Biking the Bow Valley Parkway

This spring, Parks Canada launched a pilot program called the Bow Valley Parkway Cycling Experience. Each spring and fall for the next three years, Parks Canada will temporarily close the eastern portion of the Bow Valley Parkway to vehicular traffic, allowing cyclists of all abilities to quietly and safely enjoy a stretch of one of Banff’s most scenic roadways.

Slated to run through 2024, the program will restrict public vehicle access along a 17-km stretch of the parkway – from the Trans-Canada Highway to Johnston Canyon (Johnston Canyon will still be accessible to cars from the Castle Mountain side of the highway). The closures will take place during shoulder season months, from May 1 to June 25 and again from September 1 to 30 each year.

We were pretty stoked to be a part of the program’s inaugural season. With a lot of trails still snowbound this early in the year, this was a great way to get out and enjoy Banff National Park for a day. The experience reminded us of spring cycling in the U.S.’s Glacier National Park – where the park similarly offers access of the famed Going-to-the-Sun Road exclusively to cyclists and pedestrians before the busy summer season gets underway. Bow Valley was a bit more merciful, though, lacking the unbroken, 18-km (11-mile) alpine climb.

Our experience

After several weeks of dreary, rainy weather, we finally took advantage of the car-free parkway on June 25th, the last day of the season. With it being a Saturday – as well as the first day in weeks without precipitation – we kind of expected a huge crowd. We were pleasantly surprised to find a very lightly trafficked byway, especially given we didn’t get started until around 9:30 a.m.

Because we’re traveling without bicycles, we rented a couple of comfort road bikes (Trek FX 3 Hybrid) from Banff Cycle. The bikes were in beautiful shape and the shop is conveniently located next to the Banff Train Station. Not only did this mean we didn’t have to drive into Banff’s hellaciously congested town center, but the rental shop is adjacent to the sprawling public lot at 327 Railway Avenue that offers free, nine-hour parking.

Beginning from the train station, we biked a portion of the Banff Legacy Trail past Vermilion Lakes to the entrance of the Bow Valley Parkway – a distance of about 7.5 km (5 miles). While we’ve visited the Vermilion Lakes before, we never tire of this little slice of beauty. The three pools here are part of a lush marshland within the Bow River Valley, and are nestled beneath Banff’s iconic Mt. Rundle to the east and Mt. Bourgeau to the west.

When we reached the end of Vermilion Lakes Road, we joined up with a paved greenway that climbs up a small hill and parallels the Trans-Canada Highway for a short distance. After crossing under the freeway, the bike path then meets up with the east entrance to the Bow Valley Parkway.

We weren’t pedaling the parkway for long before we encountered a couple small herds of bighorn sheep. They were grazing quietly alongside the road, unphased by our transient passing. Further up on one of the hillsides, we spotted a pair of young lambs. They watched curiously from their shaded thicket, following closely behind mom as she wandering about foraging. After a brief pause, we continued on our way.

As it winds from east to west, the Bow Valley Parkway rises and falls over a number of hills, but there aren’t any super long, aggressive climbs. Along the 17-km stretch to Johnston Canyon, there are a few viewpoints where you can pause and take in the scenery, including Backswamp and Hillsdale Meadow. The former overlooks the Bow River, while the latter offers a beautiful view of Pilot Mountain. As we made our way to Johnston Canyon, we were treated to scenes of the surrounding peaks peeking out from behind towering pine forests.

After arriving at the small rotary beside Johnston Canyon, we decide to bike a bit further to Castle Mountain – the approximate midpoint of the 48-km (30-mile) road between Banff and Lake Louise. Although this portion was open to cars, there was surprisingly little traffic on the road. Additionally, the few drivers that passed us seemed attentive and courteous, a nice change of pace from the road-raging lunatics that made us super nervous biking back in North Carolina. From our stopping point, we took in the views of Castle Mountain from Castle Cliff Viewpoint and paused for a quick lunch at one of the sunny picnic tables scattered along the roadside at Castle Mountain Chalets.

After a quick bite to eat, we hopped back on the bikes to return to town. On our return trip, we took a few minutes to stop by Moose Meadows, and then took in one last view of Pilot Mountain from Hillsdale Meadow. As we got closer to Banff, we noticed that the bicycle traffic had picked up significantly from the previously quiet morning, and we were glad we’d gotten a (reasonably) early start.

With our added 15-km (9-mile) roundtrip from Johnston Canyon to Castle Mountain, plus the 15-km (9-mile) roundtrip from Banff to the Bow Valley Parkway entrance, our total trip ended up clocking in at around 65 km (41 miles). If we’d had a second vehicle to use as a shuttle, we definitely would have just biked the whole parkway (since a thru ride would have been exactly the same distance as our out-and-back from Banff to Castle Mountain). With just the one car, however, we settled for an out-and-back. Since neither of us had so much as sat on a bike in two years (almost to the date), it didn’t seem like eighty miles was quite in the cards. Admittedly, my ass was pretty friggin’ sore after just the forty.

Overall, we thought the dedicated cycling route was a great little outing… and worth every bit of sit bone tenderness we were feeling the next day. It was so nice to be able to relax and not have to worry about any sort of vehicular traffic, and also to have the opportunity to just pull off and take photos at will. I love that Parks Canada designed another program with outdoor enthusiasts in mind, and will be interested to see what others think of the experience.

Total distance:  41 miles (65 km)
Elevation gain:  1,669 feet (509 m)

Know before you:

  • We’d recommend starting out early to mid-morning. We were on the road by 9:30 a.m. and there were very few other cyclists. As we were finishing the last few miles of the parkway shortly after lunch, there were significantly more riders heading out from Banff.
  • If starting out from Banff with your own bikes, we’d still recommend parking at the free public train station lot (327 Railway Avenue). Parks Canada also recommends this option. This prevents you from driving/parking in tourist hell, and also reduces congestion within the town. Win-win.
  • During the spring wildlife season (March 1 through June 25), this stretch of the Bow Valley Parkway is closed overnight (8 p.m. to 8 a.m.) to all human travel (cars, bikes, etc.). Make sure you save enough time to get back to town (or wherever you’re heading) before 8 p.m. For details on this and answers to other questions, check out this page: Cycling the Bow Valley Parkway.
  • Make sure to bring along bear spray and know how to use it. Because bicycles are both quiet and zippy, surprise bear encounters can be particularly dangerous for cyclists. Pay attention as you’re cycling and give wildlife space if you do have an encounter (30 meters for sheep, elk and other herbivores; 100 meters for bears and other carnivores).
  • If you decide to bike the entire parkway – either by having a second vehicle waiting at the western terminus (~40 miles from Banff) or doing an 80-mile roundtrip from Banff – you’ll be able to enjoy the views from Morant’s Curve and Storm Mountain Lookout, both near the Lake Louise end of the road. Both overlooks are coveted by photographers trying to capture that iconic shot of a red Canadian Pacific Railway freight engine as it parallels the Bow River beneath snow-capped peaks. While freight train schedules are not posted publicly, the trains run most frequently during business hours (9 a.m. to 5 p.m.).

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