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John at the summit of Highwood Pass

Biking the Highest Paved Road in Canada

I celebrated my birthday one year by taking the day off and heading with John to Kananaskis Country, Alberta. Our plan for the day was to cycle to Highwood Pass on the highest public road in Canada. We chose to do the more gradual route from the entrance closest to the community of Longview, accessible via a 1.5 hour drive from Calgary.

This bike ride had been on my wish list for several years. But I’d always wanted to cycle to the pass during the narrow window when the road is snow-free and cars aren’t allowed. There are three weeks at most in a year that you can do that. Starting June 15th cars are allowed.

The snow pack on the road can vary greatly from year to year. Some years, even in June, you will be turned back by snow pack.  But during a warm spring, the road clears more quickly. Use your judgement and be prepared to turn around. Also take extra layers of warm clothes as the descent can be frosty some days.

If you’re not a cyclist put the drive over Highwood Pass on your must-do list

The start of the road up to Highwood Pass
The start of the road up to Highwood Pass

The best way to do the bike ride up Highwood Pass

The ideal scenario for this bike ride would be a one way trip where you start at the gate nearest Longview, cycle 37 kilometres to Highwood Pass and then descend 17 kilometres on a road with a much steeper grade to the gate by King Creek. 

If you were climbing from the King Creek Trailhead, part of the road would be Category 1 – the steepest grade the bikers on the Tour de France climb.

Looking up the High River Valley
Looking up the High River Valley

In 2013 the road was closed once the floods hit. You can see the devastation in many places – but especially at this bridge which washed away. The work is all done and the roads are in amazing shape. The roads get swept just before they open to cars and are in better shape than the ones I see in Calgary.

Washed out bridge from the floods of 2013
Washed out bridge from the floods of 2013

Bike to Highwood Pass before June 15th for a car-free experience

The beauty of doing the bike ride before the cars are allowed on the road is the pure freedom of having the entire road to yourself. It’s absolute bliss. The road has a wide shoulder so even if you cycle it from now through the summer, there’s never a problem with having enough room to feel safe.

Scenery about 40 minutes into the bike ride
Scenery about 40 minutes into the bike ride
Mountains dominate the skyline - but notice there's not a car to be seen
Mountains dominate the skyline – but notice there’s not a car to be seen

The grade on the road to Highwood Pass, coming from Longview, is generally gentle. There are plenty of occasions where you get a good ride down and it’s really not until you reach Peter Lougheed Park and the last four kilometres that the road steepens.

Me at the summit of Highwood Pass
Me at the summit of Highwood Pass on June 12th
John at the summit of Highwood Pass
John at the summit of Highwood Pass (during the car-free period)

There are numerous recreation areas along the highway – complete with washrooms and picnic tables. They make good rest stops.

The summit is notoriously windy though it wasn’t bad on the day we were there. Do bring warm clothing and rain gear as you top out at 2,206 metres (7,238 feet). The difference in temperature between your starting point and the pass is very noticeable.

The final grade to the summit is 7%
The final grade to the summit is 7%
A strong group of cyclists coming up from the other side starting at the King Creek Day Use area
A strong group of cyclists coming up from the other side starting at the King Creek Day Use area
The ride down is the reward - and what fun it is
The ride down is the reward – and what fun it is

Carry bear spray on this bike ride

We both carried cans of bear spray as we had heard from others that they had seen grizzly bears up here in the past. We saw plenty of scat – and moose poop too, but the only animals we saw were the Rocky Mountain sheep.

The sheep blend right into the background
The sheep blend right into the background
It wasn't until John sped past the sheep that we even noticed them
It wasn’t until John sped past the sheep that we even noticed them
John enjoying a road without cars
John enjoying a road without cars
Fresh green foliage & lots of trees equals bear country on the Highwood Pass Road
Fresh green foliage & lots of trees equals bear country on the Highwood Pass Road

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How long does it take to cycle to Highwood Pass?

All told it took me 2¾ hours to cycle to the pass, with plenty of stops for photos and a few refueling stops. On the return it took us about 2 hours. We did cycle down the other side of the pass but didn’t go far as the grade is extreme for the first five kilometres and we had to be home by a certain time. That at least, was my excuse.

It’s a long way to drive between the two trailheads – over two hours, so shuttling cars doesn’t really make a lot of sense.

Most people seem to ride to the summit from one of the starting points and return the same way. If you’re a very strong cyclist then you could ride up and down – a total distance of about 108 kilometres with a vertical gain of up to 1,267 metres (4,157 feet).

No matter how you do it, you will feel pretty darned pleased with yourself once you reach the pass. Go prepared. Bring lots of water and food along with warm clothing and rain gear.

Where to spend the night on Highway 40

There aren’t many options. There is some camping in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park but you need to bike a dirt road to get there. Click on the Alberta Parks camping website to learn more.

In Kananaskis Village there is a Wilderness Hostel. For a higher end experience, choose the Kananaskis Mountain Lodge.

More ideas for Alberta bike rides

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest board.

Biking the highest paved road in Canada over Highwood Pass in Kananaskis Country, Alberta. It's car free until June 15th every year



Leigh McAdam

Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 61,000 followers. Her blog: HikeBikeTravel is frequently cited as one of the top travel and outdoor adventure blogs in Canada.

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta

This Post Has 54 Comments

  1. Had no idea the highest public road in Canada was here in Alberta. Learn something new everyday. It looks beautiful, although I’d probably drive rather than cycle.

  2. That is so cool that there is a window where you can bike with no cars. Is there a window when there is no cars and no grizzlies? Looks like a beautiful adventure in the Rockies.

    1. @Ted I do not believe such a window exists but there not really that big a deal. It’s an exceptional way to see the Rockies and I need to go back to hike some of the great trails off the pass. Perhaps later this summer.

    1. @Lisa I figure if there were bears I’d blow my whistle and get out my bear spray. There are a surprising number of cyclists around so despite the empty looking pictures, it never seemed long before someone rolled into view – giving at least the illusion of safety in numbers. The beauty of a hard long up on a bike is you don’t give a damn about bears by the time you get to the top. You just want a break, a seat, food and a drink. T

  3. That would be an incredible feeling – not only getting to make this ride to see the scenery, but to ride on a road temporarily closed off to the cars! I also love those sheep, they’re quite cute!

  4. This sounds fantastic, even with the slight threat of bears. Seems a visit in Western Canada should be at least one month, with all the fab hikes and everything else.

    1. @Sophie I think you’re right about taking a full month to enjoy the Rockies. Between BC and Alberta there is a lot of ground to cover. Bears are always going to be around, but I don’t often spend much time thinking of them. If there was steaming scat – that’s another thing altogether.

  5. Happy Birthday! Glad you got your wish of taking this awesome ride. I love bike riding, but much more of a flat land biker. The scenery is amazing on this route — would love to see it by bike or by car. And just how cute are those sheep??

  6. What a gnarly ride, Leigh! That is so cool that you did that even more awesome having the highway all to yourselves. LOVED the picture of whomever that was sprawled out on the highway…that rocks! Hey, if you ever need a pace vehicle Phoenix and I are there for you, our friend! 🙂

    1. @Mike That was my husband posing for me on the highway. He had a lot more juice left in his legs than I did. It’s a rare treat to get a highway all to yourself and the window is pretty darned small. It was a fun way to spend a birthday.

  7. Happy Birthday, Leigh! What a lovely place to celebrate the day. Not sure I’d tackle that one on a bike, but I am glad you did so that I could enjoy the photos!

    1. @Brittany There is one other place near Calgary too – along the Elbow River in Kananaskis Country but cars are allowed starting May 15th so there isn’t much of a window.

  8. Such beautiful country, I would love to visit and see some amazing wildlife from the area, thanks for the tour

  9. I can see the attraction in going when you did. Such beautiful scenery and no need to watch out for cars – a surreal experience I would say.

  10. Happy belated birthday. Awesome scenery, as usual. With all that beauty I’d be falling off the bike at regular intervals 🙂 The sheep are too cute, but a grizzly…yikes!

  11. What a wonderful way to celebrate, Leigh! Belated Happy Birthday.
    The scenery is gorgeous and that you’re able to ride this road when it’s free of cars is truly special treat. Thanks for taking us on this tour.

  12. Impressive feat. I’ve always heard that going down a mountain is the most dangerous part of a bike ride, so I can understand why you did not go far down the other side.

  13. Hi Leigh, just caught this article where it was reprinted on Epochtimes website. Awesome post and photos, looks spectacular though I would likely do it in the car – not much of a mountain biker myself. Epochtimes recently contacted me offering to republish some of my articles, how has your experience been with them? Cheers.

    1. @Greg Thanks for stopping by. I had to answer a lot of q’s about how I would like things to work with Epoch Times so agreed because of their reach and hopefully potential to bring me new readers. I’d also checked out some of the other bloggers who were working with them and was impressed with the caliber.

      1. Thanks for the quick reply, Leigh. I did the same, saw your article and a couple others of good quality and decided to give them a try for the same reasons, visibility basically. They just posted one of my articles on Hawaii.

  14. This was a really nice trip we do every year. Although I need to point out there are some mistakes in your article. The steepest grade on Tour de France is HC (not categ.1) and there is no segment with category 1 on this road, only a short segment with category 2.

      1. Thanks for getting back so swiftly! Thanks for the number too! I will do as you suggest. As I ride my trainer in front of the t.v. I will plan the trip 🙂 Did you guys park right in Longview and ride up from there?

        1. @Lester You can drive quite a bit closer to gates that will be closed and start right there. If you google the area you will see the secondary roads. Watch for deer in the early morning.

  15. Thank goodness I found this site. I am writing from Ohio in the good old US of A.. Myself and three other riders have made the commitment to ride from Fairbanks AK back to Ohio this summer. I am in the process of planning the trip and have made it as far as Banff. We are planning on traveling from Banff to Longview via the Kananaskis Trail Highway. We will be traveling through that area late June. Can you give many any information about the road overall or guide me to some place that I can get additional information about the area round Longview and south as far as bicycling goes.

    1. @Steven The road south of Longview is beautiful and it has a decent shoulder but almost no services.It’s ranch country so once you pass the last town on the “Cowboy Trail” you have about 130 kms until you get services in Pincher Creek. There may be a B&b along the road if I remember correctly.The road over Highwood Pass is spectacular. You could also check out a few tour companies who run routes through the area just to see what they say – Freewheeling Adventures and Bicycle Adventures. Shoot me any more q’s should you have them.

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