Cycling in Banff – Lake Moraine
He made it sound so easy. “It has a short climb at the start but then it’s an easy downhill all the way back.”
And he only casually mentioned the bears.
By the time we crashed our way out of the woods later that day, I almost kissed the pavement on the parkway I was so grateful to be back riding alongside the rental RVs and minivans.
Banff in July
During high season, the road from Lake Louise Drive to Lake Moraine in Banff National Park closes early in the day due to the limited number of parking spots at the Lake itself. We just missed the cutoff but talking to the gatekeeper we found out that the road is closed and opened on roughly 15 minute intervals. So we lined up and waited for the next opening.
In the meantime, I came up with a scheme – we could park our car on the side of the road and ride our bikes to the lake! It would be a bit of a slog going uphill but if we timed it right, we would have a 15 minute head start before we had to worry about any cars coming up behind us. Sweet!
Further info from the gatekeeper told us about a trail that parallels the road that we could take on our return trip. His description was that “It has a short climb at the start but then it’s an easy downhill ride all the way back.”
I Have a Mountain Bike
That does not mean that I am a mountain biker. I need to start clarifying this with well-meaning bike people. My off-road technical skills are pathetic primarily due to a high desire for self-preservation. I do not want to go over the handlebars just to “learn my limits.” I also have what I think is a healthy fear of heights.
The problem is that I tend to go mountain biking only when we are on vacation in the mountains. Park City, Utah; Boulder, Colorado; and now Banff in the Canadian Rockies. I need more time on some mountain biking bunny hills before hitting these black diamond runs.
The Bike Ride to Lake Moraine
The ride in to the Lake was super fun especially when we came upon the first open vista. Gorgeous! We made it over halfway of the 8 mile trip before the cars and campers started overtaking us. The remainder of the ride was mostly downhill so we were able to keep up some good speed while enjoying the views around us. An invigorating start to our day in Banff.
Our chosen hike was to Consolation Lakes – harder than the Lake Moraine Shoreline trail but easier than the Larch Valley/Sentinel Pass trail. Like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, this hike looked to be “just right.”
Speaking of bears, the Consolation Lakes trailhead warning signs gave the suggestion that hikers travel in close set groups of four due to the proximity of bears. (This would be the grizzlies foraging since #1 they are still hungry from a long winter and #2 they need to pack on a lot of pounds for the upcoming winter.) Within a couple of weeks the minimum of four is mandatory subject to fines and ticketing by the Park Rangers. Another couple on the trail was hiking about our same speed so we informally agreed to keep each other in sight along the way.
The warning signs got me to wondering how closely do they keep tabs on all these bears? How do they know the bears haven’t beaten their bear traffic jams and gotten here early? Better not to think about it too much beyond taking the recommended precautions.
The Hike to Consolation Lakes
This is another gorgeous hike through woods and alpine meadows, opening upon a valley of boulders and talus slopes (so I had to look this description up – it means the pile up of all the rocks and stuff that come off the cliffs above.) The lakes appear to be fed by snow melt coming off the (aforementioned) talus slopes and the Quadra Glacier. I highly recommend this trail as one filled with wildflowers and beautiful vistas without being overly technical.
We climbed among the boulders and snacked a bit before heading back to Moraine Lake and our bikes. The hike took two hours at our relaxed pace.
The Return Trip
I found the trail marker for the Highline Trail. It seemed a bit odd that it wasn’t getting much press in the park trail guides but it looked about what the gatekeeper described. The climb out of the parking lot area seemed OK from what I could see at the trailhead.
I was hesitant to go off-road but seeing the steady flow of RVs and cars making their way back towards Lake Louise it seemed like a good idea to at least try the trail. I can climb as long as the trail is relatively smooth and fairly wide.
Then the bear warnings started showing up. The gatekeeper had mentioned how lucky we were since a good portion of this trail was to be closed within a week or so for the benefit of the nomadic bears.
So, if groups of four were recommended on the hiking trails that stayed open, what did that mean for just two of us to be riding along this deserted trail on the edge of bear season?
I have now come to know what vertical exposure means when describing single track mountain bike trails – you’ll be riding a narrow sliver of dirt filled with bumpy rocks complemented by a sheer drop-off on one side and probably not much to grab on to on the other side. Did I mention that I am afraid of heights?
One key thing to remember when riding a bike is to look where you want to go since the bike will tend towards that point. So, look ahead further down the trail not at the tree you are hoping to avoid.
Try remembering that when the hillside drops away precipitously next to you. A hillside created by talus at some point in time.
Don’t look down. Don’t look down.
And then remember the bears. And see your husband riding away out of sight. Did he take out extra life insurance on me?
Start talking really loud so any bears will avoid the trail.
We kept climbing. Where was this easy downhill I was promised?
OK. I’m getting a bit freaked out so I got off the bike and walked it. At this point, we are far enough up the side of the mountain that we can see the road WAY DOWN THERE. Too high up to be able to bushwack it to the road. We decide to keep pressing ahead.
I’m talking louder and singing and starting to say nasty things to my departing husband as he rides away further up the trail. No problem for our marriage since he is so far away he can’t possibly hear my escalating threats.
OK. He waited for me in a slightly wider section of trail. Time to do a gps trail check. We are barely 2 miles in at this point. (Don’t say bear!) There is a bail out trail at mile 3 that would get us back to the road. It should be well signed since that is the boundary for the seasonal bear closure.
I pretty much walk my bike the next mile until we found the bail out trail. GAGGHHH!! It’s tight switch-back turns the whole way down. I can’t do switch-back turns especially in bear-filled woods. As I see Joel once again ride away into the dark abyss I get off and walk my bike downhill. Eventually finding what looks to be the trailhead and come crashing out onto the roadside.
Oh Thank God! I have never been so happy to see pavement in my life.
The rest of the ride back to our car was smooth sailing and I never even looked back. By the time we arrived at the car, our mis-informant gatekeeper was long gone, never to know what hell he put me through that afternoon.
Since then, I looked up ratings for this particular trail and it’s rated an intermediate/advanced, technical trail. Our ride on the road to the Lake took less than an hour while, in contrast, we spent an hour and a half walking my bike through the woods to the bail out point followed by a quick 20 minutes to ride the remaining 5 miles back.
I should have known better than to take the advice of an experienced mountain biker on traffic control vs a Park Ranger. I’ve come to trust the official park trail descriptions, Rangers tend to encourage folks to keep within their limits unless they actually know what they are doing out there in the wilderness.
You can read about our bike ride on the Bow Valley Parkway to Johnston Creek here.
I still have my mountain bike. And this summer I have promised myself that I will work on my technical skills so I don’t get stuck alone in bear country again.