Cycling Trail in Canadian Rockies Is a Brilliant Idea, So Why the Big Fuss?

©. K Martinko -- The Icefields Parkway is one of the most stunning routes in the world. Too bad it can only be enjoyed safely by car, unless a proposed trail is successful.

A proposed trail linking Banff and Jasper is being criticized for potential environmental damage. Never mind the thousands of cars that travel the same route each day.

Parks Canada has come up with a fantastic idea that will make every cyclist’s heart leap for joy. It has proposed a paved cycling trail that would follow the route of the spectacular Icefields Parkway linking Jasper National Park in the north to Lake Louise and Banff in the south. Such a trail would allow cyclists (and hikers) to get off the shoulder of a very busy highway, full of gawking tourists cruising in oversized RVs, and into a safer space of their own.

The proposed cycling trail is three meters (10 ft.) wide and would follow the route of the Parkway, set back about 20-30 meters (65 to 100 ft.) from the highway itself, buffered by trees. It’s said that 99.99 percent of Jasper National Park would be unaffected by the trail. As you can see in the diagram below, there’s not much deviation from the highway.

proposed bike trail

© Parks Canada

Alas, some people strongly oppose the creation of such a trail. Alison Ronson of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society worries that a trail would be disruptive to sensitive habitat and wildlife populations, and that it could lead to unpleasant run-ins with grizzly bears – “meals on wheels,” her organization has called it. She questions Parks Canada’s idea that the trail will be used by young families pushing strollers, rollerbladers, and recent immigrants, telling CBC radio host Anna-Maria Tremonti today, “The reality is that the mountainous environment is not conducive to that kind of activity.”

I couldn’t disagree more. Just because Ronson may not be comfortable navigating hilly terrain does not mean other people feel the same. I traveled through the Canadian Rockies last summer with three young children in tow, including a baby. I hauled those kids up Banff’s Sulphur Mountain on foot – a three-hour, 5.5-kilometer hike uphill. If they can handle that, they can certainly handle a paved hiking trail.

Ronson’s concerns about surprise grizzly encounters are fair, but lose their potency when compared to the dangers posed by vehicles traveling at highway speeds. Personally, I’d rather meet a grizzly head-on than a barreling RV. Her solution? Widen the shoulder – but that hardly provides the kind of protection that cyclists need and deserve. (One can assume that Ronson does not often cycle alongside busy highways, because it’s a terrifying experience and one that even avid cyclists, like Edmund Aunger, urge people to avoid at all costs.)

What’s puzzling is that opposition to this trail seems rooted in the idea that it’s disruptive to nature, and yet nobody is questioning the damage caused by the 3,200+ vehicles driving along the Parkway every day in the summer.

It seems a no-brainer to improve transportation infrastructure for non-motorized travelers, particularly in national parks where getting out of vehicles, keeping the air clean, and interacting with nature and wildlife as gently as possible should be the ultimate goal. A bike path has potential to reduce the number of cars traveling through the park, because many hikers and cyclists whose dream is to visit the Icefields Parkway would now have a way to do so safely, which currently does not exist.

Athabasca Glacier parking lot

© K Martinko -- Parking lot at the Athabasca Glacier, early in the morning. It had filled up significantly by the time I left. The amount of car traffic is overwhelming.

If park preservation is supposedly a top priority, here’s a radical suggestion: Take motorized vehicles off the Icefields Parkway entirely and open it up to travelers generating their own power (or public transportation that limits numbers of travelers). The sensitive wildlife habitats would certainly be thankful for that.

In the meantime, let’s stop punishing travelers who do not wish to conform to the gas-guzzling status quo and have every right to experience Canada’s mountain beauty without polluting it in the process.