A Shared Journey: High Rockies Trail



Sarah riding on rocky scree with a beautiful mountain range and river or lake behind her.

It was a warm Friday evening in Banff, Alberta. A small group of friends and I gathered to set off on a three-night bikepacking adventure right in our own backyard. Our starting point was the YWCA—the very spot where, on the second Friday of each June, an eclectic collection of adventurous souls congregates before embarking on the Tour Divide. Our route was much smaller in scale but, similarly, we were full of eager anticipation to start our trip. 

Sarah is standing with her bike on a gravel road. She’s smiling at the camera and a plume of dust is blowing behind her.

The Spearfish loaded up with Salsa’s EXP bags...photo by Matt Clark

Just like the Tour Divide, we began with a cruise along Goat Creek Trail before reaching our campsite under a sky of stunning oranges and pinks with towering mountains all around.

Sarah riding across a large, dry lakebed with mountains behind her. The sun is setting behind the mountains creating a golden glow.

Exploring a dry lake bed next to our campsite...

Three tents are pitched at a campsite. Bikes are laying on the ground next to the tents.

A beautiful morning in the Canadian Rockies...

Unzipping our tents the next morning, a bluebird mountain day awaited and we set off to conquer the High Rockies Trail (HRT). This newly-established gem offers 80 kilometers of trail connecting Goat Creek at the Banff National Park boundary to Elk Pass on the Alberta/British Columbia border. The HRT parallels a gravel road, but gives mountain bikers a flowy off-road option comprised of winding descents and punchy climbs across mossy forests, avalanche terrain, panoramic lookouts, and rushing waterfalls. It’s a fantastic trail and definitely worth checking out.

Megan is riding on singletrack through the remains of a burned forest. The slope behind her is covered in bare, burnt evergreen tree trunks.

Megan Dunn rides through burned forest on the HRT...

Penny is bending down from a large boulder, filling her water bottle from a stream or river. She’s wearing a loaded backpack and her bike helmet.

Penny Lawless fills our bottles. Water sources were plentiful...

Sarah is riding on singletrack through a field of boulders. Snow-covered mountains are in the distance behind her.

Trying to keep my feet dry...photo by Jeff Barlett

A lack of technical mountain biking experience had me feeling a bit nervous about what was to come, but the Salsa Spearfish gave me surprising confidence once we got rolling on the trail. Our progress was soon impeded by large patches of late-season snow, forcing us to push our bikes through stretches of slippery slush that just kept coming. Despite the warm temperatures, much of the white stuff had survived in the shade and was even waist deep in areas. As late afternoon hit, we had barely covered 40 kilometres, less than half the distance to our campsite. At this rate, we would be lucky to reach camp before dark.

Sarah is pushing her bike through snow, in a forest, while laughing.

So much for dry feet...photo by Megan Dunn

Huw and Jeff are pushing their bikes across a slope, through snow.

Huw and Jeff push through snow on the HRT...photo by Megan Dunn

Penny is pushing her bike through the snow. She’s wearing shorts and is up to her hips in snow.

It was slow going, to say the least...

The solution seemed obvious: the gravel road below would allow for much quicker progress toward our destination. But it would deviate from the route I had intended to ride. Sure, this wasn't a "race" like the Tour Divide, bound by rules that prohibit such deviations, but I had yet to consider how I felt about making changes to the routes Ryan had so carefully planned. Had it been any other route, any other guidebook, I certainly would not have thought twice about hopping onto that gravel. But that wasn’t the case here.

For me, this wasn’t a logistical decision, it was an emotional one, and it carried a lot of weight. I felt torn. And overwhelmed. Emotional, even. If you’ve been touched by loss, perhaps you can appreciate this; the feeling of wanting to honour your loved one as best you can, maybe by living to a certain standard or doing things in a way that would make them proud. This has brought a lot of positive reflection to my life in the past year but it can also carry a certain heaviness. While these trips aren’t all about me, it was obvious my friends were going to let me make the call on this one. They could feel the heaviness, too.

So there I was, tired and already dreaming of cozying up at camp with a hot meal, but feeling like maybe I should slog on for another 6+ hours because it was what Ryan would likely do.

But I was reminded of how, near the end of Ryan’s life, he encouraged me to live not just for him or his legacy, but to forge my own path, make my own decisions, and follow my own dreams and ambitions. It was OK if I didn’t do everything as Ryan would have. He would be proud if I simply followed my heart, my own path. Maybe this moment was just a tiny, insignificant example of that, but in the moment it was all I needed to know.

While trudging through icy cold snow was not without its belly laughs, the fun factor was wearing thin. So, off we went on that gravel road, making much quicker progress than we would have in the snowy unknown, but still arriving at camp at dusk. I was relieved with our decision.

Huw is riding behind two other riders on a gravel road. He’s reclining on his bike with his stomach on the saddle and his feet stretched out behind him.

Huw flies down the gravel road...photo by Megan Dunn

Sarah is riding her bike on a narrow, suspended bridge. The bridge passes over evergreen forests and snowy mountain peaks are in the background.

Back on the HRT after bypassing the snow...photo by Megan Dunn

Sarah and Huw are sitting at a picnic table at a campsite preparing food. The site is heavily forested with evergreens.

Huw and I cook up some breakfast at camp on Day 3...photo by Megan Dunn

The following days saw us ride up to the scenic summit of Skogan Pass in Kananaskis before dropping into my hometown of Canmore. Having decided that we were bound by no rules, we didn’t hesitate to stop for an impromptu pizza party at my place. Why not, right? The final stretch of our loop took us through some challenging singletrack along the Highline and Rundle Riverside trails, which ultimately popped us out back in Banff. This was a good test for my technical riding skills, especially at the end of the trip. There may have been a few falls.

In those last miles, I stopped to scatter some of Ryan’s ashes, something I will do on each of the routes I ride this year. These are spots I have no doubt Ryan would like for that to happen, and it also gives me a chance to pause to absorb each trip. I felt that I had grown with this route, challenging myself with new terrain and further exploring the trails that dot my backyard. But most of all, the meaning and significance of this project was beginning to sink in. Yes, I am following Ryan’s guidebook, but I’m also finding my own way. And, more importantly, it’s not all about me. It brings people together to ride and document Ryan’s routes and provides the opportunity to get away for a few days on their bikes and experience all that you can do on these kinds of adventures. There is something very special about connecting with others in this way, and I feel pretty grateful to Ryan for this opportunity.

Sarah and Penny are standing with their bikes hugging each other. A snowy mountain range is behind them.

Hugs at the top of Skogan Pass...photo by Matt Clark

This post filed under topics: Bikepacking Explore Guest Blogger Mountain Biking Sarah Hornby Spearfish Split Pivot

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Lured to the west by the beauty and lifestyle of the mountains, I transplanted myself to the Canadian Rockies to live, work, and play in this gorgeous corner of the world. Here, a casual interest in cycling has grown into a passion my life seems to, quite happily, revolve around. No matter how big or small the two-wheeled adventure, it's the freedom, friendship, and simplicity that always has me dreaming about what’s next.


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