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Alberta Backcountry – Gravel Roads & High Water

In 2013, southwestern Alberta was in flood. The next year, a dualsport rider enters the Alberta backcountry to inspect the damage. What he finds are still-swollen rivers, washed out bridges, and an inspirational mountain ride.

Southwest Alberta made national news in 2013 when floods hit Turner Valley, Black Diamond, Calgary, Okotoks, Canmore, and devastated my hometown of High River. Nearly one year after the floods, I went looking for back roads to explore the mountain-fed headwaters of the Highwood, Old Man, and Sheep Rivers that had collectively risen to wreak so much damage on the lives and landscape of this province.

I started near Black Diamond and got on Alberta’s Highway 22, the famous Cowboy Trail. The road is punctuated by homages to the western tradition like Longview’s famous beef jerky shop, giant cowboy silhouettes, and hundreds of hats nailed to fence posts along the highway.

A stop at the Historic Bar-U Ranch gives you a glimpse of what life looked like to early European settlers. Things haven’t changed all that much around here and horseback is still one of the primary methods of backcountry access. Oilwell pumpjacks (sometimes called donkey pumps for their resemblance to a nodding donkey) dot the landscape, harkening back to the late 1920s oil boom.

cows on a gravel road in the Alberta backcountry

While scenic, Highway 22 is fast and jacked-up Dodge trucks scream past me. Not my idea of relaxing riding, especially on a 250 dualsport. My long-suffering companion, the spunky Yamaha XT250, is at home in a surprising number of riding conditions, almost anywhere except for a fast highway. Overall it is a great bike for trails and commuting, but at 250cc she is a little sluggish. 

Yamaha released the re-imagined XT250 in 2008 after an 18-year hiatus and it has soared in popularity since. The XT delivers dependable low-end power with fantastic fuel economy. Unfortunately the stock shocks are a little on the soft side, but it has the lowest seat height in its class with almost 12 inches (304mm) of ground clearance—great for beginners, though it makes standing feel unnatural. Still, no bike is perfect. I’ve taken the XT through hell and back with few complaints. From trail riding to long distance touring, the XT might not excel but it has never let me down.

South of Chain Lakes Provincial Park I left Highway 22 for Skyline Drive, which winds through the Porcupine Hills. This is the kind of riding the XT is meant for and we ate up the kilometres. Elevation changes, mixed surfaces, and a few challenging water crossings in the Alberta backcountry made my day. The soft suspension smoothed out the gravel roads and we cruised at a good clip.

This year’s spring rainfall was significant in its own right, though not quite the torrential downpour of 2013, and the creeks and rivers were all swollen with thick, brown rushing water. The possibility of washouts added a new difficulty in route planning.

After several water crossings I came upon a school bus turned mobile hunting lodge whose owners, Jake and Kit, were pondering the worst washout yet. Although they encouraged me, I figured the creek was too high to cross. I turned around and headed west toward the front ranges of the Rockies. Part of my motivation for this trip was to see what damage last year’s floodwaters had brought to the back roads, and if Skyline Drive represented the situation, I would face some difficult riding ahead.

I left ranching country behind for the mountains proper. The Mycroft Road runs parallel to the Old Man River, and vertical limestone walls carved by the force of the river rise on either side of the valley. The Old Man was running high but the flood risk was over for this year.

From Mycroft I went south on Alberta Forestry Trunk Road 940 to Crowsnest Pass, the setting for historic mining settlements like Bellevue, Blairmore, Coleman, and a boulder field that now covers what is left of Frank, a town that was buried by a slide in 1903. The Pass is cruiser country. Harleys lined the streets outside the Rum Runner, a local favourite in Coleman. After feasting on their famous poutine burger I can see why it is so popular.

My route planning method is simple. Take a backroads trail map and look for the smallest winding line going vaguely in the right direction. The Atlas Logging Road running north from Coleman met my criteria.

It started out right with fantastic views of the Crowsnest Mountain. ATVs and dirt bikes were out in force. The area was filled with the intoxicating fumes of two-stroke engines and campfires.

Shortly though, I left the crowds behind. The logging road has not been in service for some time and the first washout prevents most four-wheeled vehicles from going further. 

The alpine forest took on the golden hue of evening as the hours passed by in challenging dualsport riding. Years of heavy rain and high creeks have taken their toll on this road. Most of the bridges are now washed out. Boulder-strewn fields took the place of gravel and a few water crossings were particularly challenging. No one else was on the road and I was not keen on getting stranded in this lonely area.

a mostly washed out bridge in the Alberta backcountry

I came on a partial bridge washout that created a six-foot gap between the road and the bridge deck. Someone had left a couple 2×6 boards lying around and I debated the merits of attempting to cross on the boards or returning all the way back to the Crowsnest Pass. Finally, I mustered my courage and managed to cross without slipping. Now I was committed; the bridge deck was lower than the road—to return meant I would have to push my loaded bike uphill on a six-inch board above the raging creek. 

Thankfully, there were no more washouts and I got back onto the 940 without issues. Spotting two grizzly bears made my day even better. I sat out late that night enjoying views of Mount Burke in the clear night at the Cataract Creek Campground.

The next morning I got on pavement at Highwood House. Highway 40 parallels the Highwood River up to the Highwood Pass before dipping back down into the Kananaskis Lakes region. At 2,206 metres, Highwood Pass is Canada’s highest paved road, and as I gained elevation the aspen forests gave out to lodgepole pine and eventually high alpine meadow.

The pass had just opened after a long winter closure and it was filled with bikers. Surprisingly, my XT kept up pretty well with the crowd. Its agility on tight corners more than made up for relatively low top-end power. 

I stopped at the top of the Highwood Pass for a hike up Ptarmigan Cirque to the base of Mount Rae, the source of the Highwood River. The lower reaches of the Highwood show the effect of last year’s flood but, up there at the source, the small trickle held no resemblance to currents that devastated High River. It felt good to see the glacier; it looked exactly as I remembered it from my childhood. A small stream ran down the mountain slope just as it has in years gone by and hopefully will continue to long into the future. From the summit I dropped down into the valley and eventually turned east at Sibald Creek Trail. Then I zigzagged through the eastern slopes on Powderface Trail and McLean Creek Trail back to Black Diamond.

This was no more than a weekend trip on my home turf but it had all the elements of a great motorcycling adventure. I met interesting folks, explored new areas in the Alberta backcountry, connected to our shared history on the land, and left a little more at peace with the aftermath of last year’s floods. I took a quick snapshot of my bike with the sun setting on the Rockies as I started planning my next ride. 

negotiating a washed out road in the Alberta backcountry on a motorcycle

by Jared Marley Canadian Biker Issue #305


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