Backyard Bikepacking: Nelson, Kaslo, New Denver and Back Again.

Spring in the West Kootenays. It’s an experience to watch snow levels rise and life rapidly flourish and the colours of spring emerge. In the valley, May isn’t a month for getting up too high on two wheels, but where there’s an edge to dance…

We should dance.

Trip Hooks:

  • Low traffic highway sections backdropped by lush forest and granite outcroppings over Kootenay lake.
  • Experience stellar rail trail & wagon road travel, which a majority of this route is on
  • Loop-able with a variety of overnight options, with ability to cut/lengthen riding days to suit endurance levels
  • High mountain pass achievable exclusive of highway riding, topping out at 1,600m with views commensurate of effort

Go Local. Out of necessity, this is our travel ethos given the times. But constraints lead to creative thinking. For some, it’s a lot harder to turn the pages of the backroad mapbook than to hand over your visa to a guide company in the Chilcotins. It’s time to dig deeper to discover what could be just beyond the doorstep.

With a little frantic late night packing behind me, I take the doorstep bit to heart, clipping in and coasting away from the creature comforts.

This trip departs right out of Nelson proper, and while it is better than most cities, traffic is a factor. This is where we eat the frog, leaving the rest of the day feeling downhill-ish (note: there are definitely hills). From town, the ferry terminal is about ~30km away, and the space in between is likely to be the most traffic you’ll experience on this trip. Plan to ride in off hours, which is anytime except 7:30-9:00 in the morning.

Life in the Selkirk mountains has a different pace. On bike trips, it is can be hard to slow the intertia enough to really appreciate the sights, but here’s your encouragement to kick off the habit of taking pause. Keep an eye for Kokanee creek turnoff for a stretch and snack, and consider a few minute trek up the river to watch mossy granite boulders direct the glacial runoff, sights as powerful as the sound.

As the route curves northward, the view of Kootenay lake and the Purcell mountains become a fixture for the balance of the day. To split up the nearly overwhelming visuals, the Angry Hen in Kaslo serves up fine craft beer (and non-alc drinks) and the poutine truck at the gas station is said to be legendary. Or, like me, you can take to the beach and get the ramen out.

For night one, we’re aiming for Fry creek, a favourite camping spot among locals. But the black swan to appear later in the form of major windfall making for a gruelling ‘hike’ may make an already long day a little too long. My back twinges just thinking about it. Camping at Lost Ledges, or even in Kaslo are great alternatives for those looking to shorten things up.

On the way out, do me a favour and ignore the signpost reading Lakefront Trail. You might even reference your map and note the dotted line, That looks like a shortcut. Take it from the guy who spent a few hours running up against thick brush and volcanic head wall on the sandy shore (sorry about that, drivetrain): there is no shortcut.

Back to Kaslo, and up into the hills. The wagon road begins, establishing the historic mining route that once was. Traffic noise of the highway in parallel to be washed out by the rushing Kaslo river.

For early season travellers, submitting the pass means it is time to hop on the tarmac and weave down to valley bottom. But snow permitting, you could continue to climb on the old trail and potentially find camp above the pass.

Both routes intersect at the start of the the Galena trail, which shepherds your descent with a smooth rolling surface and cable car crossing. Old Sandon road is another, slightly spicier option.

Note: as of May 17, 2020, a washout event occurred on the upper section of the trail. The cable car will likely remain closed until the trail is repaired, leaving a rather sketchy side-hill around the washout, and old Sandon road as the only means of access to New Denver.

New Denver has a small, but well stocked deli, including fresh apple fritters to fuel the last leg home. In the parking lot, I peel an avocado with my bare hands and devour it in three bites, where the fritters will entertain the taste buds over the next hundred kilometres.

There’s a brief section of well shouldered highway from here to Slocan, where the prize awaits.

Enter the Slocan rail trail, which provides a fast flowing surface for 50 kilometres. Run like the river, until the final push up into Blewett, then Granite road, which provides a soft-ish landing back into town (one big hill remains).

Riding past the Nelson courthouse and into the enveloping canopy of oak trees, the thought crossed my mind:

I could do that again.

Logistics and Notes

  • Don the bear spray in case of encounter with unruly locals (grizzly).
  • Out-and-back to fry creek can be cut to make this more accessible to novice riders, fitting comfortably in a three day weekend.
  • No shortage of drinking water access on this route if you bring a filter
  • Don’t shy away from rain, unless the forecast is predicting cats and dogs for a series of days. Intermittent rain can prove quite refreshing given the tropical temperatures of Kootenay summers.
  • My GPS tracked 3,700m of elevation for the trip, which excludes the upper Sandon wagon road. RWGPS’s estimate seems to be wrong.
  • Packing list and my setup to follow
11 replies
  1. Gent Harrison
    Gent Harrison says:

    What a great description of a bike ride in my backyard so to speak but one I have never thought of doing. Thanks for sharing your words and photos!

    Reply
    • Sean
      Sean says:

      Don’t worry Gent, we’ll get you on an uncomfortable, rigid bike and up into the hills soon 😉 Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply
  2. Dakota
    Dakota says:

    THIS IS NOT A SHORTCUT. If there’s one thing a bikepacking route writeup can do, it’s save us the damage to our psyche that you experienced, so thanks!

    Fantastic photos and excellent detail. When the frakkin border between our countries open up and I’m back in Nelson in 2026, this one is on my list. Minus the shortcut.

    Reply
    • Sean
      Sean says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it D. Happy to spare others from shortcut misfortune, though this one dead ends at a nice sandy beach. Depending on your blood sugar levels, it could be a welcome detour 😉

      Something tells me that those imaginary lines might stay closed for a while. I’ll check my 2026 calendar and get back to you!

      Reply
  3. Lianne
    Lianne says:

    Hi Sean, Thanks for the enticing trip report. I’m not sure if you mentioned how many days it took you to do this route (we are thinking of it for this August). Also, you mention one camping night (with a couple of alternatives) for day 1 but nothing else. Any other recommendations? And one more question… you mention that this trip could be lengthened – if you were to lengthen it, what would you recommend? (we’re from Vancouver and have never been to your area before). Thanks!

    Reply
    • Sean
      Sean says:

      Lianne! Thanks for stopping by, and glad you found it useful. This was a three day, two night trip, departing out of Nelson. Part of the beauty of this route is that there are little nooks for camping all along the Kaslo-ND wagon road, as well as on the Slocan Rail Trail. My suggestion is to go and see what you find.

      For lengthening, check out this trip report that tags another three day loop on.

      Reply
  4. Lianne
    Lianne says:

    Hi Sean,

    One more question!

    Last year, we went to Montana and were taken aback at the sheer number of mosquitoes in the mountains in mid-August. On the coast, that time of year is mosquito-free. When we talked to locals, apparently mosquito swarms in August in Montana is completely normal.

    What is the situation in Nelson in the back country in mid-late August in terms of bugs?

    Thanks!

    Lianne

    Reply
    • Sean
      Sean says:

      Lianne,

      I’d go prepared with a mosquito headnet and long layers. Hard to really answer your question as it depends on where you are. Some zones in the Kootenays have had their waves of mosquitos already, where stuff up in the alpine is just ramping up. They come and go with the weather, which is hard to predict.

      Reply

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