Cycling vacations in the Canadian Rockies

“The mass and relief of the landscape you’re cycling through in the Canadian Rockies is a very humbling experience,” says Étienne Labelle, guide and owner of our partner Rocky Mountain Cycling Tours. “The mountains are in control and you really are just guests in the environment.”

“A lot of people travel the roads we bike in coaches or buses,” he adds. “But when you’re traveling 90kph on the highways, you don’t get to experience everything… Everything slows down on the bike. You’ll still move at pace, but you’re experiencing it. You’re cycling when there are no cars on the road and it’s completely quiet. You think, ‘Wow, this is a wild place. Apart from this road right here, it’s just me, the mountains, the trees, the water and the wildlife.’.”

Our cycling vacations in the Canadian Rockies prise you out of the car and let you loose to freewheel down wide mountain roads. You’ll feel the wind at your back, smell the scent of spruces and pines, and hear the screech of eagles overhead.

“The sense of scale is outrageous in the Rockies,” says Étienne. “It’s a very dramatic landscape.”
Names like Takakkaw Falls (“magnificent” in Cree) and Yoho (an expression of awe) evoke everything that's great about cycling in the Canadian Rockies.
Riding beside Mount Robson is a highlight – it’s the biggest mountain in the Canadian Rockies, with almost 4,000m of relief to gawk up at. Many turquoise glacier lakes lie at 2,000m; picnic beside them, and you’ll still have 1,000m of elevation right in front of you. The roads are grandiose too – the Icefields Parkway between Banff and Jasper is 230km long, offering a good week’s worth of cinematic cycling.

These aren’t the uniform, much-logged forests of western British Columbia or the city-speckled flats out east, either. Cycling tours in the Canadian Rockies ride through national parks like Banff, Jasper and the Kootenays – sprawling landscapes largely undisturbed by roads and big settlements.

Surrounded by these scenes, there’s a real sense of how critical the Canadian Rockies are. The future feels very fragile in a region where over 300 glaciers have completely evaporated since 1920. The price of cycling vacations includes entry fees that help shore up the national parks in the Rockies by funding conservation and education projects.

Cycling the Icefields Parkway

The park services has recognised how important cycling is to the Canadian economy. It’s a growing sport.
– Étienne Labelle from our partner Rocky Mountain Cycle Tours
The Icefields Parkway rolls out between Jasper and Banff via Lake Louise and the Athabasca Glacier. Some of the tallest mountains and waterfalls in Canada frame this swooping highway, which travels through the traditional territory of the Ktunaxa and Secwépemc people, who have lived here for over 10,000 years.

The Icefields Parkway has long been loved by hikers and road-trippers, but cyclists are a new – and growing – breed of visitor. With these increasingly keen cyclists in mind, government agency Parks Canada has repaved the entire road over the last few years.

A widened shoulder keeps cyclists well away from traffic. Most trucks are banned, so the biggest vehicles are coaches and RVs on vacation mode, slowing down to take pictures of towering 3,000m-plus mountains and bears browsing for berries at the roadside.

The combination of smooth cycling and spectacular scenery makes the Icefields Parkway one of the best cycling experiences in the Canadian Rockies.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Canadian Rockies or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

A very Canadian cycling culture

Small group vacations are often your best chance of getting to know the landscapes you’re riding through and the people who live in them. Prices include accommodation, transfers, national park fees and most meals.

“We’re some of the only people who do small group cycling trips in the Canadian Rockies,” says Étienne. “The way we run our tour is how we create our own vibe… A lot of the cycling groups in the Rockies here go up to 20-plus participants, but we have 12 maximum to get more of an intimate feeling.”

Local mountain guides leading the way

Smaller groups don’t mean fewer guides. Two local guides per posse of cyclists means that the group can split according to energy levels.

Cycling guides encourage your questions and curiosity too. They’re usually experts from tight-knit mountain communities loaded with guiding qualifications that range from interpretation to wilderness first aid. A qualified chef might be cooking up your lakeside lunches. When the snows arrive, they transform into winter sports instructors, so they really do know the Rockies inside-out.

“My background is in mountain safety and guiding,” says Étienne. “I grew up in Quebec and moved to the Rockies in 2012. One day, I just packed my stuff in my car and moved away – nowhere to live, barely spoke English. I went to Lake Louise, learned English, and through different jobs got connected with Rocky Mountain Cycling Tours and here we are today.”

“I was a big mountain biker, but road cycling is something I discovered while working in the Rockies,” adds Étienne. “And then I fell in love with it – the whole energy and the way people look at cycling in the Canadian Rockies. The wild factor. It became a second passion.”

In safe hands, all you have to do is turn up. The guides will keep an eye on weather forecasts and ensure groups divert around the grizzly bears and herds of elk you might come across safely. As experienced mountain cyclists, they’ll also know how to maintain your bike while riding high-altitude roads. Your safety and comfort are paramount.

Sociable cycling

“The glue to the trip is the cycling, but you get people from all different walks of life and backgrounds,” says Étienne. “Exercising while being in a beautiful place is a great thing for the mind and body. That brings people together… There’s a sense of community.”

Small group trips are often a mix of couples, solo travelers and groups of friends. Families are rarer, as there’s a lot of ground to cover. You’ll find the shared wonder and excitement pushes you on up the next incline. Most trips last around a week, so there’s time to get to know people while riding or over lunch.

“I vividly remember a gentleman in his 70s who came on a trip with two of his sons to commemorate the loss of his wife,” recollects Étienne. “He hadn’t ridden a bike in 40 years and wore jeans and canvas shoes the entire time. He did every climb, every ascent come rain or shine, and was smiling the whole trip.

“It was inspiring to me because of the sheer amount of cycling he did… Cycling can be niche and there can be an expectation that you have to look a certain part – and this guy defied all of that. He just rode the bike and got lost in the moment… Seeing this man accomplishing this with his sons was very moving, and this feeling is a big part of what gets our guides going. You’re feeding off others.”

Cosy & comfy accommodation

Accommodation reflects mountain culture in the Canadian Rockies and is locally owned wherever possible. Lodges might not have great phone reception or Wi-Fi – you’re in the mountains, after all – but they do have warm showers, comfortable beds and friendly owners. You’ll have the choice of sharing a room with a new companion or paying a supplement for a room of your own.

“Accommodation on the Icefields Parkway is what it is,” says Étienne. “There’s a huge shortage on beds, so don’t expect to come and stay in a super luxurious hotel… You’re one of the select few who has an opportunity to be on the Icefields Parkway because there are very few places to stay.”

“And really, we spend most of our time outside from 8.30am-9am to 4pm,” adds Étienne. “It gives time for guests to really be out there, and we pick lodges that are clean and comfortable for them to stay in.”

The Kootenays provide more accommodation options, such as lakeside hotels with hot springs.

Where to go cycling in the Canadian Rockies

Columbia Icefield

The Columbia Icefield is the biggest series of connected glaciers in the Rocky Mountains, straddling the continental divide between Alberta and British Columbia. The Athabasca Glacier is an amazing, if sobering, must-see. There’s nothing quite like standing at the “tombstone” year markers that show the glacier retreating by 5m a year. Give it another 100 years, and it’ll all be an alpine meadow. Sunwapta Pass (2,035m) offers a long, lovely descent into the Saskatchewan River Basin under the watchful eye of Mount Athabasca (3,491m).

Lake Louise & Valley of the Ten Peaks

Snow-striped Bow Peak (2,840m) is the highest point of the Icefields Parkway. You’ll meander between some seriously famous lakes around here, including bright blue Peyto Lake, before smoothing downhill along the Bow River as it flows beside the Icefields Parkway to Lake Louise. From this viewpoint that has fronted many a postcard, you can cycle up to Moraine Lake and the Valley of the Ten Peaks for even more high mountain drama.

Athabasca Falls & Mount Edith Cavell

Athabasca Falls is known for the sheer volume of water that plunges over into Athabasca River after the snowmelt. The best cycling guides veer away from this busy part of the Icefields Parkway by exploring secluded valley roads. You can stretch your legs with a hike below the behemoth Mount Edith Cavell (3,363m) and the icy lagoon of Angel Glacier.

Maligne Lake & Maligne Canyon

A 35-minute ride connects two massive Malignes – the largest glacier-fed lake and the biggest canyon in Jasper National Park. Many get déjà vu while peering over the aquamarine waters of much-photographed Maligne Lake. However, the famous image is set to change, with air pollution, wildfire ash and disappearing glaciers causing the lakes in the Canadian Rockies to lose their bright blue glow. Happily, your cycling vacation won’t be contributing to that.

Boats ferry visitors around Spirit Island. This tiny tree-topped island is sacred to Stoney Nakoda First Nation people, who believe that the surrounding majestic mountains are representations of their ancestors. These days, they’re the only people allowed to walk freely on the island, so stick to signposted trails around Maligne Lake.

Takakkaw Falls, Yoho National Park

The switchbacks on Yoho Valley Road make for a sweary, stressful drive. Take it by bike, however, and you’ll glide along the hairpin bends (and past stuck cars) smugly and stress-free – and all while taking in views of glaciers, mountain peaks and waterfalls. Takakkaw Falls (meaning magnificent in Cree) is the waterfall you’re aiming for. At 373m, it’s the second tallest waterfall in Canada, plumped by glacier melt all summer long.

The Arrow Lakes

The Arrow Lakes is a mix of discarded mining towns, trout lakes and geothermal springs. Cycle along the Columbia River Valley, take a ferry across Upper Arrow Lake, and dunk your weary muscles in Halcyon Hot Springs, where the pools come with views of the Monashee Mountains.

Marmot Basin

Marmot Basin is the chance for would-be Ryder Hesjedals to tackle part of the Tour de Alberta 2017 route. This is a 10km climb with a brilliantly smooth descent and practically zero traffic in the summer. (Winter, when Marmot Basin transforms into a ski resort, is another story.) Marmot Basin is close to Athabasca and Sunwapta Falls too, so many Canadian Rockies cycling itineraries roll them into the same day’s riding.

Bow Valley Parkway

Leave the busy Trans Canada Highway in the dust and instead ease down the parallel Bow Valley Parkway. Gravity will pull you down these peaceful, smooth roads towards Banff, just south of the Icefields Parkway. Ice-blue Bow River rushes besides the road and the crenelated peaks of Castle Mountain rise craggily above.

Valhalla Provincial Park

Valhalla Provincial Park was named after the Norse heaven for those who have died in battle. Fittingly, it’s also a battle for road cyclists to explore this wild area, so vacations aim for the more accessible roads and trails round Slocan Lake. Take a spin around the valley to New Denver for a cheese scone or vegan energy ball before climbing 16km to Fish Lake. An old railway bed makes for a long, gentle descent to Kaslo village on Kootenay Lake.

Kootenay Lake

Smooth, winding roads squeeze between water and mountains on the east side of Kootenay Lake. Each bend in the road reveals a sandy beach or forested cliff to rest on, as well as a collection of summery lakeside vacation towns. Crawford Bay is one of the best stops, where artisan shops include handweavers and woodcarvers.

Jasper & the lakes

Jasper crowns the northern end of the Icefields Parkway. The town has a smattering of lakes around the outskirts that are great for warm-up rides at the beginning of the vacation. Easy loops around looking-glass waters allow you to get a good feel for your bike and the people you’ll be riding with. And all within throwing distance of downtown Jasper.

When to go cycling in the Canadian Rockies

July and August are the best months for cycling in the Canadian Rockies. The weather is warm and there’s lots of sunshine. Rain never lasts for long on this side of the mountains in summer too.

Summertime is peak time, but you won’t have to worry about crowded roads while on a bike. Expertly designed itineraries manage the time well, starting you off when the roads are quiet and avoiding any busy times. And your guide will always know a secret side road to escape down.

“There are a couple of tricks to this trade,” reveals Étienne. “For instance, there’s a road that runs parallel with the Icefields Parkway proper that lots of people don’t know about. We can take these quiet roads in peak times.”

Wildlife is out and about in summer too. Bears lurk around salmon streams and strip roadside berry bushes, 200-strong herds of elk drink at the rivers, and eagles roost in towering pines. You’re less likely to spy the lynx, wolves, moose and cougars that prowl the forested mountain valleys. Overhunted in the past, these creatures are people-shy for a good reason.

Tips for cycling in the Canadian Rockies

A week is just the right amount of time for exploring one section of the Canadian Rockies such as the Icefields Parkway or Kootenays. Cycling vacations in the Rockies are usually aimed at active bikers who are happy covering 50km-100km a day over 4-8 hours. Get out on your bike regularly in the weeks or months before your cycling vacation to avoid injury and to practice being in the saddle for longer distances. Shorter alternative routes are often available on longer days, plus there’s always the support van if you’re all pedalled out. Don’t be shy about asking for an electric bike, either. For less experienced cyclists, they can make the difference between a happy or horrendous journey. Worried about the fit of the hire bike? Bring your own trusty saddle, pedals and helmet. Some small group tours can be tailored to your requirements for group bookings. Read the suggested packing list from your tour operator. It’ll usually include things like reflective clothing, a breathable water-resistant coat and layers for changeable mountain weather, reef-safe sun cream and a water bottle. A support vehicle will be on hand at all times to carry any accessories, luggage… or even weary cyclists. Go car-free by arriving at the starting point by train (many trips start at Banff train station) or by coach from Vancouver or Calgary.
Photo credits: [Page banner: Rocky Mountain Cycle Tours] [Intro: Rocky Mountain Cycle Tours] [Cycling: Rocky Mountain Cycle Tours] [Columbia Icefield: Raman Patel] [Takkakaw Falls, Yoho National Park: Jack Borno] [Kootenay Lake: Darren Kirby]