June 1 – 15th
I have ridden the Highwood Pass from the south side for several years. It’s a great early season ride with a lot of elevation. It is my litmus test for how I’m doing – do I need to cycle more? Or am I right where I need to be?
I am a member of the Highwood Cycle Club in Okotoks. They take their name from – where else? The Highwood Pass. Every year the club organizes several group rides to tackle this road.
When to Ride
The road re-opens to car traffic on June 15th. However, in order to make it all the way to the Pass, you need to wait until the road is plowed. This generally happens in early June, but it’s dependent on when the road crews have time. Sometimes the road is not plowed until a few days before the road opens, especially if there has been a lot of late spring snow.
If you call Alberta Parks and ask about road conditions, you will get a stern “the road is closed!” A good friend of mine found this out the hard way. Also because the road is closed, there will be snowplows and possibly street sweepers on the highway. They will not be looking out for you, you have to look out for them.
Any bike will do, and I’ve seen them all on this road. I use a road bike because it is light and fast. Mountain bikes and hybrids also work.
Be prepared for all weather, and for extreme weather fluctuations between the start and the pass. Bring a small backpack or panier for food, extra water, and extra warm clothing. While you might work up a sweat cycling up, it is a long, fast and cold ride coming back down. I’ve had frozen fingers from the ride down. Not ideal when you have to brake and change gears.
Bears & Other Animals
Bear Spray is highly recommended. You are all alone on this road, and the bears are down low eating dandelions in the ditch. Leave the bears alone. Do not approach. Do not even stop! When every cyclist stops and looks at a bear, eventually the bear will get mad and take a swipe at you. This bear will be hunted down and killed. Do not be a bear killer.
When I first started biking the Highwood Pass, the road was empty. I could ride all the way there and back and count the number of people I saw. Now it is super popular. While it is tempting to take up the entire road, please be mindful of everyone else cycling.
If you need to stop, move over to the far right. You might be alone this second, but a group could be coming up or down at any minute. This is especially important for large groups. Last year, a cycle club (wearing identical bright yellow jackets – you know who you are 🙂 ) took up the entire lane because one member had a flat tire. They were stopped on a corner. As I came blasting down the hill, I had to weave through other cyclists in my lane who were trying to pass the stopped group.
When passing, please announce yourself. Saying “on your left” is good enough to alert the cyclists ahead, or ring your bell if you have one.
The same goes for the e-bike crowd. You STILL have to announce that you are passing another bike! We cannot hear you coming. I had an e-bike zip past me and my partner on the Moraine Lake Road yesterday with no warning, and we just about crashed.
This is cattle grazing country, and the main way to keep the cows from walking away is the use of cattle guards, known as Texas Gates here in Alberta (but oddly, not in Texas). These are a series of round metal bars inset in the road that prevent cattle from continuing down the road. They have thin strips of metal to cycle over.
To safely cycle over these, line up your front tire with the thin strip of metal. As soon as you hit the Texas Gate, stop looking down and focus on something straight ahead. Your bike will automatically stay straight, and you won’t fall off the thin strip.
You can also choose to simply bike over the rumble bars. It’s not pleasant, but if you keep up your speed, it’s over quickly.
From the south winter gates, start cycling. Stop when you have had enough, or when you reach the Highwood Pass. The super fit cyclists will continue down the other side for 110 km and 1,609 m elevation for the full Gate (south) to Gate (north) to Gate (south) experience, known as G2G2G.
This video is a highlight reel of the Highwood Pass cycle.
Parking and Trail Head
Park at the winter gates on Highway 541 / 40 south. Please park with consideration to the hundreds that will come after you.
Please do not be tempted to park along both sides of Highway 940. This is an active logging road. Logging trucks always win. There is a pull out a few hundred meters down the 940 on the west side.
Wheel your bike around or through the winter gates, hop on, and away you go!
There are NO washrooms or outhouses at the gates. The only facilities are at Sentinel Day Use area, which is just past the Kananaskis park gates on the south side of the highway. The next outhouse is at the Fitzsimmons Creek Day Use area, which is just shy of 3 km from the winter gates. I would recommend bringing your own supply of toilet paper. I don’t know how well these technically closed washrooms are stocked in the off season.
Please do not pee and poop all over the winter gate area. Do not leave any toilet paper either. Pack it in / pack it out EVEN on the road side.
The cycle starts out with a long and steep uphill. No warm up. Go slow, get your legs and lungs working. At the top, you are rewarded with stunning views of Armstrong.
I love this cycle, because I have hiked from just about every single parking lot on the south Highwood. I always gauge my cycling progress based on the trail heads along the way.
The first Day Use area is Fitzsimmons at about 2.8 km, and the Cat Creek Day Use area follows shortly after at 6 km. If you are cycling with young kids, or don’t want a massive day, then Cat Creek is a great spot to stop. You can explore the Highwood River, or cross the highway and hike the short Cat Creek Interpretive trail.
At 11.5 km is the newly (since the 2013 flood) reconstructed Lineham Provincial Recreation Area. Just down the road at 17.1 km is the Lantern Creek Provincial Recreation Area. This is the trail head for Picklejar Lakes across the highway.
The Mist Creek Provincial Recreation Area is on the left, but I always stop at the trail head to Mount Lipsett on the right. At 24.5 km into the trip, it is an ideal spot to rest, have a bit to eat, and gird my loins for the final elevation push to the summit.
While the elevation gained to this point is approximately 381 m (1,275′) over 24.5 km, there is still another 331 m to gain, but only over 13.5 km.
From the Mount Lipsett trail head, there is a short downhill as you ride around the right side of Mount Lipsett. Personally, this is my favourite part of the ride as it is absolutely beautiful. Once around the corner, the elevation starts in earnest, and does not give it up until you are past the Arethusa pull-out on the right at approximately 36 km from the winter gates.
Once past Arethusa, the angle backs off to the Highwood Pass Day Use area, which is on the west side at approximately 37.3 km. I would recommend not stopping here yet, and instead continue all the way to the Highwood Pass, which is just another 500 m or so up the road.
At the Highwood Pass Summit, you can take your turn posing in front of the Highwood Pass Elevation sign. Please don’t hog the sign, and move your bike away so others can take their photos.
Highwood Pass Cycle Return
On the way back down, I always stop at the Highwood Pass Day Use area for one more outhouse visit.
While the trip down is fast and fun, take a moment to enjoy the views going this way too.
Totals – Tracked on Strava
Date: Various trips
Group: Solo and club rides
Distance: 75.5 km
Elevation: 1,093 m (3,606′)
Time: 4 hours (includes lunch & breaks)