four days on the divide

The Great Divide Mountain Bike Route is oft considered the classic bike touring adventure in North America. The longest off-pavement route on the planet, the GDMBR winds down the spine of the Rocky Mountains, never straying far from the continental divide over it’s 4,963 kilometre length which officially now stretches from Jasper, Alberta to Antelope Wells, New Mexico. The annual Tour Divide race (starting in Banff) sees cyclists attempting the route in the fastest time possible, with the current record standing at 13 days and 22 hours.

In July 2019, I joined three friends for a taste of “The Divide”, riding north from Whitefish, Montana back home to Canmore. This leg of the route was mostly on dirt double track trails, gravel roads, a tiny bit of singletrack and a few paved stretches, with good access to several towns, ample options for food, plenty of water sources and lots of camping spots. A moderate level of fitness is required for several big climbs on each day of our route, and for the overall distance.  Our itinerary changed a bit due to some truly crap weather on day 3, so we missed a good chunk of BC’s Flathead Valley.

wc map

Map link: our Ride With GPS route

Starting out: Canmore to the Whitefish Bike Retreat

The start point for this adventure was my front door. I rolled out of my driveway on a Wednesday afternoon and rendezvoused with Guy & Josh for the one-hour pedal from Canmore to Banff via the paved Legacy Trail. In Banff’s Central Park we connected with our 4th member, Neil, and with Cricket Butler, owner of the Whitefish Bike Retreat. The WBR runs a scheduled shuttle to get riders to Banff, which has long been the start of the Divide route until the recent Jasper-leg addition, or in our case, to shuttle us southward so we could then ride home. This was a great option for us and we settled in for the ~5.5 hour drive across the border to Montana.

Cricket is an all-round fantastic human and has created something truly special in the woods just north of Whitefish. We rolled up the gravel drive in the van and unloaded gear before pedaling over to a campsite for the night. The retreat has a main lodge building with a few sleeping rooms, kitchen and common area, a tenting campground, disc golf course and a small shop with tasty micro-brews, snacks, bits of bikepacking gear and other swag. Through it all, singletrack trails and a pump track wind up and down and through the forest, as well as a direct connection to the Whitefish Trail that links to the vast trail network around the region.

WBR campsite

Darkness settled as we enjoyed a few beers and cooked a late supper, the periodic zzzzzzz of a mountain bike cassette providing the background soundtrack as riders ripped along the flowy singletrack trail right behind our tenting area. Chats about gear, food, what the next few days held in store and general picnic table banter kept us up till about 10. Work schedules were a factor for Neil and I, so we’d committed ourselves to a “fast touring” pace of four days to cover the 600-ish kilometres back to Canmore.

Day 1 – Whitefish Bike Retreat to Rexford Bench Campground – 160 km


Our posse rolled away from the WBR fairly early on a cold overcast morning and into the first leg of our trip, a bit of zig-zaggy routefinding on forestry roads and a fast singletrack downhill to reach the far north end of Whitefish Lake, where we intersected with the official GDMBR route. My first hour of pedaling was focused on figuring out a mysterious clunk on each pedal stroke. It sounded like something bottom bracket-related – not ideal a few kilometres in on a 600 km trip. I finally stopped to do some sleuthing and sheepishly informed my fellow travelers that it was my crank arm connecting with a pot-shaped bulge in my framebag. A quick smack on the frame bag, the pot shifted a centimetre or two, and all was good.

After a small navigation miscue that saw us heading a little too far south, we about-faced and began the long, steady climb on the gravel Upper Whitefish Road towards our first high point on the route, Red Meadow Lake. We leapfrogged along the quiet road, occasionally together, occasionally riding solo at our own pace. Neil had done the Tour Divide race a few years back and we chatted about his experiences on the route and his reminiscences of the long early-morning descent heading in the opposite direction towards Whitefish.

Red Meadow Lake was cold and blustery and called for extra layers as we rested the legs and took on some calories after the long climb. The lake is a pretty iconic spot that shows up in the photo gallery of pretty much anyone who’s ridden The Divide. Often snowbound into early summer, the road was dry today but the cold wind discouraged any extended lingering, so after 15 minutes we pedaled on.

The descent from the lake was a long ripper down chunky gravel and dirt, blasting through mud puddles and the dappled sunlight angling in through the pines and spruce. We reached the T-intersection of the Flathead Road; a right turn here would get you to Polebridge and Glacier National Park. We veered left. heading northward towards our next big climb up the Whitefish Divide. It was pleasant pedaling along the Flathead Valley road, the lofty peaks of Glacier National Park off our right shoulder as we made good time along the just-dry-enough dirt road that could have been a real slopfest in a rainstorm.

Small driveways cut off the road at various points with everything from small address numbers to gated elk-antler arches hinting at the size of the homes that might be found tucked into the forested valley. Often called the “grizzliest place in the Lower 48”, the Flathead River valley provides core habitat for bears and other large mammals, a wildlife connectivity highway from the protected areas of Glacier Park across the border into the Canuck section of the Flathead and the Castle & Waterton parks.

Our first good rainstorm rolled in mid-afternoon as we continued on up the Flathead Valley, necessitating full raingear. Josh, in the lead, was all of a sudden riding back towards us with reports of a mama bear and three cubs up ahead on the forested stretch towards the Tuchuck campground. We paused to give the bruins some time to move on, and after a blast from Guy’s airhorn just to be sure, we continued on to a cold, misty climb up the Whitefish Divide through a charred landscape. We’d been at it for about 8 or 9 hours by this point, our gang of four spread out along the rough, rocky climb as we each settled into our own slow, soggy, cold paces.

The rain abated slightly as we topped out on the long climb, eager for the descent ahead that would bring us into the Tobacco Valley and some easy paved miles into Eureka and on to our night’s campground at Rexford. The damp cold saw us descending the rough downhill in full raingear, my chilled fingers grabbing at a rear brake that seemed suddenly very soft and not up to the task of slowing my 60 pound gear-laden Fargo. We passed a few southbound cyclists at the next junction and were soon cruising on smooth pavement towards – could it be? – sunny skies? When the grade flattened into the broad valley, the sun was fully shining and we bolstered our spirits with a well-earned dinner and beers at HA Brewing – a highly recommended stop!

The respite at HA was a welcome break and we enjoyed the next few hours pedaling through the evening light, with a quick stop in Eureka (Christmas tree capital of the world!) for groceries before heading off-route to our campground at Rexford. Arriving in the dark, we found our reserved spot occupied but were soon welcomed onto the vast pine-needle-carpeted site of some great folks from Red Deer. Tents were erected in the full-dark, as we zombied around getting gear and food organized before passing out after a great first day’s riding.

Day 2 – Rexford Bench Campground to Fernie – 119 km


We said thanks to our generous Red Deer friends and pedaled off, headed back towards Eureka to rejoin the route on a cool, clear morning. The paved riding was a good warm up for what lay ahead – a big climb up and over Galton Pass, just inside the Canadian border. Beautiful expansive grasslands, the low-angle morning sun and the expanse of peaks in the distance was a great way to start the day as we rode north up the Tobacco Valley towards the Canadian border.

Before we knew it we were back in Canada, eh, after an uneventful yet still novel border-crossing-by-bike. The short paved stretch was quiet on this early Friday morning and we regrouped to psych ourselves up for the big climb up Galton Pass. The grade wasn’t too bad as we geared down, pedaling up the sandy doubletrack with expansive views back towards Eureka dominating our sightlines. The trail swung left and steepened, climbing on and on up to the pass. Actually reminded me quite a bit of the Grey Creek climb on day 6 of my BC Epic adventure.

We were all fairly spread out – Josh and Neil ahead, Guy and I holding up the rear – taking lots of breaks as we ascended through spruce forests interspersed with occasional logging cuts, sometimes walking and sometimes pedaling. Eventually the angle of the road tapered off and there we were at the top of the pass, admiring the broad views east into the Flathead. I refueled with a delicious cheddar cheese and salami wrap and then it was time for a big descent, not quite as steep as the climb up but the loose rocks and rough, chewed up roadbed made for a real arm-burner – especially since I forgot to deal with my spongy brakes and once again found myself hurtling down the mountainside wishing I had a bit more stopping power.

Next up was a section that was becoming infamous among Divide riders. “The Wall” was 50 metres or so of steep, root-infested off-camber mud, a necessary connector linking the Wigwam River Valley to Phillips Road (the route up and over Galton Pass). As our rubbery arms gradually recovered from the long descent, the trail began to narrow through young stands of trees in old clearcuts, getting tighter and tighter before eventually turning into a muddy singletrack twisting through dense bushes. All of a sudden the trail dropped away – time to head down The Wall, walking and grabbing brakes as our heavily-laden bikes slipped down the steep, loose path – but certainly way better than trudging up with a loaded bike.

The fun continued even as the trail flattened, with more twisty, rooty singletrack and a few choice mud holes before we finally emerged from the woods onto the Wigwam Mainline forest service road, a graveled doubletrack through tight new forest growth that seemed like perfect territory to surprise a grizzly. We upped the frequency and volume of our bear-avoidance yelling and glanced nervously at the darkening clouds to the west. Sure enough, we were soon pedaling through rain, thunder and some impressive hail that was giving us a solid pummeling, and actually making it pretty hard to keep your head up to even see where you were going without getting a face full of  hailstones. We decided to pull off the trail to shelter under the young lodgepoles until the storm passed.

Or, at least “I” decided to pull off…I had thought the collective “we” had taken a pause, but when I emerged from my cozy baby lodgepole den and looked up and down the trail I didn’t see or hear anything. Young green trees dripped moisture as the thunder receded down the valley. I stood around for awhile, yelling names…no idea if they were ahead of me or behind. Do I wait or go? Are they waiting for me, somewhere behind me? Or do they think I’m way ahead and are trying to catch up? I eventually started off, crunching through piles of hail, for the first time really realizing how far out in the nowhere of this remote pocket of southeastern BC I was.

Post-storm full-raingear uphill sweatfest. Photo: GS

20 minutes later I found my compadres. The sun had re-emerged as the storm cleared and I suddenly found myself roasting inside my raingear as the road steepened into a climb. Tired of pedaling, I got off for a little stroll and pushed my bike up the gravelly hill, head down and sunglasses fogged over enough so that I didn’t even really see Neil, Guy and Josh until I was 10 metres from them. The trail meandered on, with long steady climbs and descents at least offering some variation to what was turning into a long afternoon. I passed the time by scouring the interesting purple-coloured stones of the roadbed for a heart-shaped rock to bring home to my wife, smiling as I reminded myself that no matter the ups and downs of the weather or the monotony of an endless stretch of fireroad, I was pretty fortunate to be out in amazing wilderness amongst friends.


As we reached the junction of the Wigwam Mainline and the Cabin Forest Service Road, Guy updated us on the latest weather forecast from his Inreach device. It wasn’t promising. The next few hours called for a few more rain showers, then temps dipping overnight paired with steady rainfall. Decision time. Option A: head up the long climb over Cabin Pass, deeper into the remote Flathead Valley, and most certainly a cold and wet night in camp. Option B: head north towards Fernie on the Wigwam forest service road, a few solid hours of riding, but with the lure of perhaps some indoor accommodation and pizza and beer. We also factored in Josh’s increasingly painful <ahem> “undercarriage issues”, worried that a longer push deeper into the wild might not be what the doctor ordered. Option B won out. After some food intake at the mosquito-ey Wigwam-Ram rec site, we pedaled north towards Fernie, enduring a long climb through another bad-ass hailstorm before the skies cleared. Onward we pressed in the damp cold of the evening, high above the Wigwam River and through the eerily beautiful burnt landscape from a September 2017 fire in the MacDonald Range.

By the time we hit the junction with the Lodgepole fire road below hulky Mt Broadwood, the day’s toils were catching up, I think, with all of us. It was cold, we were tired, the road was muddy, and talk of pizza circulated endlessly. The riding from there on wasn’t unpleasant, but seemed to just drag on and on. I gave a small cheer as I recognized some of the ski runs at Fernie Alpine Resort across the valley as we neared town on the final stretch of dirt for the day along the Cokato Road. We rolled into a quiet summer evening in Fernie, and after a quick phone call we were unpacking bikes, changing into dry clothes and enjoying pizza and beer in the hostel. The forecast continued to look worse and worse and we were grateful to be in our cozy dorm room for a solid sleep.

Rolling along the Wigwam FSR through the burn. Photo: NS

Day 3  – Fernie to Elkford – 66 km

And then there were three. We awoke to a steady rain and 6 degrees, dark clouds laying low over the Elk Valley. Josh had decided that his saddle sores ruled him out from riding onward with us, so he hung out in Fernie to await a ride home to Edmonton as Neil, Guy and I reluctantly packed our bikes and donned extra layers to head out into the dreariness of the day. We hit a grocery store and grabbed some brekkie at Tim Horton’s as we tried to muster some enthusiasm for what lay ahead. Normally, the off-road Elk Valley Trail network would provide a mostly-dirt option to get from Fernie to Sparwood, however a big section of the trail was closed due to logging so our only option was the shoulder of a busy highway 3.

Still raining, still smiling. Photo: GS

The next 31 km were pretty grim: full-on rain, cold, and a lot of Saturday traffic. We rode as far over to the right as we could as RV’s and logging trucks and summer tourist traffic flew past in a steady stream, the spray saturating us and sneaking down collars and under glove cuffs. A rest stop provided a brief moment of calm but with the cold temperatures we needed to get moving to stay warm, waving hello to some southbounders as we endured the final stretch into Sparwood and the chance to grab some food and dry out at A&W.

The world’s largest dumptruck, a nod to the extensive coal mining operations throughout BC’s Elk Valley, provided a quick photo op as we re-emerged back out into the storm with somewhat drier clothes and some additional dishwashing gloves as extra hand layers. Guy experimented with a new poncho system that promptly got caught up in his chain just a few kilometres out of town. It was disappointing to have missed out on so much of the Divide route through the Flathead, but as the temperature continued to drop as we headed north on highway 43 from Sparwood to Elkford, we were glad to have made the call to stick to paved roads rather than the wilds of the Flathead.

By the time we got to Elkford late in the afternoon it was 4 degrees and snow was visible on the surrounding peaks as the rain gradually let up. We thought for all of, oh, 4 or 5 seconds, about pressing onward and camping somewhere up the Upper Elk Valley Road, but the temperature and the thought of a cold, wet campground made the idea of a hotel room much more compelling. We called around and eventually found a room at the Hi-Rock Inn. It was dry and clean and a 5 minute walk from Kapp’s Pizza Place where we enjoyed Calzones and amused ourselves listening to the incessant complaining emanating from the kitchen about how much having to be at work sucked. The sky was clear and the night cold as we wondered how muddy tomorrow’s ride was going to be.

Day 4  – Elkford to Canmore – 155 km


Low misty clouds obscured the mountains around Elkford as we rolled out of the Hi-Rock’s driveway, but at least it wasn’t raining. The temp was hovering around 2 degrees as we rode north out of town, slowly warming up as the pavement turned to gravel – thankfully not muddy at all – and we tackled the first few climbs of the day. Far across the valley, obscured by the mist, came the low metallic rumbling sounds of the giant Greenhills coal mine. As the sun began to burn off the morning gloom we shed our raingear and savoured the warmth following the previous day’s 8 hours of rain and cold. Riding northward, we were treated to amazing broad panoramas of the Elk Valley, the scenery somehow getting even better around every corner as a new vista opened up.

The riding was generally uphill but mostly gradual in nature, with a few faster sections of slight down that were an absolute joy, my Fargo rolling along effortlessly on the gravel through this amazing landscape. Our trip had been shortened by about 100 km by skipping the BC Flathead section, and we were bummed that Josh was missing out on a stellar day, but otherwise our spirits were high, the misery of the prior day fading fast as we headed north towards home at a good pace and appreciating the amazing opportunity to be out riding bikes under blue skies.

After a few hours of riding Weary Creek provided a nice rest stop, where we chatted with a couple heading south and watched another group of riders cruise by over the bridge. I devoured the second calzone I’d ordered the night before; thus fortified, onward we pedaled, all the while climbing towards the continental divide, where we’d traverse the BC/Alberta border at Elk Pass. It was still a ways distant but a nice mental milestone, signifying a crossing back into our backyard of Kananaskis Country.

If it’s not obvious by the amount of photos we took that day, the Upper Elk Valley section must surely be a highlight of the entire Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. I’m sure it would be a vastly different experience on a cold rainy day, but on a day like we had it was pretty fantastic. The final climb up to Elk Pass is a doozy, steep in spots and lots of rutted mud, but before we knew it we were passing under the cool wooden arch marking the entry (or exit, I guess) for the Elk Valley and then flying down the powerline road towards the shimmer of Upper and Lower Kananaskis Lakes.

The descent was over in a flash and we were soon back on pavement. Neil and I bid farewell to Guy, who was ending his ride here by meeting up with his family at one of the campgrounds. A mandatory stop at the Bolton Creek Trading Post for some ice cream and a cold Mountain Dew gave us a last bit of pep for the final leg home, first through the paved bikepath network of Peter Lougheed Park and finally onto the long, dusty stretch of the Smith-Dorrien Road back to the Bow Valley. Traffic was quiet on the Sunday evening and we had the wide gravel highway to ourselves, pushed north by a robust tailwind that had us grinning as we flew home to Canmore on the final stretch of our four days on The Divide.

Gear Stuff 

Bike: 2019 Salsa Fargo (mods: One Up Composite flat pedals, second wrap of Salsa bar tape, Selle Anatomica H2 saddle) with Salsa Alternator rear rack carrying an Innate Designs 10L dry bag with MEC Spark 2 Tent

Green Guru Gear Hauler Saddle Bag: clothing in a Nemo pillow/stuff sack

Salsa Frame Bag: Stove & Pot set (MSR), First Aid Kit, toiletry kit, battery pack & assorted charging cables, bear hang rope, spare tube, rain gear, shell gloves, Sawyer Mini filter, Nemo air mattress

Salsa Anything Cradle: Mountain Equipment Co-op 10L dry bag with MEC -7 down sleeping  bag tent poles

Accessory Bags: Patagonia Black Hole Cube rigged up to the Anything Cradle (food), Revelate Feedbag (sunscreen, snacks, knife, Inreach) Bedrock Tapeats (toque, buff, fleece gloves, snacks), Apidura toptube bag (snacks), Revelate gas tank (multi tool, chain lube, leatherman, small cable lock), Sea To Summit lightweight travel pack (for extra food carrying if needed)


Riding clothes: Patagonia shorts, Arc Teryx sun hoody, Pearl Izumi sun legs, Brooks Cascadia trail runners, Darn Tough uncle buck socks, Hestra gloves
Other stuff: Patagonia Refugitive jacket, Torrentshell rain paints, Nano Air jacket, thermal weight Capilene shirt, short sleeved merino t, merino boxers, 2nd socks, 2nd chamois, Patagonia quandary pants




3 thoughts on “four days on the divide

  1. That was great to read and live vicariously through your words. I was really disheartened last year that I was not able to join on that trip. I will definitely be riding it at some point.


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