🐻 Gravel, Bears, and Bikes among Three Ranges
Words & Photos: Evan Wishloff
Three separate mountain ranges converge in the small, friendly town of Valemount, BC. The Rocky Mountains, Cariboos, and Monashees all converge outwards from the valley that Valemount calls home.
Known for snowmobiling, amazing backcountry skiing, and stellar mountain biking, Valemount and the surrounding area truly is a four-season outdoor playground.
But there's one more thing I propose Valemount should be known for: gravel riding!
Not far from the town center lies Kinbasket Lake, a monstrous body of water that stretches some 200 km south towards Revelstoke and Golden. It’s a ribbon of picturesque water snaking through the towering peaks on either side.
With the gravel cycling craze in full swing, I was out with a small group of riders scouting out a potential route for a gravel fondo, one that would feature Kinbasket Lake heavily, called Next To Kin.
The route was ambitious. We had 120 km of rugged forest service roads planned, but that wasn’t the ambitious part. See, both the east and west sides of the lake have a gravel road, but there is no loop, at least not on land. Many cut blocks and side roads exist to climb up into the clouds, but they always stop at a dead end. Once you’re on one side of the lake, you have to head back the way you came.
Unless you get a boat! We planned to meet a pontoon boat halfway that would ferry us, and our bikes, a few kilometres across the lake, allowing us to return on fresh gravel we had yet to see.
This side of the lake is good... but so is the other.
Then the water levels didn’t rise as expected. Kinbasket Lake is actually a reservoir, created in 1973 when Mica Dam was constructed. That means lake levels are at the mercy of BC Hydro who operate the dam. Usually by this time of year, water levels are high enough for the marina to open, but not this year. It would be yet another month before boaters and anglers could get their boats onto the water.
Gravel cycling is all about improvisation, so the setback was no problem for the hearty group of gravelers I was with. The new plan was set: instead of one big ride, we’d do two - and out-and-back on each side of the lake.
So we packed our rain jackets, stuffed our bar bags with Clif Bars, filled our bottles, and set off!
For day 1, we set off on the west side of the lake. Lesser traveled, and with no campgrounds or recreation sites, we were pleasantly surprised to find the gravel hard packed and fast-rolling.
Climbing up and away from the lake. Possibly towards bears.
The kilometres ticked away with ease, and the weather stayed better than the expected rain showers. The furthest we got from the lake came on the biggest climb of the day, a meandering, twisty 400 metres of vertical, over a saddle in the mountains, then back down an equally twisty descent.
The whiz of my freewheel was drowned out by the sound of the wind, and I settled into a flow, looking back for my riding companion on the day. Right after turning back to look over my shoulder, I faced forward again only to see a large black bear standing in the middle of the gravel, facing away from me.
Grabbing a fistful of brakes, I skidded to a stop, the sound startling the bear, who took off running away, down the road and into the bush. As we regrouped, we made the call to turn around. The weather was turning, and we were on track for a 90 km day. Good enough by our standards!
This meant right back up the way we came - 400 metres of twisty climbing. Again. But at least we knew there was a fast descent, and then only a few rolly hills waiting for us on the return.
We dodged the rain, struggled up the slopes, enjoyed the twisty downs, hooting and hollering along the way, before having to stop, again, for a bear. This time, the bear was not fussed at all about the spandex-clad cyclists before him. He stood on his hind legs, sniffing the air, trying to make sense of us. We calmly talked at the bear, waiting to see what he would do. He came back down on all fours, then continued standing in the middle of the road.
Patiently waiting. You decide whether that caption is for us or the bear.
We waited. The bear waited. We waited some more. The bear waited some more. Our patience was wearing thin, but we weren’t about to charge a bear! Thankfully, this bear was about as relaxed as they come, seeming curious in us, then disinterested.
After a solid 10 minutes, the bear finally wandered off into the bushes, and we finished our push back to the cars parked at the mouth of the lake. Day 1 down, and without much more than a short sprinkle of rain!
Day 2 was supposed to be the nicer day according to the weatherman, so as it goes, it happened to rain almost the entire day. This time, a few extra riders were joining my entourage to ride the east side of Kinbasket Lake.
The east side is much more traveled, and better maintained, with a handful of campgrounds and a marina accessed off the gravel road. Just past the marina comes one of the highlights of the ride - a twisting ribbon of golden gravel that reaches up towards the sky, giving riders an epic vista back down towards the lake and mountain ranges stretching towards the horizon.
Climbing towards the views
The weather was good for the first 30 minutes, and then the rain started. Lush green forest soaked much of it in, but the rest was left to us. Those with fenders were pleased with the decision, while those without endured the rooster tail of mud up their backs.
But the views continued to make up for it. The east side FSR stays along the lake for much of the route, opening up to some stupendous vistas. We rode over countless bridges, past numerous waterfalls, all on some of the best-kept-secret gravel roads around.
One of many bridges, crossing a glacial river
At the turnaround point - where we originally planned to be boarding a boat - we stopped for a quick break before turning around. My hands shook from the cold - it was truly unpredictable mountain weather: 6 degrees and raining.
A can of coke, a handful of gummies, and we were off again. Back the way we came. As luck would have it, after riding in mostly torrential rain all day, we were greeted with sunshine and warmth for the last 30 minutes back to the cars.
And just like that, we were back the local brewery, regaling tales of gravel ridden, scenery viewed, bears seen, and sore legs spent, over a pint. Valemount - your gravel is good.
Want to hear more about the stellar mountain biking in Valemount? Check out VARDA’s website.
If you’re interested in learning more about how to get there, where to stay, what to eat, and more, check out the Visit Valemount tourism page.
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