photo: Sarah Magyar

Free Ride: What You Need to Know About Biking the Bow Valley Parkway

By Sarah Magyar

The Bow Valley Parkway, also known as Highway 1A, is the old highway that runs between Banff and Lake Louise. Closed to motor-vehicle traffic from its eastern entrance to Castle Junction, the highway has become one of the smoothest and most enjoyable ways to see the Rockies by bicycle. Here’s everything you need to know to plan a safe, memorable ride through Banff National Park. 

As with any road trip, you want to know where you’re going before you leave home. Since the Bow Valley Parkway is a single road, your route is set out for you, but you do need to determine how far you want to ride from the Banff townsite: 

• To Johnston Canyon: approximately 45 km roundtrip with about 500 metres elevation gain.

• To Castle Junction: approximately 60 km roundtrip with 420 metres elevation gain.

• To Lake Louise: approximately 110 km roundtrip with 1,030 metres elevation gain

What to wear: It goes without saying that your helmet is your most important piece of cycling apparel. And for longer rides, padded shorts can be a lifesaver in the saddle. Otherwise, dress for the weather—and don’t forget your sunscreen!

What to know for 2022: There are some restrictions to public vehicle access as part of Parks Canada’s three-year cycling pilot on the parkway. The section of the parkway east of Johnson Canyon to Banff will remain open to vehicles. However, from May 1 to June 25 and from Sept. 1 to Sept 30, public vehicles will not be allowed on this same stretch. This will also be the case for 2023 and 2024.

What to bring: “Biking from Banff to Lake Louise is a pretty long ride and since the road is closed, you can’t call your friend to come pick you up—and there’s not always reliable cell service,” says Gabriella Dufour-Léonard, a Bow Valley resident and avid cyclist. Pack a pannier or small knapsack to ensure you have everything you need, including:

• Water—in bottles or a hydration pack. And fill up your tank (so to speak) with a big glass of water an hour or so before your ride, to ensure you’re adequately hydrated to start the trip. 

• Snacks. Lightweight but nutrient-packed nibbles like bananas, nuts and energy bars are always good options. If you need to reload on the road, stop at the Johnston Canyon Market Café for pastries or a light lunch on the patio.

• Gear. Before setting out, you’ll want to check that your bike is in good working order—but you should also prepare for the unexpected. “Bring a spare tire tube and a small pump in case you get a flat,” Dufour-Léonard says. And having a small multi-tool on hand (e.g. one with a few hex wrenches and screwdriver heads) is useful if you need to make mechanical adjustments on the road.

And don’t forget: Since it runs through a national park, the Bow Valley Parkway doesn’t only see cyclists in summer. It’s also a popular spot for bears and other wildlife. Spend some time educating yourself about the local fauna before your ride; if you see animals en route, give them space and respect their habitat. And take a tip from Rockies hikers: Always bring bear spray and keep it easily accessible—just in case! 

Best practices for beefing up your bike security

Unless you live in Banff, you’ll have to drive to the Bow Valley Parkway in order to ride it. That means parking your vehicle. There is a small parking lot at the entrance of the road closure (the 1A exit off the Trans-Canada Highway, after the Norquay exit), but the limited spaces fill up quickly. 

Banff’s Train Station public parking lot is a good alternative. Its free for up to nine hours and has ample spots. To access the Bow Valley Parkway from here, head towards the Trans-Canada on Mount Norquay Road, turn left at Vermillion Lakes Road (before the highway overpass), then ride to the end of that road, where a bike path begins. The path passes through two gates and brings you to Highway 1A. 

Bike rack full of bicycles outside Johnston Canyon Lodge off the Bow Valley Parkway
Outside the Johnston Canyon Lodge (photo: Sarah Magyar)

While the Bow Valley Parkway is a paved road, it’s not always an easy one. Given the route’s length and the steepness of some its hills, a road bike is recommended. The lighter the better when it comes to climbing! If you don’t have your own, you can rent one in Banff at Banff Cycle, Ultimate Sports and Snowtips Bactrax

For a more leisurely ride, consider renting an e-bike. Though they’re a bit bulkier, a battery-powered motor makes riding easier by assisting each pedal stroke. There are quite a few e-bike outfitters in Banff, including SkiBig3, Banff Adventures and the three shops listed above. Because e-bike batteries only last a certain amount of time, if you’ve rented one, it’s best to turn back at Johnston Canyon or Castle Junction, so you have enough charge to get back to Banff. 

Taking steps toward safer roads in Alberta

Don’t forget to stop along the way and enjoy all the spectacular scenery! From the towering mountains to sparkling alpine lakes and rivers and the colourful wildflowers, there’s so much to see en route.

Even if you’ve planned for a longer trip, it’s worth making a pit stop at Johnston Canyon. With the road closed to public vehicles, area walking trails are much quieter—so you can enjoy the natural beauty without the crowds.

AMA member Dale Leckie, author of The Scenic Geology of Alberta: A Roadside Touring and Hiking Guide, biked the Bow Valley in 2020. “When I do the ride again this year,” he says, “I’ll allow for more time at Johnston Canyon, so I can go for a longer hike and cool off in the spray of the waterfalls of the Johnston Creek hanging valley.”

Assuming you’ve brought appropriate footwear, a mid-ride hike is definitely doable—and takes you to some spirit-refreshing sights. Further on from the waterfalls, Leckie recommends looking for the inkpots at the bottom of the glaciated valley. “Underground springs flow into depressions to form the inkpots,” he says. “The springs agitate silts in the water to create the swirling current patterns and amazing blue-green water colours.” 

• AMA members save $10 on family annual Parks Canada Discovery Passes when purchased at an AMA centre.

• Dale Leckie’s The Scenic Geology of Alberta is available through Indigo. AMA members earn up to 5% back in reward dollars on Indigo purchases—including books, giftware, electronics and more—made through the AMA Rewards eStore.