A Car-Free Ride up the Highest Paved Pass in Canada

Words: Evan Wishloff 
Images: Various

Every year in early June, thousands of cyclists ascend upon a stretch of paved road in Kananaskis Country, Alberta. Thousands may sound like an exaggeration, but it’s not. On a single day on the weekend, you can expect to see upwards of 2000 cyclists. 

Why? To experience Highwood Pass, the highest paved pass in Canada. 

The road is closed to vehicle traffic every year from December until June 15th due to dangerous road conditions and snow, but most years, a small window exists between the final snowmelt and the gate being opened to drivers. This is road cycling paradise.

I was tackling the ride with a group of hardcore roadies, riding from Barrier Lake to the start of the closed road, up and over Highwood Pass, down the other side, and back again. 

It would be a day close to 200 km with a double-ascent of the highest paved pass in Canada, so you’ll have to excuse the images - or lack of. I wasn’t about to bring a heavy camera on this ride, or I risked getting dropped by the serious group of spandex-clad roadies I was joining. They came to ride this fast, and I was just hoping to hold on.

An aerial view of the road and surrounding mountains near the top of the pass

But Highwood Pass isn’t only for elite level roadies. As we neared the gate, parked cars stretched as far as the eye could see. The sheer diversity of types of cyclists you’ll see pulling bikes out of cars at the gate, ready to tackle the ascent, is amazing. A game of cycling bingo here would go quickly, as it seemed every kind of rider imaginable was present.

  • 8 year old on a department store mountain bike? Check.
  • 45 year old MAMIL on a $17,000 euro road bike? Check.
  • Elderly couple on ebikes? Check.
  • Bikepackers with enough gear to spend the week up top? Check.
  • Family of 4, all on various hybrids? Check.
  • Mountain biker bro with goggles and an enduro bike? Check.
  • You get the point. You’ll see it all at Highwood Pass. 

Not everyone there will successfully tackle the ascent all the way to the top, but the chance to ride closed roads in some of the most scenic mountains around is too enticing to pass up. It’s an amazing, inspiring mix of cyclists of all types and all abilities, out enjoying everything there is to love about this two-wheeled sport. It’s heartwarming to see. Cycling is for everyone.

Although cycling may be for everyone, the group I was tagging along with was not. This group was for those that want to forego the views, instead opting to stare at the tire directly in front, eeking every last bit of speed possible by staying in the draft.

Moody mountain weather. Photo: Jan Mosimann

On we rode: up, over, past the resident herd of mountain sheep that are always scattered across the road at the top, back down, to the Longview gate, then a quick 180 turn, and back again. As we started to ascend back the way we came, tackling the pass once more, the screws began to turn ever tighter. 

Traffic jam ahead. Photo: Denise Kitagawa

The winds shifted, the pace increased, and I quickly found myself unable to hold the wheel ahead. Off the pace, without a draft, and looking at a long climb into a headwind, I resigned myself to a long, lonely 80 km ride back to the car. 

Above me, on the road ahead, hundreds of cyclists were littered, making their own monumental effort to the summit. Those dressed in spandex gave little inspiration - they are supposed to be here, up this high on the mountain - it was just another ride for them. But as I continued upwards, I was amazed and impressed by the casual riders who I found myself riding with. People on mountain bikes, people on hybrids, and people on department store bikes spread across the road, slowly spinning towards the top. An impressive feat, no doubt. 

Photo: Dave King

It’s hard to have a bad ride on Highwood Pass. Sure, you’ll struggle. It might - or likely will -  rain/snow/sleet/hail on you. The slopes will sap the energy out of your legs. The elevation will take your breath away. But riding your bike on a ribbon of asphalt up towards the sky, without the worry of getting buzzed by a car, makes it all worth it. It is cycling at its finest. 



Getting There and Planning Your Ride

Highwood Pass is located about 30 minutes from Canmore, Alberta, or 1:30 from Calgary. The north gate is at the intersection of Highway 40 and 742. 

The South Gate, accessed from Longview, is located at the intersection of Highway 40 and 940. 

The south approach is longer, but less steep with more rolling terrain, whereas the north approach is short, steep and sweet! Ride distances can be modified depending on if you want to go up and over, or just up and back down to where you started. For the masochists, starting at Barrier Lake just of Kananaskis Trail, riding up and over to the Longview gate and back, nets you a touch over 190 km of epic views and lung-burning climbs. 

The road opens to traffic every year on June 15th, and although many ride it alongside the vehicle traffic, there’s something magical about riding it when the road is closed. Depending on snow conditions, the route is usually snow-free in early-June, but weather and winter snowfall conditions vary year to year.

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