Our arrival in the Bow Valley, Alberta had been much anticipated; for there, in the scenic-as-anything tourist town of Banff, lay the start line of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR) – our route south through the USA towards Mexico. Our journey through Alaska and Canada had entailed over 5000 kilometres of mostly sealed highway – pavement as they call it in North America – a satisfying and challenging ride for sure, but now we longed for dirt. While we were often awed by the landscapes we encountered on the ride down, after such a long distance on pavement we were looking forward to the mostly traffic-free trails, back roads and 4WD tracks of the GDMBR. For a long time this popular mountain biking route had been building in our minds as a prize we were rewarding ourselves with after so much highway-bashing.
The GDMBR is the longest mapped off-pavement touring route in the word and is well known for both the wilderness experience it provides and its almost-daily mountain passes. The route basically follows the Continental Divide of southern Canada and the USA south, crossing back and forth over the Rockies and sometimes following their crest. This 4339 kilometre-long route is high; rarely dipping below 2000 metres through southern Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. The parcours is 90% unpaved and entails 45,600 metres of climbing.
Our plan is to follow this route south into New Mexico. Starting late in the season we run the risk of being forced off the route by snow as we’ll be riding most of it through fall and the highest passes come in Colorado – well into the route, but we might be lucky… either way, we’ll probably deviate off the GDMBR in central New Mexico to start making our way west to San Diego for Christmas.
The following images are from our first week on the route – riding from Banff, Alberta to Eureka, Montana.
The Great Divide route has a profound and memorable start; after biking 30 kilometres from Canmore, we navigated the busy roads of Banff, stopping for coffee and sushi in town before heading towards the start of a new chapter of our Americas tour. The route starts in a parking lot behind the castle-like Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. One moment you’re biking past the hotel bellhop and the next you’re ripping along a pine forested trail, hello GDMBR.
The route takes a forested valley out of Banff, surrounded by sharp limestone peaks, and we’re instantly reminded of the pleasures of dirt touring: no longer are we looking over our shoulders for traffic, and the distance to what lies around the corner is measured in metres, not kilometres. We’re engaged in the riding, keeping cadence, finding flow; free from the machine-like tempo of the road.
Campsite number one of the Great Divide, alongside upper Spray Lake, was one of our nicest of the trip so far – with views across the knife-cut angular peaks of the Bow Valley and Spray Valley Provincial Parks. We got there a little late for a dip, but it was a beautiful clear and warm evening – perfect for dinner on the lake shore.
The variety of riding and terrain the first day or two out of Banff is superb: a forest covered karst landscape; and a trail that varies from flowing and fast 4WD to single track and the odd rocky section. We catch views of peaks through the trees, cross clear streams and relish the intimacy of the alpine environment after so long on wider roads.
Ground squirrels usually check us out briefly before scurrying for the shelter of their burrows. This one wasn’t camera shy, and seemed just as interested in us as we were in him!
Elk Pass is the first of a great many passes and saddles along the 4000km distance of the GDMBR. This one wasn’t too long, but it gets pretty steep for a touring load near the top.
Tobermory Cabin is one of two log cabins (or huts as we call them!) along the route between Banff and Eureka. A nice stop for a quick break, but we didn’t spend the night, riding instead onto Elk Lakes – a short and very worthwhile detour of two kilometres from the route.
The fine weather we’d had out of Banff greyed on our second day on the route, but gloomy skies and rain showers didn’t detract from the beauty of Elk Lakes Provincial Park. From the GDMBR route a short road led to a Canadian Alpine Club hut. A short single track popped us out at the lake edge and a small camping area. We walked up to the upper lake for breakfast the following morning before getting back on the bikes.
On the road towards Elkford we came across a couple of long distance hikers walking the northern section of the Continental Divide Trail and were honoured to be the first people they’d seen in five days. A very wet afternoon into Elkford followed as the skies cut loose with the heaviest rain of the trip. Camping looked like a bleak option that night so we took the cover of a hotel room in town to dry out.
The sun was back out in the morning as we headed out of Elkford in the company of Jay and Lynn from Queenstown, NZ – also just starting on the GDMBR. We parted ways at the top of the first hill out of town and shortly after the trail turned into circuitous single track through managed forest. This section’s an alternative to the mapped route which has been damaged with a slip (another alt is to take the highway, but we liked the sound of the single track section). Apart from one steep haul up a bank, it was all rideable and quite fun. Mellow riding through ranch country followed before we popped out on pavement for the fast ride into Sparwood.
Sparwood’s a small rural service town for the nearby Teck coal mine – one of the biggest in BC, and is well known for the giant Terex Titan truck, the largest truck in the world (in service 1978–1991), that overshadows the main street. A photo next to this behemoth is almost obligatory for passing cyclists, and so is the chance to restock for the following days. From here there are two options for the GD cyclist: three days of mountainous and fairly remote wilderness with some big passes, or the more cruisy and well-serviced Fernie alt route. We stocked up for the former, and dosed up on coffee for the afternoon leg up to Corbin, where the dirt resumed.
Biking up to Corbin and the base of Flathead Pass we got a preview of the landscape to come the following days. Corbin was a small collection of run down houses and trailers, so we skipped by, riding up Flathead Road towards the pass until we found a good campsite. Being the first night out of a resupply we had a real meal (instead of freeze dri), and that night had our first frost of the ride (well – since the Dalton Highway) – autumn is creeping in.
The back country section of riding from Corbin through to Roosville at the Canada/USA border enters a very large area of wilderness comprised of several adjoining forest parks, and consequently forms one of the strongest animal corridors in the greater region. It’s reputed to have the highest concentration of grizzly bears in North America, so we were on high alert. Making bear-safe camp has been our modus operandi since setting out on the Dalton Highway. This means generally adhering to a ‘triangle’ of separate tent, cooking and food hanging areas. We have a routine of removing all bear attractants from the bikes, including chain lube, sunblock etc and storing them with our food in Ursacks; these bombproof bags are made from spectra fabric and are impenetrable by bears. Even if hanging the bag is not an option, it can be tied to a solid anchor. The bear might puree the contents, but at least it can’t take it away.
We carry a can of bear spray each, to use as a deterrent in the case of an aggressive encounter (i.e. rounding a bend and surprising a bear) and we mitigate the chance of these incidences occurring by making noise – both with bear bells on our bikes and by announcing our presence when wandering/riding in forest where the view is restricted.
A nice climb over Flathead Pass followed in the morning. Indian Paintbrush – a common roadside plant since we entered southern BC – and daisies lined the road and the surface made for nice riding. Once over the top, the road deteriorates into a rutted rockfest – but still manages to be ridable thanks to gravity and fat tyres. Further down it smoothes out and turns into a very pleasant roll down-valley, flanked by steep peaks, boulder fields and forest.
The ride wasn’t quite the remote experience we expected; we saw enough quads and 4WDs to feel like we certainly weren’t alone in the hills, and we passed a ranch in the bottom of the valley, as well as a couple of others over the following days. The quality of the terrain and landscape can’t be debated though: it was stunning, and the riding consistently fun.
Butt’s Patrol Cabin made a great overnight stop and our only night in a public hut on the whole tour. Despite being a Saturday night we had it to ourselves and not having to hang our food or worry about bears made a change.
At Canmore we swapped the skinny slicks we’d been running on the bikes since Whitehorse for 2.35 inch tubeless tyres – which have proved to be a perfect setup for the GDMBR so far. Enough volume for comfort, control and fun on the dirt, but not too sluggish for the sealed sections. We have a mixed bag: a couple of Maxxis Ikons, a Continental Race King (2.2) and a Schwalbe Rock Razor (pictured) which I’m running as front tyre and really liking for its combination of fast rolling centre tread and aggressive side knobs – it’s handled GDMBR conditions really well and allows for faster riding on rough ground and downhill than a mellower tyre might allow.
Another big pass the next day dropped us into the Wigwam Valley for our last night on the trail in the Canadian Rockies.
A short single track kicked off the last day, and then a desperate grovel up a steep hillside had both us pushing the bikes one at a time up hill. With that behind us we had a good final climb over the last pass and then a 900 metre descent to the highway just short of the Canada/US border.
After dealing with the usual incompetency that we have come to expect from US border crossings we finally got into Montana around lunchtime and biked into the small town of Eureka. Plans were to store the bikes at an undetermined location and then make our way down to Kalispell to friends Dave and Amanda’s house to chill for a day or two, before hiring a van to drive to Nevada for Burning Man. At Jax Cafe in Eureka we indulged in an epic lunch that only a cycle tourist or long distance hiker can relate to, while trying to figure out how and where to store the bikes. Commericial options in town were non-existent (as was public transport) but the friendly staff at Jax were keen to help out and even made a few phone calls. In the end the cafe owner Tom stepped up and offered to look after the bikes for us at his house just down the road. We headed on down and met his wife Savanah (who’d been to New Zealand) and not too long later were en-route to Kalispell after only a few moments with our thumbs out. Thanks friendly Montana!
Coming next, the Eureka to Butte section of the Great Divide.