I am a terrible cyclist. If there’s a rock in the trail (or a car on the road), I will hit it. But as I gripped the handlebars of a bicycle and rolled along Canada’s Kettle Valley Rail Trail recently, one thought calmed my fears: Soon, there will be wine.
Bike trails crisscross the globe, and many of them are former railroad beds. But few in North America offer the combination of scenery and hospitality that the KVR does. On this trail, you are rarely far from one of the southern British Columbia towns that specialize in a combination of recreation and life’s finer things.
So you can spend your day cycling a gentle grade, then head for a hotel or bed-and-breakfast to hose off before you hit a winery or two, enjoy a locally sourced dinner and fall into a comfortable bed.
“It’s the only multiday bike trip where you actually gain weight,” the folks at Monashee Adventure Tours like to joke.
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Ed Kruger, the company’s founder, led my tour near the wine-centric foothills of the Naramata Bench, stopping for refreshments at Lang and Poplar Grove vineyards (and an excellent patio dinner that night at Quail’s Gate Winery).
With long blond hair that falls loosely from under his helmet, he exudes a laid-back hippie vibe. When he’s not yodeling, whistling or singing, the B.C. native issues a never-ending travelogue of local legends, landmarks and events in old and recent history.
Tunnels and trestles
The trail gives you an idea of what engineers faced when they first set out to design a railway that could haul ore out of the mountains. Andrew McCulloch engineered this route, finished in 1915, for the Canadian Pacific Railway. His feat involved blasting tunnels into volcanic cliffs and building trestles across the steepest valleys.
Over the decades, section by section closed to rail traffic. Since the 1990s, the provincial government has bought up the railways to transform them into a nearly continuous recreational trail. Hiking trails converge on the bike trail now and then, which means you’ll see two-footed as well as two-wheeled explorers.
From west to east, the KVR begins in Hope — 95 miles east of Vancouver and a three-hour drive from Seattle — and meanders along 300 miles of foothills to Midway, where it technically ends. It connects with the Columbia & Western Rail Trail that continues on to Castlegar. You can continue even farther on foot, since this is all part of the Trans-Canada Trail, the world’s longest.
If you made good time, you could do the whole thing in eight to 10 days, although “you could spend 14 days, easy, on rail trails across B.C.,” Kruger says.
Points of interest dot the trail: Hells Gate and the Othello Tunnels near Hope; the mountains and lakes of the Okanagan; the magnificent rivers and fertile farms of Boundary Country, where the trail bumps along just north of the U.S.-Canada line.
Pine scent, mountain view
Throughout, you can count on certain things: the clean scent of ponderosa pine, the mountains rising above you and valley lying below you, a different view around every curve. I was grateful for the pit toilets every few miles on popular sections of the trail, as well as informational signs at historic spots.
The trail is always being maintained, but the sheer scope of that work means different sections are rougher than others. Most of the trail ranges from hard-packed dirt to loose gravel to slender, navigable dirt paths flanked by rocky sections.
Both ATVs and cycling are increasingly popular in the area, leading to trail-degradation and sharing issues. The section near Naramata shows one possibility for working together: Locals formed a committee and are working out a compromise. The likely result: Additional ATV routes will be built elsewhere and the rail trail will be off-limits to motorized vehicles.
Parts of the KVR go near or through small or medium-sized towns, but other sections bisect true wilderness. Cyclists have seen bears, rattlesnakes and other wild animals along the route. You’ll want a bike with wide tires and a cushy suspension as well as plenty of food and water. But even on the trail’s more rugged sections, civilization is never more than a day’s ride away.
While professional guides make things easy with pre-booked lodging and support vans that carry most of your stuff, you can also plan a trip yourself (Monashee offers a flat-fee service to plan it for you and let you go on your own). Many people carry their own gear and camp along the way or combine camping and lodging.
If you plan your own KVR adventure, be sure to do your research: Get help from tourism boards and other experts, study maps (especially recreation-specific ones that show locations of campsites and other amenities), and make reservations in advance if possible.
Christy Karras is a Seattle-based freelance writer.