I recently spent a couple of days exploring some of the off-pavement options in the Neutral Hills in east-central Alberta, near Consort, and I can report that even though I only rode a fraction of it, this area has lots of potential for adventurous gravel cyclists.
We camped at Gooseberry Lake Provincial Park, about 15 km north of Consort, which turns out to be a great starting point for cycling. To the south and east, it’s your typical prairie gravel roads, all fine and well, but to the north and west things get interesting. The hilly terrain reminds me of another Alberta terminal moraine, the Porcupine Hills area near Claresholm--similar topography and similar “roads,” if that’s even the right word. The hills are bestrewn with totally bikeable tracks and trails, most of them private but some of them public.
I highly recommend the range road heading north from the entrance to the golf course next to the campground. It quickly devolves (or evolves, depending on how you look at it) from pavement, to gravel, to a dirt double track, and eventually a grass track as it heads up into the hills. (Like many of the roads in Porcupine, these Neutral tracks are mostly dirt and, therefore, fair-weather-only; I wouldn’t attempt them in wet conditions.)
Range Road 62 is the kind of road where you’re unlikely to encounter much human activity. Cows, sure, and the occasional gas well, yep, but not so much vehicles or actual people. In fact, at first, we wondered if it was even a public road (which it certainly seems to be on my maps).
Early on we ran into a friendly older guy in a pickup who said he was the land owner, gesturing to the vast expanse of hills. We asked him, a little sheepishly, if the road is truly public access and he said yes, it is. “It’s a great ride up into the hills,” he told us, as if he rides up there all the time himself.
And indeed it was, offering terrific views of the areas south and east, though I have to admit that we got totally lost, missing the turn for the continuation of RR 62 we were looking for, and having to freelance our route for the next couple of hours over a series of grass and dirt tracks. Cell reception is spotty up there; we had to follow our noses for part of the way. (My GPS map of this ride is such a mad squiggle that I’m embarrassed to share it.) But it was the good kind of lost, where we had lots of supplies, clear skies, and no other place we had to be that day.
|View of Gooseberry Lake, from Neutral Hills|
We actually saw only a couple of signs indicating “Private Road,” and we respected those, but there are a ton of inviting doubletracks in these hills, some marked with range and township road signs, suggesting they are public access roads--but it’s hard to tell for sure. Most have no signs at all.
|Range Road 62, near Goosebery|
We did eventually find our way back to a gravel road and make a complete loop back to the campground. But we just scratched the surface of the riding possibilities. With some deeper recon, it would be possible to put together some excellent day-long loops that combine the best features of the Neutral Hills--picturesque hilly terrain, gravel roads, and dirt and grass tracks.
In our case, we were fortunate enough to stumble into a confirmation of our right to access the route we sketched out. For more ambitious ventures, the trick would be to engage with some landowners in the area to secure access to more of these funky quasi-roads that seem to exist in some nebulous private-public grey area.
The actual hilly area around Gooseberry isn’t huge; on the map it looks to be about 50 km by 20 km but it rides bigger than that. Between the range and township roads that appear on google maps there are lots of unofficial ones that could, with permission, be incorporated into routes. You could ride for days in them-thar hills.
I’ll return to Gooseberry for further exploration. My feelings on this part of Alberta are anything but neutral.