I have been wanting to do this loop for ages and it all came together recently!
It is tricky to find almost traffic-free routes where we live that have distances and terrain that are kid-friendly, not to mention a campground at a decent distance, too. This is a trait that I idealize Europe for. However, the Goat Creek Loop ticks all of those boxes for our family and it’s only an hour and a half by car to the trailhead for us!
So, when my friend texted me the other weekend while we were still in Québec and I knew that we would have been home for only four days before making the turnaround to do this trip, I said ‘yes!’. Who wouldn’t want to spend the weekend with these lovely folk?
This trip can be done in a couple of ways, I will write about our journey which started at the Goat Creek Trailhead all the way until it forks into Spray River West/East at which point we went east across the bridge and camped at Banff National Park’s Mount Rundle Backcountry Campground (Sp6). The next day we continued along this trail into the town of Banff, grabbed some food and got ready for the faster ride back along the Legacy Trail to Canmore. We had a car shuttle from Quarry Lake area in Canmore back up to the trailhead to grab our two cars.
When to go
Goat Creek and Spray West/East are in a steeper valley so they are not usually snow free and dry until some time in late May/early June, depending on the year. (It is a groomed cross-country skiing/fat bike trail in the winter and you can winter camp at Sp6.)
We did this trip in mid-July and had gorgeous sun for the ride, in and out. It had stormed pretty fiercely the previous night with rain and big winds, so the trail was not dusty and there were some puddles (the first few which were quite slick due to wet clay soils) but it was otherwise quite well drained. There was one big blow down that we had to hoist our bikes over, but some lovely folk happened by and helped us out so it went quickly. The temps cooled off over night, as they tend to in the mountains, and I was happy to have wool socks and my thin down puffy for the morning coffee.
The peak season for this ride is July-September.
Where to start
We chose to ride this trail clockwise, starting at the Goat Creek Trailhead above Canmore. You can park overnight here. [See map, below.]
While the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route starts at the Spray West Trailhead at the Banff Springs Hotel and goes up the valley counterclockwise, if you want the most positive elevation profile, do what we did by starting in Goat Creek and setting up a shuttle such that you don’t have to ride up the busy and dusty Smith Dorrien (Route 742) from Canmore back to the Goat Creek Trailhead.
But, if a shuttle seems improbable and you’re riding as a family, I would consider having the stronger rider take the car to the valley bottom and ride back up to the trail head and meet you en route. Or, do the entire loop clockwise (but, to be honest, I don’t think my almost 7 year old would be that happy doing that).
*Not all of the trails are recognized by Google Maps so I did have to draw in several lines (light blue).
Do not be fooled by the easygoing elevation profile that Google yields. Yes, there is a lot of overall descending, but there are still some good climbs to be had on the Goat Creek Trail! Be a “pess-optimist” and tell yourself that the trail is not downhill the whole way so that you can reap the satisfaction later of it having not been harder than you thought it would be. If you think it’s going to be an easy coast down hill, think again.
The Trailforks App has a better elevation profile for Goat Creek and actually has one for the whole Spray River Loop (Google does not). This holds true for the Legacy Trail; it is definitely a drop in elevation from Banff to Canmore but there is still a good climb or two. Thankfully there is usually a tailwind going this way, too. Here is a sample of the elevation profile for the Goat Creek Trail only (starting at Goat Creek Trailhead above Canmore):
When you first start down Goat Creek, it is a bit rough with scattered washouts for the first while. Then those washouts get more dispersed. Here is an example:
Otherwise, the Goat Creek and Spray River Trails are mostly just old dirt roads and quite chill riding. If you are using narrower or slicker city tires, you may choose to walk certain sections (washout, climbs, or descents). We had a range of narrower city tires to my 3″ WTB Rangers. I think mine were the best suited and most comfortable, but everyone else made it work. (Mine were also the slowest on the return trip via the Legacy Trail; I put extra air in my tires to help them roll a bit faster.)
There are a couple of kilometres on small, paved roads around the Town of Banff, the most challenging one was riding up from Bow Falls to connect back to the bike trail that took us over the pedestrian bridge. There was no shoulder:
Otherwise, the route is completely car free. Amazing! And, the Legacy Trail is, of course, entirely paved:
The backcountry portion of this route sustained flood damage in 2013 and while the bridges have been repaired, there is still washout to contend with that has not been (fully) fixed. This is especially true on the Alberta Parks side of the trail (i.e. the beginning if you start at the Goat Creek Trailhead). You can get a double Chariot through these sections slowly and in spots walking — not riding — might be best. (The Chariot on our trip was full of gear and not a kid; the toddler was in a Yepp Maxi on the back of the towing bike.) Kids in particular might walk these rougher rubbly sections, like this:
It is almost 14 km to the campground from the Goat Creek Trailhead (took us a slow 3 hours). Then another 7-8 km from the campground to Wild Flour/Downtown Banff area (took us an hour). From there, it is about 27 km to Quarry Lake in Canmore (took us about 2 hours), where you should go have a swim to cool off! [All times include real breaks and mini-candy breaks, diaper changes, etc. …these are definitely kid-paced travel times.]
While my almost 7 year old daughter could have ridden the Legacy Trail, it probably would have taken longer and we wanted to try out our new FollowMe Tandem, so we connected her bike in Banff and rode together back to Canmore. This setup worked really well.
If you are looking for a paper map of this ride you could use the 1:50000 NRCan Topographic Map Banff 82-0/4.
For adults, this is not a technical trail other than the odd washout. Trailforks rates it as a “Green” and I would agree. However, keep in mind that riding a loaded bike makes everything a little more challenging.
For kids, my 6.75 year old rode the whole trail. There was definitely some walking up hills; I usually ride ahead, ditch my bike, and run down to hang out with her while we walk back uphill together. We even tried pushing her once (that was hard… for me!):
All in all, I’d say this is an intermediate ride for younger kids.
Mount Rundle Backcountry Campground (Sp6) sustained damage in the 2013 floods and has not been repaired. It is in disrepair, generally speaking. My kids could watch my pee through a major hole in one of the outhouses (which has another tripping hazard hole right before it):
There are no tenting pads, per se, only numbered spots — which is typical of Parks Canada backcountry campgrounds in this region — most of which have a flatter spot and a couple of which are totally marginal. One spot is filled with rubble from the flood, and another spot I could not figure out where a tent would go. There are 10 spots open for reservation and 10 spots on site, but I would argue at bare minimum only 8 are usable. On our way out the next day, we saw this graffiti on one sign:
Suffice to say, I am not the only one with a slightly sour opinion of the campground’s conditions. It is sad that so little money seems to be available for infrastructure maintenance (and please feel free to let me know in the comments section what I can do about this… surveys available… who to write, etc.) But, my happiness that this campground exists, making this loop doable (with kids) as an overnighter, is undeniable!
Upon arrival at the campground I noticed that there were horsetails everywhere, often an indicator plant of moisture which also meant… mosquitoes! Thankfully there was reprieve from the little bloodsuckers down at the river’s edge, which was perfectly lovely and the mozzies were slow to move in the cooler morning temps. We used this Picaradin-based bug spray with some success.
The bear hangs are functional though, which is helpful.
If you do the loop in the same direction as us, when you are riding down Goat Creek Trail you will eventually hit an open area with a big infoboard — this is the start of the Spray Loop. You could keep riding straight/left and you would end up at the Banff Springs Hotel (the start of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route) or you can go right over the bridge which takes you directly to the campground. There is no big “welcome!” sign for the campground, but after a few hundred metres, you will notice national park signs on your right indicating first the sleeping are, then the eating/bear hang area. If you keep riding down this trail, it will take you to a golf course near Bow Falls, on the edge of the Town of Banff.
Fees at the time of writing are $9.80/person for a backcountry permit, plus $11.70 reservation fee.
This is a wonderful trip. Challenging for families, but doable: all Type I fun for adults with the right balance of Type II “character-building” fun for kiddos (and adults, too, depending on how your kids handle the Type II)! As a medium-sized group with lots of little stops and one longer stop on the bigger rides, it took us 3.25 hours to get from Goat Creek Trailhead to Sp6, one hour from Sp6 to Wildflour Café in Banff, and then about 2 hours to go from Banff to the far side of Quarry Lake in Canmore.
I rode my Surly Troll with a FollowMe Tandem on the back and my husband rode our Bike Friday Haul-a-Day. Our 6 year old was on her 8-speed Frog 55; our 3 year old was on the back of the Haul-a-Day on a cushion with the WhoopieDeux.
Check out some other kid-friendly bikepacking ideas in the Calgary area here.
Other family-friendly bikepacking ideas
I have written a wish list of what seem like kid-friendly trips in the area and am filling in the details as we go, but here are a few other ideas for you to mull over of full trip reports:
And here is our family packing list for trips like this.
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