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

Highwood Pass Loop Drive – One of Canada’s Best

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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 driving over Highwood Pass is one of Canada’s outstanding drives. Go see for yourself – and then let me know. It’s also a favourite outing for the motorcycle crowd and cyclists love it too.

Stunning skies on the way to Longview
Stunning skies on the way to Longview to start the loop drive

Highwood Pass loop starting in Longview

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 in the fall when it’s at about 8 AM.

Oil well at sunrise along the Cowboy Trail
Oil well at sunrise along the Cowboy Trail

The route up from Longview

From Longview, where you’ll find big ranches and some producing oil wells, one heads west on Highway 541. Upon entering Kananaskis Country it becomes Highway 40.

Our group was doing a photography tour just for the fun of it – so the plan was to stop along Highway 40 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.

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.

Few cars were driving the road, though groups of motorcyclists are always a regular occurrence when the weather is good. 

Mountain scene within minutes of entering Kananaskis Country from the Longview side
Mountain scene within minutes of entering Kananaskis Country from the Longview side
A view of Highway 541
A view of Highway 541
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 the pass
The view up to the mountains from a picnic area on the east side of the pass

My favourite section of the loop drive

My favourite section of the drive is the 15 km on either side of the 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 10.3 km Pickle Jar Lakes trail from the Lantern Creek Recreation Area. 

From the 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 – though its closed until November 2022 for upgrades. Or take an extra couple of hours and knock off the Rae Glacier too.

Heading up towards the pass
Heading up towards the pass
The sheep blend right into the background
Watch out for sheep on the roads
Beautiful Elbow Lake
Beautiful Elbow Lake – just a 25 minute hike from the highway
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 kilometres 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.

Heading north from Highwood Pass

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 hotel at the ski resort (see below) 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 pass area. There is also a lovely Nordic Spa at the hotel so with luck you might be able to score a spot. Usually you need to reserve a time.

At the bottom of the road to Highwood Pass near the winter gates looking north
At the bottom of the road to the pass near the winter gates looking north

Where can you stay overnight if you do the drive?

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You don’t have many choices for an overnight stay but the ones you have are superb. If you’re up for making a small detour head to Mount Engadine Lodge. A night here includes three meals and a fabulous afternoon charcuterie board. You can actually just show up and pay for the food after about 3 PM and then continue on your way. 

Another excellent choice is the Kananaskis Mountain Lodge with the onsite and very lovely outdoor Kananaskis Spa. For people on a budget check out the Kananaskis Wilderness Hostel.

Otherwise continue to Canmore, Banff or Calgary where there are loads of accommodation options.

The entrance to Mt Engadine Lodge
The entrance to Mt Engadine Lodge

Time needed and road closures

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

The road to the pass, the highest paved road in Canada, topping out at 2,206 m, 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 the pass is also a great one for cyclists, especially before June 15th when you have the road to yourself.

The start of the road up to Highwood Pass
The start of the road up to the pass; cyclists have the road to themselves before June 15th
John enjoying a road without cars
John enjoying a road without cars

Hikes you can do from Highwood Pass

There is excellent hiking off of Highwood Pass. Hikes range from short, easy family-friendly outings like Arethusa Cirque or Ptarmigan Cirque to full day affairs. The Pocaterra ridge walk in larch season in September is one of the more spectacular hikes in the Rockies. It starts from the parking lot at the summit of the pass. 

Starting from the same trailhead you can do the hike to Grizzly Ridge if you’re up for it. It’s another top Rockies hike and not as hard as it looks in the photos. 

The Pocaterra Ridge hike off of Highwood Pass
The Pocaterra Ridge hike off of the pass
A little snow got everyone off the trail and added such beauty to this larch hike especially when the sun made a brief appearance
A little snow got everyone off the trail and added such beauty to this larch hike especially when the sun made a brief appearance

Bear safety along the Highwood Pass drive

The Highwood Pass loop travels through grizzly country so be bear aware if you stop and get out of the car. And don’t let the bears stop you.

Sometimes you’ll see them from the safety of the car. Last year we saw mama bear and three cubs on the way to do the Ptarmigan Cirque hike.

Further reading on road trips

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Driving the Highwood Pass loop in Alberta - one of Canada's most scenic one day drives

 

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