Cycling the High Rockies Trail (Driftwood to Buller Creek)

Construction of the High Rockies Trail is well underway! Slated for completion prior to Canada’s 150th celebration in 2017, the trail will connect Goat Creek (just outside Canmore at the eastern boundary of Banff National Park) to Elk Pass (on the Alberta/BC border) via a 70+ km (43+ mile) chain of newly constructed and existing trails. The High Rockies Trail will also be the most western stretch of the TransCanada Trail in Alberta.

Outdoor adventurers are already exploring the finished sections. This summer, trail runners, hikers and mountain bikers eager to check out the High Rockies Trail have access to the northernmost 31 km (19 miles) between Goat Creek and Buller Creek. We opted to start our own exploration of the High Rockies Trail by riding the roughly 17 km (10 miles) from Driftwood Day Use Area to Buller Creek (and back).

Getting There

The portions of the High Rockies Trail that are currently completed are accessed via Highway 742 (aka Smith-Dorrien/Spray Trail), an unpaved highway that heads south from the Canmore Nordic Centre, eventually connecting with paved roads near Kananaskis Lakes in the Kananaskis Valley. Although it’s regularly maintained, be prepared for recent rockfall on the road, loose gravel and washboard sections. Depending on recent weather, your vehicle (and any racked bikes) will be covered in dust or mud splatters. We usually come back with a few more rock chips in our vehicle paint, too.

There are options to access the completed sections of the High Rockies Trail. The Goat Creek parking lot (starting point to hike Ha Ling) is the most northerly access point. So far, the best detailed map of all the access points that I’ve been able to find is this one from Kananaskis Trails.

Based on advice from a friend who rode starting from Goat Creek in late June, we opted to drive another 12 or 13 km (7 – 8 miles) south to start our ride at the Driftwood Day Use Area. This starting point bypasses the dustiest part of the trail (thanks to @activebynature for the recommendation).

Driftwood Day Use Area

We were eager to get riding, but with the sun shining and blue sky overhead, we took a few minutes to go down the boat launch at the shoreline of Spray Lakes Reservoir for a quick photo session. It’s a good thing we opted to do this before starting out. By the end of our ride we were too tired to have much interest in taking photos PLUS the skies were completely clouded over.

High Rockies Trail Access

The trail is quite visible, directly across Highway 742 from the entrance to the Driftwood Day Use Area. We were climbing immediately. While comfortably wide, the rough, loose rock under tires made for a slightly challenging start. But we were out of the rubble within a few minutes onto hard-packed dirt trail winding its way up and through the forest. This was fairly typical for the day.

Photo Stops

The most photogenic stretch is between Sparrowhawk Day Use Area and Buller Creek. Not only are there a couple of lovely creeks with waterfalls (including on Sparrowhawk Creek), but there’s an extended stretch that crosses a scree/talus/avalanche field with wide open views of the Spray Valley.

There’s also one short stretch through an old forest fire zone.
High-Rockies-Trail

Probably the strangest thing we saw all day was a sign warning of the possibility of unexploded bombs (an unintended consequence of avalanche control).
High-Rockies-Trail

Overall Impressions

The High Rockies Trail is very well constructed, with multiple wooden bridges over drainages and creeks. The trail runs roughly perpendicular to the drainages, so gains and loses elevation multiple times. Thanks to banked corners and judicial use of the occasional switchback, climbs are quite manageable (even for me). Those same banked corners also make for some fun downhill stretches. My top speed during was 29 kph (18 mph).

The trail is well suite to mountain bikes (and probably fat bikes – can’t say for sure since we have no experience with fat bikes). We wouldn’t want to ride our gravel grinders/cyclo-cross style bikes on the High Rockies Trail. We also wonder how appealing the trail will be to riders loaded down with camping gear.

In general, the trail is a several hundred meters above Highway 742. Short connector trails provide multiple access points to/from existing parking/day use areas. Much of the trail is in the forest, offering just the occasional glimpse of the valley.

Mr. GeoK rode the whole way there and back. He had to wait for me several times. I was riding with a torn ACL (surgery coming up in the fall), so I was probably overly cautious about avoiding an injury due to fatigue on the return leg. Overall, I rode 90+% of the way. (NOTE – this is much better than my riding percentage on the Highline Trail a few years back.)

Winter use is expected to include fat biking, snowshoeing and x-country skiing on at least some sections of the trail. Other segments are in avalanche zones and may not be open for winter use.

Maps

The High Rockies Trail is too new for the current editions of our “go to” topo maps from Gem Trek. I spoke with Donna from Gem Trek Publishing. She explained that the High Rockies Trail will appear on the next updates to the Canmore and Kananaskis Village and the Kananaskis Lakes maps and that we can expect to see those updated maps available for purchase towards the of 2017.

In the meantime, you can view/download maps and a GPS track for Goat Creek to Buller Creek from Gillean and Tony Daffern’s Kananaskis Blog, here.

SUMMARY:
Distance = 35 km (return)
Total elevation gain = 930 meters
Total time = 6.5 hrs including 1.5 hrs for lunch and photo stops
Top speed = 29 kph

Huge thanks to Alberta TrailNet for the vision, consultation, planning and construction of the High Rockies Trail. It’s a welcome addition to the already extensive network of trails in and around Banff/Canmore/Kananaskis. We’re already looking forward to our next ride!

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3 thoughts on “Cycling the High Rockies Trail (Driftwood to Buller Creek)

  1. Pingback: Photo Blogging Challenge – Empty Nesters (July 2016) | Out and About with the GeoKs

    • Good point. Definitely not single track. Wouldn’t necessarily want to ride side by side on some stretches, but on the sections that are old logging roads we had a good conversation. Also pretty comfortable for passing, which will no doubt be required as the trail becomes more well known / used.

      Liked by 1 person

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