Loved to Death

During the Canadian Rockies “younger” years (geologically speaking, as it was some 70 million years ago), the range boasted peaks estimated to reach into the 26,000-foot range. While water and glaciers long since eroded those monsters to their current, 11,000-foot heights, they still provide an epic backdrop for Dave Williams as he rides along Banff National Park’s Lake Minnewanka.

Loved to Death Trails and a Change of Strategy in Banff National Park

Riding the Topp Notch trail begins with a balancing act.

From where it starts at the summit of Tunnel Mountain, a small rock ramp leads onto a wooden bridge a foot or so off the ground, after which a similar stony path descends back to earth. Anywhere else, it’s the type of feature that would attract little attention. But this is Banff National Park, and here such a manmade stunt—and, more importantly, the trail in general—represents something special.

Banff National Park is Canada’s oldest and most popular protected area, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has long been one of the country’s cherished icons. But for mountain bikers, over the past few decades this outdoor wonderland has been forbidden—as with hunting, polluting and petting bears, riding bikes in the park is illegal and grounds for a fine. Parks Canada spent years destroying rogue trails and barring bikers from the legal ones. In a place with endless potential, mountain biking was relegated to a handful of paved paths and walker-dominated singletrack.

And yet I am riding a modern trail in that same park, fully signed and bursting with berms and wooden features like the one I just rolled over. Topp Notch is the first purpose-built trail in any of Canada’s national parks, and it’s a good one.

It’s also a vast departure from the park’s strictly low-impact style. But things are changing in Banff and beyond, something that’s been sparked as much by mountain bike advocacy as it has general-public apathy. Beginning in the late ’90s, visitors to Canada’s parks began to decline slowly, bottoming out in 2003/04. Faced with a huge loss in funding, the management of Banff National Park—and Parks Canada as a whole—were forced to reevaluate their priorities and consider new options. Mountain biking, it turns out, might have the weight to balance those scales and help save Canada’s parks in the process.

“We used to talk about parks being loved to death,” says Ed Jager, Parks Canada’s director of visitor experience. “But really, the death of a park is when people don’t care.”

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