A quick ride on the Icefields Parkway


It’s billed as one of the best bike rides in Canada and motorists will remind you of the time their brother rode it in 1988 in a big hurry with lots of stuff and it was really incredible.  It’s also one of the most popular motorable routes in the country, and is an international destination.  You can imagine what I’m going to say, so I won’t, mostly.  Overall, it’s a nice ride with beautiful scenery but there are lots of signs telling you where not to camp and a lot people to say “neat” and tell you that they would never ride their bike anywhere.  What am I supposed to say to that?  Nearby Spray Lakes, Kananaskis Country, the Yellowhead Highway from McBride to Jasper, or the ride on the Divide Route over Elk Pass to Elkford are all equally beautiful with much less traffic, better camping and better swimming opportunities.  There’s a certain magnetism that attracts idiocy to national parks.  I’ve said it.

I left Jasper by night, camped about ten miles out of town and made an early start as joggers jogged by in the morning, whispering about the snoring cyclist.  It’s hard to tell in the dark what daybreak may bring.  High humidity conceals some of the macro-majesty of the area, but there is much more to appreciate.  Some clear skies on the ride to Banff are welcomed.  Rivers run high and the snowpack is unseasonably heavy.  Dozens of cyclists are out riding the parkway.

Finally, I’m far away from Alaska and the Yukon and almost none of the other cyclists know about fatbikes.  How about a “snow bike”?  Surely you have seen them in magazines or on the internet.  Nope.  How much do those big tires slow you down?

I’m a wandering diplomat for fat tires, for the virtues of taking it easy and getting off the beaten path.  Everyone asks about the framebag and the 64 oz Klean Kanteen; the dynamo and the Marge Lite rim (that’s the tube!); the tires and, “where is the rest of your stuff?”.  If possible, I would invest in Ortlieb stock.  Their stranglehold on the market is incredible.

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9 thoughts on “A quick ride on the Icefields Parkway

  1. Well…
    I guess I have a different perspective on Ye Olde Icefields than you did/do. April and I toured it last year, and it was the highlight of the trip. Keep in mind we did a cross-continent tour on 99% paved roads, as neither of us like gravel. (I can deal with sections, April truly detests it. I think I can learn to like it better at some point, I doubt April could.) And we were also staying at the many hostels on the route, so we weren’t worrying about camping. (We tend to stay in sanctioned campgrounds anyway, which looks a bit different than your philosophy.) At the hostels we mostly encountered other bike tourers, so we didn’t have to explain to them what touring was about.

    But believe me you, I do know about the stupidity factor that comes with National Parks. We did have the most ridiculous conversation about bike touring with a clueless tourist in Lake Louise. (She:” Do you ride around with all that stuff on your bike?” Me: “Nah, we toss it all off on the side of the day and then come back later to pick it up.” She: “It must be hard to ride with all the stuff on your bike!” April: “Nah, we’ve got wheels.” She: “Where?” as she tries to look under our panniers.) Or the guy outside of Jasper townsite that was walking up to a big elk. We thought we were going to watch him get impaled on those antlers! Worst is the expense of the Canadian parks. I’m thankful we didn’t camp much in them, as they were all $25 to $30 a night for tent spots.

    Still, it was a beautiful experience. I’m sure if I was doing all the wilderness biking you’ve been doing I maybe wouldn’t have thought as highly about our Icefields experience. But we didn’t, and I’d go back there in a heartbeat, clueless tourists or no.

    • Oh, I certainly get a little sour sometimes. I enjoyed the ride and despite “No Camping” signs I found several great places– it’s a big park with lots of neat places to hide out for a night. Coming from the north, it’s shocking to be riding along fence lines and private lands again, but at that expense also come more towns and grocery stores and coffee shops, which I enjoy. I just crossed the border in MT yesterday and am surprised that milk is half the price of what I’ve been paying and beer is sold freely in grocery stores for less than an honest hour’s wage. I’ll answer a few questions about “what do you eat?” and “where do you sleep?” for those perks. Regarding the national parks in particular, I suppose it attracts all kinds, including cyclists. I’m also coming to appreciate that even cyclists, whom I am quite sympathetic toward, are a mixed breed. Just because we find a reason to spin our legs in circles doesn’t make us the same, or instant friends. I have a history of sour impressions of the national parks, and the scheduled daily road closing to cyclists in Glacier NP (11AM-4PM, every day) last year had me quoting Edward Abbey. You may notice my attitude change when I’m traveling with others. It’s much easier to “hang up your hang ups” when you are simply having a good time.

      What were the hostels like? I was curious about their facilities.

      • gypsy, I know that you’ve been doing lots of free camping so far (because honestly, where else are you going to camp?) and the “No Camping” signs in Banff/Jasper bummed you out. But you have to look at it from the perspective of the National Park: they are trying to preserve the park land, so they don’t want people to camp anywhere and everywhere. I can just imagine how sucky the experience of biking the Icefields would be if everyone could just camp along the side of the road. (Of course, one can argue that making it so easy to drive many places in the park does nothing for preserving the environment. But I digress.)

        And I hear you on how not every other cyclist is your friend. There were a few people on Icefields that were pretty annoying. And I lurk on bikeforums enough to realize that just because you’re into touring doesn’t mean you’re someone I want to hang out with.

        Ah yes, dairy prices. When we entered Alberta, one of the first comments we got from the locals was about the high price of dairy. I think the low prices in the US comes from subsidies to the dairy industry. America really doesn’t like anything that reeks of socialism except when it gives us lower prices on consumer goods. (As for the beer, I hear it’s taxed a lot more in Canada.)

        Most of the hostels were good on the Icefields. The ones in the “cities” (Banff, Jasper, Lake Louise) were more typical large hostels with all the amenities. The ones I liked best were the small rustic wilderness hostels along the way. These ones did not have indoor plumbing, just outhouses and a water tank. They didn’t have electricity for the most part, either. A few of them had saunas. They really felt like how hostels should be, a place for budget travelers who want to experience the world in a different way, and want to share it with others. Not the hangouts for Australian backpackers to “hook up” and get drunk with others, as many have become now. (I can have sour grapes with that since I’ve worked in a hostel.) If I went back up there again I would tour hostel-to-hostel.

      • I’ve only stayed in a few hostels over the years, and only one was on a bike trip. Several years ago, we would take a motel when terribly inclement weather coincided with laundry day and tired bodies. With two people that works reasonably well, but since discovering warmshowers a few years ago I am often able to piece together showers and laundry every few weeks, which saves some money and is always interesting.

        The hostels you describe on the Parkway sound like the kind of place I would enjoy. The expensive city hostels have never interested me, and do seem to be full of “backpackers”. In other countries such as in South America I can imagine they are colorful places rich with experiences.

        A place with high visitation rates requires intense management. Even low-volume visitation quickly becomes a strain on the environment and an eyesore. B.C. has a lot of “user-maintained” campsites with very basic facilities, and the more popular sites look a little ragged. However reeking of socialism, the idea of a user-maintained facility interests me and seems to work well for more remote sites. It seems to allow a greater quantity of facilities, which is nice. Regarding exact management practices, free-camping is not in the Parks Canada management plan for Jasper/Banff for good reason. Denali NP allows backcountry camping so long as users are 1/2 mile and out of sight of the road. Glacier NP has some kind of backcountry system as well, as a cyclist told me he hiked a mile with his panniers. Denali prohibits private vehicles, Glacier prohibits cyclists for part of the day, and Jasper/Banff and free to travel for anyone as long as you’re not a commercial truck. To accommodate visitors Denali operates an extensive bus system, Glacier has some shuttles for free and some for a fee with interpretive programs. As far as I saw, the Icefields is a nice highway without any efforts at mitigating traffic volumes. There is no clear pattern to these management practices, although the priorities are apparent. in Denali, the absolute priority is to the preservation of the ecosystem and the experience of the wild. By default, hikers and bikers are prioritized as they are allowed to travel independently. I think Denali is a good model, but I haven’t synthesized these ideas entirely and my thoughts regarding these things are growing and evolving. I’m curious to learn more about evolving NP management practices. Surely, bulldozing roads atop ridgetops (Shenadoah, Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain, even Denali NP road) and feeding bears are not the best way to preserve a space, if preservation is the focus (?). The irony is that they make great bike rides and I’m glad to have the experience of riding them.

        Surely, the nature of the terrain along the Parkway would also limit the available backcountry camping and a system such as Denali NP may not be practical.

        I free camp almost exclusively, and practice standard “Leave No Trace” principles, leaving only footprints, some matted grass in the shape of a tent and if necessary, a small 6-8 inch deep hole refilled with assorted organic matter. When possible, I enjoy sleeping without the tent entirely.

        Mostly, I agree with Edward Abbey’s suggestion that the parks are accessed by foot, bike or horse. I suppose human-powered watercraft would also fit. Sometimes sides have to be taken, and I don’t think much of cars. I generally keep that to myself, at least explicitly. I think there is more to be done by pro-actively riding my bike, than by being anti-car.

        Lots of words; thanks for this line of discourse.

  2. Not all big city hostels are bad, per se. The biggest con (and pro) to big hostels is lots of amenities. And some “hostelers” get used to all these extras, which while nice, are not really what “hostelling” is about. I worked (and sort of still work) at a medium-sized hostel in a medium-sized city (Portland), and we would get negative reviews from folks who wanted (and expected) things like a 24 hour desk, free large continental breakfasts, a TV room, personalized tour guides, a bar on site, etc. For christ’s sake, we’re a hostel, not a spa!

    I like warmshowers hosts too, and use them a bunch while touring.

    As for the whole parks philosophy, I’m sure publicly most National Parks in the US and Canada would claim that their overriding mission is preservation of the natural environment, but in practice I think “recreation” wins out. While I thought Banff and Jasper were beautiful, I was really surprised how little they cared about cyclists. Now I’m not saying that we were run off the road, but for a mode of transportation that has a low impact on the fragile ecosystems of the parks, we cyclists get few bones thrown at us (if any). In Waterton Lakes (not Banff/Jasper, but another Canadian Rockies park) we paid I think $22.50 for our walk-in campsites. RVs paid $22.50 for their drive-in campsite. What’s fair about that? I haven’t seen any Canadian National Park offer hiker-biker sites in their campgrounds (and I’ve been to a few*); at least Glacier in Montana has hiker-biker sites! And Glacier had that shuttle system you mentioned, nothing comparable on the Icefields. How ironic: the interpretive signs at the many glacier viewpoints along the route will tell you how global warming will make most of these glaciers gone in a generation or two. Well, you’re not exactly doing anything about all the automotive traffic visiting the park, are you?

    Anyways, yes, lots of food for thought! Enjoy Montana!

    *Besides the three parks I mentioned, we also visited Elk Island and Riding Mountain.

      • I think what you mean are “HI vs non HI hostels”. Hostelling International is a hostel network that consists of hostels owned directly by HI and also hostels owned by individual, private owners who choose to be part of the HI network. (Yes, I know too much about this stuff.)

        HI hostels (at least in the US/Canada) try to stick closer to the ideals that hostelling was founded on in the earlier part of the 20th Century. To some, that’s cool, too others, they are being too “stuffy”. Also, any hostel part of the HI network have to meet quality standards and get inspected annually.

        Non HI hostels can be all over the place. I’ve been in some real nice ones, and I’ve been in absolute dumps. Some of the non HI hostels are definitely the “party place for drunk Australians to hook up” types I’ve been joking about. (Not that there shouldn’t be a place for drunk Australians to hook up! 😉 )

  3. Nice post. I’ve spent quite a number of nights in and around Jasper, both frontcountry and backcountry. I can totally related to your points about the idiocy that goes on there. Modern society can really make you sad at times when you see people compromising wildlife to get a picture on the side of the road, or idling their car for 15 mins while looking at the landscape.

    One good aspect to Jasper is that it has huge area’s of backcountry which 99% of the visitors never go near. Wild camping, or random camping, as the park refers to it as, is actually allowed in certain areas where primitive campsites do not exist. Some backcountry hiking trails are 100 – 180km deep into the wilderness!

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