Friday, July 7, 2017

Cycling the Great Parks North & Great Divide Loop

Sandwiched between staffing two Montana-based Adventure Cycling trips, I spent ten days cycling a loop through British Columbia and Alberta. I departed from Eureka, MT (just south of the Canadian border) and travelled north to Banff, AB along the paved Great Parks North route. I then looped back to Eureka via the unpaved Great Divide route. All in all, the trip was just over 500 miles in length.

My loop.
(Red = the Great Parks North route and
Blue = the Great Divide route)

I really enjoyed the route. It provided a great mix of pavement and off-road riding as well as a great mix of nature and rural and urban settings. I had plenty of opportunities to bathe in the forest and to relish in the beauty of snow-capped peaks, pristine lakes, and colorful wildflowers. Below is a photo journal of my trip. For those interested in the details on my ride, my trip takeaways, route beta, and itinerary are provided at the bottom of this post.

The Backstory of My Route

The Great Parks North Route

In 2010, I purchased the maps for Adventure Cycling's Great Parks North route. The ride through British Columbia and Alberta looked enticing -- especially the Icefields Parkway (the section between Banff and Jasper). This was early in my touring career, when I felt as though I needed to ride with a buddy. I tried putting a trip together, but I couldn't wrangle in anyone to join me. The maps sat unused.

In the summer of 2015, I led two trips for Bicycle Adventures through Glacier, Banff, and Jasper National Parks. (See Bicycle Adventuring in Glacier, Banff & Jasper National Parks.) Finally, I was able to cycle the Icefields Parkway! Alas, there were sections of the Great Parks North route that was not included on these tour.

The Great Divide Route

In the summer of 2014, my plan was to bicycle through the Sierra-Cascade mountains from the Mexican border to the Canadian border, stop off at my homebase in Seattle for a week to relax and resupply, and then cycle the Great Divide route from Canada back south to the Mexican border. Although I biked the Sierra-Cascades route that summer (see Countdown to the Sierra-Cascades), the Great Divide portion of the adventure was postponed; I had met a Turkish lover and opted to spend the rest of the season traveling thru Turkey instead (see What's Next?).

Combining the Routes

Since I found myself in Montana this summer with two weeks to spare, I figured it was now time to ride the Great Parks North and the Great Divide. Fortunately, the routes intersected in both Eureka, MT and Banff, AB, so it made sense to make a loop of the routes.

Photo Journal: Biking Along The Great Parks North Route

Some evenings, the mosquitos were horrendous!
This is a photo of one end of my tent as I camped on the banks of the Bull River,
just outside of Wardner, BC.
How many mosquitos do you count? (Click on the image to enlarge.)
I count at least 275 mosquitos...and this isn't even half my tent!

Shadows are fun.
Dang, my boobs were bigger than my head!

This gas station had the same operating hours
as the establishments I visited while cycling thorough Patagonia.

This was one night's stealth camping spot on Columbia Lake,
just to the north of Canal Flats, BC.
As storms passed through to the north and south,
the color palette of the skies, mountains, and waters constantly shifted.

My signature yoga pose, with Columbia Lake in the background.

Though the sign says "No Stopping,"
when a cyclist has to pee, a cyclist has to pee.

Oddly, there was no sign marking the summit of Sinclair Pass (4,875 ft)
in Kootenay National Park.
No worries, this sign at the summit showing the various grades was pretty neat.
Whipping down the pass at nearly 35 mph,
I saw a grizzly bear and a black bear with two cubs just feet off the shoulder.
They were happily munching on dandelions and didn't give a rat's ass about me.
What a rush!

At the top of the pass was this sketchy looking semi truck,
which had a pool of blood-red liquid dripping from beneath its engine.
I got outta there quickly!

A woman operating a gas station at the north end of Columbia Lake
told me to be on the lookout for a heart cut-out in the mountain
about 18 miles to the north of Radium Hot Springs.
Can you spot the heart?

Here is a close-up of the heart.
Finding shapes in the clouds is fun; so is finding shapes in the mountains.

Me and Shirley at the Continental Divide (5,382 ft), along the Great Parks North route.
At the Divide, we left Kootenay National Park (in British Columbia)
and entered Banff National Park (in Alberta).

From Castle Junction to Banff, the route followed the Bow Valley Parkway.
As I cycled the parkway, I enjoyed fond memories of leading bike trips
for Bicycle Adventures along this same route in August 2015.
The mirrored reflections of the nearby peaks in Vermilion Lakes,
just to the north of Banff, were stunning.

Photo Journal: Biking Along The Great Divide

The Great Divide Route starts unassumingly behind the Banff Springs Hotel.

Here is the trailhead for the Great Divide. There was neither pomp nor circumstance.

Challenge #1: a downed tree!
Challenge #2: my dying seatpost.
I rode the first twelve miles of the Divide either straddling the front 1" of my saddle
 or standing on my pedals, as my saddle kept slipping backwards on its post.
I stopped in Canmore at Rebound Cycle where JC, the head mechanic,
fixed me up with a double-bolt seatpost.

I stayed with Warm Showers hosts, Lyle and Kirsten, in Canmore,
just to the south of Banff. They were fantastic!
Though the 1,500 ft descent into Canmore off the Great Divide was fun,
the climb the next morning to meet back up with the route was pure wickedness.
[L to R: Bill (another rider), Lyle, Kirsten, me]

Bring it on!

It was questionable whether Spray Lakes West Rd was going to be open.
I had received an email from Julie Huck, at Adventure Cycling,
saying that the road was going to be closed
at some indefinite point in the future due to wildlife activity.
Scroll through the above pdf file to see photos taken from the wildlife cam along the route.

Fortunately, the road was open, and it was GORGEOUS!
The wildflowers were out in full-bloom and full-color along Spray Lake.
Also in full force were fresh piles of bear scat.

Riding along Spray Lake was my favorite section of The Great Divide --
singletrack, through a burnt forest dotted by vibrant Indian Paintbrushes.

This was the to-die-for view of Mt Shark
from Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, near the Mt Engadine Lodge.

I saw my first owl roadkill on this trip.
I told the person operating the nearby William Watson Lodge about the owl.
She called the rangers and had me file an official report
so the park could investigate the death.
And with that, my girl scout deed for the day had been accomplished!

Shirley and I enjoyed the climb to the top of Elk Pass (6,443 ft).

The Elk Valley welcoming structure included a neat carving of a cyclist.

A little ways down the road was Tobermory Cabin.
The cabin was open to travelers on a first-come/first-serve basis.
Had I reached the cabin at day's end, I definitely would have spent the night.

The cabin displayed all sorts of graffiti from previous visitors.
I liked this particular note.

I climbed up on the bunk and scratched my own message
into the ceiling.

A little ways down the road, I came across this German woman,
named Jo. She was hiking The Great Divide
and was absolutely radiating with positive energy.

An exhilirating overnight thunderstorm at Weary Creek camp made for a muddy morning.
The road was impassable when first leaving camp around 7am.
After the sun had a few hours to dry out the mud, the going was more doable.
Even then, I pushed the bike for the first mile or so, stopping every few feet
to free the mud using a stick.

On the bright side, the soft road captured the fresh tracks of a bear.
This photo was taken about 1/10th of a mile from the previous night's camp.

As bears were in great abundance, being bear smart was essential.
I enjoyed finding a spot to hang each night's bear bags.

I  know...cows schmows.
But these two were just so photogenic!

The image on the left shows two sculptures of
cowboys riding horses, which I spotted just outside of Eureka, MT.
The image on the right shows real horses (sadly, no cowboys)
on Lower Elk Valley Rd, in BC.

The wildflowers along Lower Elk Valley Rd had me drooling.
I took at least twenty photos of these wildflowers.

Some of the wildflowers were used to spruce up my handlebar shrine.
Thank you to my friend, Meg, for Kali Ma, the great protector.
Everytime I looked at Kali Ma, I gave out a hearty lion's breath.
If you're not familiar with lion's breath,
you must watch this brief video, which demonstrates the technique.

Me and Shirley, posing with the famous Tirex Titan in Sparwood.
Built in 1974, this was the largest truck in the world for twenty-five years.

Gear Hub, in Fernie, offered a free bike wash.
By this point in the ride, Shirley was desperate for a shower... was I.
My Warm Showers host, Spencer, not only let me take a shower,
but he also prepared an elaborate meal for me.

Leaving Fernie, I spotted my dream house along Cokato Rd.
Ain't this a cool place?

At the end of the gravel Cokato Rd was this bench, in the town of Elko.
I love how small towns provide for travellers.

I returned to Eureka a day early and decided to spend one final night on the bike.
Here I am, camping at the Tobacco River Campground, in a quaint little spot.

In Eureka, my Warm Showers angel extraordinaire was named Nikki.
Not only did she let me crash with her before and after the trip,
but she also kept careful watch over my car while I was away.
She had an adorable daughter, Vivienne,
and two friendly dogs, Hugo and Argos.
Nikki even interviewed me for an article in the local paper.
I look forward to seeing the write-up!

As I lay on Nikki's couch at the end of the trip, I began to feel the couch shake...
and the windows rattle. I looked at my watch; it was 12:30 AM.
I fired up the interwebs and saw that a 5.8 earthquake had rattled Montana.
What a rockin' way to end the trip!

Trip Take-Aways

Here are a few of my trip take-aways:
  • Most Favorite Parts of the Route:
    • Speeding down Sinclar Pass (4,875 ft) and seeing one grizzly bear and three black bears (including two cubs) feasting on dandelions just a few feet away from the shoulder.
    • Weaving along the singletrack on Spray Lakes West Rd.
    • Flying along a twenty-mile stretch of the gravelly Elk River Rd north of Elkford.
    • Meandering along Lower Elk Valley Rd to the north of Sparwood and seeing all the beautiful wildflowers in the pastures and ranchettes. And...true to the road's name, a female elk passed right in front of me!
  • Least Favorite Part of the Route:
    • The bike path through Peter Lougheed Provincial Park; it was cheesy and frustratingly slow.
  • Though the Canadian section of the Great Divide seems as though it would be remote, I passed plenty of people, as the route traverses through national and provincial parks. For those considering doing the route solo, as long as you are a competent cyclist and a competent backcountry traveller, you should be fine.
  • Cycling the Great Divide was easier than cycling both the The Baja Divide and the Carretera Austral in Patagonia.
  • My Surly Long Haul Trucker, set-up with a rear rack and panniers, was sufficient for the Great Divide. Sure, front suspension and a bikepacking set-up may have made for a slightly more comfortable ride, but they certainly aren't necessarily.
  • Bring deet; the mosquitos can be horrendous.
  • Fear not the bears, as long as you are bear aware.

Route Beta

For those of you interested in the particulars of my route, here is the beta:
  • I followed Adventure Cycling's Great Parks North Route (paved) from Eureka, MT north to Banff, AB.
  • I followed Adventure Cycling's Great Divide Route (unpaved) from Banff, AB south to Eureka, MT.
    • I followed Route 43 directly south of Elkford, as recommended by Adventure Cycling, as the Fording River Mining Rd was washed out in a June 2013 flood. I picked up the route by turning onto Lower Elk Valley Rd towards the airport from Highway 43.
    • I followed the Fernie Alternate, as the status of the bridge washout at Pollock Creek (~70.6 miles on Map B) was unclear. The riders I encountered heading north had cycled the Fernie Alternate as well; none of the riders were in-the-know about the washout.


For those of you interested in my particular itinerary, have at it:
  • Day #1: Eureka, MT to Bull River (outside of Wardner, BC) [52 miles]
  • Day #2: Bull River to Columbia Lake (3 miles north of Canal Flats) [59 miles]
  • Day #3: Columbia Lake to Columbia River (2 miles west of Radium Hot Springs) [40 miles]
  • Day #4: Columbia River to Marble Canyon Campground (Kootenay NP) [56 miles]
  • Day #5: Marble Canyon to Canmore - via Banff (Warm Showers host) [51 miles]
  • Day #6: Canmore to Chester Lake Trailhead [38 miles]
  • Day #7: Chester Lake to Weary Creek Recreation Site [38 miles]
  • Day #8: Weary Creek to Conservation Trust Land (11 miles south of Elkford) [41 miles]
  • Day #9: Conversation Land to Fernie (Warm Showers host) [40 miles]
  • Day #10: Fernie to Tobacco River Campground (5 miles west of Eureka) [70 miles]


  1. That's it.... i'm riding the Great Divide! Thanks :)

    1. I'm guessing you had your mind made up before you read this post. ;)

  2. Your photography says it all. What a gorgeous tour!

    1. Thank you. I don't think the photography does the trip justice.

  3. Your adventures are always so adventurous, and this one is especially picturesque! What a lovely place to explore.

    1. Indeed, 'twas a lovely place to explore. Thanks, Tom. :)

  4. Wow..... Shadow boobs, wolves, mountain hearts and ravenous skeeters. Loved the pictures when you posted them on Facebook, but with the post its even better.

    I have met those mosquitos, when you can see their eyes they are too big! My dad told me a story once about his camping as a young Army private. He woke up hearing a discussion between two mosquitos "Should we eat him hear or pick him up and take him home?" said one. The other replied. "We better eat him here! If we take him home the Big guys will steal him from us!"

    Great ride, as always. You dear are the true cycling inspiration

    1. Ha, great story about the skeeters! The mosquitos I saw in Montana have me really curious about the notorious mosquitos in Alaska!

      As always, Tony, thank you for your kind words. :)

    2. I have met the Alaskan variety! You can see their eyes!!! They are slow, though, but one helluva bight!

  5. I always enjoy your stories and the fantastic pics. What a beautiful earth! Sending you best wishes always!

    1. Ah, thanks MaryJo. Hope all is well with you! :)


I would love to hear your comments on this post!