Bike Touring the Canadian Rockies, 2011

Our bicycle route from Canmore to Jasper and back (470 miles.)

Page 1: Canmore to Lake O'Hara
Page 2: Lake O'Hara to Mosquito Creek
Page 3: Mosquito Creek to Jasper
Page 4: Jasper to Jonas Creek
Page 5: Jonas Creek to Canmore

Sunday, July 24, 2011

For the first time in our lives, Kathy and I have ventured into a foreign country. Canada is a peaceful, welcoming country, but I could still feel my tension as I handed our new passports to the border guard. We've planned a challenging bicycle trip for our summer vacation, and crossing the border made it clear that we're about to get started.

From the town of Canmore, in southern Alberta, Kathy, Daniel, Maggie and I will bike north into 3 of Canada's famous mountain parks: Banff, Yoho and Jasper. We hope to ride as far north as the town of Jasper before returning to Canmore, for a total distance of more than 400 miles. We've set aside 3 weeks for this trip, and hope to spend almost as many days hiking as bicycling. We'll cross mountain passes 6 times (3 passes twice each) and see glaciers for the first time.

We took two days to drive to Canmore, spending a night halfway in Great Falls, Montana. In both Great Falls and Canmore we've spent the night with hosts that we met through the internet. Our hosts enjoy bike touring too, and they're excited for us, but Kathy and I are a little nervous. Yesterday I told Kathy, "Three weeks is a long time for our family to be camping." We're still using a small 4-person tent, and Daniel and Maggie (ages 6 and 3) don't sleep too well while camping. Today Kathy looked over our massive supply of food and camping gear and said, "I'm worried that we're in over our heads." We're still not sure how to fit all those supplies on the bike tomorrow. We've practiced for this trip and I think that we have a good chance for success, but we're nervous.

I think the risk is worth it. Canmore is surrounded by steep, glacially carved mountains and the views are superb. This trip may show us the most stunning mountain scenery that we've ever seen.

Kathy, Daniel and Maggie take a break from our drive by running near the U.S./Canada border.

Daniel runs from a life-size Albertasaurus statue at the Alberta visitor center.

Pretending to be paleontologists at the visitor center.

Preparing our biking equipment in Canmore.

Our hostess Megan and her son Finn watch Daniel and Maggie play in their apartment. We met Megan and her husband through the Warm Showers hospitality website.

Monday, July 25

Distance: 55.3 miles
Riding time: 5 hours, 23 minutes
Average speed: 10.2 mph
Maximum speed: 29.2 mph

I've worried about bad weather for this trip. For most of the summer the Canadian Rockies have had cold, rainy weather, but today was much better. After eating breakfast with our hostess Megan, and saying goodbye, we set out in cool, sunny weather. In a few miles we entered Banff National Park on the Legacy Bike Trail. Banff is not managed like national parks that I've visited in the United States. While U.S. parks tend to forbid and remove development, Banff has two towns inside the park plus the TransCanada highway, a busy train route, and two ski resorts. Traffic noise was high while we rode the bike trail next to the TransCanada, but eventually we rode onto the peaceful Bow Valley Parkway, which was quiet except for an occasional passing train.

There's much to see along the Bow Valley Parkway, including the Rocky Mountains, the Bow River, wildlife and the towns of Banff and Lake Louise. Today we saw bighorn sheep, elk, bears and ground squirrel. Around 3 o'clock we took a break to hike Johnston Canyon because we had only 20 miles left to ride and I'd read that walking to the lower waterfall took only 10 minutes each way. It was fun to walk through the narrow canyon and see its turquoise water, but that little trip took us about 2 hours (you would need to run to finish the hike in 20 minutes.) By the time we were riding again it was overcast and windy, and those last 20 miles were a lot steeper than I'd assumed.

Some stretches of the parkway had warnings that grizzly bears could be nearby. The bike made no noise as we rode through the woods, so Daniel and I occasionally yelled out, "Bicycle!" so as not to surprise a grizzly at close range. Near the end of our ride I felt weak and it began to rain lightly. I had to walk the bike up hills that we would have easily pedaled up earlier in the day. The rain soon stopped and we arrived at our campsite in Lake Louise at 8 p.m. That's normally bedtime for our children, but we still needed to pitch camp and cook dinner.

While we were riding I worried about the rain and about my tired children, but there was one major thing that I didn't worry about. I wasn't worried that we would run out of daylight. We're so far north that tonight there was plenty of light to clean up our dinner table at 10 p.m. This is the farthest north that any of us have traveled, and we still have about 150 miles left in our ride north to Jasper. If we had visited a month ago, closer to the summer solstice, then I doubt the night sky would have ever fully darkened.

Riding out of Canmore in the morning.

Daisies along the Bow Valley Parkway.

Bighorn sheep and elk along Bow Valley Parkway.

We will stay in Lake Louise for 3 nights to rest and explore some nearby hiking trails. This campground takes the threat of bears seriously. Our unattended food must be kept in a bearproof storage shed, bear repellant spray is highly recommended, and the campground's perimeter is guarded by a tall electric fence. I guess we'd better watch out for bears. Maggie has told us repeatedly that she will scare away any bears by saying, "Boo!" - unless it's a nice bear. In that case she will give it a hug and take it home to sleep in her bed with her.

I hope that eating our food for the next couple of days makes our biking load much lighter by the time we leave Lake Louise. Right now our bike is extremely heavy, and I can't imagine pedaling that load over mountain passes six times.

The raised walkway in Johnston Canyon; Lower Falls in Johnston Canyon.

Daniel and Maggie practice their rock climbing skills.

Maggie shows her strength on our way out of the canyon.

Tuesday, July 26

Distance: 7.3 miles
Riding time: 56 minutes
Average speed: 7.8 mph
Maximum speed: 31.3 mph

I'm glad we hadn't planned to move camp today. We woke up to the sound of light rain, and I never like packing up camp in the rain. It soon stopped, but rain showers came occasionally throughout the day.

The hike we attempted was a bit too difficult for our family. We started the morning by biking uphill to Lake Louise (the actual lake, not the village,) and just after we arrived the clouds broke into blue sky and revealed Victoria Glacier and the surrounding peaks. The weather looked so hopeful that I decided we should hike up to Saddleback Pass, far up in the mountains from the lake. It went well for a while, but the steep trail wore out our children, and the rain showers returned and became colder and more constant as we gained altitude. Eventually Kathy stopped with the children just short of the pass while I ran to the top. There I was standing in a cloud, looking at barely-visible mountain tops through the mist. As we hiked back down the air warmed up, but Kathy and the kids were drenched despite their raincoats and shaking from cold (my new rainjacket kept me dry.) We put the kids in their bike trailer and hurried back to camp for dinner. There were some good views along our hike, but it was a shame to have the best views stolen by clouds. The children may still have sore feet tomorrow.

Hugging at camp during the cool morning.

The sky began to clear when we arrived at Lake Louise.

Victoria Glacier and Lake Louise.

Hiking to Saddleback Pass in good weather.

Panoramic view of Bow Valley.

Hiking in the rain.

Hiking close to the clouds.

We saw a few hoary marmots in a snowfield.

The cloud-covered view on Saddleback Pass.

At camp a young couple came to ask us if they could share our campsite. I had told the campground staff that we were interested in sharing, and the campground is fully reserved. Thomas and Melanie are from England and had spent the past six days backpacking across Banff and Yoho National Parks. Mel came to Banff for a summer graduate school class and extended her stay to join Thomas for backpacking. It's fun to have another couple to eat with at dinner, and sharing saves a little money too.

Thomas and Melanie make dinner in the cooking shelter.

Wednesday, July 27

Distance: 15.6 miles
Riding time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Average speed: 7.9 mph
Maximum speed: 32.6 mph

We hadn't planned to do much today, but ended up doing a lot.

Breakfast was nice because we talked with Thomas and Mel more, we had a warm fire in the dining shelter, and another group of campers gave us their leftover pancakes. We started our bicycle trip with enough food for only 8 to 10 days, so any food that we receive helps us survive between the towns with grocery stores (Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper.)

To avoid wearing down our already tired children, we biked up the steep road to Lake Louise and rented a canoe. We paddled across the lake for a better view of Victoria Glacier, and Kathy made lunch on the boat. The kids liked the ride, but their moods varied with the weather. When rain hit us at the far end of the lake they panicked and cried as we put on their rainjackets, but when the warm sun came out 10 minutes later they were happy again.

Breakfast in the cooking shelter.

Daniel warms his hands over the shelter's wood stove.

Canoeing on Lake Louise.

After the canoe ride we made our day really busy by changing our camping reservation at Lake O'Hara. Lake O'Hara has a beautiful, limited access campground high in the mountains of Yoho National Park, on the other side of the continental divide in British Columbia. The campground can only be reached by a bus that drives up the 7-mile access road, and I had to make reservations 3 months ago to secure us a spot. We've worried that we wouldn't break camp quickly enough in the morning to catch the 10:30 a.m. bus tomorrow, so I called to see if someone's cancellation would let us take the 5:30 p.m. bus today. Surprisingly, the answer was yes. It was about 2:30 p.m. so we raced down to camp and packed up. A brief rainstorm soaked our tent as I packed it, but we couldn't afford to wait.

To get to Lake O'Hara we took Lake Louise Drive up to Great Divide Road, a narrow road over Kicking Horse Pass that has been unmaintained and closed to cars for many years, but is still open to bicycles. The climb up Lake Louise Drive was so difficult with our loaded bike that I had to tow it like a mule using shoulder straps and rope that we brought for this purpose. Kathy balances the bike while I tow it, and we can climb very steep hills that way.

The biking became much easier when we turned onto Great Divide Road, but that's when Kathy spotted a grizzly bear and two cubs watching us from a meadow beside the road. Once they'd lost interest in us I took a couple pictures, and after that we made plenty of noise as we rode along, singing songs or shouting "bicycle!" so as not to surprise any bears. I'm glad the children made lots of noise since Kathy and I were pedaling hard and didn't have much spare breath for singing. We arrived at the Lake O'Hara bus stop at 5:10 p.m., and we were the only passengers for the 5:30 bus. We put our whole bike on the bus and took it to the campground with us.

The O'Hara campground is fun. The main attraction is the tall mountains rising on all sides, but I liked the community fire ring and the two dinner shelter houses that are shared by the 30 campsites. It's easy to meet other campers while making dinner or sitting around the fire, and our kids joined the 15 to 20 children who were running around the trees and playing with frisbees. We watched an evening presentation on wolverine research and went to bed late. It was a long day, but I'm happy that we don't need to get up at dawn to move camp tomorrow morning.

This grizzly bear cub was foraging with its mother and sibling.

Riding the shuttle bus to Lake O'Hara with our bicycle and gear.

The common use area of Lake O'Hara's campground.

Maggie plays in her "castle" at the campground.


Page 1: Canmore to Lake O'Hara
Page 2: Lake O'Hara to Mosquito Creek
Page 3: Mosquito Creek to Jasper
Page 4: Jasper to Jonas Creek
Page 5: Jonas Creek to Canmore