This out and back ride is just under 20 km, with an elevation gain of about 60 meters. Park at the Fenlands Recreation Centre or train station in Banff. One advantage to parking at the train station is indoor flush toilets. There are portable pit toilets in the parking lot at Fenlands.
Cross the busy Mt. Norquay Road to access the paved, multi-use trail that goes right past the “Banff” sign. No matter how many photos we’ve already taken with this sign, we almost always stop for another.
Repeated stops for wildlife sightings (elk, deer, a variety of song birds and water birds), amazing scenery and the occasional kayak/SUP/canoe sighting, mean it often takes way longer than expected to reach the end of Vermilion Lakes Road.
The far end of Vermilion Lakes Road marks the start of a standalone stretch of stretch of the Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail. Between here and Highway 1A about 2 km along, you have to deal with two gates in the wildlife fence.
For 2022, the biggest change to cycling the Bow Valley Parkway when it’s closed to vehicles is the parking situation. No more ad hoc parking. Signs, pylons, barricades and gates leave one lane open to allow vehicles to turnaround from westbound to eastbound on the TransCanada Highway.
The dirt road is to the Fireside Day Use Area, which reportedly has pit toilets and picnic tables. We’ll have to check it out on a future ride.
Now you’re finally on the Bow Valley Parkway portion of the ride. Pedal 2.6 km and watch for a small parking area on the left. This is Backswamp Viewpoint. Signs provide information about the landscape and wildlife that inhabit the area. You may see an osprey fishing in the Bow River, a bald eagle soaring overhead or a train rolling by on the track below the viewpoint.
There are no picnic tables here, but it’s a good spot for a quick snack before riding back to Banff.
3. Picnic Option 1 – Banff to Muleshoe (Out and Back)
Ride another 2.5 km from Swampback Viewpoint. This out and back option is 25 km (return), with an elevation gain of about 75 meters. In addition to all the milestones described above, you’ll ride past a controlled burn zone, the site of several prescribed fires since 1985.
In the spring, watch for salamander crossing signs. The prescribed burns created ideal habitat for long-toed salamanders (among other creatures). We’ve yet to see one, but based on pictures ,they’re hard to spot. A little later in the spring, we’ve seen frog crossing signs in this area, too.
The openness resulting from the prescribed burns also makes for ideal birdwatching. We’ve seen sparrows, ospreys, mountain bluebirds, grey jays and other feathered friends along this stretch.
Carry on to Muleshoe day use area, on the left. There are some lovely stands of aspen here. And the Muleshoe day use area has several picnic tables, a short walking trail and pit toilets. It’s a great spot to enjoy a picnic and rest before turning back. Last time we checked, there was also a pair of red “share the chairs” near the picnic area.
4. Picnic Option 2 – Banff to Sawback (Out and Back)
Sawback Day Use Area is another 5.5 km from Muleshoe, making this out and back option 36 km return, with a bit more elevation gain. The picnic area is smaller and there’s no walking trail, but the greater distance makes it a good objective for more confident riders. If you’ve already made it to Muleshoe and back, this could be a good stretch goal next time out.
5. Banff to Johnston Canyon (Lollipop)
To take full advantage of the vehicle free stretch of Highway 1A, ride all the way to the Johnston Canyon parking lot. It’s right around 50 km (return) with over 600 meters total elevation gain.
We’ve done this “metric half century” ride several times, including early May 2022. Mr GeoK put together this Relive video recap which will give you a good idea of the terrain, scenery and conditions.
There is a bike lock-up at Johnston Canyon, so if you’re looking to make a day of it, consider hiking to the Upper falls or even beyond, to the Inkpots, before cycling back to Banff.
6. Canmore to Johnston Canyon (Lollipop)
For experienced and ambitious riders, another option is to ride from the visitors’ centre in Canmore to Johnston Canyon and back. This ride clocks in at 95 km with 490 meters total elevation gain.
Pedal a little further at either end, or make a side trip to Bow Falls in Banff and you’ll earn “metric century” bragging rights. We detail our longest ride ever in this blog post from 2020.
7. Continue on Highway 1A to Lake Louise (Out and Back)
We’ve never done it, have no idea what it’s like to share the Bow Valley Parkway with vehicles between Castle Junction and Lake Louise, but we know it’s an option. The ride is 58 km one-way, with 412 meters elevation gain. Check out this blog post from Banff Cycle for more info.
Before deciding on the parameters for this 3-year pilot project, Parks Canada had a fairly lengthy period for public feedback. They’ve tried to balance the interests of rock climbers, those who enjoy a scenic drive, tourism businesses and cycling enthusiasts. There may be opportunities to provide feedback as the pilot progresses.
What’s clear from writing up the various route options is that the pilot project doesn’t come close to replicating the family-friendly, vehicle-free road riding experience of the summer of 2020. But I hope this post gives you at least a couple of options that might work for you. And if you come up with another idea that worked well for your family, please share by leaving a comment.
Now choose your adventure and let us know how it goes by dropping a comment below or tagging @GeoKs on Twitter!