Gravel Guide Montreal: City Streets to Scenic Peaks
Join Trevor as he explores the top gravel routes and bikepacking trails weaving through Montreal's dynamic landscapes. Whether you're new to Montreal's gravel paths or seeking fresh adventures, this guide is your perfect starting point.
Autumn is here as the canopy shifts from greens to golds, scarlets, and ochres. The air starts to gradually cool and the daylight slowly diminishes. The weather is crisp and the sights are spectacular. It's fall in Montreal and it’s the best time of year to be out on a bike exploring the city and trails that crisscross it.
The land around Montreal abounds with amazing gravel riding but sometimes you don’t want to battle the traffic and, in my case, you may not even have a car to battle traffic with! Just because you are in the city doesn’t mean you can’t treat yourself to some mixed-terrain riding. The city offers some great rides that you can take advantage of before or after work and it can be as challenging or chill as you like depending on how you feel that day. Plus, if you have kids like I do you can even make the rides a family affair. You might even want to stop along the way and enjoy a coffee or beer at one of the many cafés and microbreweries that dot the streets of Montreal. Or if you are keen you can bring along your coffee outside supplies and make your café americano en route.
This list is by no means a complete guide as to what the city has to offer, but if you haven’t ridden here before or are just starting out, they will satisfy your off-pavement needs. Plus, once you ride them you may find other routes that are easily connected to these. Don’t be afraid to even turn some of these into a S24H ride and make a quick overnighter bikepacking ride out of them. These trails are more of the gateway to what can be experienced and enjoyed no matter what your style of riding may be.
Cycling in Montreal
Cycling in Montreal has improved in leaps and bounds over the past few years. It has become renowned in North America for cycling with its vast 901 km of paths and lanes that take you around all corners of the island during all times of the year, including many that are cleared even in the winter. It’s not perfect by any means but the planning for these and many more paths is still being developed. The one drawback to riding in Montreal is the quality of the surface of the roads. Let’s just say mixed-terrain routes can sometimes be smoother than the paved ones. Beyond that, we also have BIXI, a bike-share system to explore the city even if you don’t own a bike. On top of that, Quebec has another bike system called La Route Verte that links the urban cycling system in cities to rural routes. Most of these are paved but they allow you access to numerous other trails without having to ride on a busy highway or at the very least provide safe shoulders. It has now become the largest cycling network in North America with over 5,300 km of ridable routes. All in all, you still need to use caution with the amount of car, cycling, and pedestrian traffic when traveling around town.
You can get a taste of Montreal and the surrounding area with the simple routes that are steeped in Quebec’s rich history. I teamed up with Marie-Pierre Savard, a local Montreal cyclist who is heavily involved in making cycling accessible for all in Montreal, to come up with some truly fun rides. You can really get a taste for the city with these routes that whisk you around the urban heart of Montreal and Mont-Royal, explore the great St. Lawrence waterways, dive into some single and double track off the island of Montreal, and even explore some of the fun rail trail north of Montreal in the Laurentians. None of these rides require a car but can be accessed from downtown or reached by the great rail system, EXO, to get out of the inner city.
Route: The Three Peaks
If you are going to do one ride in Montreal this is the one! In the heart of the city, we are lucky enough to have the historical park of Mont-Royal. In 1535 Jacques Cartier named this magnificent piece of land after being welcomed by the indigenous villages of Hochelaga who found the site a sacred place for thousands of years. Fast forward a couple hundred years later in 1876, the City of Montreal commissioned renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, who also designed Central Park in New York, to create the present-day park that we use now. The park is home to a 30m tall glowing cross, a stone Goddess of Liberty, the largest cemetery in Canada, Mcgill University and University de Montreal, Canada’s largest church called Saint Joseph’s Oratory, Lac Castor, numerous mansions, a look-out, a weekly festival of Tam-Tams (drum circle), and is home to over 20 species of mammals and 180 species of birds. Just remember to bring your camera. To say it’s an urban wonderland is an understatement.
With this ride, you will encounter historic Quebec culture and have some great gravel riding too! Not only will you ride the main mountain but two other peaks that all create an unforgettable experience and some decent punchy climbs too. This is that one ride that can take 45 minutes or all day depending on how you want to approach it. At the top of Mont-Royal, there are numerous spots to stop and have a picnic, make some coffee, or just chill around the lake. To be honest it can get very busy on the weekends, but if you can I would suggest taking this one in the morning or evening when it’s not quite so packed and you can relax a bit more and enjoy amazing views to see the sun rise or set. On top of that, they also groom the main trail year-round so you can ride it in the snow, or even cross-country ski if you like.
Route: The Estacade
Looking for an exceptional view of the St. Lawrence River, get some nice mixed surface riding in, and experience some amazing views of the city’s skyline? This route will not only take you right beside it but over the river’s watery expanse numerous times on a dedicated bike path. Not unlike all rides in Montreal, this route takes you through time, traveling by massive parks, old bridges, numerous islands, a Formula 1 racetrack, bird sanctuaries, relics from Expo '67, old shipping seaways, farmer’s markets, a pump track, a man-made canal and finally through Montreal’s historic old port. Again, this route can take 2 hours, or book off a whole day to take in the sights. You can even find a campground at the end of the waterway path to make it a sub-24-hour ride if you like! Pack a lunch and snacks or travel light and grab some gourmet food at one of the many stops along the way.
The path along the Estacade is only open from April to December, but that will give you plenty of time to explore all this path has to offer. Again, the best experiences I have had start in the early morning or evening along with some fresh brewed coffee and lunch at a little pebbled beach and just take in the amazing river sights.
Route: The Trans Terrebonne
This circuit takes you north, just off the island of Montreal and Laval, and crosses the Terrebonne biodiversity corridor to find some fun gravel double and single track. To get to Gare Rosemere train station where the trail starts, you can take the EXO train system from downtown during the week or take a short STM metro ride to De la Concorde station and get the train from there. Once you arrive the riding is worth it as you will forget that you are even near the city as you pass through heavily wooded areas. As you take a spin through these well-maintained trails you can stop at numerous picnic areas and take advantage of the many cycling stops along the way. This route may look easy but with all the fun trails you will want to spend at least a good half day or more to get all the great riding in.
Route: The P’tit Train du Nord (PTDN)
The P’tit Train du Nord is another hidden gem in the Quebec trail system. Following the original rail system that used to go from Saint-Jerome to Mont-Laurier, you will follow a 234 km multifunctional path through the Laurentians, passing along quaint mountain towns through picturesque landscapes at never more than a 4% grade. To get to Gare Saint-Jerome train station where the trail starts, you can take the EXO train system from downtown during the week or take a short STM metro ride to De la Concorde station and get the train from there.
Historically the railway began its life in 1882 as a way to connect Montreal to the Laurentian Mountain towns, but ceased activity in 1981. Taken over by the Quebec government in 1994 the route began its new life as a multifunction trail in 1996 where it has grown to one of the biggest cycling attractions in Quebec. The rails have been torn up, the old stations have been turned into museums and cafes and is accessible by all levels of cyclists and is rated one of the “top five bicycling paths in Canada” by Adventure Cycling Magazine (May/June 2006). It’s possible to do as little or as much as you like of this trail. You can do 20km or all 234 km and stop at all the towns and villages along the way where you can camp or enjoy the many bed and breakfasts and many services along the way. There is even a bus system to transport you and your bags if you want to just ride one way and take a bus back. Be sure to check out their interactive map to get a full list of all the services along the route. I enjoy this route as it is an easy way to open up a lot of possibilities to other more challenging overnight or gravel routes in the Laurentian region.
The one thing I always look forward to is my visit to the great microbrewery pub, Dieu de Ciel, right beside the train station in Saint-Jerome. Their poutine and Belgian-style beers always hit the spot!
Route: Aerobic Corridor (AC)
The Aerobic Corridor is another rail trail in the Laurentian trail system that is another must if you just need to escape from the city for the day and immerse yourself in the woods along a tranquil trail. This is the little cousin to the P’tit Train du Nord as it’s a bit more intimate and less busy with more access to smaller villages. Again, you can take the rail system to get to Gare Saint-Jerome train station where the trail starts. You can take the EXO train system from downtown during the week or take a short STM metro ride to the De la Concorde station and get the train from there.
The AC route is only about 58km long but you will take about 30km along the PTDN and some relaxed rural roads to get there. This is one of my favourite routes due to its laid-back atmosphere and beautiful scenery. Most of the villages along the way have quaint cafes and grocery stores if you need to stop and fill up on snacks and drinks. As with the PTDN, the grade is never more than 4% so you can go a long distance without feeling like you’ve climbed through the mountains. Plus, there are even some great little MTB trails at the beginning of the route in Morin Heights if you want a bit more of a challenging route on knobby tires. It is possible to make this an overnighter, but it can be a bit challenging as there aren’t a lot of campsite options. You’ll need to be a bit creative and do a bit of research for a bed and breakfast if that is more your style. I’ve also included an optional loop route for the AC as I wanted to introduce another way to explore that section and ride around the beautiful Red River region, known for its world-class gravel and home to the Big Red Gravel Run event. One of the highlights for me is stopping on the old train bridge crossing over the Red River and just relaxing to the sounds of the flowing water.
Bonus: Bikepacking Options
This list wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t give some bikepacking options in this area of Quebec. New routes have been constantly popping up and the routes make you work for that beer at the end of the day. Ranging From 2 to 6 days you can have some great experiences and truly escape the city to immerse yourself in the backcountry.
One of my favourite and most accessible is the Foret Ouareau route developed by myself and Marie-Pierre. This trip connects sections of pavement, quiet country lanes, rolling gravel roads, sandy ATV trails, and rough doubletrack, and incorporates the PTDN for a satisfying and challenging bikepacking experience. It passes by numerous rivers, lakes, farmlands, and maple and birch forests to create a breathtaking overview of Quebec’s diverse landscape. Not only that, but you also pass through a few quaint small towns that pepper the countryside, which is ideal for food, water, and lodging resources. As a bonus, there are even a few microbreweries en route to quench your thirst.
Another challenging and remote course is the Follow the Water bikepacking route. While predominantly in the Laurentians, the route does spend some time in the Outaouais region (Southwest part of the route). The start is located a little over an hour from both Montreal and Ottawa, moving North into the remote Papineau Labelle Wildlife Reserve, connecting east into the Rouge-Matawin Wildlife Reserve and Mont Tremblant National Park. With carefully planned re-fuel stations, please note the distances between re-supplies as they are fairly distant from one another due to the remoteness of the area. The ideal time of year to ride the route is mid/late May through September 6th. Before mid-May, a significant portion of the route is flooded, after Sept 6 hunting season begins in Papineau Labelle and Rouge-Matawin wildlife reserves which no longer allows for cyclist access. Keep in mind the remoteness. Also note cellular reception is quite limited along the route, GPS/SPOT trackers are recommended.
The third great resource is the comprehensive list of gravel riding and bikepacking in the Eastern Townships, an area known for its quality of gravel roads on par with Vermont. They have an extensive list of day and overnight rides in the Green Mountains region east of Montreal that are sure to please both the beginner and expert. Also don’t forget to check out the numerous microbreweries this region is famous for!
I always knew Montreal was a great place to ride in, but once I started writing about all the routes and thinking of all the adventure details it made me realize how special it is. While all these routes and rides may not be the most challenging and rigorous, they are all suffused in amazing Quebec history, cycling culture, and beautiful landscapes. No matter what your level you will find something that appeals to you and have you returning to explore further, looking around every corner for something new to discover. Plus, there are even more world-class routes outside the city that will quench your thirst for gravel and mixed-surface riding. Chapeau!
📸: Trevor Browne & Panorama Cycles/Jonathan B. Roy.