Big rides in the okanagan: 2021 Roundup

2021 didn’t shake out as planned. Yet, for all that went wrong—ask me about the joys of a cross-border romance in an era of travel restrictions—I discovered the thrill of off-road cycling, and for that I am extremely grateful. Below, I’ve compiled eleven awesome local rides from the summer of 2021, including bikepacking overnighters, epic solo road adventures, and gravel grinders with new friends. Rides are listed in the order they were undertaken; all but three started from my front doorstep. A link to each route on Strava is provided. If 2022 plays out as planned, I’ll spend most of my summer in Europe and the America (bring on the Transcontinental, Race Around Denmark, Mallorca 312, and the Big Sky Spectactulaire!) and if not, I guess I’ll be out exploring more wicked terrain close to home. 

1. Five-Star Kinda Ride (April 6, 2021)

Kelowna to Enderby Via Westside Road and OK Rail trail Loop

Despite failing to register for any brevets over the past two years—a disappointing change of pace after doing the full super series capped with Paris-Brest-Paris in 2019—I still fall back on randonneur guidelines to structure my training: 200 km followed by 300 km followed by 400 km. The anciens seems to have this whole endurance thing figured out, and by copycatting their incremental build into longer distances, I figure I’ll be prepared to tackle anything, right? 

On this just-over-200 km route, I cruised from lakeshore to farm country, and back home along decommissioned rail trail. I headed out through downtown Kelowna, over the bridge, then along Westside Road to chase rollercoaster hills on the northwestern shore of Lake Okanagan—eyes up for big-horned sheep, mountain goats, deer, and stunning views of the windswept lake. After navigating through Little Kingdom and the Green Mile—a densely-populated strip of entrepreneurial pot shops—I continued toward Armstrong on Otter Lake and Knob Hill Roads, then enjoyed a fast rip down Canyon Road into Enderby. After a quick stop for long john donuts, chocolate milk, and bananas at Sutherland’s Bakery, I looped back along quiet farm roads, on the lookout for hawks, ponies, and stray dogs keen to give chase. From Coldstream I continued south along the Okanagan Rail Trail, kicking it up a notch on the fast flats beside emerald green Kalamalka Lake. A four-kilometre segment on the highway connects Lake Country to Kelowna at the airport, but from there it’s paved bike path bliss back into Kelowna. VIEW ON STRAVA

2. streams, snow & a whole lotta gravel (April 22, 2021)

Exploring Bear Creek & Bald Range

This early season mixed-surface century put me through the paces on my new Salsa Cutthroat. Out of town via Westside Road then up, up, up Bear Lake Mainline on washboard gravel. Welcome to the domain of off-road vehicles, dirt bikers, and pickup trucks; dust in your teeth and sun in your eyes. Turn right on Bald Range Creek Road for deeps woods and an obstacle course in potholes before descending back down to the lake on flowing creek bed. As a newbie off-road cyclist, I wasn’t sure how to handle water crossings: removing shoes and socks to wade through with my bike slung over shoulder seemed like the safest bet. But what is the protocol when trail literally transitions to steam? Despite my lack of technical skills, I opted to clip in for the descent, holding my breath until the route split from the creek to follow rough ATV tracks back down to the lakeshore. I followed paved Westside Road back to Bear Lake Mainline and climbed more chunky gravel until the snowbanks piled high and temperatures dipped below zero. At 1,450 metres—and without seeing another vehicle for hours—I filled my hydration reservoir in a stream and sped back to Kelowna, grateful for the stunning views over Lake Okanagan as my hands lost feeling on the jackhammer gravel descent. VIEW ON STRAVA

3. Friday Double (April 30, 2021)

Kelowna > beaverdell > Rock Creek > Osoyoos > Penticton Loop

This route is a personalized double century version of the BC Randonneurs “Up and Over and Over Again” 300 km brevet, starting at my house in Kelowna instead of Penticton: up and over Highway 33 toward Beaverdell and Rock Creek, and then up and over Anarchist Pass on Highway 3 to Osoyoos followed by a lakeshore blitz through the Okanagan’s premier wine-growing region.

A small confession: I was not stoked to undertake this ride. Did not feel like leaving my bed, let alone chamois buttering up my undercarriage in preparation of a full day in the saddle. Aside from the potential for highway traffic, it’s a stunning loop. However, I’d ridden it twice already, and when I woke up that morning, the magic of embarking on a new adventure just wasn’t there. Looking back, I realize that I was simply having an off day: frustrated by enduring pandemic, closed borders, and the tedium of my own routine. With two litres of water and a handlebar bag packed with pasta salad, fruit, and granola bars, my road bike felt weighted down and sluggish. Despite a winter of committed indoor training, the climb up Highway 33 totalled my legs before I even got started. Then I faced an insidious headwind along the Kettle River, and, bored out of my mind, petulantly refused to appreciate any offering of beauty the surrounding wilderness offered up. 

Luckily, one thing I’ve learned is that nothing remains static for long: weather, road surface, mood. Like the wheels of a bike, our circumstances remain in constant motion. And on the gritty climb out of Rock Creek (2.5 km at nearly 6% with heat radiating off the pavement), my spirits brightened. It was as if, at half past noon, I’d finally woken up to the glorious day: wide open spaces, a breeze feathering through the grasses, and the gleeful randomness of the road, from ostriches stampeding around a field to a towering Sasquatch statue. I tore down the switchbacks from Anarchist Pass into sunny Osoyoos, then hammered north toward Pentiction, Summerland, and Kelowna, breathlessly rallying a comeback in the second half. VIEW ON STRAVA

4. Mabel Lake Double Whammy (May 18, 2021)

Kelowna > Salmon Arm > Mabel Lake X 2 > Coldstream Loop

I cooked up this 450 km monster of a training ride after successfully completing a 450 km route between Merritt and Kamloops last summer. Leaving Kelowna via Westside Road at dawn (3:36 am, to be precise), I tackled some hilly terrain in the gentle morning light (hills are smaller when it’s still too dark to assess them properly) before veering west on Highway 97 at the north end of Okanagan Lake. After a few noisy miles, I veered north on Yankee Flats, then followed peaceful backroads into Salmon Arm, the most northern point on the road. I managed to stay mostly off the highway until my first refuel stop in Enderby at—yup, you guessed it—Sutherland Bakery before heading east along the gushing Shuswap River until my turnaround point at Kingfisher marina on western shore Mabel Lake. I took five at the shoreline to pull out a sausage roll from my back pocket before hightailing it back to Enderby, making a giant letter “C” as I looped around the mountains through Vernon, Coldstream, and Lumby before tapping the southern tip of Mabel Lake near the provincial park campground. Mission accomplished, I turned my tires toward Kelowna, straight into the teeth of a mighty headwind that chewed me to pieces until I reached my front doorstep around ten pm. VIEW ON STRAVA

5. OK Bikepacking (May 24-25, 2021)

South Okanagan Lake Loop

This 250-kilometre mixed-surface South Okanagan Lake loop was both my first overnighter on the Cutthroat, as well as my father’s first overnighter on his gravel e-bike. After sipping second cups of coffee to wait out a morning rain shower, we hurtled out of Kelowna on McCulloch Road, then inched up a gravel forest service road to join the Kettle Valley Railway for a laidback cruise through Myra Canyon’s eighteen trestles—a must-see anyone visiting the Okanagan. The gravel gets a bit rougher and potholes begin to resemble large koi ponds once you leave the more touristy area, but we made it to Chute Lake—the single commercial establishment around for miles—in descent time for lunch, and then it was all 2% rail grade downhill through pine forest and vineyards into Penticton. We opted not to pack cooking equipment, so we stopped for takeout (and cider) at the beach in town, then rolled further south to set up our bivvy bags on the shore of Skaha Lake. 

The next morning, we rose with the sun to rejoin the Kettle Valley Rail Trail between Penticton and Summerland, then rode the pavement on Garnet Valley Road until it met up with the historic Fur Brigade Trail, a rough track with incredible lakeviews that winds between Garnet Lake and Hardy Falls in Peachland. Instead of taking a straight shot back to Kelowna, we suffered the highway under ominously gray clouds until Glenrosa, then peeled off to climb up Crystal Mountain, and carve a big loop on forest service roads back down to Bear Creek. The storm finally caught up with us on the long gravel descent. After a few minutes of attempting to seek refuge, we embraced the downpour, and flew back to Kelowna sopping wet and gleeful: me stoked that my body could handle the rigours of 200-plus km of gravel, and my father pleased that his battery hadn’t died on his e-bike one of those big climbs. VIEW DAY 1 & DAY 2 ON STRAVA

6. The Buckshot (June 15-16, 2021)

Kamloops > Douglas Lake > Monte Lake > Adams Lake > Barriere Loop

I rode the Buckshot route a few weeks after the official “locals only” event this year as a shakedown ride for the upcoming BC Epic 1000. While the Buckshot changes from year to year, a few constants remain: the route starts and ends at Riverside Park in Kamloops and covers 400-500 kilometres with between 6,000-8,000 metres of vertical ascent over backcountry gravel, doubletrack, and forest service roads in BC’s Interior. The 2021 Buckshot route resembled a wobbly oval, looping south through lake-studded pine forest and grasslands to Douglas Lake before veering northeast through Monte Lake, Paxton Valley, and up the length of Adams Lake, then returning south to Kamloops via Barriere and Westsyde Road. 

I aimed to ride at a good clip but packed my sleep setup so that I wouldn’t have to pedal through the night. Due to a late start, I almost missed the open hours at all the refuel stops on the first day. On a little-used quad trail east of Douglas Lake, two bear cubs dashed across the path just ten feet ahead of my bike. Seconds later, Mama Bear charged from behind, and I sprinted for all I was worth as her footfalls thundered after me. Yet the experience wasn’t nearly terrifying as the farm dog that chased me for half a kilometre in Turtle Valley, it jaws snapping in saliva-frothing delight as I shrieked obscenities. I realized that bear was simply fulfilling her protective motherly duties by trying to scare me off; the dog probably playing. But two sets of sharp canines are more than enough for one day, and I wished only to see soft, furry creatures from then on.

Highlights included camping out on the pebbled shore of Adams Lake, successfully navigating some trickier sections where the track wasn’t obvious or apparent, abundant wildlife sightings from badgers to coyotes to birds of prey (and yes, bears), and meeting Lennard Pretorius—bikepacker extraordinaire and architect behind both the Buckshot and the Epic—after he spotted my dot on the tracking website for the Epic and caught up to me on his motorbike at a resupply. VIEW DAY ONE & DAY TWO ON STRAVA

7. Okanagan Gravel Extravaganza (June 19, 2021)

Kelowna > Penticton > Summerland > West Kelowna Loop

Credit for this big hairy loop goes to Dalton, who mapped it out, hike-a-bikes and all. Accompanied by a rockstar crew of Dalton, Lee (of OK Routes), and Emanuela, who kept us topped up on ice cream sandwiches and cheer the four of us tackled the hilly terrain with minimal breaks. This one is definitely not for the faint of heart—the loose descent into Penticton is sketchy AF—but if you’re looking for a challenge, have at it. Out of laziness, I’ve deferred to Lee’s description on OK Route’s webpage

“This route leaves from downtown Kelowna, heads east on KLO Road, up Hydraulic Lake Road and McCulloch Road to Kelowna Nordic Ski and Snowshoe, and heads south around Little White Mountain to Grey Mountain, then down into Penticton for 85km of uninterrupted gravel. From Penticton the route heads up Green Mountain Road, turns north to head through Shingle Creek & connects to Summerland and more gravel roads. Summerland to Peachland on Garnet Road is mostly gravel, and the route finishes with a section of paved highway between Peachland and West Kelowna.” VIEW ON STRAVA

8. The BC Epic 1000 (June 26-28)

Merritt to Fernie via Trans Canada Trail

From my ride report on “The BC Epic 1000 is a 1,040-kilometre (646-mile) off-road, self-supported bikepacking event between Merritt and Fernie, British Columbia, roughly following the Trans Canada Trail and gaining around 36,000 feet of elevation along the way. At first glance, the terrain doesn’t appear too formidable: the first two-thirds follow rail trail with grades topping out at two percent, while the final bit is a mashup of forest service roads, singletrack, and rail trail, with some pavement thrown in to link things up. The scenery is spectacular: with tunnels, trestles, and views of spellbindingly blue lakes; from the dry ranch lands and vineyards of the Okanagan to the lush green Kootenays, and further east to the untamed wilderness of the Rocky Mountains (think awe-inspiring peaks, rushing rivers, and grizzly bears). Some of the trail is in pretty rough condition, however, and a few special sections—including the technical, sandy singletrack connecting Castlegar to Trail, a 5,250-foot gravel climb up Gray Creek Pass, and a labyrinth of chunky forest service roads between Elko and the finish that I had the pleasure of navigating in the dark—make the course memorable.” VIEW ON STRAVA: DAY ONE, DAY TWO, DAY THREE

9. (Mostly) Gravel Century (September 3, 2021)

Kelowna > Postill Lake > Lake Country > Oyama Lake > Coldstream Loop

This route explores the forest service roads on the Thompson Okanagan Plateau east of Kelowna. James and I headed out past the airport through Ellison, then climbed Batta Road—a steep, slabby surface that deteriorates into a rough four by four trail—until James Lake Rec Site. After a pitstop for lunch we navigated more four by four track to Postill Lake, then descended to Lake Country for lunch. The second plateau loop took us up Oyama Lake Road, then past Damer and King Edward Lake Rec Sites before a screaming washboard descent down Kind Edward Forest Service Road into Coldstream—look up (if you dare) for sweeping views of Silver Star Mountain and valley below. From Coldstream, we rolled back into Kelowna via the Okanagan Rail Trail as the sun winked below the mountains. 

Note: if you’re looking for a sub-24 hour adventure that is close to Kelowna (and don’t mind a bit of climbing) there are plenty of free sites on the plateau to choose from. Temperatures are a bit cooler at elevation, but during an August heat wave the chillier evenings would probably be a welcome escape. VIEW ON STRAVA

10. Rail Trail Bikepack (September 8-13, 2021)

Kelowna > Rock Creek > Grand Forks > Castlegar > Slocan > Silverton > Nakusp > Farquier > Lumby > Coldstream Loop

This impetus for this trip was to join my father’s friend, Brent, from Quadra Island, to ride some of the Kettle Valley Railway (KVR) between Beaverdell and Penticton. James and I headed out equipped for one night—two, tops—but when we realized we didn’t have anywhere to be, we simply kept rolling, joining up various rail trails to make an 800-kilometre loop. After a fun day exploring with Brent and his American buddy Gregg—both hardy long-haul cyclist who’ve been touring far and wide since long before I was born—James and I bid farewell in an abrupt reverse of direction to follow the KVR westbound to its endpoint in Midway. From there we picked up the Columbia-Western Railway over Paulson Pass until it terminated in Castlegar (if this sounds a lot like I’m retracing my steps from the Epic, you’re right: I kept remarking to James, “I don’t remember this,” and “I can’t believe how gorgeous this is by daylight!”). A quick stint of pavement on Pass Creek Road took us to the trailhead for the Slocan Valley Rail Trail—fresh turf for both of us—and two more decommissioned railways, the Rosebery Rail Trail and the Okanagan Rail Trail, interspersed by longer segments of Highway Six and a handful of gravel side roads, looping us up through Nakusp, down Arrow Lake to Fauquier, then over the Monashees to Lumby via Echo Lake, and finally back to Kelowna. 

As happens, the forecast shifted in the latter half of our trip (we’d only planned on being out for a night or two) and we had to get creative in where we sheltered: one night it was under a covered picnic site, another under a highway bridge, and in Silverton we treated ourselves to a motel. Regardless of the precipitation, we had an absolute blast with camp cookouts, swimming holes, and bear sightings galore. I didn’t bother with a bike computer or GPS unit: we navigated by trail signage, double checking with Google Maps when we had service. After competing in a couple races this summer, I enjoyed the slower pace, and the opportunity to explore or stop early for the day without the constant nagging pressure of the race clock. VIEW ON STRAVA: DAY ONE, DAY TWO, DAY THREE, DAY FOUR, DAY FIVE, DAY SIX

11. Fairview Road & Apex Mtn the hard way (October 9, 2021)

Oliver > Cawston > Keremeos > Apex Mountain > White Lake Loop

This camel with two humps starts and finishes in Oliver, about a hundred kilometres south of Kelowna. The first 736-metre climb up Fairview Road starts the moment you clip in. I glanced once over my shoulder at the pale patchwork of green vineyards receding into the distance before the pavement turned to gravel, the open properties replaced by towering conifers intermingling with waves of fiery-hued leaves. Fairview Road charts a course from Oliver in the Okanagan Valley to the east, and Cawston in the Similkameen Valley to the west. A bird eye view would reveal a winding, switchbacked gravel road threading between duly impressive but non-headlining peaks—apart from Kobau Mountain to the south. After I descended into Cawston I followed a spur trail of the KVR for a bit before hopping on the highway shoulder until the turnoff for Nickel Plate Road, just before Hedley. This 1,421-metre gravel ascent—known by its Strava segment as “Apex, the hard way!” averages 6.4% (7% climb only), and according to PJAAM Cycling, ranks as Canada’s #2 hardest climb. Those intrepid (or stupid) enough to tackle it are rewarded with incredible views of the Similkameen Valley and surrounding mountains. If you’re keen for a break, rumour has it that you can sneak into some of the abandoned mines, or alternatively, simply enjoy an overlook of the squiggly, zigzagging road you just sweat your face off climbing up.

From the summit of Apex, nearly all the remaining miles were on pavement: from Apex Mountain Road I turned right on Green Mountain Road. I love how the canyon walls seem to rise out of nowhere, diminishing the few squatting houses along the creek. After a few uphill kilometres on Highway 3A past Yellow Lake, I continued my descent on Twin Lakes Road, White Lake Road—watch out for the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory—and Willowbrook Road, enjoying the fast miles through wide expanses of grasslands, pine forest, and sprawling ranches. A few minutes on the canal trail brought me back into Oliver, completing the loop. VIEW ON STRAVA

That’s a wrap! If you’d like to learn more, check out the ride links on Strava, or get ahold of me via the Contact Page. I’d also like to acknowledge that many of the places I visited this summer have been altered in the months since by extreme weather events. Monte Lake and Little Kingdom literally burned to the ground; rising rivers washed through Princeton and Merritt. My heart goes out to the folks in BC whose lives and livelihoods have been impacted by 2021’s devastating storms and wildfires. 

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