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Jul 30, 2019

Bikepacking Old Porcupine's Choice Loop Alberta Canada

It might have been about 2-1/2 years ago when, on a winter's day off I asked Nadia if she'd join me for a day in the car exploring some country roads I saw in the backroads map book I have. On this day we ended up finding one of the most lovely country roads I have ever had the pleasure of driving and so it began: Trying to loop together a new gravel/bikepacking route on roads (I was sure) that most local cyclists - even the adventurous ones hadn't ridden.

Further map studying showed me there was, what looked like, a road that ran north-south, west of the Forestry Trunk Road in the Livingstone PLUZ and after some more car-based exploring I was convinced it was there.

The last piece of the puzzle was some more car-based exploring of the Skyline Road in the Porcupine Hills PLUZ this past Spring. BOOM! A loop was possible.

So here is the ride report. My buddy Connor agreed to ride it with me and we set off on a Friday night after work so we could start early the next day.

Scroll past the video for photos and more info on the trip -

Day 1
Strava Link

Our plan was to drive down to Willow Creek Campground just west of Stavely and stay the night but the place was jammed packed and full so we elected to bandit camp near the Pine Coulee Reservoir once the Sun was down. In the morning we left our car in the day use parking lot which seemed safe for a couple of reasons: There was an outhouse and there weren't "No Overnight Parking" signs around. We strapped in and set off down The Flying E Road.

The Flying E Road is named after a large multi-generational ranch in the area - which is home to several other long time ranches - and basically runs east-west through gorgeous rolling hills with almost no traffic, save for the locals. Nothing around except cows, horses, hawks, and did I mention the vistas?

Maybe an hour into the ride we spotted this "Burmis Tree" up on a small cliff and decided to walk up and have a snack and a smoke beside it, enjoying it's presence and contemplating what it has seen in it's obviously very long life. Magical.

After we were done with The Flying E Road we turned off onto the Riley Road and were immediately greeted by a brute of a climb that was made even more difficult by the heat and growing winds. Over the top, scorch down the other side and again, another tough, exposed-to-the-Sun climb. We were a couple hours in at this point and as soon as we spotted a shady spot we pulled over for a snack break.
Take good care of this place, Earthlings. It is pretty special. After the 1-2 uppercut to the chops of the Flying E/Riley Road we were excited to get a segment of pavement on HWY22 heading north towards Chain Lakes where we were hoping the concession was open to partake in the ONLY opportunity we'd have on the entire journey to enjoy some food and drink that we weren't carrying. The burger shack was open, the burgers were good, but be aware: Cash only and they run seasonal hours.

Hiding in the shade enjoying a surprisingly good burger. It was really hot and the wind was really starting to blow, thankfully mostly a tailwind, but still made going tough at times when it switched to cross/tailwinds. From here it was another 10kms north to the HWY532 where the gravel would start again, taking us west - and uphill - for about 13kms to Indian Graves Campground, our home for the night.

Tucked into the surprisingly-quiet-for-a-Saturday-night Indian Graves Campground, day 1 done and dusted. The 13km nonstop uphill to the campground was pretty tough and we were glad to find an open site, get some firewood, and finally get off our bikes. Tomorrow was going to be a big day and so we ate as much as we good in anticipation of the climbing to come.

Day 2
Strava Link

Morning camp coffee is proof that some kind of God exists - so tasty and satisfying. The day broke clear, sunny, and with little wind. Our day was to start with an immediate 8kms climb to Livingstone Pass alt. 2000+m with sustained kilometres-long pitches steeper than 10% and of course, all gravel. What a way to start your day.

Almost at the top. A few more kilometres of brutally tough climbing to go but this view demanded to be enjoyed. Down below is the road we were grinding up and way off in the distance is where we started yesterday. Traversing all these different bio-regions is one of the unique aspects of this route - you get a little bit of everything from prairie to high peaks and back again.

Connor posing at the Livingstone Pass summit, looking east. Scorching downhills await. From this point it wasn't too long before we were on the Forestry Trunk Road 940 heading north towards Cataract Creek. While traffic was pretty light for a Saturday there were quite a few aggressive drivers that wouldn't slow at all when passing making thing quite a bit less pleasant than they otherwise could have been. Oh well, soon enough we'd be done with those yahoos as one of the trips main objectives was about to be realized.

Onto Lost Creek Road. 25kms-ish of gate-to-gate, vehicle free gravel road/2-track ahead as well as another significant climb that would take us above 2000m. This segment was an open question for us and a huge source of nerves: Was it easy to follow through? Would we make a wrong turn? Would we see anyone? Bears??? What would the surface be like?

Thankfully, the road rolled easy enough for about 5-6kms before we crossed Cataract Creek and began climbing towards the summit. The climbing wasn't too bad for most of it though there were definitely steeper sections where we were off and pushing. The climb was tough but was not as hard as Livingstone as the grade seemed to ease-go up-ease-rinse-and-repeat. As we got further up the road went from this, to 2-track, to barely a 2-track, to just a hint that vehicles may have been on it a long time ago as we crested the summit. Whew! It's all downhill from here - should be a breeze, right?

Haha - nope. The rough 2-track is obvious and washout like this were plentiful - requiring a clamber down/back up again - all made more difficult by loose footing, almost axle deep mud holes, and blackflies that were threatening to carry us away if we slowed our progress at all. Did I mention that we were theoretically descending now?
4 hours in an oasis of shade presented itself and we decided now was a good time to rest before the final push to the end of the day. This makeshift bench of a couple tires and a timber offered our rumps a comfy respite from our saddles. In between eating and drinking as much as we could scarf down, Connor and I practiced our boxing-with-blackflies moves: Take that! Take that! Now take that! Upper cut! Left-right combos. They didn't stand a chance.

The end of Lost Creek Road is marked by a gate and a return to "civilization" - meaning a still-very-rough road but at least it was more or less downhill for 35kms to the campsite. SO. FUN! Along the way there are no shortage of wild camping spots, Honeymoon Creek campground, and the Oldman River Falls pictured here. We hung out here for awhile enjoying it's cool mists, roaring sounds, and shade. This is the content we came for :)

Pretty much sums up how we were both feeling about the trip so far. 2 days of absolutely incredible roads, vistas, climbing, crazy high speed descending, all of it. Tomorrow we'd aim to finish the loop, 100kms-ish (we estimated), shortening our planned 3-1/2 days of riding since so much of the route was "descending". Uh huh.

Alberta is so lovely.

Day 3
Strava Link

Morning vibes. I was up at first light as I was cold in the morning and wanted to move around to get my body heat up. Such a lovely morning. I saw a huge owl and a handful of deer roll past me (I was sitting very still enjoying the Sun's warmth). More of the content we do this for :)

Today was the big day - literally: 100+kms, still very hot, but we both were feeling good and were up for the challenge. While the route on paper was mostly downhill, there was a very significant difficulty in the middle of the day we had to climb and (we didn't know at the time) tough gravel roads + headwinds for the last 35kms.

The first 35kms were super great, again mostly downhill as we headed out of the mountains and back towards the open prairie. Maycroft Road was a very lovely piece of Alberta, cutting through a tight gap in the mountains as it follows the Oldman River east. Off the Forestry Trunk Road it was really nice gravel eventually turning to pavement for about 13kms as we headed towards HWY22.

The Whaleback.

Once out to HWY22 we immediately turned onto Waldron Flat Road and headed east towards Skyline Road. From this point it is more-or-less 25kms of nonstop climbing up into the Porcupine Hills PLUZ with the road ascending through the historic Waldron Ranch lands, up into grazing areas, gradually getting steeper and steeper. Near the top of the climb proper you're greeted with a series of gravel switchbacks that dump you up onto a ridgeline with incredible views of the front range of the Rockies.

The real tough part begins at this sign though getting to this point is not found in the dictionary under the definition of "easy". Also tough: no water resupply opps from HWY22 all the way back to our waiting vehicle - 70+kms. This would hurt us later as we should each have had capacity for a least another litre each and perhaps a few more snacks.

Look at those views! You can also see the road we came up in the valley below. The heat of the day was on us hard now but there was still the better part of 10kms of steep climbing (with a few sharp downs in between them) before we would be done the toughest climbing of the day. Skyline Road eventually dumps you out onto HWY520 - which is more-or-less downhill before we had to turn north for the final 22kms to the car. At about 35kms to go the road turned into soft, loose gravel and the wind switched around into a headwind and began to grind both of us down. We were both suffering from really sore neck/shoulders making holding onto the bars difficult and with no shade anywhere (save for an abandoned church we rested beside) we were both feeling like chickens under red hot lamps at Swiss Chalet.

The end in sight (not really but it is there in the distance). What an amazing loop. Go get it.

Trip Notes

  • Resupply or lack thereof. There are no resupply opportunities anywhere along the route, save for potable water at the Chain Lakes Campground and the seasonal concession there that does not have groceries. You mush bring water filtration/tabs and all your food on this route.
  • The Flying E Road is actually a connected series of range and township roads that is linked together into a continuous east-west road. If you are using the GPX track just be aware that these range and township roads will constantly appear. Have no fear, follow it along until you reach the Riley Road.
  • Most of the campgrounds along the route are drop-in only meaning you can't prebook a site. There is wild camping on the HWY532 with no services and they are not very nice for camping in. However, these PRA sites do have outhouses and overnight parking is totally fine.
  • A significant section of the Lost Creek Road is "maintained" by Spray Lake Sawmills so be aware it could be closed if they have operations going on in the area - though that does seem unlikely these days.
  • The Forestry Trunk Road can be very busy, very dusty, and has bad sightlines in spots so maintain vigilance when on it.
  • The parking area at Pine Coulee Reservoir is where we'd recommend you park - unless you can get someone to drop you off/pick you up. You can see the spot on the RideWithGPS link below.
  • We both rode dropbar gravel bikes: Connor on a Surly Straggler and myself on a Breezer Doppler and we thought they were perfect. Both of our bikes have 40T+ large cogs on the back - and we spent a lot of time on them.

3 Days or 4 Days? 
  • 3 Day Fast Ride: Pine Coulee Start -> Indian Graves -> Oldman River North -> Pine Coulee Finish
  • 4 Day Chill and Fish Ride: Pine Coulee Start -> Chain Lakes -> Cataract Creek -> Dutch Creek -> Bandit Camp on Skyline Road -> Pine Coulee Finish

Gear List
  • Big Agnes ULHV1 Tent and ground sheet
  • Thermarest NeoAir Pad/Thermarest Quilt/Sheet Combo 0 degree rated, MEC foam pillow
  • MSR Pocket and medium fuel canister 
  • MSR Titanium cooking pot, GSI mug, titanium spork
  • Happy Yak meals and lots of snacks
  • Capacity for 2.5L of water onboard - would recommend 4L minimum
  • Bike tools and flat repair gear
  • Wahoo GPS, Samsung S9 phone (all the pictures above)
  • 2018 Breezer Doppler Team with Panaracer Gravelkings 47mm
  • Clothing: rain jacket, merino LS top and bottoms, UV50 long sleeve shirt, 3 pairs of socks and undies, one pair of Swrve jean shorts

Useful Links


Unknown said...

Thanks for putting this together and sharing. I will be trying to get on this before the end of this summer.

Christina said...

Awesome, thanks for the good info.

Andrea said...