Monday, April 12, 2021

Epic Family Bike Rides: Johnston Canyon via the 1A Highway

Johnston Canyon is one of the most popular hikes in Banff National Park and I'm convinced it's been plastered across billboards world wide. We used to avoid this crowded trail most summers but last year access was closed to vehicles (to promote physical distancing) and it suddenly became a beautiful, peaceful hike to do with the family (requiring a short bike ride to reach the trailhead.)

Access continues to be closed to vehicles and the highway will be ours to bike once again this year.

The 1A Highway is a great spring bike ride in Banff! 

Biking on the Closed Highway 1A

You'll be biking a section of the Highway 1A to reach the Johnston Canyon trailhead. This highway is closed between the Fireside Day Use Area west of the Town of Banff and the Johnston Canyon parking lot. On this stretch there will be no vehicles at all. 

From Johnston Canyon to Castle Junction, the only vehicles you'll meet will be driving very slowly. They'll include overnight guests of the Johnston Canyon Resort and shuttle busses taking people to Johnston Canyon (the only way you'll be able to access this trail without biking or hiking in. - and only after the May long weekend.)

From Castle Junction to Lake Louise the Highway 1A is open to all vehicles. 

As you can see from the map below, the distance from Banff to Castle Junction is 23 km one way. 

If you want to set up a shuttle to ride the highway one direction, I'd start at Castle Junction where you'll have more downhill riding and less climbing (though you'll still have some hills to climb in either direction.)

It would appear from  Google Maps that from Castle Junction you would gain 95 metres in height and descend 144 metres.

And note that map above is set for walking (so it likely would not take you over 4 hours to do the ride one way!)

Spring Highway Riding is Awesome! 

Starting your Ride from Castle Junction

If your goal is to ride to Johnston Canyon, this is the shortest option, and honestly, the ride feels downhill in both directions. (I have no idea how that works, but others have  confirmed they felt this too.)

The ride from Castle Junction to Johnston Canyon is only 6 km one way. That's a 12 km ride on a nice paved road with only a few shuttle busses or vehicles heading to the resort to stay overnight passing you. The ride is relatively flat and should be generally easy for most children with previous biking experience.

The hike to the Upper Falls is 5.4 km round trip and plan for an ice-cream stop at the resort before biking back.

Have you ever seen this bridge and the Lower Falls without people??

Families who want a longer ride can continue on the closed highway. Turn around whenever you get tired. Families who want a longer hike can continue on to the Ink Pots beyond the Upper Falls (which would extend your hike to 11.6 km round trip total distance.)

We did this ride + hike last spring and LOVED it. It was such an easy ride, the scenery was pretty, we saw a bear, and the hiking trail was deserted.

And speaking of bears, bring your bear spray, ride in a group, make noise, put bells on your bikes if you want, and don't let the kids ride ahead or behind by themselves. You're definitely in bear country. (For this reason I won't do this ride solo with my son.)

The Upper Falls at Johnston Canyon (especially powerful in spring!)

Other things to take note of:

  • There is a large parking lot across from Castle Mountain Chalets where you can park to start your ride.

  • There are bathrooms at the Johnston Canyon parking lot and they are open. (There are no bathrooms at Castle Junction so plan ahead!)

  • Bring a bike lock and plan to secure your bikes (we locked ours to a tree last year.)

  • Bring masks if you plan to go inside the resort to buy ice-cream, snacks, drinks, or lunch

  • Instruct your children to move to the side if you see a vehicle coming towards you or hear one from behind. Again, it will just be the occasional shuttle bus or overnight guest for the resort. All day users must bike or hike in if not taking the bus.

  • If you need to take the bus or have family members who would like to meet you at the trailhead, you'll find information on the Roam bus schedule here. 

And note that there will be no busses running to Johnston Canyon until May 21st. This means you really want to plan your trip BEFORE the May long weekend if you want the hiking trail to be quiet. I can't stress that enough.

Boardwalks in Johnston Canyon - completely empty!

Starting your Ride from Banff 

Personally if I was going to do the section of the 1A from Banff, I'd do it as a shuttle and ride the full highway from Castle Junction. However, if you don't want to set up a shuttle, starting in Banff will allow you a nice long ride to the trailhead and back.

The return distance for this one is 32 km + an added bonus that they don't want you parking on the side of the highway so they'd prefer you start in the Town of Banff! 

It's asked that you park at either the Fenlands Recreation Centre or the Train Station parking lot in Banff. From either parking lot you'd have to bike along Vermilion Lakes Road (shared with vehicles) to the far end, and then hop on the paved Legacy Trail to reach the 1A. 

Plan on an additional 5-6 km of riding if starting from the Town of Banff. (For a total of 37+ km of biking.)

Again, myself, I'd set up a shuttle if you want to bike the whole highway. Castle Junction to the Town of Banff would require 28+  km of biking but you could always leave the kids at the Fireside day use area (at the end of the 1A) with an adult and send a second adult back into Banff for the vehicle. The actual 1A ride is only 23 km from Castle to Fireside.

No vehicles and a wide open highway!

Spring Conditions and When to do this Ride + Hike 

As of the moment, the Highway 1A is snow free and good to go for biking. However, I'd expect snow and ice on the Johnston Canyon Trail. Bring spikes or ice cleats. The waterfalls may still be partially frozen right now as well.

Also watch the forecast before heading out. If it's recently snowed in Banff you'll want to wait for a day or two for the highway to dry out again.

I'd personally wait until May to do the ride + hike for the best experience, but if you want the most solitude, go sooner than later.

Just make sure you do it before the May long weekend before the shuttle bus service starts up. After that you can still do the road ride but the hiking trail will be busier.

Family Riding on the 1A in Banff 

Other Recommended Reading

The Best Family Bike Trails in Canmore 

Wednesday, April 07, 2021

Spring Road Trip to Drumheller (and bike to a ghost town!)

Every spring we take a day trip to Drumheller to bike to the ghost town of Wayne. On the bike ride you cross 11 one-lane bridges on a scenic country road that winds its way through the badlands, making for some spectacular scenery!

Visiting the Ghost Town of Wayne near Drumheller

Road Biking to the Ghost Town of Wayne 

First up, know that you'll be biking on a shared road with vehicles. It's only a family ride if you have confident riders who can share a road with motorbikes and vehicles. There are 11 one-lane bridges that you'll have to cross, but we've always found that vehicles give us wide birth and let us cross before attempting to pass us. (Nobody is going to go ripping past you on a narrow bridge until you're off the bridge.)

Biking across one of the 11 one-lane bridges on the way to Wayne

Why Bike to Wayne (when you could drive)

We like to do things a little differently so one year we thought it would be fun to bike to Wayne for drinks at the Last Chance Saloon (completely family-friendly in case you're wondering why I am suggesting you bike to a pub.) - And the saloon has a large outdoor patio!

We discovered that it was a fun spring outing when many trails in the mountains are still snow covered. We also enjoyed biking across all the bridges (who doesn't love bridges, right?) 

Add the opportunity to bike through the badlands full of hoodoos and coulees and it's a great day trip!

The ride is also short at approximately 10 km return. The stop at the saloon breaks the trip up and it's an extremely pleasant outing.

There's also a disc golf course in Wayne should you want to bring some discs with you. 

Not your average way to ride to the Last Chance Saloon

Additional Notes about Biking to Wayne with Kids:

The motorbikes were quite scary at times when they came up behind us in groups of 10+ riders. Children with sensitivities to loud noise might not enjoy this ride. To avoid this, try visiting Wayne mid-week when it will be quieter. You can also visit in the off season when the saloon is closed (before April most years) or plan this for a fall bike ride when it might also be quieter. 

Also know that if you choose to visit the saloon, you will be visiting a "biker bar." Most visitors to Wayne arrive on motor bike and you will most likely be the only guests on "pedal bikes." There is also a very good chance that you will be the only people with children in the bar. Needless to say, language is sometimes an issue and conversations around you might not always be family-friendly. We didn't really find this to be a big problem but I would suggest going early in the day before the bar gets too busy. (Going in April will also help before the majority of bikes come out for the season.)

Overall, we find this to be an incredible experience biking through the badlands to a ghost town and we do the trip annually.

Not your "every day" experience in the Alberta Badlands

Playing Disc Golf in Wayne 

We usually bring a few discs with us for some "extreme disc golf" in Wayne. You can get a map of the course from the saloon and you can choose to just play the first 9 holes (there are 18 in total.) 

Know that this is an advanced course! You'll be throwing discs between coulees, climbing up and down between the tops of the coulees, and you'll need to be able to do some long range throws. (I've asked my husband to throw a couple discs for me in the past.) Finding discs can be a challenge too if you're not careful about watching where they land. 

We love this disc golf course because we're basically going for a hike through the badlands, throwing a few discs as we go.

I don't recommend this course if it's wet. It gets very slippery and muddy. I also recommend good shoes if you plan to play here.

Extreme disc golf in Wayne 

Option B for Biking in Drumheller (pathway riding)

For a "safer" and more "family-friendly" biking experience with young children in Drumheller, I  recommend biking the paved river parks trail system  to the Royal Tyrell Museum. We've started from McMullen Island Park but you could also start right downtown by the big dinosaur and the Visitor Centre.

Biking the River Parks Trail System in Drumheller

While the paved riverside trail is generally easy, there is one long hilly stretch leading up to the museum that younger kids may have to walk. I'd also strongly advise sending adults down the hill first on the return ride. There's one blind corner and if you're going too fast, you could easily collide with people walking or riding up.

Other than this section though, the ride is relatively flat and you can start your ride downtown by the giant dinosaur if you want to ride further. Our shortened trip from outside the town core was only 6 km return at most.

Biking to the museum in Drumheller on a scenic paved pathway

Other Fun Activities in Drumheller 

Below are suggestions for other fun activities you can try with your family while in Drumheller for a day trip.

View the current attractions update for Drumheller before your visit. Many attractions are closed due to Covid-19. 

The Drumheller Skatepark is a fun place to stop with the kids