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Aug 13, 2018

Bikepacking The Elk Valley To Kimberley On The Great Trail - Alberta and British Columbia Canada

Last year a small group of us rode the Castlegar to Penticton segment of The Great Trail and it was really great. That trip opened my eyes to some of what the "Trans Canada Trail" (now known as The Great Trail) had to offer and I began investigating more areas that might be fun for multiday adventures. The Trail itself actually runs right through Calgary and that got me thinking: What if I could one day ride out my front door and onto a big segment of the trail? While that didn't happen this time, it just might in the future after doing this trip.

I had a few more days of planned holidays (with no corresponding activity plan) and decided to give this trip a go. I had also received a brand new bike from a brand new vendor to the shop and thought why not ride it to get a real sense of what it could do.

After deciding on the route, Nadia gratiously offered to drop me off in Peter Lougheed Park and pick me up from Kimberley at the end of my journey. If that's not true love, I'm not sure what is :)

 Please enjoy this photo essay and if you have any questions, leave us a comment, drop us a line on Twitter, FB, or IG. Cheers!

Trip notes, gear list, and bicycle information is available at the bottom.

Day 1 - Elk Pass to Elkford
Strava Link 

My ride: Tout Terrain's Outback 27.5+ #bikepacking bike with their Mule suspension cargo trailer. What better way to get a feel for new product than to take it on tour for 4 days. The bike and trailer performed flawlessly. The Outback uses Pinion's internal gearbox offering 12 speeds delivered through a Gates Belt Drive. We'll have a dedicated blog post about Tout Terrain's amazing bikes coming up in the next couple of months, stay tuned!

The gateway to the Elk Valley. This was a cool feature to encounter. Adorned with carvings of wildlife, both human (climbers, skiers, bikers) and animal (elk, bear, owl, deer, etc) and fauna. From here it was all downhill to Elkford BC (well, mostly - there is always another uphill) but with a very stiff, hot wind blowing up the valley, riding was not as easy as the Strava link may show. This was a tough, but beautiful ride.

First sighting of the Elk River which would be my companion for the next couple of days. The views in the Upper Elk Valley were magnificent, even with the forest fire smoke that seems to be a constant summer companion in our climate changing world. There are a few rustic BC Recreation sites to camp in between here and Elkford, including the Tobermory Cabin, and there were plenty of streams to refill bottles and cool off in. You're basically on a gravel road with not much traffic. I was surprised, but shouldn't have been, to see quite a few other cyclists going in both the same direction as me and the opposite direction. Being part of The Great Divide route, this area is a magnet for adventure seekers - including one old man who was walking! from Elkford to Canmore. I wish I got his name and photo, what an adventurer - or crazy - it was hard to tell :)
Home for the night, Elkford Campground. $10 got me this quiet little site, free hot showers, potable water, bear bins, and a covered cooking shack. BONUS: Across the street was a full service grocery store, a pub, and a Chinese/Western restaurant where I demolished a super yummy pizza. Did I mention how hot it was? No big deal, just record breaking stuff that felt like I was riding into an open oven all day. Needless to say, I spent A LOT OF TIME nursing ice water, Coke(s), and that pizza in the poorly air conditioned restaurant.

Day 2 Elkford to Fernie
Strava Link

As soon as the Sun was up so was I, getting coffee'd, fed and watered, and ready for another sweltering day. The forecast was for even hotter than the previous day so I decided to ride the road the whole way to Sparwood where I would then hook up with the Coal Discovery Trail to Fernie. In Sparwood I met up with a couple from Vancouver who were doing Banff -> Whitefish and they reported that the first segment of The Great Trail out of Elkford was in really poor condition: super deep dust through a lot of clear cut and horses had been through when it was wet, post-holing the trail and making it generally awful to ride on. They did not recommend riding it. Take note.

Quite literally across the #3 highway from the big green truck is where the CDT (Coal Discovery Trail) begins and it runs all the way to Fernie. I'd hoped to be able to ride the entire distance to Fernie but the crazy heat and the extra load onboard made riding this intermediate trail quite challenging. The trail itself is beautiful and I'd love to go back to ride it without gear onboard, or if I had gear, perhaps in temperatures that are not in record breaking territory - and I'd give myself a big chunk of the day to complete it. It is a classic MTB singletrack so people with panniers may find their bags will hit rocks and trees along the way. My trailer definitely did, denting my bear spray can, causing it to leak (I'd find this out later).

Once I dipped down to the highway it was a pretty quick run into Fernie. Although the #3 highway is very busy, it at least has a nice, clean, wide shoulder and I didn't feel unsafe at any time. The forecast heat was now hitting hard so I did my best to tap out the distance and get to some air-conditioned refreshments asap. (Families wanting to bikepack from Sparwood to Fernie may want to stay on the CDT trail due to the busy highway. I'd also investigate whether the gravel/dirt rail line service road or just south of the highway connects to Fernie...just a thought. I also wonder if there are any forest service roads that might connect as well.)
Once in Fernie I popped by Gear Hub to see my good friend and owner, Mark Hall, and his cool shop. Stop by if you get a chance. The heat of the day was now upon me so after some refreshments and food I decided to siesta the afternoon away under this gazebo. I rested here for about 5hrs before setting off again - aiming for the Morrisey area to bandit camp - as every campground in the Fernie area was full.

Smokey sunset over the Lizard Range. The route out of town is along Cokato Road which is a gravel road, mostly downhill to this spot from Fernie, and goes all the way to Elko. I elected to post up for the night on the other side of the bridge, just to the left along the river. Rule #1 of bandit camping is to not setup your tent until it's dark so as not to be spotted. So for the next couple hours I relaxed, did a bit of fishing, and made some supper. Remember that leaking bear spray? I got some on my fingers and without realizing it touched my face and lips - resulting in - I'm sure you can imagine. Face. In. River. For awhile...hahaha.
Day 3 Morrisey to Cranbrook
Strava Link 

Day 3 began with a little cooler temps and a welcome micro-drizzle (evaporated as soon as it landed). The evening was quite pleasant, save for the ever present horn blasts from passing trains (why did I forget my ear plugs?) and no mosquitos was a real treat - especially since I decided to only bring my fly for shelter. The plan today was to get to Wardner, about 75kms away. The Cokato Road from here to Elko was actually pretty cool. I wish I had known that just a few kilometres past Morrisey there were quite a few vehicle pullout bandit camping spots (well, I know now). The road itself got pretty feral within a few kilometres too - with the surface becoming quite rocky and steeply climbing up into the forest. I really enjoyed this segment and the bike and trailer happily bounced over the rocks.

Past the rocky road segment there were quite a few bandit camping spots as well and the route changed back to straight up active logging road. Thankfully there were no logging trucks this day and not too many vehicles either to dust me out. The surface was really quite good and hardly any washboard. From here it was 16kms to Elko where I'd stop for some refreshments at the gas station on hwy#3 and a rest before continuing onto the Baynes Lake area. (For families, the route west out of Elko is on the busy #3 highway down the big hill and then you have to cross the highway at the bottom of the hill to access the TGT. Far from ideal, and kinda scary).
OMG this section from the turn off the highway to Baynes Lake was fun fun fun! Rolling along inactive logging roads through a Ponderosa pines forest was really nice. Such a contrast from the morning segment along the Cokato-Elko Road. The surface was hardpacked but could also see they'd be really muddy and slower going if conditions were wet - keep that in mind.

Baynes Lake Farmers Market - aka a little oasis to this guy. Perfect timing too as my tummy was ready for a lunch and the crepe trailer did not disappoint. The route takes you through the village and in and around the lakes in the area, all quite nice and pretty easy to find. There is a store here somewhere, though I did not go looking for it. From here the TGT takes you through Kikomun Provincial Park and its campgrounds, eventually onto a paved road that takes you over Lake Kookanusa. There is a grocery store on Lake Kookanusa and this is your last stop for provisions before reaching Cranbrook. Oh, and they have ice cream!

The route from Lake Kookanusa to Wardner was tough going. Just past the lake the road turns to gravel and it was more rock than gravel and slightly uphill. Then it starts to really go up on a forest service road towards Wardner. A real slog. I had to get off and walk in spots, not because of the steepness, more due to the heat and unrelenting grade. There are plenty of bandit camp spots along the way as well, though mostly being used by dirtbike/quad users. Once over the top, the road quickly got better and better, faster and faster, descending down towards Wardner. That. Was. Fun. Once down into Wardner, I was almost out of water, and I spotted a fella on a property beside the trail. I asked him if he could refill my bottles and he was gracious in doing that, as well as offering me a couple frosty cold beverages. Rad humans for the win!

In Wardner the Chief Isodore Trail begins and goes all the way to Cranbrook. I had started the day thinking I'd stop here for the day but with the only campground in Wardner being a boiling hot dusty field with no trees, I decided to push onto Cranbrook knowing full well I was going to bury myself and end up doing 100+kms. The lure of a shower and a soft bed in an air-conditioned room was all the motivation I needed. This trail is a real gem and one of the nicest segments of TGT that I have ridden.

The Mayook section of the Chief Isodore Trail is 17kms of sweet, buffed, 1.2m wide singletrack with a gravel bed and grades generally no steeper than 5% (there are a couple section approaching 10%). The trail climbs up for about 8kms and then descends the same amount no matter which way you are traveling it. Coming down from the top was full-on-Ewok-Forest fun and exhilarating to the max. Totally doable even if you had panniers, are on a traditional touring bike, or if you're riding a gravel bike. Incredible work here and the trail crew deserves much praise.
See what's missing? Lost a shoe on the Mayook section :(

The longest day both in time and distance I have ever spent atop a mountain bike. What a day. The last 15kms into Cranbrook almost broke me - so tired and a stiff headwind made the going very slow. I was hanging onto the knowledge that a hotel room with a shower, a bed, and take out pizza was in store for me as soon as I got there. Why a hotel? No camping available anywhere and no real bandit opps either.
Day 4 Cranbrook to Kimberley
Strava Link

The final day's ride was along the Northstar Railtrail that connects Cranbrook to Kimberley. I've ridden this before with my Son and it is a lovely ride. Plenty of families and recreational types were on the trail, including an older fella in a power scooter was out enjoying it. The forest fire smoke was particularly bad today, burning my eyes and making breathing difficult - I was thankful I did not have to put in a big day today.

Big trestle over the St. Mary's River - the low point on the trail. It's all uphill from here to Kimberley.

Stay weird, Kimberley.

The Platzl in the heart of Kimberley. Trip finished, just waiting for Nadia to arrive and start the drive back to Calgary. The smokey conditions were maybe the worst I have experienced. Thanks to Tout Terrain for the incredible bike and cargo trailer!

Trip Notes:

- Without question, the Trails BC site was a route finding miracle. I really loved the option to open the map directly in Google maps and using the satellite function was invaluable, especially when on the forestry roads where spurs go off in every direction constantly.
- I also found the Trailforks app to be useful for getting a sense of the elevation I'd encounter on some trails making metering out my efforts easier and offering both confidence and sorrow knowing what was ahead :)
- For families, be aware that TGT does drop you onto roads and highways. There is sometimes a way around - but not always
- BC Recreational Sites shows some of the legit sites under they control and are generally free to stay at.

Gear List:

Some have asked for me to post my gear list, so here goes. It changes all the time depending on the bike, trip, and weather conditions to be encountered. This was a pretty minimalist kit for me with the forecast super hot conditions...
  • tent fly/poles/pegs
  • Poler Tarpent ground sheet
  • Therm-a-rest NeoAir pad and oversheet
  • Therm-a-rest Corus quilt
  • Inflatable foam pillow
  • MSR PocketRocker stove, fuel can, and MSR titanium pot/lid
  • Salsa titanium spork
  • GSI Insulated mug/bowl
  • Asoto Collapsible Coffee Filter holder and #2 filters
  • Headlamp
  • Personal bag with toiletries/meds/first aid kit/bug spray/sunscreen
  • Food bag with coffee/sugar/hot choco, 1 pack of instant noodles, 2 energy bars, 1/2 bag of Ritz mini crackers with cheese, 1 box of Reese pieces, 1 happy yak dinner, oatmeal packs, pre-packed pb&j sandwich on naan, flask of bourbon and 2 packets of Pocket Cocktails Ol' Fashioned mix
  • Clothing: 2 tank tops, 1 pair of jorts, 3 undies, 1 bib short, 2 pair socks, windbreaker, camp shoes, riding shoes, sunhat, UV50 long sleeve Columbia button up
  • 3 standard water bottles
  • Opinel knife and bear spray
  • Anker charger (for electronics)
  • Collapsible fishing rod/reel and small tacklebox 
  • Toolkit: Multitool, spare tube, pump, patchkit, 2 tire levers

Bicycle and Trailer Info:

  • Tout Terrain Outback 27.5+ bikepacking bike with RockShox fork and dropper post, Jones Bend 710 bars, Jones soft grips, Crankbrothers Candy pedals, Elite bottle cage, Ortlieb Toptube Bag.
  • Tout Terrain Mule Plus trailer with Ortlieb Rack Pack 49L drybag

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