Cycling Highwood Pass in Alberta

John at the summit of Highwood Pass
John at the summit of Highwood Pass

I celebrated my birthday one year by taking the day off and heading with John to Kananaskis Country, Alberta. Our plan for the day – cycling Highwood Pass, the highest paved and 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.

Cycling Highwood Pass 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 when it’s open from June 15th to November 30th.

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

The best way to cycle Highwood Pass

You have to decide which end of the Highwood Pass cycling trip you want to start. That might be a function of where you live and how much time you have.

Longview area start

I loved starting at the winter gate nearest Longview. You’ll find the gate at the intersection with Highway 40 and Highway 541. It’s a 37 km cycle up Highwood Pass from there, so it’s a 74 km out and back ride. 

King Creek area start

Your other option for cycling Highwood Pass is to park at the King Creek trailhead near the intersection of Highway 40 and Highway 742. The road to Highwood Pass from there is just 17 km long and much steeper. Part of the road would be Category 1 – the steepest grade the bikers on the Tour de France climb.

An out and back bike ride

Most people cycling Highwood Pass do and out and back ride. They start at one of the trailheads and bike up to Highwood Pass and then return the same way to to their vehicle. If you’re a very strong cyclist then you could cycle up and down Highwood Pass – a total distance of about 108 kilometres with a vertical gain of up to 1,267 metres (4,157 feet). Few people do this. Fortunately, if you do, you can always change your mind and cut the ride short if your energy flags or the weather goes south.

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

The 2013 floods are now a distant memory

In 2013 the road was closed once the floods hit. You could see the devastation in many places – but especially at this bridge which washed away. By 2014, the roads were once again in amazing shape.

Before Highway 40 opens to cars the road gets swept – so cycling Highwood Pass nearer to June 15th means the roads will be in great shape.

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 cycling Highwood Pass before cars are allowed on Highway 40 is the freedom of having the entire road to yourself. It’s absolute bliss.

Fortunately, the road has a wide shoulder so even if you cycle it from June 15th through the summer, there’s never a problem with having enough room to feel safe . But it is a treat when you don’t have to think about a vehicle.

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

Cycling Highwood Pass from the Longview side

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 4 km 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 Highway 40 – complete with washrooms and picnic tables. They make good rest stops.

Highwood Pass 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. I would recommend arm warmers, leg warmers and a water-proof jacket like the Aquanator rain jacket. (Men’s version here.). Don’t forget the long-fingered bike gloves.

The final grade to the summit is 7%
The final grade cycling to Highwood Pass coming from the Longview side 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 cycling Highwood Pass

We both carried cans of bear spray cycling Highwood Pass 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 big horned 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

How long does it take to cycle to Highwood Pass?

All told it took me 2¾ hours cycling to Highwood Pass, with plenty of stops for photos and a few refueling stops. On the return it took us about 2 hours.

We did cycle north down the other side of Highwood Pass but didn’t go far as the grade is extreme for the first five kilometres and we had to be home for a birthday dinner. 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. It’s easiest to do and out and back bike ride.

Cycling Highwood Pass location map

                                               

Final thoughts on Highwood Pass

No matter which way you cycle Highwood Pass, you ‘ll feel pretty darned pleased with yourself once you’ve topped out. But go prepared. You’re in the mountains where weather is fickle. 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. 

Recommended reading: A Complete Guide to Camping in Kananaskis 

In Kananaskis Village there is a Wilderness Hostel.

Near the turnoff to Nakiska Ski Area is Sundance by Basecamp. You can stay in teepees and trappers tents.

For a higher end experience, choose the Kananaskis Mountain Lodge.

The foyer in Kananaskis Mountain Lodge
The foyer in Kananaskis Mountain Lodge

A few useful items cycling Highwood Pass

After a bike chain break on the Great Allegheny Passage bike ride, I would never leave home without a bike chain breaker and multi-tool.

Don’t forget a bike pump in case you get a flat. 

A bike lock could come in handy if you decide you want to go for a short hike.

I like to carry a handlebar bag with my raincoat and bike tools rather than having something on my back.

Bike lights are one of those things you should always have – just in case.

More ideas for Alberta bike rides

There are lots of extra clothes in this backpack
There are lots of extra clothes in this backpack when we bike the Going-to-the-Sun Road

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

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