We just completed the first stage of the Great Divide Bike trail-Banff, AB to Roosville, Montana. Fantastic! 9 days of beautiful backcountry cycling-through valleys, over mountain passes, along old fire roads and rough single-track trails with the sun in our face everyday.
The Great Divide Bike route is one of the world’s largest off pavement bike routes spanning from Banff, AB to Antelope Wells, New Mexico. It roughly follows the Continental Divide along old fire roads, logging roads, single-track mountain bike trails and the occasional paved highway. More on the Great Divide route. The first stage is just over 400km, crossing 4 mountain passes of over 5500 feet in elevation each. Beginning in Banff National Park the route heads south through Kananaskis and Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. It then winds its way through Elk Lakes Provincial Park eventually passing Elkford and Sparwood, BC. From there, the trail heads southeast into the more isolated Flathead Valley until finally arriving at the border town of Roosville, Montana.
Our first day was appropriately filled with some extra route finding and adventure (which seems to be the theme with our bike trips!). Thanks to Jane and Karen we arrived at the start of the route just behind the Banff Springs hotel early with rested legs and full tummies.
10km into the ride and we were faced with more signs-ones we could definitely not ignore.
The Spray River bridge had been completely washed away (a diversion of water from the upstream dam due to Transalta work). We were forced to backtrack to Banff and ride along the newly paved trail to Canmore – which turned out to be an excellent alternative culminating in a patio dinner, locally brewed beer and a warm bed (thanks Nance and Paul!).
Day 2 began with a thigh busting grind up the Spray Lakes road to connect with the trail at Spray Lakes reservoir. We crossed to the west side of the reservoir and followed a little used gravel road until we hit our next road bump.
Well the sign didn’t say closed so we continued on only to be shortly confronted with a dam spillover and about 2 feet of chilly water we would have to wade through. With some rearranging of panniers, the shoes came off and across we went, while the Transalta site workers curiously looked on.
Sun shone on us our entire third day as we made our way through Mt. Shark area and on to the Smith-Dorrien Spray Rd.
Exhausted we treated ourselves to too much ice cream at Bolton Creek Trading Post and, overwhelmed by all the people and with all the campsites full, we quickly made our way to Elk Pass Trailhead. With the sun setting we made a dash for the woods where we quietly (illegally!) camped for the night.
After a fitful night of sleeping, hoping a park warden wouldn’t discover our tent, we began our 4th morning heading straight up. The map describes the climb up to Elk Pass as a virtual wall!-not too much of an exaggeration we found as we rode, pushed, pulled and grunted up the 6443 foot pass.
Then it was down, down, over the BC border and into Elk Lakes Provincial Park.
Early on day 5 we pedaled toward Elkford with dreams of a late breakfast (eggs, pancakes, pan-fried veggies….yum!) but arrived just after the 11am cutoff. We were happy to settle for some delicious veggie calazones. After resupplying ourselves with groceries we headed out of town, up a long, long, steep hill-thank goodness for pavement!
Once again we turned onto gravel and cycled south to Sparwood, getting a behind-the-scenes look at some huge mining operations.
After another couple dips in some mountain streams we arrived in Sparwood, home of the World’s Largest Truck.
After a warm night in a local motel, tummies full of ice cream (again!) we started out in the chilly early morning, cycling southeast into the Upper Flathead Valley. Known as the “Serengeti of North America” for its abundant wildlife, it’s one of the last few uninhabited valleys in southern Canada. Just two years ago the Great Divide bike trail connected the barely used trails to establish the 183 km route through the valley. So after 30km of smooth pavement and the hot sun now warming our backs, it was with a bit of trepidation and a lot of excitement we turned on to the coarse gravel Flathead Rd.
We started up the steep Flathead Pass and the gravel road became a loose large rock road.
Fortunately the bumpy road didn’t last long and we were soon back on our bikes, ending the day at a beautiful little campsite along a creek-all to ourselves, again!
Clear blue sky and a hot sun greeted us our 7th day. Mid way through the morning we spotted our 2nd (very large) black bear jogging across the road. We used the opportunity to set off a bear banger (fireworks!!) before riding on-and making a lot of noise all the way. We spent the majority of the day climbing over 1000 feet to Cabin Pass, surrounded by wildflowers and butterflies.
At the top of the pass, out of nowhere, we ran into Jean-Francois, a movie maker in the valley studying the Grizzly bear-we were happy to see someone else in such an isolated place but also happy that he was looking for bears in the opposite direction!
Our 8th day and we awoke next to the Wigwam river, celebrating early, thinking with only(!) 50km to go to Roosville we would be done that day-how wrong we were. We arrived at the single-track trail late that morning. Through thick bushes and grasses we hopped on and off our bikes navigating the trail. We grunted and sweated up and down a steep, long, slippery,muddy cliff (alongside huge bear tracks) ferrying our panniers and bikes separately until we finally made it back on to the gravel road in the later afternoon.
Exhausted and hungry we pulled off the trail, set up camp and feasted on potato soup, happy to be done for the day.
The next morning it was a 2hr ride/climb up Galton Pass and then a thrilling downhill all the way to the valley bottom and the US port of Roosville.
An amazing trip we only wished we could have continued. What could be better than waking up everyday to a warm bowl of oatmeal, weaving through mountain valleys, seeing deer, moose, coyotes, hawks, bald eagles, bears!, swimming in fresh lakes and rivers, settling in at night in a dry tent and a cozy sleeping bag and then doing it all again the next day.