Bikepacking Nelson: Roundabout the Rossland Range

June in the Kootenays. Longer days tease the trend of warmer weather, only if it’s not torrenting rain. Like the bears, we’re still stretching out after a winters’ hibernation. Hungry for something. Anything.

Here’s another round-trip from the door step. From Nelson, linking up established rail trail to Christina lake, forestry road to Rossland, then back again. Looping is great, but makes it hard to answer the question:

“Where are you going?”

Nowhere, really.

What’s in store?

  • Ascend the Kettle Valley Railway (KVR) with stunning views of the Arrow Lakes – plus eerie tunnel sections
  • Follow the historic mining route high into the Rossland range and spend a night in one of BC’s true mountain towns
  • Grind on established gravel on the remote Pend Orielle river valley
  • Varied terrain with minimal pavement, plus a detour option that cuts out a huge elevation day
  • Camping options aplenty with covered shelters ever ~20km on the KVR and provincial/backcountry rec sites elsewhere

Lets forge on.

Though pedalling outbound from Nelson has quite familiar, I still can’t help but recognize something in this landscape that sets the stage for what is ahead. The clouds also chime in. Big, bellowing and black, they creep over the southern range. Invariably, it starts sleeting sideways about five minutes into the trip. ‘Junesoon’ says all you need to know about this month of the year.

Heading west out of town via Granite and Blewett road, you’ll eventually arrive the hamlet of Krestova, which is one of BC’s original settlements of Russian dissenters, the Doukhobors. Through it, Pass Creek road is our gateway into the Columbia River valley.

Don’t settle too deep into the backroad bliss, as it is sensory overload once dumped into the valley. The clatter of train cars at the near intermodal station overlay the hum of the main trucking route. In the background, the pump mill and hydro station churn away. Do your best to ignore the smoke stacks and slightly acrid air, instead appreciating the natural rock bluffs and grandeur of arrow lakes.

Ascension out of the Columbia Valley stokes incredible views. Compact gravel and well maintained trestle crossings over a 2% grade makes for easy riding all the way to the Paulson summit of 1,200 meters. The rain clouds begin to part, dancing shadows on the opposite side of the valley make the vistas.

A handful of tunnels make for a pretty unique, but slightly eerie, riding experience. One of which is about a kilometre long, guaranteeing a few panic stricken moments. Curving away from the entrance, the lights go out and a dense fog sets in. You might wonder, which Stephen King book are we in? Remember the headlamp.

Enjoy the gravity all the way to Christina lake. Sparse pines tower over blooming lupins near Texas creek – the makings of a great camp.

The birds are out in numbers, cheering on the sun as it touches down in the valley. It’s early, but already hot and muggy. Ahead lies two huge vertical pushes, one to access the Rossland-Cascade highway, and the other to exit it. In a future month (year?) when crossing the border is an option, there is a much more established, chip sealed and less hilly, route on the US side.

Rolling into Rossland, my priorities are in order: Ginger beer, chocolate bar, and a blender full of hummus. Angie and Gent have agreed to post me up in their sweet loft, but perhaps weren’t ready for the full-on fridge raid of a ravenous cycle tourist. Only true friends can see calorie cranky for what it is.

After a night around the campfire, a belly full of fresh bread, and Gents magnificent frittata for breakfast, the trails are calling.

Welcome to small resource town Canada (Trail, BC), where opinions on the racial divide that we’ve created are best spray painted on a minivan. Not pictured is the pickup truck with a confederate flag plastered to the back window. Wrong country, wrong era, just wrong, dude.

Hammering on your pedals is a good way to expel fellow countryman rage. Heading south with the flow of the Columbia River, you’ll meet sweeping views of the valley.

Cell service goes flat as you curve eastward on the Pend Orielle. Smooth pavement is laid like a red carpet for the first segment, with the duration between road maintenance ever increasing as you go deeper. Smooth concrete, broken concrete, graded gravel, then jeep track. On a bike, it’s that last one we’re always vying for.

This is too good. Doubt starts to rise. Like an accrued debt, these moments almost always come with a hefty payback. Sure enough, the smooth, scenic and established track suddenly double backs up the hill, leaving only a memory of a route ahead.

The dirt transitions into lush green, plus a minor swamp. Counting down the kilometres before exiting to the highway, the downed trees start adding up.

There are two bridge crossings that’ll make you question the cleats on your shoes.

Just as forecasted, thundershowers roll in from the south. Gale winds promote a crusher pace northward to Salmo, and the rain… keep things cool? The only thing missing for it to be a foot spa in my shoes are some bath salts.

Hopeful for smooth sailing from Salmo to Nelson, the condition of the Great North Trail surprised me. It seems to see a fair amount of motorized use. At this point in the day, hungry and slightly deprived of salt, I couldn’t help but relate the undulating, bumpy surface to that of a ruffles chips. What flavour, you ask? All dressed, all day.

After enduring an hour of seemingly pointless wrist jarring while paralleling the smooth highway, conditions start to improve. The trail continues to engage with the rushing Salmo river in a very exposed way, beauty at each bend.

It’s getting late, but the trail conditions ahead are known to be great. At the next vista, I pause to call a loved one. A true friend reminds you of who you really are, writes Vivek Murthy.

The real beauty of three days on the saddle is the time for overt self reflection, tossing thought bubbles up in the air that trail along like string balloons. With the fade of endorphins as I turn off the rail trail back into Nelson, they naturally settle back into place, ever so slightly rearranged.

Logistics and Notes

  • I saw three – bear sightings are guaranteed with the possibility of a grizz encounter
  • The Great North Rail Trail annual closure runs from May 1 to June 15 for bear migration – one would be wise to obey
  • Water: it is everywhere
  • Routing through the US from Laurier to Frontier on 4181 is a much friendlier cycling experience when the border is open
  • The mapped route follows the main route into Nelway, which is different than the sketchy bridge crossing route that you see pictured in this post. Don’t make my mistakes!
  • Ride elevation is about 4,300 m, contrary to RWGPS’s estimate
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