We just got back from an epic group bikepacking overnighter up along the Little Elbow River to Mount Romulus Backcountry Campground in Elbow-Sheep Wildland Provincial Park, Alberta. Epic because somehow our ringleader managed to wrangle together ten awesome families, which included thirteen kids ranging from almost 8 months old to almost 14 years old!
It’s a gem of a ride up Little Elbow Trail, which is a doubletrack, car free (fire?) road in mostly excellent shape the entire way, so great for kids and group rides or just getting out. After a serious bout of forest fire smoke in Calgary, the winds picked up as we drove out to the trailhead and a new weather system started to blow in, taking the smoke away which was so nice because I was getting a bit tired of having both a cold and living in a dry campfire.
We were blessed with good natured kids: I am very relieved that the now three year old did not have any major meltdowns; and, I am super proud that my newly minted six year old managed to ride most of the route and hike-a-biked the rest. Poor Dad didn’t get to try out the new fork-mount drag system he and his dad had installed on the Haul-a-Day. Oh well, next time.
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). Heck, in 2014 this area received 40 cm or so at the time of year we did this trip! It’s the Rockies, you have got to expect weather changes.
We did this trip the weekend after Labour Day as a Back to School Special and had sun for the ride, in and out. We did get some cloud cover build up that reduced the heat a bit for us on the way in and turned to sprinkles of rain in the evening. We got real rain for a few hours at night, around 20-00h30. It got a bit chillier after the rain as the skies cleared off, but it meant that there was some beautiful moonlit shadows on our tent and I doubt it was colder than 5C. I was back to shorts again for the ride out (although had a very fashionable sock/Keen sandal combo to keep my toes warm).
All this to say that you might have a great ride in May, it would be excellent most months of June, July, and August, and I think most Septembers would be spectacular. Really just depends on the year for anything either side of June to early September!
Where to start
The trailhead begins at the end (western edge) of Little Elbow Campground but there is no parking for non-campers at this end of the campground, so you’ll actually start riding from where most of the parking is located on the eastern edge of the campground. From parking to trailhead is about another 1.8 km (and it is mostly uphill, albeit gentle). [See map, below.]
Once you have ridden through the Little Elbow Campground and reached the actual trailhead, you will be following the Little Elbow road. I would call the approximately first half of the trail – campground to bridge on the Little Elbow River – mostly beginner and relatively flat to gently undulating. There were two steeper hills that our six year old had to walk on the return trip, there’s a creek crossing (6 year old balked on the way out; rode it on the way back), and at the onset of our trip, Saturday, the trail was quite dry and silty which was a little wobbly if you hit a super fluffy patch (after rain Saturday evening, it was compact and smooooooth). All this said, totally rideable even with our loaded longtail cargo bikes or a Chariot. In fact, an out-and-back on this section would make a great family day trip!
After the bridge is the gnarliest hill of the entire trip. It is steep and rough but I made it up with the toddler and some gear on the Edgerunner, running Big Ben tires. That said, on the way back down, I was a bit baffled that I made it up, ha! The trail after this point is undulating with almost as much climbing as descending and a couple of patches of cruise-y goodness through the spruce/pine forest and along the river. There are one or two more good climbs (and lovely descents) in this section. But, I rode them all. The kids did a lot of walking through this half of the trip, though, so I would often ride to the top of the hill and then the toddler and I would walk back down and help our eldest push her bike up. This was good as it gave the toddler at chance to stretch her legs.
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 truck tire track through each old washed out area that is compact enough to ride over, though.
It is 11.9 km from the start of Little Elbow Trail at the westernmost edge of the Little Elbow Campground all the way to Mount Romulus Backcountry Campground. Really, tack on another 1.8 km to that to get to the trailhead from the parking area, which is located at the easternmost edge of Little Elbow Campground. If you just want to go to the bridge, it is less than 6 km from the trailhead.
This trip can also be completed as a loop along with Tombstone and/or Big Elbow Backcountry Campgrounds, called the Elbow Loop, using the Little Elbow and Big Elbow Trails.
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.
This campground was destroyed in the 2013 floods and it was just redone! After a summer of eschewing hot, stinky, dirty, and overused outhouses, my kids were relieved that the two barrel toilets here were clean and well lit. It’s the little things… The campground is great. They did a wonderful job rebuilding it.
The hiker campground itself is well-marked at the Little Elbow Trail (unlike the tiny national park signs that you could easily ride past) – you can’t miss it. There is a spur road that runs the entire length of the campground (you can see it on Google Maps). There is an outhouse and some tenting sites, then another path leading to more tenting sites. Then another outhouse. Then you head down the road some more to the river, where you’ll find a couple of large picnic table areas and the bear/animal lockers. There is a large fire pit in one of the picnicking areas (currently there is a fire ban in effect, though).
There are ten tent pads in all, with two very large ones (easily enough room on them for two backcountry sized tents).
The entire campground is located in a spruce/pine forest, so it felt quite sheltered. There are great views from the picnicking areas, especially when you are getting water down at the river’s edge.
Fees at the time of writing are $12/adult/night, plus reservation fee (kids were free).
My understanding is that there is also an equestrian campground a little bit further down the Little Elbow Trail, FYI.
Remus & Romulus! All any of us could remember is that Remus and Romulus were brothers and they founded Rome and that there was more to the story than that (but no one could remember specifics)! So, I thought that I would include a Cliff’s Notes version here (or head straight to Wikipedia):
Remus and Romulus were twin boys born to a virgin impregnated by the Roman god, Mars. They were perceived as a threat to the current nobility, so said nobility abandoned them to die. Didn’t work. The god Tiberinus saved them. They nursed from a wolf to survive and were ultimately adopted by a shepherd. They grew up not knowing their true, noble identity. But, they were born leaders and developed a following when they were older. Eventually, it was realized who they were and they helped their grandfather become king again. After that, they set out to found their own city. They couldn’t agree on a spot, they asked the gods for help, still didn’t work and Remus was killed (by his brother or another, it’s disputed). Romulus went on to establish Rome and rule it for many years.
The mountain towering over the campground is part of Mount Romulus (I think), but the tallest part (2 832 m) of Romulus is a bit further set back (as seen in Google Maps or in the Gem Trek map for the area). To the right (E/NE) is Mount Remus (2 688 m). So, when you look up at these mountains, it kind of looks like three peaks, but the middle and left (W/SW) peaks are actually one mountain.
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 large group with about a dozen children, a stop for lunch, and some hike-a-bike in the second half, this trip took us around 3 1/2 hours. No one knows our exact departure time, ha, although we are pretty sure we finally rolled out around 12h30/13h, but I did check the clock when we were almost done setting up camp and it was 16h30. Really, this trail could take you anywhere from 1 hour to 5 hours, depending on your ability, fitness, load, and whether or not you are traveling as a large group, with or without kids.
There was one kid and one adult on single speeds. My kid would have looked at me with daggers in her eyes had she been on her single speed. The adult seemed to have no trouble!
We rode our longtails: Xtracycle Edgerunner 24D 2014 and 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 Edgerunner on a cushion with the Hooptie.
Oh, and really, this trip wasn’t that challenging for the kids because they all ripped around the campground for 2-3 hours after dinner, playing, running, and standing. Me, I was eating, drinking, and sitting!