Home > Travel with Bikes > Bikepacking: Little Elbow to Big Elbow

 

This June we rolled the dice twice and went bike camping. It had felt like a long winter and I had a new bike to try under load so I was itching to get rolling. We happened to go to the same campground twice because that is just how it worked out with our style of last minute bookings. For me, at this stage it is mostly about getting out, more so than absolutely having to explore new areas or check an item off my list.

Elbow Sheep

I joke that we made a gamble to plan an overnight trip with kids in the backcountry because June is otherwise dubbed as “Monsoon June” around these parts! While we do not usually get a lot of rain in our neck-of-the-woods, June is the exception to the rule and it can often be wet.

Take 1: We kept driving towards ominous looking clouds as we approached the trailhead parking lot for our designated meeting time. We got ready. Our friends were late and it absolutely poured! They arrived and it was still raining cats-and-dogs. They got ready slowly (on purpose) and by the time everyone was all set to go, physically and mentally (because there’s nothing quite like psyching yourself up for taking off in the midst of a downpour with young kids, one of whom is not riding to keep warm), the clouds parted and we had a lovely sunny, late afternoon ride into Big Elbow Backcountry.

Big Elbow Trail

Take 2: Fast forward two weeks and while the forecast seemed ominous yet again, the clouds appeared less certain of their fate. So we went for it and had to stop and adjust layers several times on the way in, but mostly lucked out with sun and the odd teensy-weensy sun shower. Until the last kilometre or two, that is, at which point it absolutely poured! And hailed!!! It let up enough for us to set up camp, then it rained some more while we ate dinner. We were all about to retire to our tents (and I was thanking my lucky stars I had a pack of playing cards and a copy of Harry Potter #1) when the rain decided to decease and we managed to even dry out a bit of stuff by the fire (which still smells of smoke, BTW), until it started to gently rain again, at which point it was a more reasonable hour to retire to the tent. It rained off-and-on until morning, when we woke up to cool sunshine and a sunny ride back.

family bikepacking

So, we won the weather gamble both times, in effect, because while the second trip was pretty epic for an hour or so there — hustling freezing cold kids into camp, setting up, and evaluating the intense weather situation — we did it and everyone turned to smiles and giggles and all was well. It was immensely satisfying and confidence-boosting to get over that bad-weather hurdle (which we don’t often get to jump over in sunny Alberta).

 

When to go

You can only access this trailhead between May 15th and December 1st, otherwise the winter gate on Highway 66 is closed. The winter gate is located just west of the Powderface Parking Lot (but east of Beaver Flats Campground). Your limiting factor in May would be snowpack; in October/November, it would really just be a matter of seasonal weather (including snow). It’s the Rockies, you have got to expect weather changes; the second time we did this trip we were rained and hailed on for the last few kilometres and then it rained for a good portion of the evening.

Big Elbow campground

If you plan to ride the entire Elbow Loop, you may have to ford some creeks in the spring/fall and snow at the pass will be your limiting factor. Ask around before you go. We assumed snow at the pass and it was actually snow-free this year at the time of our first trip, in spite of our epic snow year. Things just melted fast this year, it seems.

 

Where to start

This route begins at the pink suspension bridge by the Little Elbow Campground which is easily accessed by car. Note that there is no cell service in the parking area so it’s good to let everyone in your group know so that there is no expectation that a last minute text or call can be made to change meeting times or plans, etc. [See map, below.]

pink suspension bridge little elbow campground

 

The trail

It is quite a lovely ride up Big Elbow Trail, which is a doubletrack, car free gravel fire road (aside from the odd Alberta Parks truck). There was significant damage to this trail in 2013 so there are large patches of rubbly river rock and one whole section that used to run beside the Elbow River, just before the campground, has been rebuilt further into the trees. We call this section the “Camel Humps” — you’ll know why if you ride it (and you’ll also know that you are quite close to the campground once through this section). [This section is labelled on the map below as Google Maps hasn’t corrected the trail alignment yet.] The parts of Big Elbow Trail that are just covered in river rock now have had some rehabilitation, plus they have been packed down over a few years of snow and travel. There is generally one good single track through the looser sections. My 3″ WTB Rangers floated over the rougher sections; my husband and daughter on their 1.75″ Kenda slightly knobby tires were definitely bounced around a lot more, but it was doable.

kananaskis

The trail is predominantly up on the way in, but is really quite a gradual climb, overall. You get the two steeper/longer climbs out of the way pretty quickly, which is nice when the kids’ legs and attitudes are fresh. Then there are a few other climbs that young kids may walk, too.

big elbow backcountry

Lastly, there are these two or three up/downs in the woods less than a kilometre before the campground that we have dubbed the “Camel Humps”. This is the part of the trail that used to run alongside the river but was washed out in 2013 so they have been rebuilt in the adjacent stand of timber. The substrate is coarse and they are fairly steep ups/downs, but short:

big elbow trail

After this section, you know you are very close to the campground. The sign to the campground is obvious but not in-your-face. It’s on you left and looks like this.

It is about 9 km from the parking lot of the Little Elbow Campground Day Use Area parking lot, then over the pink suspension bridge, up Big Elbow Trail all the way to Big Elbow Backcountry Campground. With a smaller group the first time, it took us less than two hours (I believe it was 1 hour 45 mins) to get in to the campground; the second time it was closer to 3 hours, but we were a bigger group. Riding out, it took about an hour and a half the first time and closer to an hour the second time. (Passengers were 18 months and 3.5 years old. Younger riders for 6, 7, and 10.) [*These ride times are for families with young children! There was walking bikes up hills, slower riding, candy bribes, laughing and chatting, and enjoying the journey to get there.]

big elbow

family bikepacking

I really like this ride although it’s a toss up between which is prettier, here or the route into Mount Romulus Backcountry (which is the first campground counterclockwise to Big Elbow on the Elbow Loop). We aren’t so confident of our small but mighty Haul-a-Day’s ability to get through the section of the Elbow Loop between Big Elbow and Romulus, but hope to complete the loop some day! *Note: Tombstone Backcountry Campground, located between Big Elbow and Mount Romulus Backcountry Campgrounds is currently closed and being redone. It is my understanding that Big Elbow is slated for renovation next, i.e. perhaps 2019, FYI.

Elbow river

If you look closely on Google Maps satellite view, you can see areas of grey where drainages were washed out in the 2013 flood. These have all been repaired now and the entire route is rideable because of the work. Some of the kids had trouble riding over a few of these sections as the rock is generally larger rubble. There tends to be a singletrack through each old washed out area that is compact enough to ride over, though.

Elbow Sheep Wildland

This trip can also be completed as a loop along with Tombstone and/or Mount Romulus Backcountry Campgrounds, called the Elbow Loop, using the Little Elbow and Big Elbow Trails. *Please note Tombstone is currently closed (2018) and being redone.

If you are looking for a paper map of this ride (or the loop mentioned), you want Gem Trek’s “Bragg Creek & Sheep Valley: Kananaskis Country” map. The entire Elbow Loop is on the back inset of this map.

 

The campground

This campground is so out of date yet awesome. It is currently completely not up to modern standards but it is so rad with kids because everything is so close together. It is one of those old school campgrounds whereby you eat and sleep in the same spot! There are shitters close by (one pit toilet and one plastic porta-potty) as well as metal bear lockers. There are picnic tables scattered in the woods on either side of the spur trail that connects the campground to Big Elbow Trail.

You are allowed two tents per reservation/tenting pad, but because there are no actual tenting pads, you don’t have to worry about trying to fit them all in one spot.

There was fresh firewood and a nice sharp axe, something we really appreciated on our second trip (the wet one!).

The kids were easy to supervise on both trips, with good sight lines and because everything was so close together. It is always important to be vigilant about keeping your eating area clean from food and garbage, especially in a campground with this style of setup.

big elbow campground

 

Reflections

I really enjoyed this trip, both times. It is super kid-friendly (I think even more so than going the other direction on the Elbow Loop into Mount Romulus) and would highly recommend it.

I rode my Surly Troll. My husband rode our longtail, a 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.

end of a journey

My friend, Doug, also wrote about our first trip into Big Elbow and has lots of great pictures to share, check it out.

Kananaskis

family bike camping

 

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 packing list.

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