Rail Trail Rambler: Bikepacking in BC's Interior
In September 2021, Meaghan Hackinen and her partner James embarked on a spontaneous ride departing from Kelowna, British Columbia. What was initially planned as a two-day trip turned into a 700 km loop, taking them on a journey that linked many of interior British Columbia's routes into one epic adventure.
We set out from Kelowna on a September morning, with hardly a semblance of a plan. With a couple of 2021 races in the books—the BC Epic 1000 for me, Oregon Timber Trail for James, and Alberta Rockies 700 for the both of us—we're both itching for an experience that doesn't involve sleepless nights and gas station buffets. When I discovered that my Uncle Brent from Quadra Island was riding the Kettle Valley Rail Trail (KVR) westbound from Midway to Princeton—passing a stone's throw from my home in Kelowna—it seemed as good an excuse as any to hit the road. “We'll meet you on the trail”, I typed into an email. The next day, James and I are riding out toward Midway. In retrospect, I should have gotten Brent's phone number—or at least the link to his GPS tracking device—but the spontaneous whimsy of our journey counters the need to overthink.
From my doorstep, James and I pedal across the city, tracking briefly along Mission Creek Greenway before winding through the hills of East Kelowna. Climbing out of the Okanagan Valley is no small feat: whichever way you choose, it's a 900-metre ascent from city centre to rail trail. The air is heavy with wildfire smoke and the scent of ripe orchard fruit: cherries, peaches, and apples. We climb McCulloch Road to the point where it intersects the KVR near Hydraulic Lake, even though this means missing Myra Canyon's spectacular views. (As an alternative, I'd recommend taking the slightly steeper June Springs Road to experience the engineering feat of the trestles).
A smoldering sun peeks through evergreen crowns as James and I tear south along the Kettle Valley Rail Trail, front wheels rim to rim. Since Beaverdell, we've been engaged in a game of speed, swapping turns in the lead and ratcheting up the pace. Gravel crunches beneath our knobby tires; the woods blur around us. I grab a harder gear and dig in once more, edging ahead of James in what I hope will be the final triumphant pass that leaves him gasping in my dust.
Yet there he is: stuck to my rear wheel. My legs are ablaze, heart thundering against my chest. As quickly as my power surged, it drops off again and James pulls alongside. Past him, on our left, I glimpse the creek. Then, in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it flash, I sight a rust-red picnic table set among rock and boulders. I try to speak, but my tongue fails to shape words.
“Think we should stop?” James asks, nonchalant.
“Yeah,” is all I manage. Why isn't he breathing harder?
We skid to a halt. I catch my breath while soft-pedaling back to the rest area, which turns out to be perfect: a solitary picnic table on the water's edge and enough flat-topped rock to lay our bivvy bags. Though hardly after lunch, we end our track for that first day to spend the afternoon lolling in the river. As the sky drifts into plum-peach dusk, we boil up a pot of pasta and tuck into sleeping bags with our e-readers until the stars twinkle overhead like tinsel.
Since James and I hope to intercept Brent, we don't risk venturing far from the trail. I haven't seen my uncle since pre-pandemic times, so I eye down every man over sixty, in case it happens to be him.
Despite my creepy leering, we almost miss each other when our paths cross (us heading eastbound, him westbound) early on day two, not far from where we pitched camp. Brent is riding with his American friend Gregg, and after handshakes and hugs, James and I reverse direction and our merry band of pedal-powered travellers journeys westbound together—retracing our tire tracks on the gravel that James and I had ridden the day before.
The conversation centers around differences in setups. While Brent and Gregg are experienced long-distance cyclists, neither are familiar with bikepacking rigs. On seeing James on his Soma hardtail and me on my Salsa Cutthroat, both have a lot of questions. Mostly, they're curious about how James and I manage with less, and we discuss at length the perks and drawbacks of various gear and storage capacity options. Brent and Gregg marvel as James and I bounce over branches and washouts—our burly tires and compliant frames smoothing out lumps that the two of them, on traditional road touring bikes laden down with bulky panniers and squeaky back racks, must dismount to walk over.
By the time we reach Beaverdell, we've moved into the domain of grand adventures—a conversation that flows through lunch at Route 33 Diner.
“What are you guys going to do?” Brent asks. “Ride back with us and peel off for Kelowna?”
“I think we're going to explore a bit,” I say. “Catch up with you back at the house.”
Once Brent wrapped up his tour with Gregg, he was planning to spend a few days at our place before driving back to the Island.
James and I leave Beaverdell for the second time, jazzed up on Coca-Cola, full steam ahead. As we hurtle back down the rail trail toward Rock Creek, I outline my vision: we'll link up the Kettle Valley, Columbia & Western, Slocan Valley, Nakusp & Slocan, and Okanagan rail trails to make a wobbly 700-kilometer loop of BC's Interior, exploring the Okanagan, Boundary, and Kootenay regions along the way.
James is in. I can't remember the last time I left home—even for a training ride—without a meticulously plotted route, so the two of us winging it now excites me. Though I've previously completed sections—including Hydraulic Lake to Castlegar during that summer's BC Epic 1000, and much of the pavement between Slocan and Nakusp on my road bike the previous summer—I'm enthused about the prospect of linking familiar tracks with new-to-me gravel, all showcasing BC's gorgeous scenery.
We only imagined being on the trail a couple of nights, so we had packed minimally—though we did bring the all-important swimsuits. Only when we begin encountering heaps of bear scat on the doubletrack around Midway do we realize we've forgotten bear spray.
Despite the smoke—so omnipresent that Okanagan summer, it fades into the background of every experience, yet scores my memory—the scenery remains incredible. Every time we approach a rushing creek, cross a bridge, or descend into another sweeping valley, I can't help but whoop in glee and wax poetic.
“Didn't you just come through here on the BC Epic?” asks James.
“I was sleep deprived and overheating,” I counter. “Plus, I rode most of this at night.”
Admittedly, the urge to return played a role in choosing our adventure: as much as I love racing—the opportunity to traverse epic landscapes under pressure of the ticking clock—it doesn't offer a chance to appreciate the landscape. There's too much going on, too fast. Or at least there is in my puny scatterbrained head. What I recall of the BC Epic is more sentiment than detail: the thrill of running away with the lead, and the steady, machine-like rhythm of my legs.
I'm grateful to return, in particular to revisit the remote climb over Paulson Pass into Castlegar, where we encounter a half-dozen furry friends of the bear variety. While we still don't have bear spray, at least we had the foresight to stock up on supplies in Grand Forks. When the glowering clouds unleash their pent-up fury at Paulson Summit, the two of us kick up our feet under a picnic shelter to sip Southern Comfort until the rain quits lashing.
Of course, the moment our tires touch the gravel again the downpour resumes. We're soaked and filthy by the time we reach Castlegar, where we hunker down under another picnic shelter at Pass Creek Campground: ten bucks each gets us a hot shower plus a dry spot to sleep.
Leaving the campground, we take Pass Creek Road north to Crescent Valley, where we brunch at the delightful Frog Peak Cafe. Then we're back on the gravel, chasing the Slocan-Valley Rail Trail into Slocan in the shadow of the Valhallas. Again, James and I find ourselves pushing the pace, conversation dwindling as we swap words for watts. Both gunning hard until some invisible finish line—another mind-bending view of the impossibly-blue river as we round a corner—stuns us into stopping.
In this way, we find balance: ride hard, break often. A mix of dining out and one-pot wonders—plus chocolate to tide us over in between. James lives in Oregon, and travel restrictions meant that our rides together have been exclusively virtual for the past eighteen months. Now that we can finally reconnect in person, our time on the trail together is not something I take for granted.
From Slocan, my inner roadie rejoices as we hop on Highway 6 for some hilly climbs featuring the quintessential mountain and lake panoramas that the Kootenays are famous for. A pulse-quickening descent brings us into the village of New Denver, where we shelter from another downpour in a motel room. While part of me grumbles about the rain, the truth is the land needs it. With wildfires raging on both sides of the border since June, rain is long overdue. Plus, the showers wash away smoky skies so that we once again breathe easy, and the landscape pops with color.
Our intentions to pedal the Nakusp & Slocan Rail Trail (N&S) are thwarted by beavers. Or at least that's what the sign says: beaver dams have submerged the trail. So, after a singletrack stint on the Galena Trail leaving New Denver (more bear sightings) and an easy cruise along Slocan Lake on the N&S, we hop onto the highway in Hills, bound for Summit Lake. I'm not as enamored by the pavement today, and thankfully we find our way into Nakusp on a mashup of quad trails and the old Rosebery rail line. Unfortunately, there's more paved road ahead: a sixty-kilometer stretch south to Fauquier to board the ferry across Arrow Lake to Needles.
But low traffic combined with a ripping tailwind make for a fun, fast ride south along the lake. Along the way, we stop at a farm stand to purchase veggies for dinner: the owner offers complimentary day-end coffee, and also suggests we take the more northerly ferry next time and work our way down to Needles on the opposite lakeshore, via unpaved forest service roads in the Monashees. Noted.
That night the rain comes again. Optimistic fools that we are, we've laid our bivvies out on flat exposed rock near the river, and must repack and dive for cover under the highway bridge a few kilometers back—why did I leave my ultra-light tarp behind?
The following day marks our final one: a big push into Kelowna on pavement, forest service road, and Okanagan Rail Trail. No matter how many times I do it, the journey from Coldstream to Oyama along the turquoise blue of Kalamalka Lake is a treat. We arrive home just in time to meet Brent, who enlists our help to shop for his next N+1: a dedicated bikepacking rig, which turns out to be an All-City Gorilla Monsoon with a root beer fade and 2.2-inch knobby tires. His stoke level is through the roof.
Bikepacking is fun. Bikepacking with company? Even better. This accessible rail loop features plenty of resupply, which made logistics and on-the-fly planning a cinch. While I'm not about to throw in my race cap or swear off solo expeditions, our six-day ramble in BC's Interior drove home the satisfaction of simple, shared experiences—like splitting a Twix bar on a pebbled beach or having a friendly competitor to chase down the trail.