Road Cycling Highwood Pass, Canadian Rockies
by Kathy & Craig Copeland
from Done in a Day Calgary cycling guide
Location: Kananaskis Country
Round trip: 34 km (21 mi) to Highwood Pass, 108 km (67 mi) to Highwood Junction
Cycling time: two to five hours
Elevation gain: 536 m (1760 ft) to 1267 m (4157 ft)
Difficulty: moderate to challenging
Racers wearing peacockish, logo-crazy cycling jerseys were there, checking their heart-rate monitors while hammering sculpted, carbon-fibre road machines.
Parents towing tots on trailer cycles were there, climbing the hills like yaks, straining under the burden yet smiling beatifically.
A 70-year-old couple was there, pedaling warhorse touring bikes, training for their ride across Croatia later this summer.
Kids on squeaking, screw-loose, derelict mountain bikes were there, unzipped hoodies ballooning in the breeze, helmets bouncing on their heads like dashboard doggies.
It was a typical spring weekend on Highway 40 in Kananaskis Country.
The pavement was free of snow. The winter gates were closed, keeping a 54-km (33.6-mi) section free of motorists. And dozens of Calgarians were enjoying what has become an annual street fair for cyclists—unofficial but wildly popular.
Any road closure granting dominion to cyclists is cause for celebration, but this one is special.
It’s long: 54 km (33.6-mi) form the north gate at King Creek to the south gate at Highwood Junction.
It’s lofty: Topping out nearly in the alpine zone at 2206-m (7238-ft) Highwood Pass, this is the highest public road in Canada.
It’s spectacular, traversing a mountain vastness enshrined within provincial parklands.
The price of admission, however, is steep. The gentle ascent from King Creek slowly builds to a granny-gear chore.
If this were the Tour de France route, the length and grade of the final skyward climb to the pass would earn it a Category 1 rating. The scale ranges from 4 (least challenging) to 1 (most challenging). Only a few pivotal, excruciating climbs earn a rating of “beyond category.”
Moderately strong riders will crest the pass within 1.25 hours. If you’re slower, you’ll simply get to enjoy the scenery longer—a good thing, because on the way back you’ll coast far enough and fast enough to make your eyes water.
Feeling sapped, eager to claim their downhill reward, most people turn around at the pass. Lay off the brakes and you’ll arrive at King Creek in about 45 minutes.
But if you have more time and can endure another ascent similar to the one you just completed, pedal through the pass and swoop into the Highwood River Valley.
Here’s where the atmosphere changes from street fair to backcountry adventure, because you’ll see few other cyclists. It’s like trail riding, only speedier, smoother, easier.
The gate near Highwood Junction is about an hour beyond the pass for moderately strong riders. But near where the highway levels and your coasting velocity slows, several picnic areas will tempt you to abort the journey and rest before climbing back to the pass.
The scenery remains engaging the entire way, and of course your sense of accomplishment increases the farther you go. But the best reason to tag the south gate is simply to take full advantage of the highway closure.
The gates reopen and vehicle traffic resumes Friday, June 16. Before they close again, December 1, you’ll need snowshoes to reach the pass. So don’t merely plan to bicycle Highway 40. Do it now.
What to bring
Wear a helmet, sunglasses, short-sleeve jersey, and cycling-specific shorts, shoes and gloves. That plus a little sunscreen might be all you need to wear on a fine spring day. But if it gets breezy or cloudy, you’ll want extra layers: tights, warm gloves, an insulating long-sleeve jersey, and a wind shell. Always carry a small repair kit, so you can make adjustments and fix a flat. Your gear, plus lunch and some high-energy snacks, should fit in your seat wedge, daypack, or rack trunk. Be sure to fill your water bottles or hydration pack.
From Calgary, drive Highway 1 west. Take the Highway 40 exit and continue south 50 km (31 mi) into Kananaskis Country. Slow down at King Creek Day Use Area (left). Shortly beyond, Kananaskis Lakes Trail (right) departs Highway 40. Just past that intersection is the winter gate halting motorists December 1 through June 15. The elevation here is 1670 m (5480 ft). Park at King Creek, or beside the highway if the gate is closed.
From the winter gate near King Creek, begin a gentle ascent south on Highway 40 beneath Mt. Wintour (left).
After a short descent, a moderate climb leads to where Valley View Trail (a dirt road) forks left. Proceed south on the highway.
Over your right shoulder (northwest) the Spray Mountains and Kananaskis Range are impressive. Right (west) are the enormous peaks ringing Upper Kananaskis Lake.
Within 45 minutes, you’ll be next to Pocaterra Creek. Pass a gated dirt road forking right. Attention mountain bikers: it leads to Elk Lakes Provincial Park. The highway curves left (east) here.
Ignore Little Highwood Pass Day Use Area. It’s just a tiny parking lot without picnic tables. The ascent soon begins in earnest. You have five relentlessly uphill kilometers to go.
Though Elpoca Mountain (left / north) is an extraordinary sight, it’s difficult to appreciate while attempting to defy gravity. Should you need a rest, Elbow Pass Day Use Area is just ahead and does have a couple tables.
Heading southwest now, the highway climbs between Mt. Rae (left) and Pocaterra Ridge (right). The ridgecrest trail is a rewarding hike in summer.
Reach 2206-m (7238-ft) Highwood Pass at 17 km (10.6 mi). Before turning around, pedal far enough to see the highway plunge into the forest beyond.
Keen cyclists will take that plunge, rocketing southeast into the Highwood River Valley, cruising past Mt. Lipsett Recreation Area at 23.2 km (14.4 mi), and curving east beneath Mist Mountain (left).
The downhill thrill is over near Mist Creek Recreation Area at 34.5 km (21.4 mi). You’re not aiming for Highwood Junction? Relax here beside the Highwood River.
Resuming southeast, Picklejar, Trout Ponds, Lantern Creek, and Lineham Creek recreation areas are at 35, 35.7, 37.6, and 43 kilometers (21.7, 22.2, 23.4, 26.7 miles). The others, at Cat and Fitzsimmons creeks, are close enough to Highwood Junction that you might as well fluff your pride by finishing the task.
Reach the south gate at 54 km (33.6 mi), 1475 m (4840 ft). Immediately beyond is Highwood Junction, where Highway 541 proceeds east, and Highway 940 turns south.
The junction’s sole enterprise is the Highwood House store, which opens each year on May 1. So before starting the two-hour ride back to the pass, you can do more than refill water bottles. You can indulge your Homer Simpson-size craving for snacks.