World Class Cycle Touring in the Canadian Rockies

By Kaitie Worobec

The Icefields Parkway is one of the most stunning mountain roadways on the planet. Stretching 230 km between Jasper and Lake Louise, this dramatically scenic highway passes by massive glaciers and turquoise lakes. It crosses two mountain passes to take you up to elevations in excess of 7,000 feet (2,100 metres) for breathtaking views of the Columbia Icefields.  Cycling the Icefields Parkway really enhances the experience by giving you the opportunity to see everything right up close and in "slower motion ". 

This past weekend, I had the privilege of joining a group from the Edmonton Bicycle and Touring Club for a four day cycling trip from Jasper to Banff. Ben Johnson of Mountain Madness Tours was our extremely accommodating driver and support along the way. Ben runs custom tours which last for as long as you want, to wherever you want to go.  Even better, he has a deluxe 10 seat van and an enclosed bike trailer, so your bikes stay safe and dry wherever you go!

Day 1: 38 km

We loaded up the van and bike trailer in Edmonton early Friday morning and within an hour, we were on the road. After arriving in Jasper, we unloaded our bikes at the Edith Lake parking lot and set off towards Athabasca Falls.  We soon passed by the Jasper Park Lodge and the crystal clear Lac Beauvert and couldn’t resist the photo opp.

To avoid some of the traffic, we opted for Highway 93A, rather than Highway 93. In hindsight, this was definitely a wise choice as we had the road mostly to ourselves.   As today was a relatively short ride, we reached HI-Athabasca Falls quite quickly and were rewarded with the falls just across the road. That night we dined on spaghetti at the hostel and enjoyed chatting with Michel, the hostel manager. Even though we were all sleeping in the same cabin, I slept extremely well.

Day 2: 109 km

This morning we were greeted with waffles and whipped cream for breakfast. It was a great way to fuel up for the long day ahead! I had never ridden over 75 km in one day before so I was a bit apprehensive about the distance and climbing Sunwapta Pass.  After a steep, winding climb, we stopped for a lunch break at the Tangle Falls rest area. I was pretty tired but I felt quite the sense of accomplishment after conquering the hill! Our next stop was the Columbia Icefields. Although we didn’t go up to the toe of the glacier, it was still quite awe-inspiring to view the Athabasca Glacier from the highway.

My favourite part of the day was the steep descent from the top of Sunwapta Pass to the “Big Bend”, a giant curve in the highway.  We even saw a family of mountain goats!

Eventually, we reached HI-Rampart Creek our hostel for the night. My butt was definitely thankful to move around on two legs rather than on two wheels! Having worked up quite an appetite, we decided not to cook dinner and headed to the Saskatchewan Crossing to indulge in their buffet instead. Back at the hostel, we sat around the campfire chatting with other guests and a few of us took advantage of the wood burning sauna. It was the perfect way to relax our muscles after a long day of riding.

Day 3: 94 km

After a good night’s sleep, we awoke to the sounds of the gurgling creek nearby.  Today was a cold breakfast of bagels, muffins, and fruit and then back onto the bikes. The road from the hostel to the bridge over the North Saskatchewan River was relatively flat but another mountain pass was yet to come. Bow Summit is the highest point on the Icefields Parkway but unlike the steep road up to Sunwapta, this was a much more gradual climb. Not to say it wasn’t challenging though!

Upon reaching Bow Summit, it was all downhill. We coasted past spectacular lakes, rivers, glaciers and mountain peaks before arriving at Bow Lake and the historic Num-Ti-Jah Lodge for lunch.  After a long break savouring the breathtaking scenery, we continued our descent to Lake Louise. I am definitely a much bigger fan of flying down hills than climbing up them!  

After two nights staying at wilderness hostels, the HI-Lake Louise Alpine Centre seemed like a five star resort. I think everyone enjoyed the hot showers and the terrific food from the on-site cafe. After filling our bellies, we hopped in the van and drove up to Lake Louise for a stroll around the lake.

Day 4: 61 km

Following a breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast, our last day of riding led us along the Bow Valley Parkway towards Banff. This is an amazing ride along the Bow River with many opportunities to spot wildlife. Although we didn’t stop, the highway passes by Johnston Canyon so you could easily stop there for a picnic or a short hike to break up the ride. We stopped for lunch at Castle Junction and after another 34 km, we finished the day at the Cascade Ponds picnic area.

All in all, we rode 302 km over 3 days! As a novice cyclist, I was quite proud of myself for riding every inch of the Parkway. There were certainly challenging sections but I soon forgot about the soreness in my legs when gazing at my majestic surroundings. More importantly, I truly started to appreciate bicycle touring as a mode of travel. I could stop wherever I pleased to take a photo and I noticed many waterfalls and wildflowers that you wouldn’t normally see through a car window.

So what's stopping you from getting out there and riding the Icefields Parkway yourself? Check out this map for distances and scenic highlights of the ride, and then contact our groups department for help with coordinating your cycling trip of up to 25 people. Happy cycling!

Where to stay:

Hostelling International has a string of facilities perfectly placed along the Icefields Parkway for you to overnight in after a long or short day's ride. Depending on how far you plan to ride each day, stay at one of the following hostels:

HI-Maligne Canyon
HI-Mount Edith Cavell
HI-Athabasca Falls
HI-Beauty Creek
HI-Hilda Creek

HI-Rampart Creek
HI-Mosquito Creek
HI-Lake Louise Alpine Centre
HI-Castle Mountain
HI-Banff Alpine Centre

Author: Backpacker Buzz