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Driving the Highwood Pass Loop – One of the Best Drives in Canada

The Highwood Pass Loop is one of the most varied and scenic one day drives in Canada. It can easily be done as a day trip from Calgary, Canmore or Banff and it doesn’t matter what direction you drive it. I think it’ one of the best drives in Canada.

Yesterday I did the drive starting from the east near Longview, a small community an hour’s drive southwest of Calgary. I was meeting a group at 8 AM at the junction of Highway 541 and Highway 22 – also called the Cowboy Trail. Before I even got to the rendezvous point, I had to pull over for pictures of the sunrise. In every direction I looked, it was drop-dead gorgeous. What a treat it is to actually be catching the sunrise again – easier now that it’s at about 8 AM.

"Sunrise in Millarville on the way to Kanana"

Sunrise in Longview on the way to Kananaskis Country

"Oil well at sunrise along the Cowboy Highway"

Oil well at sunrise along the Cowboy Trail

"Looking across the fields to the mountains in Kananaskis Country"

Looking across the fields to the mountains in Kananaskis Country

From Longview, which you’ll find big ranches and some producing oil wells, one heads east on Highway 541 – which upon entering Kananaskis Country becomes Highway 40. Our group was doing a photography tour – just for the fun of it – so the plan was to stop along the way where photographic opportunities presented themselves.

Once we were in Kananaskis Country, fences disappeared so it was easy to walk up the hills for the views – and some gnarly old wind-blown trees.

"Mountain scene within minutes of entering Kananaskis Country from the Millarville side"

Mountain scene within minutes of entering Kananaskis Country from the Longview side

"A view of Highway 541"

A view of Highway 541

With numerous picnic stops along the road, it’s also easy to find trails to the river – where you see the area from a very different perspective.

"Checking out the Highwood River after the flood of 2013"

Checking out the Highwood River after the flood of 2013

"The view up to the mountains from a picnic area on the east side of Highwood Pass"

The view up to the mountains from a picnic area on the east side of Highwood Pass

Few cars were driving the road yesterday, though groups of motorcyclists were out enjoying the good weather. The road to Highwood Pass was closed last year, and though much of the road has been fixed, there is still one bridge washed out where you must do a short detour.

"Bridge washed out from last year's floods along Highway 40"

Bridge washed out from last year’s floods along Highway 40

My favourite section of the drive is the fifteen kilometers on either side of Highwood Pass. Wildly folded mountain faces are visible and in the right light, they are very beautiful, in an austere kind of way. There are numerous hiking trails accessed from the highway including the popular five kilometer Ptarmigan Cirque trail. It starts from the parking lot at the summit of the pass. There is also plenty to offer the adventurous backpacker with many choices of off-trail routes that can last for days. This though is prime grizzly country so you do have to go very prepared. About six weeks ago a hiker was killed when he got between a grizzly and her cub.

"Heading up towards Highwood Pass"

Heading up towards Highwood Pass

From Highwood Pass it’s a steep descent to Kananaskis Country. Elbow Lake is one of the short hikes you can do from this side of the pass.

"Heading down the pass towards the Trans-Canada Highway"

Heading down the pass towards the Trans-Canada Highway

The road generally flattens once you reach the Kananaskis Valley. From the bottom of the pass by the winter gates it’s about 50 scenic kilometers of driving to reach the Trans-Canada Highway. At that intersection you can choose to go west to Canmore and Banff or east to return to Calgary.

Extensive hiking, an RV park, campgrounds and the Nakiska Ski Resort are all located along this section of road. Services though are minimal with only one gas station. There is a Delta Hotel at the ski resort so you can nip in there for some food, though your best bet is to pack a picnic lunch and enjoy it at one of the scenic picnic areas in the Highwood Pass area.

"At the bottom of the road to Highwood Pass near the winter gates"

At the bottom of the road to Highwood Pass near the winter gates

Allow a minimum of four hours to do the drive from Calgary, Canmore or Banff.

The road to the Highwood Pass, the highest paved road in Canada, topping out at 2,206 metres, is only open seasonally. It is closed from December 1st until June 15th to protect the bighorn sheep. Do watch out for them on your drive.

The climb up and over Highwood Pass is also a great one for cyclists, especially before June 15th when you have the road to yourself.

"Cyclists have the road to themselves before June 15th"

Cyclists have the road to themselves before June 15th

Have you ever done the drive up and over Highwood Pass?

Driving the Highwood Pass Loop - One of the Best Drives in Canada

Leigh McAdam

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta
HikeBikeTravel
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Author Leigh

Avid world traveler. Craves adventure - & the odd wildly epic day. Gardener. Reader. Wine lover. Next big project - a book on 100 Canadian outdoor adventures.

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