Special Report: Banff to Jasper

Jon and I are relaxing in Jasper today after three hard days of riding. Not only have we climbed up into the Rockies, but we’ve spent three days pedalling north through them. Now that we’ve come out the other side of the wilderness, we decided to give a report on all that we saw and experienced — and we saw and experienced A LOT!

Day 1 (Ride day 13): Banff, AB to Mosquito Creek Campground (Route)

Our departure from Banff unfortunately followed a rest day that was not at all restful. Long story short, we had taken a bus over to the next town (Canmore) in order to get new rear wheels for our bikes. So, armed with those and technicolour hopes that we would experience no more spoke issues, we departed from Banff.

After a short stint on the Trans-Canada Highway, we veered onto the Bow Valley Parkway, a parallel route that has much less traffic and much more possibility of wildlife spotting. The smaller traffic volume was definitely appreciated, and the rolling hills kept us on our toes.

A colourful welcome to the Bow Valley Parkway.

Unfortunately, despite the better odds of seeing some wildlife on the Parkway, we only saw a single deer. We were not impressed! However, we did see some nice scenery, so we really can’t complain too much.

A raging storm at the aptly named Storm Mountain.

Despite some occasional showers, it wasn’t long until we were in Lake Louise. There, we had our new wheels checked over by the mechanic, Rob, at Wilson’s. He tightened up some loose spokes and made sure the wheels were in true, and gave our wheels a clean bill of health. However, because of our unquenchable thirst for knowledge, we pelted him with spoke-related questions for a long time. After answering them all with good grace, Rob finally sent us on our way at a bit after 8pm.

A close-up of the shale cliffs outside Lake Louise.
The shale cliffs outside Lake Louise.

After getting out of Lake Louise, it wasn’t long until we started climbing. What turned out to be 10km of climbing was punctuated by some very nice scenery, some cyclists flying down the hill going the other way (lucky buggers!), and…. black bears! Within an hour of being on the Icefield Parkway, we saw not one, but TWO black bear adolescents by the side of the road.

One part of me wishes we had stopped (at a safe distance) for pictures. But the practical part of me — the one that keeps me alive — won out the day and we just cycled past. Of course, in order to not startle the bear, we started talking to it as we approached — “Hello bear, here we come. Please don’t eat us!” This quickly transformed into a song, which was perfected for the second bear sighting. Hey — we’re alive, so it must’ve worked. Right?

We finally pulled into camp after 10pm. Luckily there was still plenty of daylight, but we didn’t waste time setting up camp, cooking some food, and getting ready for bed.

We finally had a clear night for some stars to shine through!
The clouds that did remain provided some dramatic flair to the mountains.

Day 2 (Ride day 14): Mosquito Creek Campground to Wilcox Creek Campground (Route)

As is typical with our slow morning routine, we didn’t get on the road until after noon. To our credit, we did spend quite a bit of time talking to some other cycle tourists that were camped at Mosquito Creek near us. It’s always fun to meet other people on a similar quest!

Misty mountains in the morning at Mosquito Creek Campground.
Really low-hanging cloud greeted us in the morning at Mosquito Creek Campground.

The day started out with more climbing, but it wasn’t long until we hit beautiful views of cloud-shrouded mountains and awesome glacial lakes. So, it passed by in a flash. And before we knew it, we had reached Bow Summit, the highest point on the Icefield Parkway at 2135 metres! It’s easy to lose sight of accomplishments like those during the grind of climbing, but looking back, you really do feel like you accomplished something.

Ice still covering parts of Bow Lake.
The ice *is* melting, though. Summer must be near!
Bow Lake is not quite ready to host a swim meet yet.

At Bow Summit, we received a bit of a nasty shock; first there was a sudden downpour, which sent us running for cover. Soon after, it turned to SNOW! It must’ve been quite the scene for the numerous tourists filing past from their busses to the trail to the summit — two cyclists hiding under a small information shelter, shivering as they ate a modest lunch of peanut butter sandwiches. It was fun to chat with those curious enough to strike up conversation, though!

Made it! Peddled furiously up the 15% grade hill to get to this sign and Bow Summit — 2135 metres.
Overlook onto Peyto Lake, near Bow Summit. Do you see the wolf?

After departing Bow Summit, we descended a long way. Normally that’s an amazing feeling, but this time we knew we would have to make up each lost metre, as our next campground was just a bit below Bow Summit’s elevation. Oh well, live in the moment and enjoy!

A nice view on Waterfowl Lake.
Interesting rocks alongside Waterfowl Lake.

At around 60km into our ride, we came across Saskatchewan Crossing, which is a crossing leading down to Red Deer, AB. We decided to go check on food prices (they were ridiculous!), when we ran into the cycle tourists that we met at our campground. After talking about our night’s destinations, we learned that our campground was not 86km away from our starting point, as google maps had said; instead, it was 100km! Yikes!

We decided to press on to our original goal campsite anyway, despite the increased distance. And so we didn’t linger at Saskatchewan Crossing, but said goodbye to our friends — whose names we never even learned 😦 — and pedalled onwards.

At a rest stop along the way, the ground squirrels were exceedingly friendly. They even went so far as to wink at me!
The ground squirrel, close enough to his burrow to make a hasty escape if necessary.

The next 10km were pretty uneventful. Then we saw another cycle tourist going the other way. We had a chat with him, and it turns out he’s riding around the WORLD! He started in Alaska, is going all the way to South America, and then is coming up the other side of the Americas. Wow!

A mountain sheep sighting! The wildlife really helped to break up the grind of the hills.
A nice multi-level waterfall near the mountain sheep spotting.

Continuing on, we soon came to hills. Lots and lots of hills. We climbed and climbed and climbed. For 30km we climbed before it FINALLY levelled out. But, about 2-3km from the top we had a very real life-affirming experience. It was raining and super windy and super exposed, and we must have looked so pathetic and tired as we pedalled up at 7-8km/h. At that moment, a car approached from behind, and instead of just flying by as every car had before, this one moved beside us and slowed down. Inside were four young woman, and as they passed by, they yelled out a cheer and words of encouragement, telling us to keep on going.

It’s funny how such simple acts of kindness can elevate your mind from the depths of pain and despair. Just the idea that another group of people reached out to try to help and encourage us suddenly made our legs seem a bit fresher, the climb a little less steep, the wind a little less chilling. And before we knew it, we were at the top!

We pressed on along the relative flat of the top of the world, through the rain and wind, and FINALLY found our camp. Unfortunately, our troubles were not over there; the entrance to the camp was a 15% grade hill. Now, up until this point, I had a steely determination to make it to the camp, no matter what hills came before me, no matter what weather was thrown at me. But I nearly lost it at the sight of that hill; all the cumulative fatigue from the climbs and the weather hit me at once and made me feel 150 years old. But, those ol’ legs kept on moving and made it to camp!

The top of the world at the late hour of 10pm. This picture represents the product of, by far, the toughest day so far!

Unfortunately, there was one final challenge that really added insult to injury: all of the closest spots were occupied by RVs. So we had to pedal up even more hills to the furthest reaches of the campground in order to find open sites. What a trying day!

Once we got off the bikes, we quickly changed into clothes, ate some cookies, downed some water, and put dinner on. Then we built our tents, ate, and crashed into bed. It was so cold.

Day 3 (Ride day 15): Wilcox Creek Campground to Jasper, AB (Route)

After a really tough day, all we had wanted was sleep. Unfortunately, the night had other ideas — it was SO cold that both Jon and I kept waking up, despite sleeping in layers, and with our sleeping bag hoods done up nice and tight. So, when I woke up and saw that it was nearly seven, I was somewhat relieved that I could get up, start moving, and leave the bad night of sleep behind me.

That’s when I realized that the pitter-patter I had been hearing in my tent wasn’t drizzle — it was SNOW! I opened my tent to a world blanketed in white, with an icy wind to complete the experience. My reaction: oh noooooo!

Camping in the snow in a tent… that’s a first!

After waking up Jon, I knew what had to be done — packing up a wet tent — but I didn’t want to and wasn’t able to make myself do it. Luckily, the sounds of Jon packing up the inside of his tent  soon sprung me into action; there’s nothing worse than being the last person packed.

So, back into my cold, wet tent I ventured. While I rolled up my sleeping bag and sleeping mat, I thanked my lucky stars that I had put everything else into my waterproof panniers or my dry sacs. The only casualties of the water were my tent and my sleeping mat, both of which would dry quickly given shelter.

How are we supposed to ride on frozen spokes?!

With everything except my tent packed up, I quickly hauled all of my bags to the campground food shelter to get everything out of the falling snow, and then went back for my tent. Instead of taking it down right then and there, as Jon had, I decided to give it a chance to dry out in the shelter. So, I grabbed my tent, lifted it in the air and carried it as nimbly as I could to the shelter.

Can it really be June?!

Once Jon joined me, we decided that it would be a good idea to attempt to start a fire with the shelter’s wood-burning stove. There was a problem with that, though: we did not have an axe with which to chop up wood small enough to even get a fire going. But, as luck would have it, a camper happened to be walking by at the moment, and he agreed to lend us an axe.

So, with axe in-hand, I set to work chopping up all the dry wood we could find into kindling. With that done, we had another stroke of luck — someone had left behind a newspaper in the stove. So, we set to work building up a fire, placing kindling over scrunched up paper in the confines of the wood-burning stove. As we lit the newspaper, there was tension in the air — would it catch??

YES! The fire caught, and with some tender loving care from Jon, it was soon roaring. At last! Warmth filled the shelter and gave us hope that our tents would dry before we left.

After preparing breakfast (a protein-oatmeal slurry, as we’ve come to think of it), we packed up the still-damp tents and hit the road by noon. The snow that had been falling turned into rain, and we were the most joyfully warm and dry people in Jasper National Park. Oh wait… that’s not how it was. We were cold, wet, and shivering in the wind.

Once on the open road, we found out just how serious the wind took its business. It was so cold that we only went 4km (to the Icefield Centre) before we decided to pull on some tights. And while we were stopped, we elected to warm up inside the Icefield Centre — big mistake! The chaos of tourists and busses and overpriced food ($5.50 for 473mL of chocolate milk?!?!?!) almost made the rain and icy wind preferable.

But warmth is warmth, and we soon missed it once we were on our bikes again.

Luckily for us, the ride was largely downhill, with rolling hills along the way. The downhill was good so that we didn’t have to push too hard, and the rolling hills were good to warm us up by making us occasionally push hard. So, all in all the way passed without too much cursing. And as luck would have it, after our break at the halfway point, the rain stopped, the clouds become slightly less menacing, and the sun even managed to peek out. So, with renewed spirits, we made the last half of the ride quickly go by.

I see blue skies — things are looking up! Oh, and a lovely mountain, too!

On arrival into Jasper, we soon met our friend Yash’s aunt, Leni, and uncle, John. From the moment we rode up, Leni and John were the most hospitable people we ever met! Not only did they take us out to dinner, but they had arranged for a place for us to stay (Alpine Log House — an amazing place to stay, if you’re ever in Jasper). After a long day of riding, a great evening of food, drink, and company, and a good night’s rest, I can say that we finally feel 100% human again.

A suitable scene for our arrival into Jasper, as Jasper was originally a train stop town.
The elk invasion of Jasper has commenced!
Elk, harvesting the tasty grass of Jasper.
Caught mid-chew. Elk need to learn to chew with their mouths closed!

To sum up: Banff to Jasper was a tough three days that really pushed us, but the gorgeous scenery, up-close encounters with wildlife, and the satisfaction of having cycled on one of the highest paved roads in Canada make it a ride I plan on doing again!

After hearing our account, would you like to cycle from Banff to Jasper (or Jasper to Banff)? Have you done any tough rides with unexpected weather conditions? Let us know in the comments below!


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