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Driving The Highwood Pass Loop – One Of The Best Drives In Canada

Driving the Highwood Pass Loop – One of the Best Drives in Canada

The Highwood Pass Loop is one of the most varied and scenic one day drives in Canada. It can easily be done as a day trip from Calgary, Canmore or Banff and it doesn’t matter what direction you drive it. I think it’ one of the best drives in Canada.

Yesterday I did the drive starting from the east near Longview, a small community an hour’s drive southwest of Calgary. I was meeting a group at 8 AM at the junction of Highway 541 and Highway 22 – also called the Cowboy Trail. Before I even got to the rendezvous point, I had to pull over for pictures of the sunrise. In every direction I looked, it was drop-dead gorgeous. What a treat it is to actually be catching the sunrise again – easier now that it’s at about 8 AM.

"Sunrise in Millarville on the way to Kanana"

Sunrise in Longview on the way to Kananaskis Country

"Oil well at sunrise along the Cowboy Highway"

Oil well at sunrise along the Cowboy Trail

"Looking across the fields to the mountains in Kananaskis Country"

Looking across the fields to the mountains in Kananaskis Country

From Longview, which you’ll find big ranches and some producing oil wells, one heads east on Highway 541 – which upon entering Kananaskis Country becomes Highway 40. Our group was doing a photography tour – just for the fun of it – so the plan was to stop along the way where photographic opportunities presented themselves.

Once we were in Kananaskis Country, fences disappeared so it was easy to walk up the hills for the views – and some gnarly old wind-blown trees.

"Mountain scene within minutes of entering Kananaskis Country from the Millarville side"

Mountain scene within minutes of entering Kananaskis Country from the Longview side

"A view of Highway 541"

A view of Highway 541

With numerous picnic stops along the road, it’s also easy to find trails to the river – where you see the area from a very different perspective.

"Checking out the Highwood River after the flood of 2013"

Checking out the Highwood River after the flood of 2013

"The view up to the mountains from a picnic area on the east side of Highwood Pass"

The view up to the mountains from a picnic area on the east side of Highwood Pass

Few cars were driving the road yesterday, though groups of motorcyclists were out enjoying the good weather. The road to Highwood Pass was closed last year, and though much of the road has been fixed, there is still one bridge washed out where you must do a short detour.

"Bridge washed out from last year's floods along Highway 40"

Bridge washed out from last year’s floods along Highway 40

My favourite section of the drive is the fifteen kilometers on either side of Highwood Pass. Wildly folded mountain faces are visible and in the right light, they are very beautiful, in an austere kind of way. There are numerous hiking trails accessed from the highway including the popular five kilometer Ptarmigan Cirque trail. It starts from the parking lot at the summit of the pass. There is also plenty to offer the adventurous backpacker with many choices of off-trail routes that can last for days. This though is prime grizzly country so you do have to go very prepared. About six weeks ago a hiker was killed when he got between a grizzly and her cub.

"Heading up towards Highwood Pass"

Heading up towards Highwood Pass

From Highwood Pass it’s a steep descent to Kananaskis Country. Elbow Lake is one of the short hikes you can do from this side of the pass.

"Heading down the pass towards the Trans-Canada Highway"

Heading down the pass towards the Trans-Canada Highway

The road generally flattens once you reach the Kananaskis Valley. From the bottom of the pass by the winter gates it’s about 50 scenic kilometers of driving to reach the Trans-Canada Highway. At that intersection you can choose to go west to Canmore and Banff or east to return to Calgary.

Extensive hiking, an RV park, campgrounds and the Nakiska Ski Resort are all located along this section of road. Services though are minimal with only one gas station. There is a Delta Hotel at the ski resort so you can nip in there for some food, though your best bet is to pack a picnic lunch and enjoy it at one of the scenic picnic areas in the Highwood Pass area.

"At the bottom of the road to Highwood Pass near the winter gates"

At the bottom of the road to Highwood Pass near the winter gates

Allow a minimum of four hours to do the drive from Calgary, Canmore or Banff.

The road to the Highwood Pass, the highest paved road in Canada, topping out at 2,206 metres, is only open seasonally. It is closed from December 1st until June 15th to protect the bighorn sheep. Do watch out for them on your drive. The climb up and over Highwood Pass is also a great one for cyclists, especially before June 15th when you have the road to yourself.

"Cyclists have the road to themselves before June 15th"

Cyclists have the road to themselves before June 15th

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

Driving the Highwood Pass Loop - One of the Best Drives in Canada

Leigh McAdam

 

 

Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 57,000 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 35 Comments
  1. I haven’t been to Highwood Pass, but have driven through Kananaskis Valley and parts of the Cowboy Trail, through Longview, Black Diamond and Turner Valley. Those drives were lovely. Your photos are beautiful.

  2. Oh , when I read this I’m sad we missed it! Somehow when we were travelling in the region some years ago (2006) it became urgent to get to Calgary for medical reasons, and then on to Montana to pick up our truck’s registration tags… But would I have known we would have spent an extra day or two. This sounds like a beautiful region, I love multi-coloured mountains.

    1. @Juergen How often do we all miss some of the best things an area has to offer – only to find out about them later? It’s a glorious area and especially wonderful as you can cover a lot in a day.

    1. @Irene The good thing about this drive over the weekend is that traffic was minimal so it was super easy to pull over an get shots. And for a change photography was my sole purpose of doing it so I didn’t feel as rushed as I normally do.

  3. No never travelled along the Highwood Pass, nor been to Canada. But you are soooo making me want to visit. Those roads dwarfed by snowy mountains look so beautiful. I loved your photos but looking across the fields to the mountains in Kananaskis Country was particularly inspiring.

  4. Hi Leigh, Highwood Pass Loop is a serious visual feast. I got goose pimples just looking at your photos. That sunrise is magical and the landscape is just divine. I definitely would love to do this amazing drive. (I think I’ll pass up on hiking. Don’t want to take the chance of getting between a grizzly and a cub).

  5. Amazing photos Leigh! Now you’ve got me hankering for a road trip to Canada it’s gorgeous. Thanks for sharing it.

  6. I have had the privilege to ride/drive the Highwood Pass from Calgary many times. Going out on the motorcycle again this morning. I have travelled many scenic routes in North America and Europe – the Highwood Pass is one of the best! If you are near by and the weather is cooperating – do it, don’t “pooch- it”. : )

  7. I was doing some water sampling for Chemex Labs (AB) Ltd in 1979 and had to go over the pass. There was still snow off the road near the summit and was late June. My consulting company will use this route to teach the next generation of
    water quality sampling students. I also enjoyed Blue Rock, west of Turner Valley. There is an old logging road that goes
    quite far into the back country.

    1. @Ron I will have to Google Blue Rock. Thank you for that tip. I’m also in the water sampling business but on the equipment side – Waterra Pumps Ltd. Maybe you’ve heard of us.

  8. You say, from Longview one heads east on Highway 541. Don’t you mean “west”?
    We did the loop today. Beautiful mountains with a backdrop of blue sky, golden larches backlit by the sun for just a few minutes.

  9. Hi

    The photos are great
    I am hoping to drive this loop in August 2018
    If I run to problem is help available?
    I did not see any gas stations, restaurants, etc in the photos?

    Thanks

    1. @Makendra There is a gas station a short drive from the bottom of the Highwood Pass as you are heading towards the Trans-Canada Highway. Its well marked. Gas up if you start in Longview and bring water and food so you can stop and have a picnic along the way.

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