Highwood Pass - Swan Song for the Jetta - CycleBlaze

July 28, 2018

Highwood Pass

Today’s ride is to Highwood Pass, the highest paved public road in Canada (Q: so what’s the highest paved non public road in Canada?  A: I have no idea), which isn’t quite as exceptional as it sounds.  At 7,238’, it’s not all that much higher than Bow Summit (6,850’) that we ascended two days ago, or Sunwapta Pass (6,809’) that we reached the day before.

Still, the highest is the highest; and as long as it’s so close by, we felt we should go check it out.  We can add it to our small portfolio of highest paved road ascents: together we climbed Col de la Bonnette (9,380’, the highest in France) in 2015; Katara Pass (5,594’, the highest in Greece) earlier this year; and on my own I climbed the mammoth, Mount Evans (14,271’, the highest in USA) in 1992.

Actually, this category never occurred to me before now.  I’ll have to keep it in mind for future tours.  I wonder what the highest paved roads are in Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg and Denmark?  We could collect a bunch of trophies on a short tour with a bit of careful planning.

At a 130 mile round trip Highwood Pass is too far from Canmore for a day ride, at least for mortals like Rachael and myself.  Since we’re driving, we could start anywhere really.  We chose the Evan-Thomas day use area, 25 miles from and 2,200’ below the summit because it was the only parking spot I could find on the map at a reasonable distance from the top.  It’s a 40 mile drive there, so we got an early start in order to get down before potential afternoon thunderstorms developed.  We opened up the breakfast restaurant at 7, and were on our bikes by about 9.

I wasn’t able to find much information about this climb, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I’d read enough to know that it was safe and scenic, but that was about it.   It’s apparently well known locally though because we saw many other bikers on the road with us today.  It’s a completely safe ride on Alberta Highway 40 (the Kananaskis Trail) the whole way.  Traffic is reasonably light (significantly lighter than the Icefields Parkway, by way of example), with a generous shoulder and a reasonably well maintained asphalt surface.  We took the northern, easier approach (because that’s the side we were on coming from Canmore, not because we’re lazy and challenge-averse), which is a fairly gradual climb along the Kananaskis River.  

We’ve experienced one stunning ride after another on this tour, but I’d have to say that this one tops them all -even the iconic rides on the Icefield Parkway.  The scenery is phenomenal, and the ride quality is much more enjoyable than on the Parkway because of the absence of tour busses and massive campers.  Most of the traffic consists of bicycles, motorcycles, and normal passenger cars carrying hikers to the trailheads.  If you plan a visit yourself, note that the pass closes each year between December 1st and June 15th.

As far as the ride itself, there’s not that much more to say.  Just another awesome day in the mountains.

Starting out for Highwood Pass, the highest paved public road in Canada. Exciting!
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We’re in Kananaskis Country!
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The convoluted south face of Mount Kidd. One important thing to note of course is the intense folding of the rocks. The other point to note is the importance of the light conditions in photography. Compare this image with the one of the same mountain at the end of the ride.
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Different day, but the same old drill: follow a river, climb a pass, ogle at the scenery, coast back down, eat a blowout dinner. Snore. It’s almost enough to make you nostalgic for those exciting days back at the office. Almost.
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Onward and upward!
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It’s always good to have a bike handy to spice up an otherwise bland photo.
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We’re on the final climb to the summit, still a thousand feet up and three miles ahead. Hard to believe that a pass penetrates those layers ahead.
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Photo tip for the day: if you care about a picture, shoot more than once. A nice Harley rider offered to take our picture at the Pass. I told him to wait because I was wiping sweat from my eyes, but his work was done here.
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Hogging the limelight (heh, heh)
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And back again. For a ride that felt all uphill getting here, we felt a lot of climbing on the way back also.
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It took us nearly as long to return to the car as it did to climb up here, because we were pushing into a headwind and there were so many compelling spots to stop. Everything was astonishingly vibrant all the way down.
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One view like this after another. This descent has my vote for the best ride of the tour so far, even better than the stellar rides on the Icefield Parkway.
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Once again, we’re rewarded for our early start. Just like clockwork, at about two the storm clouds start piling up.
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The lighting isn’t quite right for highlighting this immense syncline we biked toward, but trust me - it was impressive. Another point to note here is how well it works to bike a ride like this in both directions. I didn’t notice this formation biking away from it. It’s like a whole different ride.
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And the winner of this year’s award for Miss Convoluted is (the envelope, please): Mount Kidd!!
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We’ll, good. I was beginning to think we’d have nothing to show for the day but ourselves, our bikes, and a lot of pretty landscape.
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xx

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Ride stats today: 50 miles, 3,500’

Today's ride: 50 miles (80 km)
Total: 918 miles (1,477 km)

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Comment on this entry Comment 8
Emily SharpI've thoroughly been enjoying your Rocky Mountain adventure. It brings back wonderful memories of travelling through (not on a bike though) on a six-month road trip in 1999 with Nigel. We were very fortunate to get a perfectly clear day to see Mt Robson with brilliant golden aspens to frame it (we didn't know how lucky we were).

And today's gorgeous ride that you showcased reminds me of a work trip I took there in 2012. As part of my post-doc I did a research project with uni and fire service partners in Canada and the US. We held workshops with fire agency staff here in Oz, in Bend OR and in Kananaskis. We stayed at the resort there. The coolest thing was that they took us up in a 45-min helicopter tour (they had spare hours to use up with the contractor at the end of the fire season) through all the of the mountains and valleys - showing us the fire hazards and past fire history from the air. I cannot tell you how absolutely amazing it was to fly through those valleys, over the mountains and lakes and so close to the valley walls. It was a "pinch me, is this real" absolutely amazing experience. A life highlight for sure. I did note that it looked like a great place to tour - you've confirmed it! Awesome pics today for sure!
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3 years ago
Scott AndersonTo Emily SharpI’m glad to hear you’ve gotten to see this yourself, Em - I thought of you as we biked past these fantastically wrinkled rocks yesterday. It would be incredible to see this country from the air, I’m sure. I was really blown away by Kananaskis in particular, but the whole region is one wonder after another.

I was taken by your description of Mount Robson in autumn also. We are going to have to fit a return trip for one of these years. Looking at the map, it feels like we’re just scratching the surface.
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3 years ago
Steve Miller/GrampiesThe internet has now progressed to the point that it seems there is an answer there to almost any question. So, highest paved road in Netherlands? Sure, it's 322m, at the tripoint of Germany, Belgium, and Netherlands. Not exactly Highwood Pass!

The same Wiki has the other high roads of Europe!:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_highest_paved_roads_in_Europe_by_country
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3 years ago
Scott AndersonTo Steve Miller/GrampiesThree in one blow! Here we come!
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3 years ago
Steve Miller/GrampiesWell you could hit three countries there, but not three highest roads. For Germany, for example, you have to go to the Fellhorn Ski Station, at 1770m.
The Fellhorn is a mountain in the Allgäu Alps near Oberstdorf, Germany, on the border with Austria. It is known for its fields of alpenroses.
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3 years ago
Ron SuchanekNothing wrong with being challenge-averse....
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3 years ago
Lyle McLeodSo happy to hear you liked this ride! One small point of clarification on the road closure (that you probably already knew). It’s closed to ‘motor vehicles’ from Dec to mid June. This is one of the ‘go to’ rides for all roadies in the area as soon as the pass is clear of snow (sometimes mid May, most years early June. On a weekend there will be hundreds of roadies enjoying the car free ride (55 km closure gate to closure gate, great 110 km full day with a ride up each side of he pass)You need to come back and ride the south side of the pass. It’s even better than the north side IMHO. Great three day tour loop from Canmore to Bragg Creek, Longview then back over Highwood pass from the south. About 350 km’s ... but it involves camping 😳
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1 year ago
Scott AndersonTo Lyle McLeodI’d forgotten about highway 5A to Kamloops, but not this incredible road. And no, I didn’t know that it opens earlier for cyclists. It’s like McKenzie Pass down here, which is open to cyclists a few weeks earlier than for cars every year. Highwood must be really astonishing in the spring when there’s still snow up there.
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1 year ago