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

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

Bikepacking Maine: Circling Mt. Katahdin

Should you turn around?

There is no set depth for when mud is considered ‘too deep’. When a fresh clearcut terminates kilometers of fast-travel fire-road, you long for a sign that says ‘easy way out’. Desire for assurance, plus avoidance of repeating the cost we’ve already sunk: what’s behind is known, and it ain’t pretty. Could things get better just around the corner? Forward movement, always teasing. Blind as it may be.

None of these thoughts are on the radar. It’s a cheerful morning. Ira Glass is on the radio and the bike rack loaded, two important parts of setting the mood for the few hour cruise north on the 95 towards Baxter State park, home of Mt. Katahdin. It’s early September and the colours of a New England fall are just beginning to surface.

The plan is to circle Maine’s tallest peak, looping back through Woods and Waters National Monument. A quest involving the rolling foothills butting up against the prominent granite outlier, and hopefully not too many mosquitos. The weapon: Salsa Fargo. Ammo? Burritos con salsa and chipotle cashew sauce – a lot of it.

Edible? Doesn’t matter – burritos are filling.

The overcast skies slowly lift and wheels locomote. The device goes to airplane mode and a subtle relief flys in. How far do we need to go to let ourselves of the hook?

Northbound, pavement transitions to hardpack gravel. At this point, there’s only one road for the next 50 miles. Fifty gradually undulating, smooth, and beautiful miles. It’s a weekday, there is not traffic. The old forestry road hugs the river, sounds of rushing water between heartbeats fills the ears.

The morning sun teases the fresh rain into mist, leaving a few rays to contrast the grey. All of it is a reminder of how the sensory experience changes on two wheels.

Three hours pass, or maybe it’s been four? The park roadway runs out, signalled by the waving ranger at the north gate. A few miles down the road, a left, right, and another left, coax the bull moose with sweet nothings to clear the path ahead. All that felt like a lot of adventure – it’s time to find camp.

Woods and Waters National Monument was designated a preserve in 2016 (Thanks Obama), so infrastructure and a sense of officialness is lacking. But without the typical parks improvements, you find a place less touched. As the route connects with the penobscot river, spectacular camping awaits.

A refreshing dip and serene place camp for the night

The sound of the rushing rapids successfully fends off the bears for the night. A wish, or hope, is all you really have from the incredibly exposed, yet surprisingly secure feeling from inside a small pup tent.

Oatmeal’s greatest lift? Sliced almonds and a hit of maple syrup. Natural sweetness compounds on the surroundings. Some things shouldn’t be refined. In the background, a thought flows in: this same water will pass the car in a few hours, and wheels roll downstream from here. Or so they should.

High on maple syrup bliss, it’s time to get rolling. Some of the route’s best riding awaits.

And some of the worst.

Plant lovers, err… rejoice?

After blowing past a key intersection, noticing the overgrowth, and a few hundred windswept trees blocking the old jeep track, the thought arises that this might not be the right way. The pace for the morning is now a quarter-rate of yesterdays gallop.  The rain starts to fall. Emotions a plenty, joy is not one of them.

Remarkably, the frequency of downed trees beins to lift. Confirmation bias tickled: turning around would have been foolish. The rain begins to fall a little heavier. At least there’s no more carrying the bike.

Active logging has just begun on this section just outside of the monument boundary. On a map, it appears as the logical route. impassable blockade of fallen trees, ultra-rough bushwacking through fresh upturned soil. Should have taken that turn.

Where theres heavy logging machinery, there are roads. The mud is deep, but the truck tracks point to a way out. Re-entering the park boundary, the brace for more “adventure”, slowly fades. Winding down, letting go, there’s still some ground to cover.

The rain has halted. It’s turned into a windless, sunny day. and this path leads straight to the safe haven of the car. Remembering the watermelon stashed within, the pace quickens. 

Logistics:

Park in Millinocket townsite, call local PD to confirm it is okay to leave vehicle overnight.

This loop is a fantastic way to get into bikepacking. Plenty of camping to add days and shorten the riding distances, or ride it out-and-back to stick to the nicely graded (and downhill on the return!) park road. If you’re riding it in two days, ensure you can cover a distance like this without a loaded bike.

Here’s the route via Gaia GPS: Day 1 & Day 2. Avoid active logging by following detour noted above.

Camping Suggestion Here

Baxter SP Road Map (unofficial)

Woods and Waters National Monument PDF

Water? Plenty, bring filter. I’m 100% sold on this water filter for Bikepacking.

My setup? Ski straps and dry sacs. Nothing fancy needed for this one.

Parting Note: A Salsa Fargo isn’t a budget bike, and isn’t necessary for this trip. A used or entry level mountain bike/gravel with 2” tires is more than adequate.

 

 

 

 

A Dry Run of the Green Mountain Gravel Grinder

Welcome to Vermont, where quaint but lively little hamlets dollop the landscape, and the day-to-day is centered around agriculture and the great outdoors. With a culture fit for recreationalists and a topography friendly to pedal-power, one might think it’d be the perfect place to stage a multi-day bikepacking adventure, and they would be right.

These aren’t original thoughts. Some time ago, the ‘Green Gountain Gravel Grinder’ made it’s debut on bikepacking.com. There are 240 miles and 11,000 ft of climbing that wind through northern Vermont’s scenic countryside, and manage to drop-in on sixteen craft breweries along the way.

Now, it’s called the green mountain state, but that’s really putting it in a box. Green is in the minority among foliage come late September, which is precisely when you should be out there riding this loop. It is a visual trip. The undulating terrain positions you perfectly to appreciate the bold colors of fall.

Fresh donuts and hot apple cider en-route. It’s okay to start salivating now.

Favourite Sections and Stops

East Warren community market. Overheard the most preverse conversation between kitchen staff that almost made me eject lunch out my nostrils. Come for the laughs, leave with full-ish belly and snacks fo the road. Don’t stuff yourself though… the Lincoln gap is just around the bend.

Bristol Cliffs Cafe, just a few hours from Burlington. The best tempeh burrito con homemade salsa one could wish for.

With bike paths like this ushering you into town, Burlington doesen’t feel like big city

Zabby & Elf’s Stone Soup. Fantastic buffet-style Jewish food in downtown Burlington. Get a slice of raspberry pie to go.

Just past the city limits of Burlington appears stellar single track

More singletrack following the Winooski river upstream from Burlington

Rolling up on a backwoods barbecue; VT style

The final hours; following ridge line towards Montpelier

The final, flowing descent into Vermonts’ capital

The Harder Bits

Soggy farm track while descending the Waitsfield gap. Not pictured: bridge-less creek crossing traversed five minutes before. Prepare to pucker.

North of Stowe felt pretty ‘out there’. This is the only section of riding where I didn’t have strong cell service (verizon). There was some uncertainty where my next water refill was coming from. Fortunately, you’ll emerge from the boonies to Highland St. Cafe for some great eats.

Stowe – take it all in. Including a few extra sandwiches.

North of Stowe. Lots of this!

Where to begin?

Burlington is the easy choice if travelling by plane, and you probably wouldn’t be the first to assemble a bike in the arrivals lobby. Driving in from New England, Montpelier was my jumping off point. Local police suggested the park and ride for undisturbed overnight parking, contrary to what the signs at the lot say. The small capital city of 8,000 people also hosts a superb co-op grocery store complete with a delicious hot buffet. Keep those calories front of mind.

Classic, colourful architecture to be ogled

Clockwise is the suggested loop, but aside from two sections, the direction of travel isn’t important. The Lincoln gap is a steep no matter the approach. The more concerning bit is the section considered ‘unrideabe’ called the Waitsfield gap; Clockwise it is a slow, rough, and brakey descent on jeep track, ascending from the other side would not be pedalable.

Cold, misty mornings.

Crossing one of Vermont’s many covered bridges. Fun fact, an uncovered bridge would rot out within 10-15 years of construction, where covered bridges could last up to 50.

Running Dry

Since there’s no scarcity of water on this route, I’m hinting at the booze. Mixing a physical endeavour with alcohol isn’t appealing to me, so this was a sober ride. This enabled cutting off some of the elective, out-of-the-way brewery stops, and ultimately compressed the suggested 5 days into 3 days of riding.

On the straight and narrow

What to pack

As a chronic over-preparer, my bike was on the heavier side. Three days of freeze dried dinners, plus oatmeal for breakfast, and 1000 cal/day of snacks was overkill. I ate less than half the food I brought. There is no shortage of little markets, cafes, brewpubs, to fill up on en route. Please send me a note if you’d like to see the packing list.

Being self-sufficient for some meals allows you to get further out to the prized camping spots.

Where to stay

Plenty of options for wild camping or leave the tent at home and BnB it. If you are camping, planning ahead isn’t really necessary as good spots will tend to present themselves along the route. Respect private property, leave no trace.

A quiet forested nook along the route

When to go

The month of September is prime time for the foliage and lack of bugs, but watch the forecast for rain and temperature swings. I began the ride on Sept 28 when the nights just touched freezing. On the second morning, I wore every layer of clothing that I’d brought and still had ice blocks for feet. Brrrrrrrr.

Rolling fast through the hills near Stowe.

Riding Conditions

The terrain is 95% hardpack dirt road. Highway gravel, they call it. Virtually no rolling resistance even with fairly knobby tires (WTB Ranger). The balance is a blend of city pathway (Burlington), and then some fun ATV/Jeep track that will serve as a nice change of pace during the trip. The 3″ tires on my Fargo were overkill, but I’d still recommend a bike with 35-40 cc tires at minimum.

Remember, you don’t need the fanciest bike, bags or gear to make this trip happen. The GMGG is a great starting-off point for anyone looking to adventure on two wheels.

Other Details

Here’s the GPS track showing how the route was staged. I’d do it again!

Day 1 – Day 2 – Day 3

Thinking about this trip, or looking for more details? I’d be happy to hear from you. Get in touch via the comments below.