I had this awesome trip planned out for the Gulf Islands but it wasn’t in the cards: still have a toddler who isn’t awesome at road tripping (plus, she was coming down with a snotty cold), the three families that we had hoped to connect with we were barely going to see, and, ugh, two or more days sitting on our asses in the car driving across a province that’s ablaze.
Life with kids, for us, means constantly adapting.
Thank goodness we live where we live because there are back-up plans a-plenty! And, we are discovering more and more family friendly bike touring options that are even traffic free. Granted, they’re not rail trail grade so you have to work for it, but it’s totally worth it. Without further adieu, we head off into the backcountry on our first overnight bikepacking trip.
Bike touring vs bikepacking
This boils down mostly to subtle semantics. Some people would say on- vs. off-road; others would define it by the bike, which tends to dictate how you can pack your gear. But, ultimately, they both mean exploring by bike and carrying your stuff on your bike and having a tonne of fun.
Having tested our longtails on off-road day tours in June, we confidently loaded them up with a combo of panniers, lightweight drybags, and sturdy children and ventured up the Cascade Valley fire road. The Xtracycle Edgerunner seemed to be slightly more suited to the job than the Bike Friday Haul-a-Day, but really, both worked great. We ran Schwalbe Big Bens on both bikes, so not mountain bike tire tread, but balloon tires that perform decently on gravel.
When fully loaded, we still managed to leave room for a kid or two on each bike. We rigged up a quick release dragging system for our 5 year old’s Frog 55 on the Haul-a-Day as we couldn’t use the towing trays on the Edgerunner due to gear (plus, we haven’t figured out how to tow her new bike on the Edgerunner, yet, due to interference with the Hooptie…). Unfortunately, our pipe insulator and hose clamped quick release mount failed on this trip and we are upgrading to this version of it.
When to go
You could ride this route almost any time of year, except during spring thaw. I imagine that it’s best late spring (once things have dried out and set up a bit after the thaw) through until early/late fall, depending on the year. Personally, I would ride it June to September.
Cascade fire road is also a groomed cross-country ski route in the winter time and you can fat bike on the non-track set (but groomed) parts of the trail (Winter Map). So, a good day trip or even some epic winter camping could be had, I suppose! Yikes. I’m not a winter camper. Check Skier Bob as your best bet for most accurate crowd-sourced winter trip reports.
We rode the trail mid-August and it was dry. In the summer months (June to September), there is high pack horse traffic on this route as Banff Trail Riders supply their remote camp location further up the valley, at Stoney Creek. While some people may be annoyed by the stinky horse poop, my kids thought it was totally awesome. The ford over Cascade River runs right by the cooking area of backcountry campground Cr6 and the girls were in awe and we got to watch the horses have a big slurp of a drink as they made their way across. If you encounter horses on the trail, the etiquette is for you to pull over to the side and calmly wait for the horses to pass before continuing on your way (and this is going to happen anyway if you are traveling with two horse-loving kids!).
Where to start
The trailhead begins at the Upper Bankhead Parking Lot, near Lake Minnewanka in Banff National Park. Be sure to have a National Park Pass displayed in your windshield, valid for the duration of your trip. Also make sure to have a copy of your backcountry permit, too, if you are planning an overnighter (the latter permit was $9.60/adult/night at the time of writing and the kids were free).
Somewhat deceiving from the outset, this route starts as a single track heading north through the grass from the NE corner of the parking lot, labeled as “Cascade Fire Road” on Google Maps. In 20 or so metres you head into the trees and the trail opens up to a dirt doubletrack. You cruise along on this short, fairly flat but somewhat root-y section for a short way until you pop out at the stables for Banff Trail Riders. At this point, the trail goes up a steep little hill, then down and dumps you out at the actual fire road. From this point on, you are riding along a gravel road.
The surface of this road is fairly chewed up from the horse traffic and/or runoff so the gravel is quite loose, overall, but you can find firmer singletrack bits to ascend and descend on. On the flatter sections of trail, I found the gravel to be nicely compact.
Past Cr6 there is a section for a couple hundred metres that seems to be a re-route of the fire road, post-2013 floods, I assumed, and it is full of 10-20 cm diameter river rock mixed with dirt. There are two single tracks that have been worn down over time that are your easiest bets to ride on. A bit of a challenging section with the fully loaded cargo bikes, but doable.
This is the best elevation profile that I found for the route: it is of the entire fire road. Note the short, steep downhill just past kilometer 6: this leads to the Cascade River and backcountry campground Cr6 is just over the new Cascade Bridge, on the far side of the river. I believe that the riders who made this profile for Bike Pirate, rode as far as they could which is Cr15 (after which bikes are not permitted) before turning around.
We attempted to go all the way to Cr15 in one day and we got close, but decided to turn around while things were going well (i.e. we were entering the unpredictable Land of No-Nap Snotty Toddler) and spend the night at Cr6. It’s a good thing we did as that is when the hose clamp for our setup to drag my eldest’s bike broke and it would have been tough for her to complete the entire trip.
Last we had checked, there was still one unbooked site at Cr6 and we kept our fingers crossed that no one booked it last minute for a quick trip after work on Friday evening! Our wishes came true, in fact, not a soul showed up for any of the supposed reservations and we had the entire campground to ourselves and it was lovely. The river is loud though, ha!
I am ecstatic that we did this trip. It was a great shakedown to get bike touring and bikepacking with the girls, having only done day trips with them previously.
We actually attempted this trip the previous day and didn’t make it to Cr6. We had a late start, it was super smokey, and our 5 year old rode most of the epic initial climb in short intervals interrupted with lots of breaks. (She’s a rock star. There’s no way I would have ever done that at her age AND with a smile ‘ta boot!) I was getting really worried about our timelines, having been monitoring our rate of travel, and felt like we were entering a world of disasters waiting to happen (eg. no-nap snotty toddler tantrums, forest fire smoke induced coughing fits for the sicky, and arriving too late with hungry and exhausted kids and that just not being fun). My mama bear anxiety kicked in and with a few tears, we turned around and enjoyed an awesome and speedy ride back to the car. Thankfully, my mum lives close by in Canmore, so we crashed there for the night and made a second attempt the next day with a much earlier start and renewed confidence. The forest fire smoke had cleared, too! It was a good sign. Funny part is, when we got past our turnaround point from the previous day, we rode a teensy bit more on mostly flat to gently undulating terrain and then we went down a short, steep hill that dumped us at the Cascade River and, voila, we were at our target campground.
I feel differently heading into the backcountry with two young kids than when I used to galavant around the woods mostly by myself with a partner (usually) within radio contact. Sometimes I was freaked out then, but I got used to it and did it for many seasons of work in silviculture. Now, I need to know more and be uber-prepared. For example, this past trip we learned we need to leave earlier (even if it means more down time at camp), I prefer to travel and adventure with healthy kids (they’re happier anyway), and I like accurate elevation profiles (or traveling with someone who has ridden the terrain before)! If the elevation profile we had been using was near as good as the one I linked to, above, then I could have understood that we were really very close to camp, afterall.
Hindsite is 20:20. I hope this write-up helps you to head out up this beautiful valley with your family in tow, if that appeals to you. Hopefully there is a lot of useful information here to help you plan the trip.
We will aim for a two-nighter next year: Cr6, then Cr15, then out in one day (as it’s mostly downhill). I’m already looking forward to it!
Click here to check out some more ideas for beginner-level and family-friendly bikepacking trips within an hour or two’s drive of Calgary (these would also make great day-trips, as one friend pointed out).