|Great Divide Canada
Banff, AB to Roosville, MT
1 Map Set (253.9 mi.)
| GPS | Overview
Great Divide Canada Overview Image
|CANADA - Banff. AB to Roosville, MT (253.9 mi.)||Detail
Great Divide Canada Section CANADA Detail Image
The Great Divide Canada route, which connects to and extends our Great Divide Mountain Bike Route northward, showcases some of the most magnificent scenery in the entire Rocky Mountain chain. Paradoxically, the route feels somewhat more settled, or civilized, than many sections to the south in the United States. One reason for this is that Great Divide Canada passes through a string of national and provincial parks, which, not surprisingly, attract a great number of visitors. While the majority of the route follows dirt and gravel roads, keen mountain bikers will be happy to learn that there's also plenty of singletrack trails to ride in close proximity to the route, particularly around Fernie, Banff, and Canmore.
The route begins behind the magnificent Banff Springs Hotel in Banff, headquarters for the national park of the same name. Considering the hotel's size and its teeming crowds, you may find it surprising how quickly the Spray River Trail — an old fire road, actually — whisks you into country possessing a very wild and remote feel. (Signs acknowledging that you've entered grizzly bear territory are no doubt partially responsible for this feeling.) A climb up the Goat Creek Trail takes you to the Smith-Dorrien Spray Road, a primary, and potentially dusty, backcountry tourist route. The incredible scenery continues through Kananaskis Country and its Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. From there, a tough climb up and over the Great Divide via a powerline route through the Elk Pass delivers you to Elk Lakes Provincial Park. It's a six-mile ride from one trailhead to the other that would require more than 200 miles of driving if you had to do it in a car on roads! Subsequently, a 40-mile-plus dirt road leads to Elkford, by way of a wilderness corridor where you'll want to keep an eye out for big moose and even bigger logging trucks.
There's a long climb on pavement out of Elkford to the narrow Fording Road, whose gravel surface leads through Tembec Forest Research Management units around the back side of Fording Mountain. Then, following a brief stretch on Highway 43, the smooth pavement of Lower Valley Road twists through a rural residential area outside Sparwood.
From Sparwood, you can choose to follow the main route through miles of unbridled wilderness or the Fernie Alternate, a more populated and mostly paved option. Make your choice wisely because the main route is extremely remote. After 6.7 miles on Highway 3 you’ll turn onto paved Corbin Road, which leads to a large active coal mining site. There’s a gradual climb up and over Flathead Pass into the upper headwaters of the Flathead River. This scenic drainage is called the “Serengeti of North America” by biologists for its unrivaled wildlife populations, and it’s the last major valley in British Columbia to be completely undeveloped. The rolling road following the Flathead River is known to locals as “Grizzly Bear Highway” so be very “bear aware.” For dispersed camping, overnighting at Corbin and the Butts Patrol Station might be the safest choices. There’s a climb over Cabin Pass and a stretch of riding along the Wigwam River. Leaving the river means doing some route finding following an undeveloped trail used by outfitters. A short steep climb will most likely necessitate unhooking your trailer and pushing bike and BOB up separately. After navigating through some clearcut deadfall you’ll rejoin a gravel road and head over the last Canadian pass. Paved Highway 93 leads you to the international border and the northern terminus the U.S. Great Divide Mountain Bike Route.
On the Fernie Alternate, a 14-mile stretch of highway riding is required. Traffic can be heavy, but the road generally has a decent shoulder. The booming ski-resort town of Fernie makes a great place for a layover, with its copious motels, sporting goods stores, restaurants, and hiking/mountain-biking trails. From there, back roads wind through stands of conifers and poplars to Elko (watch for the occasional sign marking the TransCanada Trail). A dizzying and delightful series of paved and gravel byways, one of which proffers a brief glimpse down on the immense Lake Koocanusa, then wend their way to Grasmere. From there, it's a seven-mile ride on the highway to the international border and the northern terminus the U.S. Great Divide Mountain Bike Route.
Photo by Aaron Teasdale
The elevations encountered on Great Divide Canada are relatively low when compared to those along the Great Divide route in the central Rockies of the United States, where riders must tackle mountain passes of nearly 12,000 feet above sea level. The high point on Great Divide Canada, Elk Pass, is a mere 6,443 feet. Generally, road quality is quite good, although you'll find that surfaces range from smooth pavement to rutted dirt, where you'll be thankful that you're riding a mountain bike and not a road bike. As a rule, if you're not riding uphill, then you're headed downhill.
You can ride this route from early summer to mid-fall. Be aware that snow can occur at any time. If it is a heavy snow year, high-elevation roads in the north may not be open until late June or early July.
We discourage you from attempting to ride this route solo; in fact, a minimum group size of three is strongly recommended. If a rider is debilitated in the backcountry, you will want to have at least one person to stay with the injured/sick rider, and another to go for help. A growing number of backcountry travelers are carrying cellular phones for such emergency situations – but be aware that reception is still very spotty along much of the route.
Because June is typically a wet month in the northern Rockies, and often a cold one at the higher elevations, we recommend that you do not attempt to ride prior to late June or early July. High-country snowpack may prevent certain portions from being passable until then, anyway. Concerning the other end of the cycling season, plan on being off the route by mid-October at the latest. Regardless of when you strike out or how long you intend to be there, pack along raingear and cold-weather clothing. Snow or cold rain is possible any day of the year at some of the elevations encountered, and hypothermia is an ever-present possibility.
The narrative leads you in a north-to-south direction only. The route was laid out going north to south and, as you’ll see, some of the downhills encountered when you’re aimed southward would be very tough to negotiate as uphills in the opposite direction.
Great Divide Canada features some of the most magnificent and forbidding mountain country you'll ever see — anywhere. You'll need to deal with a couple of long stretches without basic services — both on maps A and B. Careful planning will be required to ensure that you have enough food to get you through (though surface water and primitive campgrounds are plentiful). With the exception of large grocery stores in Banff, Sparwood, and Fernie, you'll find food sources to be small-town establishments, often more akin to convenience stores than to supermarkets; consequently, you may find it necessary to exercise flexibility when it comes to menu planning. Also be aware that showers, flush toilets, potable water, and laundromats can be few and far between. It's wise to have some back-country camping experience before riding Great Divide Canada, and you'll also want to know the recommended precautions to take when camping and traveling in bear country.
You should also carry bear repellent, available at sporting goods stores in the larger towns of Canada, and become familiar with its safe and proper use. Always be bear-aware, and follow these rules when camping:
Some campgrounds will charge a cyclist traveling by himself less if they have hiker/biker sites, but often they will charge the price of a regular tent site, and that can easily be $10-$20/night. If you're friendly and ask around, you can often get yourself invited to camp in a yard. In national forests you are allowed to camp anywhere on national forest land as long as you "pack it in, pack it out." Many city parks are free to camp in.
You may also wish to sign up with Warmshowers, a reciprocal hospitality site for bicycle travelers, for other overnight options.
The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route is extremely hard on equipment. The weight of your gear exponentially multiplies the stress of riding steep, fast, rough downhills. Wheels, tires, and drivetrains (chains, cassettes, bottom brackets, chainrings) take a lot of abuse and might need replacing along the course of the entire route. Suspension equipment on the bicycle helps to mitigate the abusive nature of the terrain. That said, nylon pivots of some full-suspension bikes wear out extremely fast and are not recommended. Suspension seatposts, good handlebar grips, and front-suspension forks help smooth out the many miles of washboarded and chuckholed roads. Weighting a suspension fork with panniers works well, evens the weighting of the bike, and adds little extra stress to the fork. Trailers also work well and lighten the rear triangle of the bike.
Well-made camping gear is essential for the many nights of high-elevation cold, dew, and rain. A well-ventilated, free-standing, three-season tent covered by a rainfly with ample vestibule space and a "footprint" ground tarp is a must. Sleeping bags should be rated to below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and inflatable mattresses add comfort and warmth. A lot of effort must be taken to keep your possessions dry. Pannier covers, dry bags, and plastic freezer bags all work well to keep the rain and dew off clothing and gear. Good rain gear is also essential.
A high-quality water filter is mandatory; advisably, carry one filter per person in your party. Surface water should be ingested only after running it through a good water filter.
The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route narratives, including the U.S. sections, are also available in text format. These files are not a substitute for the maps, only a means to customize the narrative to suit one's handlebar map case.