I set a goal for 2020 of completing an end-to-end of the High Rockies/Great Trail by Nordic walking/hiking, biking, snowshoeing and skiing. The High Rockies is a fabulous section of the Great Trail. It runs approximately 80 kilometres from just outside Canmore to Elk Pass in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, where it crosses the provincial border into British Columbia.
With the exception of the southern most section running from the Elk Pass Parking area near the Boulton campground in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park to Elk Pass, which we cross-country skied in February, because it is a perfect section to ski, the 11 sections we did on the trail were completed in order, starting at the Goat Creek trailhead, 15 minutes south of Canmore. The actual distance covered was almost double the 80 km, as 9 of the 11 sections were out and back, with just two being done from one end to the other, with a car shuttle.
On October 25th, I finished this project, when my husband Colin and I had our first cross-country ski of the season from the Elkwood Campground along the Wheeler trail, then the Boulton interpretive trail and part of the Fox Creek trail, bringing us to the Elk Pass parking area. The conditions were perfect. We followed in the tracks set by a previous skier, on several centimetres of snow. You would think it was the middle of winter as it was picture perfect with temperatures between -8 and -10 C. We did not see another soul on our two hour outing.
It was wonderful to experience the trail through all four seasons and explore it using different modes of active transportation. Two outings were by cross-country skiing, two by snowshoe, two by hiking/Nordic walking and five were by mountain biking. The sections of the trail that are not existing forest or utility service roads have been purpose-built for mountain biking so that is the ideal mode of travelling along those sections. As there are fairly long sections of forested trail between bits where the scenery unfolds, this also had us favouring mountain biking for many of our trips.
What were my favourite sections? Three come to mind and the funny thing is, they were each in a different season! The winter favourite section I did with my friend Wendy and her dog Hedi. We started out in glorious sunshine on a trail we shared with the dog-sledding tours. We pulled over at one point to watch about 10 teams go by, with the sled dogs so enthusiastically charging down the trail. As we returned, the weather turned from gloriously warm and sunny, to viciously cold as the wind went from zero to gale force in a matter of minutes and we had to layer up and cover up to the max. Always go prepared! On July 3rd, we biked the section from Sparrowhawk Tarns connector to the Buller Pass Trail connectors total of 20 km and one of the best mountain biking experiences I have ever had! This was a spectacular section with outstanding views of Spray Lake. The very next section we did, we hiked from the Buller Pass Trail connector to Chester Lake Trail connector. Once again, we had some beautiful views of the mountains and Spray Lake but also we walked through some burn area where the ground cover had turned to bright fall colours.
What were some memorable moments on the trail? On May 11th, we were in the midst of the COVID-19 shut down of Alberta Parks to vehicle traffic. This included the entire Smith-Dorrien Rd. from Canmore south. However, you could bike it. Biking up the switch-backing mountain road from the road closure near the Canmore Nordic Centre to Whiteman’s Gap and beyond became quite a popular activity for Canmore residents. So on this day, Colin and I rode up and over the pass and on to the Spray West Campground, where I cycled a less than 1 km stretch of the High Rockies Trail across the Spray West dam, connecting where I had snowshoed to on my last outing to a section of trail that was still too snow-covered to bike on this particular day.
Other memorable moments included hitting the brakes too hard on a roller and catapulting over my handle bars, then doing a slide worthy of a baseball player stealing home plate. Thankfully, I only suffered a few scrapes and bruises. On two rides in a row, we encountered bears. A blonde grizzly popped out onto the trail near the Driftwood Day Use area about 100 metres from us. We yelled out a pleasant hello and he meandered off in a different direction. On the next ride, Colin came to a trail cross-section at almost the very same time a black bear arrived. It veered off the trail, into the bush away from Colin and crossed over our trail between the two of us and hurried on its way back to its chosen path. Good to always remember to travel with bear spray and make lots of noise, but usually these guys are anxious to steer clear of humans. We saw a third bear, a very large black bear, at Canyon dam, but it was at quite a distance, unlike our two close encounters.
Even though popular hiking trails were severely over-crowded this summer, I can honestly say we hardly saw anyone on all of our outings, with one exception - the day (Oct 4) we crossed the Blackshale suspension bridge. It was nuts! People had come up directly from the Smith-Dorrien Road to experience walking on the suspension bridge and take their photographs. After seeing just a handful of people on bikes, when we got to the bridge, there was actually a line-up on either end of the bridge with about 20 people walking across it. It was also on Oct 4th that we met a group of fit mountain bikers who were doing the entire High Rockies Trail in one day. Eighty kilometres on a mountain bike, on a trail with a fair bit of elevation gain and loss is a BIG day! But this did not detract with my sense of accomplishment from completing the 80 kms over these past 10 months, through different seasons and in different ways. It is a gem! Be sure to get out and experience some of it for yourself. Keep in mind I do lead a two hour guided tour the very first section of the trail starting at the Goat Creek Trailhead. That will get you started! Happy trails!
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Full refunds are given if a cancellation is received 24 hours or more prior to the clinic or tour date. No refunds are given with less than 24 hours notice. Clinics/tours go rain or shine. If the weather is extreme, then it may be cancelled with a full refund given.
Parking is available on-street or in public lots throughout Canmore. It is a good idea to arrive early on busy days to locate suitable parking.
Restrooms are available at the Malcolm hotel in the lobby.
Public restrooms are available within a short walk:
Public pit toilets are available at all trailheads.
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Starting locations will vary seasonally with instructions included in your booking confirmation.
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