Where to Go Cycling in The Kootenays

From the backroads around Nelson to the rail beds near Kimberley, check these B.C. cycling routes off your must-ride list.

Slocan Valley Rail Trail in the West Kootenay region of B.C. Photo by Field & Forest.

With four major mountain ranges — the Rockies, Purcells, Selkirks and Monashees — the area known as The Kootenays is fast becoming a destination for cyclists of all stripes. Whether it’s on pavement, rail trails, gravel roads or mountain tracks, there’s a lot to explore on two wheels in this B.C. region.

In June of last year, my partner and I spent a week riding a number of beautiful back roads and rail trails (cycling terrain created on former train tracks), mostly in the West Kootenays around the Nelson area, and then stopped in Kimberley in the East Kootenays to sample another rail trail before heading back to Calgary. For this type of riding, my trusty touring bike served me well, but I did rent a gravel bike for two of the rides. A sturdy hybrid or e-bike would also work for any of the five rides of varying lengths and difficulty covered here in this Kootenay cycling “sampler.”

Pick one or try ’em all!

 

The Nelson Foodie 50

Distance: 50 km return

The writer on the Nelson Foodie 50 route toward Castlegar. Photo by Alex Berenyi.

This road ride from groovy, historic Nelson meanders along the quiet, scenic, secondary roads that lead to one of the best hidden gems in the Kootenays, the Frog Peak Cafe & Guesthouse.

Start at the southeast light-industrial end of Nelson on Government Road, which becomes Granite Road. It’s a steady climb for about 15 kilometres, past modest houses, with dense woods and pretty mountain views along the nicely paved, lightly trafficked road. Turn left onto Blewett Road; further along, a sharp hairpin turn takes you down (and down, and down) to cross the Kootenay River canal and hydro dam. Blewitt Road ends at Highway 6, requiring a short ride along the busy highway before you turn into the Slocan Valley Rail Trail trailhead parking lot. From here, it’s four km on a paved, car-free bike path to the Frog Peak Cafe.

Located at the 25-km mark from Nelson, the café is in a restored 1896 heritage building, with a big patio and shaded gardens. The menu offers lots of options for refuelling, from a brie and turkey panini paired with daily-made soup, to a scrumptious sushi bowl. Excellent coffee boosts the ride back to Nelson.

 

The Slocan Valley Rail Trail, South to North

Distance: 52 km one way

This spectacular rail trail through the Slocan Valley can be ridden from south to north or vice versa — or, do both directions with an overnighter, starting from the Slocan Valley Rail Trail (SVRT) trailhead off Highway 6 near the Dam Restaurant & Bar at the south end and riding north to the village of Slocan along the winding Slocan River.

Built during a silver-mining boom in the late 1890s, the last train on this railroad ran in 1993. Once the rails, ties and bridges were removed, volunteers worked with the B.C. government to build a non-motorized recreational corridor. It’s an ongoing process (sometimes, you come across heavy equipment operators laying fresh gravel) so the surface of the SVRT varies, from short paved sections, to fine or coarsely crushed gravel. Some stretches are like a country lane, with grass, buttercups and daisies growing up the middle. Ferns, cedars and bulrushes flourish in the damp, shaded sections. The grade is gentle, with little elevation gain, allowing users to look up and enjoy dramatic views of the river and Selkirk Mountains. And no cars!

It’s an isolated area, with old ranches and tiny villages sprinkled here and there; expect to encounter only a handful of other cyclists on the trail. Along the way are picnic areas with outhouses, spots for a dip in the river and several parking lots for access (no need to ride the whole 52 km). At the 30-km mark, stop for lunch in sleepy Winlaw where Mama Sita’s Cafe serves burgers, Mexican and Canadian fare, and good espresso.

A leisurely ride takes about four hours and ends in the village of Slocan. Once a booming resource city at the toe of Slocan Lake, it’s now home to just 379 residents, with a lovely beach and close proximity to magnificent Valhalla Provincial Park.

It’s easy to spot the bright yellow Slocan City Hotel, a renovated 1950s-era hardware store that reopened in 2022 as a five-room eco-boutique hotel, restaurant and live music venue with a Wild West-cum-New Orleans vibe.

John E. Pettigrew, a.k.a. Johnny Tornado, a noted blues guitarist, is the hotel proprietor and occasional chef. He serves up a tasty Greek salad and pizza with salami, prosciutto, four cheeses and mushrooms. If there’s no live music on offer, you’ll probably be happy to crash early.

 

Slocan Valley Rail Trail, North to South (optional Perrys Back Road detour)

Distance: 55.5 km one way

Biking alongside the Slocan River with a view of Mount Wilton, near Winlaw, B.C. Photo by Kari Medig.

The north-to-south Slocan Valley Rail Trail ride starts in the village of Slocan and continues south to the Frog Peak Cafe. It’s slightly downhill in this direction, which makes the trip even dreamier. If you are waking up in Slocan after riding in from the opposite direction the day before, prime yourself for the return ride with excellent cappuccino and wedges of roasted veggie quiche on the front porch of tiny Flaca’s Bakery & Bistro. Just down the street is the well-stocked Slocan Village Market, perfect for grabbing picnic fare before jumping back on the Slocan Valley Rail Trail.

To see some new sights, head 13 km south on the SVRT and then turn right onto Perrys Back Road, which parallels the west side of the Slocan River. There’s almost no traffic as the paved road rolls through green forest and past well-appointed acreages. (Most Calgarians would kill for such a beautiful, quiet country road, sans pickups and semi-trucks.) A couple of steep climbs — one of which might have you off your seat and pushing your bike — also make for thrilling downhills.

Ride Perrys Back Road for about 25 km to Passmore Lower Road near the village of Passmore, where you then cross a bridge and rejoin the tamer SVRT. From there, it’s another 13.5 km to the Frog Peak Cafe where you can stop for another coffee before biking the remaining four km back to your vehicle at the SVRT trailhead.

 

Cinnamon Bun Ride to Procter

Distance: 16 km/70 km

The writer en route from Procter to the Harrop-Procter Cable Ferry terminal. Photo by Alex Berenyi.

Hopping on a ferry and then cycling to the wee town of Procter for a legendary cinnamon bun is a Kootenay must-do — a scenic ride with a big payoff. Depending on time and energy level, this trip can be a short ride or a much longer one.

If you choose the short-and-sweet version, drive 27 km northeast from Nelson on Highway 3A to the Harrop-Procter Cable Ferry terminal, then park and unload your bike. The free cable ferry on the west arm of Kootenay Lake is a three-minute crossing that runs 24/7 year-round and offers delightful views of surrounding communities and birdlife.

The Harrop Procter Road on the south shore is a pretty, paved rural route, with little traffic, especially after the few cars from the ferry zoom past. There’s a hill starting out from the ferry dock, but it’s an otherwise easy ride east alongside farms and acreages.

In just eight km, you’ll arrive in Procter. Turn up 3rd Avenue and look for The Procter Village Café, located in a charming old schoolhouse. The bakery’s cinnamon buns are the Goldilocks of buns: huge, but not too huge; soft, chewy and not too sweet; unblemished by raisins or nuts (yeah, I said it); and oh, so fresh. The cappuccino is divine, too. Once you’re fortified with sugar and caffeine, the eight-km ride back to the ferry is over in a flash.

To really earn-and-burn the calories, serious roadies bike the 70-km out-and-back from Nelson. Or they join the official Cinnamon Bun Ride, an annual three-day event in May that raises funds to maintain the schoolhouse.

 

The North Star Rail Trail

Rest stop with a view on the North Star Rail Trail. Photo by Alex Berenyi.

Distance: 52 km return

Switching gears from the West Kootenays to the eastern side of the region, the 26-km rail trail linking the towns of Kimberley and Cranbrook, packs a scenic punch. It’s tucked between the Purcells and the Rocky Mountains, sprinkled with aspen and pine forest and grasslands, with sights of the St. Mary River sparkling below.

If you start at the top, in Kimberley, you don’t really pedal much for the first 16 or 17 km downhill to where a bridge crosses the river and the trail begins its ascent toward Cranbrook. The paved, car-free trail is lovingly maintained, with markings for every kilometre, plus outhouses, benches and even a bike pump and tool station at the southern trailhead. The North Star is also well used by walkers and runners. You might spot people gathering bundles of fragrant sage in meadows near the trail.

Pack a picnic and eat at one of the awe-inspiring viewpoints. If you elect to go into Cranbrook, follow the signage of the Rotary Way. The route is confusing at times, but it eventually leads into downtown. Have lunch on the patio at the Heid Out Restaurant and Brewhouse, where you can refuel with tasty Buddha Bowls.

Every calorie will be appreciated as the trip into town adds an extra 10 km and the ride back to Kimberley is mostly uphill. That said, there are several access points along the trail, making it possible to park and ride short sections of the superb North Star.

 

Where to Stay (and Eat)

In Nelson

Originally a miners’ hotel, The Stirling All Suites Hotel in the historic downtown area has been transformed into a stylish boutique hotel with 16 high-end contemporary but cozy apartments, all with fully equipped kitchens, in-suite laundry, Endy mattresses and other luxe touches. There’s a barrel sauna and secure bike/ski lockup onsite. For off-beat cocktails and nibbles in Nelson try Red Light Ramen; for dinner, the Italian fare at Marzano is excellent.

 

In Kimberley

Drawing on its roots as a former mining company headquarters, The Larix is a boutique hotel that’s equal parts urban chic, industrial cool and mountain retreat. It’s located at the tip of the alpine town’s pedestrian-only centre with its inviting mix of restaurants, pubs and shops. The Larix also has a barrel sauna and secure bike/ski lockup onsite. Nearby, The Shed is a good bet for beer and barbecue. And if you need cold-pressed juices and whole foods as well as fuel for your vehicle check out Stoke Market located inside a Centex gas station.

[Note: This story has been edited from the version that appears in the print issue of Avenue to remove mentions of Kootenay Cycling Adventures, which has since ceased operations.]

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This article appears in the July 2024 issue of Avenue Calgary.

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