I have been wanting to try this trip for awhile and have now added it to my Family Friendly Bikepacking Trips List. It is a great low elevation trip that will be accessible to most. I wouldn’t say it is the easiest trip out there – Banff to Mount Rundle along Spray River West Trail/fire road fits that bill – but, it is a great little intro into some gentle singletrack bikepacking with kids. And it’s nice and short.
When to go
The Jewell Backcountry Campground is closed April 15 – June 15 for elk movement so while I would recommend it as a great low elevation shoulder season trip, spring or fall, it isn’t accessible until after June 15th.
Weather and trail conditions
Check Trailforks or local Facebook groups for trip reports on Stoney Trail as you might want to avoid the area if it has been overly wet. The access road along the powerline appeared to have a heavy clay component to the substrate which shouts ‘slippery when wet’ to me! There were lots of ruts in that road from run-off but I do not know how long they have been there. Also, one section of the road was rock hard but bumpy from horse prints that were made when it was soft earlier in the season.
That said, it did rain the evening we arrived and it turned out fine. We took two slightly different routes, and I believe our route back would be fine in most conditions, although the singletrack portion could get a bit tricky or you could do damage to the trail riding it when saturated. The lower route we took to the campground seemed to be the portion that would be most affected by wet conditions (as would the “middle route”). Trail conditions will be relatively apparent at the junction where you have to decide which route to take, anyway.
When we went
We did this trip the last weekend of summer, in mid/later-September. The weather was calm and dry but the sky was broody with clouds and there was a 30% chance of precipitation when we started out early afternoon. Just before we arrived it started to rain and then got super squally while we were setting up tents. The rain/wind pattern repeated several times throughout the evening but we awoke to clear blue skies. It never rained significantly enough that we got soaked, although we were all happy to have brought a tarp that fit over a picnic table. We managed to have a campfire and keep it going, too, so I suppose it never really rained that hard or continuous!
Where to start
Honestly, there are a lot of places to start to get to this little backcountry campground! This is a popular area for hiking and mountain biking so there are quite a few trails snaking along the hillside.
We started at Barrier Lake Trailhead but you could alternatively start Stoney Trail — the name of the trail that forms the bulk of our preferred route to the campground — at its northern (near Camp Chief Hector/Rafter Six Ranch) or southern (Troll Falls Parking Lot) entrances. I’ve heard mixed reports about these other entrances, eg. hard to find and/or overgrown. I hope to explore them more in the future and turn this into a multi-day family adventure, perhaps in 2020!
Or there’s a more technical trip in from Heart Creek Day Use Area via Quaite Valley and Jewell Pass (or just start at the informal parking area for Quaite Valley and skip the Transcanada Trail bit between Heart and Quaite). The latter is definitely not little kid family friendly (at least for us!) and involves some technical singletrack not appropriate for full size panniers or trailers — recce it on your mountain bike if you’re curious and be the judge for your set-up.
On Google Maps, if you search “Stoney Trail, Kananaskis”, at the appropriate zoom level you can see the entire Stoney Trail in a dashed green line. Stoney Trail is part powerline access road, part singletrack from what we can gather and forms the bulk of this trip’s route.
Barrier Lake (reservoir) start
We parked at Barrier Lake and went from there, which I highly recommend for families or your first time there. There is no mobile service in the parking lot, FYI, so if you are meeting people definitely coordinate ahead of time. (There is patchy service along the route, itself, but no service at the campground.)
Or should I say trails! Because there are a lot of them, as alluded to in the ‘Where to start’ section and not all can be seen on the older maps posted at major junctions along your way. Barrier Lake Dam parking lot is the trailhead for many routes. Starting and ending here, there are three possible variations for your travel, one I would not recommend with young kids or trailers as it has a small but very real section of singletrack that would be lovely to ride on a mountain bike but is otherwise challenging with gear. I’ll call these routes: high, middle, and low. They do have shared components, to be sure.
This is the route we took in. Proceed across the dam, when you get to your first junction, turn left (downhill) and stay low along the power line. The access road along the powerline is in fairly rough shape and sees more horse use, from what I could tell. There are large ruts in spots from water damage and lots of loose, bigger rocks. Parts are nice but there are several steeper up/down sections that will leave your kids walking both up and down if they’re at all tentative. I also think this part of the route will be very slippery when wet due to a high clay component in the road substrate.
When you get to the next junction, you can veer uphill or stay along the powerline. Stay low to access the singletrack, turn up into the trees to access the Middle Route (as I’ll call it). Staying low/going straight looks like the road continues.
At some point, a very, very long time ago, a section of this access road was washed out or eroded and has since turned into a singletrack mountain biking trail or hiking route. Great for either of those modes, but not awesome for families, panniers, or trailers. But as soon as this short section ends, the road resumes and then you meet up with Stoney Trail shortly thereafter, joining all three routes – high, middle, and low – once more before rolling the last stretch into Jewell Backcountry Campground.
So, if you make a mistake in your navigation of this route that is not on the posted maps, then either push on through or just backtrack ever so slightly to head up the “Connector Trail” along the Middle route (which connects you to the High route!).
FYI Strava dubs this Low route as Stoney Trail. Neither Google Maps nor the maps out there, posted at major junctions, say that. Ergo Strava is wrong here! Stoney Trail is the High route (described below) so far as I’m concerned.
Proceed as for the lower route, but turn up into the trees at the junction described above in order to connect with Stoney Trail. This will be a good climb for kids and there might be some walking, but it’s not crazy long.
The middle route is entirely on a power line access road. So, a rough gravel track, like a fire road. It’s in okay but not great shape until about 2/3 there. I suspect it gets worse in wetter conditions and/or with increased horse traffic.
Take this route if you are using a two-wheeled trailer, especially if you have a double.
Strava calls this route “Stoney Trail” and “Connector Trail”, FYI, but I haven’t seen these trails named like this anywhere else, yet.
This is the route that I recommend! And the route we took on our way back once we’d better figured out the lay of the land.
There is a section of singletrack and it’s perfectly lovely! We managed to ride it with panniers (not ideal or highly recommended but very doable) and our friends got their MEC/Croozer bike trailer through, too (theirs was full of gear and not a child and it was the single kid model; I don’t think a double trailer would easily fit on this trail). Any single-wheeled trailers are fine through here; my 5 year old rode on a Tout Terrain Streamliner trailing bike and we had a blast.
The Low and High routes were both 4.7 km, each. So about 40-45 minutes of slower kid/group riding time. We didn’t take tonnes of breaks as we were trying to push through because the weather was definitely threatening on the way out. I think it took closer to 2 hours on the way out and 1-1.5 hours on the way back, including breaks.
I would rate this as a fairly easy route for families but not the easiest. Easier because of distances and the singletrack on the High route is quite smooth with few roots. The access road along the powerline is not in great shape on the eastern section. It’s fine to get across the damn, but after there are some rough patches on the initial climb. Once you are on the portion of trail that all of the three routes I described share, the road is in good to very good condition.
The road section of the Middle and Low routes is not in great shape. Steeply undulating, as things can be along powerlines, with some good sized loose rocks, possible slippery clay, and some serious fissures/erosion from water run-off. The kids in our group rode some and walked some of the climbs/descents.
If you do the “High route”, it is a steady climb up from the parking lot (doable for many; young kids will be walking the odd section). Then the singletrack section will climb every so slightly for the first bit, then it is practically downhill for the rest of the ride into the campground (aside from two shorter, steeper climbs). So, doing the “High route” on the way back might leave your kid looking like this after the long steady climb towards the singletrack!
Jewell Bay Backcountry is lovely! It is an equestrian style campground but not as laissez-faire as Big Elbow is, for example. There is still a formal eating area with bear lockers, picnic tables, and a firepit with benches. The rocketship style outhouse is nearby here, too, as is hitching area for horses. Downhill from the eating area are 7 tenting sites, most of which are perched overlooking Jewell Bay and Barrier Lake — pretty spectacular!
I was surprised upon arrival to see this spelling for “Jewell”: Jewel! Everything else I have read so far, the booking system, other maps, etc. spells it with two l’s. Who knows! Perhaps it is named ‘Jewel’ because it’s such a gem of a spot, or there is a story or person behind the name ‘Jewell’. Please let me know in the comments if you know.
Etiquette and safety
We were unimpressed that others were eating at their tenting sites — FYI, not allowed! Please keep all food at the picnic table area or in the bear lockers and not at your tent, for your safety, for other campers’ sakes, and for future campers!
Yes, it was raining, but we offered you the sanctuary of our tarp (and you could have brought your own if you were shy to share space).
Always go with friends! So fun, for the kids and the adults.
Other trip ideas:
- Mount Rundle via Banff (coming soon!)
- Goat Creek-Mount Rundle-Banff-Canmore Loop
- Little Elbow to Big Elbow
- Little Elbow to Romulus
- Cascade River
- Spray Lake West
- Other ideas