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By: Zdenko Kahlina
Cycling where road meets wilderness – Banff National Park
Banff is home to some of the most spectacular road and mountain biking in the world and is also home to several world-class cycling events every year. Cycling is made accessible to everyone in Banff. Trails range from easy to very difficult and bike rentals are available at several outlets in Town. Sharrows (shared bicycle lanes) throughout the town, off-road trails and bike routes around this town make Banff and surrounding areas very bike friendly.
Banff Road Rides
Banff National Park encourages the use of mountain bikes for the appreciation and enjoyment of the park’s spectacular landscape of rugged mountains, broad valleys, glaciers, alpine meadows and wildlife species. There are also some very good roads and trails for road biking. I am listing a few here to help you next time you’re in Banff with a bike.
Golf Course Drive
10.9 km loop
Starting Point: Bow Falls Parking Lot Cross the bridge over the Spray River at the end of the parking lot, and you’re off. Perfect for a family outing, this road winds gently along the golf course before it loops back. This is a peaceful road with lovely views over the Bow River and surrounding peaks. Watch for one section that is quite rough. You will pass the kiosk for the Rundle Riverside (6) trail near the far end of the loop.
Vermilion Lakes Drive
4.3 km one way
Starting Point: Off Mt. Norquay Road, south of the Trans-Canada Highway The Vermilion Lakes are a series of three shallow lakes surrounded by marshland – a rich oasis for wildlife. The ride along this narrow road provides classic views of Banff’s signature peak, Mount Rundle. There are small docks where you can relax with a snack and enjoy the view.
Lake Minnewanka Road
13.1 km loop
Starting Points: Cascade Ponds, Lake Minnewanka Day-use Area, or the Banff Legacy Trail (21) The Lake Minnewanka Road is popular with cyclists and offers a pleasant roll through varied terrain, with panoramic views and many attractions including Cascade Ponds, Bankhead, Lake Minnewanka, Two Jack Lake and Johnson Lake. This narrow road can be busy, so ride with caution and be on the lookout for bighorn sheep on the slopes above Two Jack Lake. Connector: Banff Legacy Trail (21).
Tunnel Mountain Drive
10.7 km loop
Starting Point: Central Park Parking Lot, west end of Buffalo Street Start by heading east on Buffalo Street, rising gently past “Surprise Corner” with its extraordinary view over Bow Falls and the world famous Fairmont Banff Springs. Continue climbing and bending around its lower slopes to join the Tunnel Mountain Road. Turn right (east) and pass campgrounds for incredible viewpoints before you drop back down to the Banff Legacy Trail (21). Go left into town, or right towards Lake Minnewanka. Elk and deer are common along this narrow roadway.
Bow Valley Parkway (to Lake Louise)
51 km one way
Starting Points: Trans-Canada Highway, 5.5 km west of the Mt. Norquay overpass and Banff Legacy Trail The Bow Valley Parkway ride is a classic, gently rising and falling as it meanders through the Bow Valley to Castle Junction, and beyond to Lake Louise. The 51 kilometers Bow Valley Parkway (one way) is paralleling Highway-1 between Banff and Lake Louise. This ride is often done from Banff and return, for a solid 100 km round trip. Whatever your route, wildlife sightings are common, so keep a look out! Connector: Banff Legacy Trail (21), Vermilion Lakes Drive (16)
The Legacy Trail
The Legacy trail (26 Km one way) has transformed cycling between Canmore and Banff. A beautiful paved trail, alongside the Trans-Canada Highway (TCH) makes for an enjoyable ride between these two mountain towns and beyond.
The trail links the Town of Banff and Canmore through an additional 4.5 km of pathway outside of Banff National Park boundaries, from the Banff Park East Gate to the Travel Alberta Visitor Information Centre. The entire trail is collectively referred to as the Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail – a distance of 26.8 km, with a 30 m elevation gain.
Previously the alternatives were to ride the shoulders of the TCH, the Banff Trail off the end of the Canmore Nordic Centre, or Goat Creek trail. The trail is accessible from June until October. This trail takes cycling in the Bow Valley to new heights and connects all the way to Lake Louise.
The Banff Legacy Trail is a wonderful, paved, double track trail used by bikers, roller-skiers, roller bladers, etc. It is rated as a Green or easy level that meanders from the East Park gates to Banff and beyond… It also connects with the Palliser Trail which runs west from the charming little town of Canmore. The Rocky Mountain scenery is (of course) outstanding; the only con is that the trail winds close to the highway so that you can hear the traffic. It is a great attraction for families and people of all ages and fitness levels to enjoy. Both Banff and Canmore also have many off-road bike trails of different levels of difficulty; you can get good trail maps from the Canmore Info Center and the Park Info Centers.
The trail itself is smooth, rolling, and can be narrow at bridge crossings. There is a rest area with washrooms and picnic tables 1/3 of the way to Banff from the East end. Nearing the Banff end, at the wildlife gates, you can ride under the highway a short 1 km to Cascade Ponds with picnic tables and washrooms. From there you can connect to the Minnewanka Lake road and ride a great loop up to the lake and by Two Jack lake. (Clockwise is the best way to ride this loop).
Have a break at Cascade Pond. Best time to start off is in the morning. Weekends it’s very busy so be extra careful with sharing the lanes. I have seen a few crashes with people not paying attention to which side of the path they should ride. And not sharing the lane by riding side by side going one direction… Going from Banff to Canmore is faster with a tail wind to push you along.
To access it from the Canmore end:
Ride along Bow Valley Trail (Hwy 1A) cross the TCH, and ride west on the paved bike path beside the Harvey Heights road. At the end of the HH Road take the Access bridge back across the TCH and ride the shoulder against the traffic, 2km, to the Park gate and the start of the Legacy Trail proper. There are parking areas close to Harvey Heights along the access road that some use to stage for the ride. Another parking spot is right at the Banff Park gates between the Eastbound and Westbound lanes. Access to the Trail from here itself is sketchy at best.
Staying on the Legacy Trail you enter Banff riding adjacent to the road on a paved trail. You end on the main drag (Banff Ave.) along a bike lane. With some route finding, you can access the Vermillion Lake Trails on the other side of Banff which will then connect you to the 1A Highway all the way to Lake Louise. The prevailing winds are west to east so depending on the day, expect some wind if you come from Canmore. However, riding Banff to Canmore is downhill and usually with the tail wind. There are shuttles available to take you back to whichever town you started.
A good cycle route if you don’t mind the highway!
If you do cycle this trail, I would recommend the way I did it – starting and finishing in Canmore, as that way you are going gently downhill all the way back (and we also had a tail wind). I was in two minds how to rate this trail. This trail certainly has the potential to be a great cycle route but, as other people have said before, it is spoiled by being so close to the main highway. The views are really nice at some points, but at others you feel the road too much. I was naive in thinking that we would have views of the Bow River, seeing as the highway is the Bow River Trail – but that isn’t the case! Some short sections of the route are amongst trees and there are certainly views of the mountains all the way along, but much of the route is just a few meters from 90 kph traffic. For one short section we were pretty much cycling at the side of the road, with nothing between us and the traffic.
This trail is paved all the way, and mostly not too challenging. The length is nice to bike in to Banff, get lunch, and then head back. Good for kids or without. However, there is much more spectacular biking in and around Banff, so while this is a good trail to get your feet wet, don’t stop here!
8.2 km one way
Starting Point: Sunshine Ski Area Road, 7 km west of Banff on the Trans-Canada Highway. The Sunshine Road begins its steady rise almost immediately, and offers a few steep ramps along the way to its termination at the Bourgeau parking lot, at the base of the Sunshine gondola. Vehicular traffic is moderate in the summer months, but be aware as the road is narrow throughout its length. Watch for bears along this twisty mountain road.
Goat Creek Trail (a mountain biking trail)
Distance: 18 km (one way)
Elevation Gain: 360 m
Season: June – October
Permit Required: Yes (Park Pass)
Goat Creek is a wide fire road or doubletrack trail consisting of dirt and rock that hugs the Rundle Mountain range and follows Goat Creek. It is perfect trail for montain biking these days as it is easy enough for all levels of bikers. It may be ridden one way, as an out-and-back, or as a loop when combined with either the Rundle Riverside trail or the Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail.
The trail is easy if you start at the Canmore end. There is 1000′ of elevation drop from there to Banff, with the odd uphill section. The trail follows a dirt trail at the beginning and widens to an old road by the end, with numerous bridge crossings in between. Ends at the Banff Springs Hotel parking lot. Lots of hikers (walkers) near the Banff end.
It makes for a perfect family outing provided that a car shuttle can be arranged and that you ride the trail from Canmore to Banff. Riding it in reverse, from Banff to Canmore, is substantially more demanding as the route mainly ascends when ridden in this direction. As an alternative option, consider jumping aboard the Bike ‘n Hike shuttle for a convenient and inexpensive shuttle ride to and from the trail. Or, consider the Roam bus between Banff and Canmore, allowing you to ride the trail one way.
Goat Creek offers up some incredible views of the surrounding mountains along a picturesque route. There are a number of low angle, sustained descents along this trail with several wide bridge crossings. Goat Creek hugs the Rundle Mountain Range and cuts through the majestic pine and spruce forest all the way to Spray Lakes Loop, from where it continues onwards to Banff. During the June 2013 floods a number of the bridge crossings along this route were damaged or destroyed. Since then, all structures have been repaired or replaced, keeping this classic trail open for all to enjoy.
Goat Creek trail had a few unavoidable mud puddles when I biked it, but if it doesn’t rain for a while, you’ll have pretty clear sailing. You may still get a little muddy, but if you have to go through any water, keep your speed up and enjoy the splash! It’s almost inevitable that you’ll be rocketing along one of the many downhills, and at the very bottom you’ll hit a puddle. Unlike my last foray down this wonderful trail, I didn’t see a bear. At the trailhead, I saw a paraglider jump off Ha-Ling peak and enjoyed watching him soar through the air.
Have a good and healthy season.
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