Beginning in the town of Banff, the Canada Section of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route takes you through some of the most spectacular terrain on Earth. It’s as though you’ve entered the forest primeval, a heavily wooded setting that can feel like rain forest – especially if it’s raining. The first 70 miles or so is like a string of pearls: Banff National Park, Spray Valley Provincial Park, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, and, across the Great Divide in B.C., Elk Lakes Provincial Park.
Jeremy and I did the Banff-to-Spray Lakes section a few weeks ago (posted here). This time, it was raining and hailing hard and would continue to for a good couple of days. Still gorgeous nonetheless. We were planning to take four days to cycle from Banff to Whitefish MT. It ended up taking us five for the 575km and 7300m of ascent, 46 hours moving time at an overall average of 8.6kph and max 54.7kph (Galton descent).
Elk Lakes Provincial Park’s glaciers and namesake lakes form the headwaters of the Elk River, whose valley the route follows for the next 40 miles. It’s an alpine and subalpine scene so stunning that the landscape has been likened to that of the Lake O’Hara area.
The next day, we entered British Columbia via Elk Pass, and descended to the town of Elkford for a trip total of 180km. We entered town at around dusk and we could see the giant coal mine trucks lit up and making their way up and down the mountainsides. It hailed hard with lightning!
From the town of Elkford, regain the Elk Valley north of Sparwood. The route then follows about 100 miles of wild-country riding through B.C.’s Flathead and Wigwam river valleys, home to the largest population of inland grizzlies on the North American continent. After traversing some wetlands, and no doubt getting your feet wet and legs muddy, you’ll climb radically up a trail – carry your panniers up on one trip, then return to the bottom and haul your bike up. You will also encounter some precarious spots where you do not want to fall. Once you get to the top it’s still a ways through the woods… You’ll then begin the tough 5-mile climb to Galton Pass. The ensuing descent to the valley some 3,500 vertical feet below is steep, rocky, rutted, and littered with scree. In other words, use extreme caution.
You’ll then ride south to the international border (Still have that passport? You’d better).
The Montana Section passes through five national forests. The northern half is characterized by steep mountains and seemingly endless stands of western larch. Vistas from high places up north in the Whitefish Range may lead you to believe you’ve been magically whisked away to Alaska…
From the Whitefish Divide the route drops steeply down the valleys of Yakinikak and Trail creeks, places so wild that grizzly bears too unruly to live elsewhere are occasionally relocated here by wildlife officials. You’ll then ride through the valley that forms the western boundary of Glacier National Park and follow dirt roads into Whitefish Mountain Resort.
Jeremy decided to ride home while I spent the day and next morning puttering around and pedaling around in flipflops, exploring the type of antique stores, crepe, pie, and ice cream shops, and touristy shops so ubiquitous to mountain resort towns. Lovely place; I’d love to do Going To The Sun route next time into Glacier NP and try out some of the infamous area singletrack. I always say I could easily live in Montana.
Caught a (motorized!) ride home, and got called back to work the next day!
Someday, too, we will have to do the entire route and continue to Mexico…
Italicized text from Michael McCoy, Cycling the Great Divide.
Some of theses photos are Jeremy’s.