Elbow Loop is an impressive bike ride around the base of four prominent Kananaskis, Alberta mountains.
Update: The Elbow Loop was significantly impacted by June 2013 floods. Check with Parks for trail conditions prior to proceeding.
The Elbow Loop is a classic, 43 kilometer (27 mile) mountain bike ride featured in ‘Backcountry Biking in the Canadian Rockies’ authored by Doug Eastcott and published by Rocky Mountain Books.
The loop circuit is rated as difficult/moderate. The ride circles four major mountains, Glasgow, Cornwall, Outlaw and Banded Peak. In past seasons there has been the opportunity to stand on the summit of each of them.
This mountain group is distinctive and clearly visible from Calgary, 70 + kilometers (44 miles) to the east.
The Elbow Loop – Day 1
The drive from Calgary is west on the TransCanada Highway, south on Hwy 22 to Bragg Creek, and west again on Hwy 22X/66 into Kananaskis Country. Parking is near the pink bridge. At the trail-head, weather is cool and damp but the choice is to go. Crossing the Little Elbow River on the pink suspension bridge leads to a labyrinth of trail where a trail map can be very helpful.
About a kilometer in, there is a sign which says the trip is 38 kilometres (24 miles). A previous disgruntled customer has used magic marker to write 45 over 38. At the bottom of the sign is a question, 'Are you ready for this trip?' Although the mental response is an enthusiastic and motivational 'Yes', it is initially unknown the correct answer is 'No'.
Good time is made cycling on good road. Views are mystical with surrounding mountains nearly hidden by static, low-level cloud. There is a wooden platform bridge over South Glasgow Creek which, interestingly enough, is the access for the long, arduous trek to the summit of Mount Cornwall, topped many times over many years. The next creek crossing is over Cornwall Creek which is not the access to Mount Cornwall, but instead leads to a large blind canyon. There is a spectacular waterfall on the Cornwall Creek route which could be a fabulous winter ice climb if access was shorter.
Cycling past Big Elbow Campground without stopping will allow contingency time for the more challenging trail ahead. There is always the possibility of experiencing a wildlife encounter in the wilderness. This possibility is exacerbated when cycling at higher speed. On a very quiet stretch of flat, brush-lined trail, from about 2 feet away, a large and well hidden grouse takes flight into the front of the bicycle, then my chest and face, before getting free and clear after delivering a serious flapping. These birds are big, noisy and explosive when they launch at close range. Scared the living *&$# out of me!
The road between Big Elbow Campground and the trail-head for Banded Peak is more difficult. Rugged, rock strewn road combined with significant inclination dictates walking several of the hills. At a log bench a stop to rest provides the opportunity to enjoy the awesome view of Cougar Mountain and the Elbow River deep in the valley below.
Shortly afterwards, arrival occurs at the access trail to the summit of Banded Peak. In the final training hike for the 2003 hike across the Grand Canyon, this junction was the exit after ascending and traversing all four summits of Glasgow, Cornwall, Outlaw and Banded Peak on the same day. That hike/scramble of 40 kilometers (25 miles) with approximately 8,000 vertical feet (2,438 meters) of elevation, between sunrise and past sunset in August, 2003, will always be classified as an indelibly memorable character builder.
Single track continues towards Tombstone Campground. The trial is narrow and rugged with embedded rock overlaid with loose stone. Mountain biking on this terrain is clearly above a novice skill-set. Additionally, it is a perpetual roller coaster. At a rest stop on a rare flat stretch, a stop is made specifically to haul out the Gem Trek map to yell at it. NOW, it is noticed the contour interval is 100 meters. This explains why the trail appears more level on the map.
On the final major drop down to the south fork of the Elbow River this location is tantalizingly close to the junction at Tombstone Campground where the return will begin on the other side of the loop. Actually, a turn at a junction has been missed and I am lost.
At the river, there a problem. Unable to locate a safe crossing over the fast-running water the only sensible decision is to return on the same 20 KM (12 ½ miles) route taken in. Back on the rugged roller-coaster, clouds are finally beginning to lift and the day is getting brighter.
Then something wonderful happens. More of the trail is being ridden at much better speed with fewer walking sections. The line is better and the right gear choices to trail grades are reactive and routinely correct. Body weight is shifting from side to side and back and forth on the saddle to stabilize the bike on inclines and declines. The ability to rapidly counter the effect of a rock kicking the front or rear wheel abruptly sideways is improving. Pedal positions are timed to avoid left or right impact with trail obstacles. This is just too much fun.
The return to Calgary boasts only one half of the loop completed.
The Elbow Loop - The following weekend - Day 2
Big sky is saturated with high cirrus cloud, tinged pink and under-laid with moody cumulus that will soon burn off in the heat of the day. Heading south on Hwy 22, the sunrise is spectacular.
The ride begins on the other side of the loop, past Elbow Campground and trail-heads for Nihahi Ridge and Nihahi Creek. Trail is level, air is comfortably cool in a self-generated breeze and the sun is just beginning to rise over adjacent mountains.
Past the blue bridge, the road retains its width but deteriorates in quality. A prominent incline is challenging on the way to Romulus Campground, wedged between mountains Glasgow, Cornwall, Romulus and Remus, near the 12 KM (7½ mile mark).
Pressing on through the next 10 KM (6¼ miles) to Tombstone Campground, the road is rough and consistently uphill. The day is warming into the mid 30s C under glaring sun. At the junction to Tombstone Lakes a sign says 'no mountain bikes'. This trail to the lakes is deeply rutted and narrow so riding the bike is not a choice and a reasonable compromise seems to be walking the bike.
Walking the bike for the entire 3 KM (1⅞ miles) happens on up and down, steep, rugged trail surrounded by dense forest. In a small and welcome clearing there is an encounter with a beautiful, densely flowered, alpine meadow.
On the other side of the meadow a faint trail leads through dense forest to the shore of the first, tiny Tombstone Lake enclosed by towering mountains. There is quiet peace with nature for a few minutes.
Back on the trail imminent arrival occurs at the obvious junction to the smaller Tombstone Lake. It is very hot and the sun is high. The short hike into the second, tiny, emerald lake is equally spectacular. This lake is stocked with cut-throat trout and the surface is alive with fish jumping for flies.
The remainder of the trail to Tombstone Campground is a long, welcome descent. At Tombstone Campground, the trail needed on the previous weekend reveals itself.
Following a quick lunch at the impressive and well-maintained Tombstone Wilderness Campground, the return trip via the same way taken in. The first 3 KMs is an uphill grind and most of it is walked, without shade, in the hottest part of the day. Temperature is well above 30 C and humidity is unusually high by Alberta standards. The top of the hill is a very welcome sight since, from here, it is almost completely downhill. From here it is possible to achieve an exciting and productive pace.
At Romulus there is an opportunity take a break at the creek and wander about in the cold, refreshing water. The water supply is depleted. The wading water is not potable and must be passed through a filter to drink without the risk of 'Beaver Fever', i.e. Giardia protozoa.
Back at the trail-head the drive home to Calgary begins via Bragg Creek where a stop is negotiated for food and beverage refreshment following another magnificent day in the mountains.
The Elbow Loop is done - twice! It must be done again and achieved the way it is meant to be done, in a single day.
The completion of the Elbow Loop in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, Canada route is still flood damaged in March of 2016. Check with a Visitor Center for current status prior to tackling the loop.