How Parks Canada road closures open opportunities for visitors on two wheels
COVID-19 road closures leave space for cyclists, hikers and animals in Banff National Park
Drive west on Highway 1 and you will see car after car, carrying bikes as the mountains get close.
This summer, on top of what the Bow Valley has to offer in terms of pathways, trails and other bike infrastructure, there's a new, limited-time opportunity many are taking advantage of.
Parks Canada opted to close a number of roads to motor vehicles because of the pandemic, opening space up to other physically distanced users. And it's unclear when the roads will reopen to vehicles, according to officials who are monitoring health advice daily.
As of July 5, the closures include: the east end of the Bow Valley Parkway where it meets Highway 1 to its junction with Highway 93 South, Sunshine Road beyond the Healy Pass trailhead parking lot and Tunnel Mountain Drive.
Weekends on the Bow Valley Parkway are busy. Two Parks Canada staff are on hand to direct traffic — there's limited parking at the beginning of the road closure, and many don't read the signs to stay on Highway 1 for Johnston Canyon Access.
Private vehicles aren't allowed on the smooth and scenic parkway but service vehicles can still get through. A couple of workers in a truck rolled down the window to say they'd counted at least 200 people using the road.
There are experienced-looking riders in racing jerseys but also families towing trailers with kids inside, and little ones gaining confidence on their own two wheels.
Cheryl Northey and her group bike by. It's her first time riding the parkway and she couldn't be happier.
"When you're cycling in the city or on highways you always have to be on" Northey said. "We could ride four-a-stride, chat, look at the view, stop, not worry — it was awesome ... keep it closed, open to bikes only!"
She said if it weren't for the closures she wouldn't be in the park on her bike, it was the main draw for her trip.
Kevin Aitken and his family heard about the closure through word-of-mouth and are trying it out.
"The appeal is to be out in the mountains, be outside and have the road with no cars on it," Aitken said. "We like cycling, biking, outdoor activities of all kinds. Just with the nature of what's going on right now is a unique opportunity to have the park change their patterns."
This year it's the riders of all styles ... that's a pretty good testament to what making a safe space available can do...- Greg Glatz, cyclist
He said while it's nice during the pandemic to have this space and opportunity he doesn't think the closure can last forever — the roads will have to open to vehicles at some point, and that's OK.
Greg Glatz bikes year-round. Typically, he's bike-camping in the summer but with COVID-19 this year he's trying to stick closer to home.
He has ridden the Bow Valley Parkway, even before the road closure.
"This year it's the riders of all styles and bikes of all styles," he said. "That's a pretty good testament to what making a safe space available can do in terms of getting buy-in from a wide wide range of riders."
He hopes Parks Canada will use this time to collect data on how people are using these closures and maybe carry that knowledge into the years to come.
Eric Baron, visitor experience product development officer for Banff National Park, said visiting this summer is a different experience and these closed roads are part of it.
"It's a unique situation and it's been very popular," Baron said.
Plan ahead if you go
Because of how many people want to try out the ride, Baron said it's important to think ahead and be prepared.
The first step is checking the Parks Canada web page to get up-to-date information before heading out.
Baron recommends packing bear spray (and knowing how to use it), water and anything needed to be self sufficient.
Parking is another big issue as there's limited spaces near the closures. Baron recommends leaving the car in the town of Banff where there are big parking lots at the ready. From there, he said bikers can hit the Legacy Trail and connect with the Bow Valley Parkway.
Baron said the park already has excellent biking infrastructure, and while roads won't be closed forever there's a lot for these new users to check out.
"We have gotten lots of really positive feedback from visitors about the cycling opportunities that exist right now," he said. "We've also gotten some disappointed responses from people who would rather use a motor vehicle on the roadway — so at this time there are no official plans to close roads for cycling."