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Spirit, Soul & Vibe

British Columbia's Thompson Okanagan region is a mountain biker’s dream. With its great weather, unique terrain, amazing trails, supportive communities, and great opportunities to ride for every discipline, it's an area not to be missed.

The most unique part of the region is the climate. While it's just a few hours drive from some of the rainiest regions in North America, this area is Canada’s only true desert environment. Whether approaching from the Coast or the Kootenays, just one or two mountain passes is the difference between old-growth and tumbleweeds. This drastic change in ecosystems is part of what makes British Columbia so incredible and the riding along with it.

Lakes, wineries, and cattle ranches speckle the rural landscape and employ a large percentage of the population. Provincial Parks, recreation sites, and First Nations heritage is also commonplace. What really draws us to the Thompson Okanagan as much as the unique riding is the gorgeous climate and the lakeside lifestyle. Compared to much of the province, this area is dry and sunny, which is a welcome change depending on where guests are arriving from. This region has all walks of life. If white-framed glasses and sequined t-shirts are on tap, they’ve got it. If cowboy hats, flannel, and belt buckles are more your thing, they’ve got that too. This region also has all types of communities: white collar, blue collar, no collar, and total solitude.

From shuttling by boat to wine tasting after a good ride, the Thompson Okanagan offers a ton of opportunities for amazing experiences. Watch as the crew from Rocky Mountain and Endless Biking sample some of the most popular destinations.

Like the other BC regions we’ve already discussed, trying to whittle this incredible area into a few paragraphs is going to be tricky. Instead of reiterating what so many other articles have already said, we’re going to include a more eclectic, culturally diverse, and potentially memorable trip suggestion alongside a classic. Are we on point? There’s only one way to find out...


Merritt

On The Way

Merritt is the country music capital of Canada. The culture and demographic is mostly blue collar, with ten-year-old well-loved pickups, mellow country folks, and laid back lifestyles being the norm. While the town is relatively quiet compared to cities like Kelowna or Kamloops, we had the opportunity to spend a few days at the Rockin’ River Music Festival years back and it was anything but quiet. We had a blast rocking out to random acts and country stars alike. The people were friendly, the atmosphere was buzzing, and even our resident hip-hop aficionados were two-stepping by the end of the weekend. On nearly the opposite end of the music and cultural spectrum, Merritt also hosts the annual Bass Coast Music and Arts Festival. Though we’ve never been, we've heard Bass Coast is a good time for folks into electronic music, bright lights, and permanent hearing impairment (we’re teasing, it’s probably rad - we’re just getting old). Anybody considering a trip to the area should try to coordinate one or the other into their plans. 

Where To Ride

On the surface Merritt may not scream “mountain bike mecca.” Tailgate pads aren’t commonplace and it may not have a history steeped in mountain bike legend like Kamloops, but we always looked up at the rolling hills of the Nicola Valley and couldn’t help but think about the potential for riding. We had passed through on a number of occasions and it wasn’t until we stopped for a bathroom break at the tourist information center that we started to realize that our hypothetical dreams were very much a reality. After a quick walk up a trail ending near our vehicle, we determined that the trails seemed legit. After our first day riding that same area, known as Iron Mountain, we knew we had discovered yet another amazing riding destination. It turns out that Iron Mountain top to bottom laps are somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,500 feet, with a wide variety of trails ranging from casual flow to eye-watering chunder.

Join Jeremy Tenisch for a throwback rip around three mountains surrounding Merritt.

Beginning at the radio tower, 98 is a great introduction to the more technical trails in the area. Our favorite sections were high speed, sparsely treed, had swooping corners begging to be rallied, and small jumps. The jumps were perhaps the most memorable as once we realized that run outs were good, our lap became somewhat of a huck n’ head slap competition where everybody wins. 98 also has more technical forest and rock sections that seem to add length to the trail and make good use of the elevation gain. Choke Whistle is another option beginning near the top of the mountain and is a mostly fall-line downhill trail worth checking out. It has an old-school feel with a few modern touches to keep things flowing along nicely. Shuttling Iron Mountain is relatively straightforward and there are excellent singletrack climb options from the Visitors’ Center, including Too Much Info.

Beyond Iron Mountain, Merritt actually has a few other trail networks that are all worth checking out. The Coutlee Plateau, Sugarloaf, and Swakum are more all-mountain than downhill, but still offer a few technical challenges and great descents. The Merritt Mountain Bike Association deserves credit for most recent trail development and maintenance, and recently hosted the Cow Trail Classic: an XC race we actually regret missing and one of the only times we’ll exchange baggies for lycra (edit: Joel is speaking for himself here, most of the Vital MTB posse wouldn’t dare). Vital MTB skinsuits will be available shortly and it’s only a matter of time until they’re back in DH - we’re just ahead of the curve.

 

Where To Stay

Douglas Lake Ranch is a very unique accommodation option. It is Canada’s largest working ranch, features private lakes, an expansive property, and a variety of lodging choices from camping to entire homes. Beyond the cattle and horses, the ranch also has great fishing and a nine hole golf course. Corbet Lake Lodge isn’t a working ranch, but has similar amenities, a few trails to explore, and is a more affordable option. The only downside is that staying at either ranch requires a short drive to the trails. There are also a number of hotel franchises and vacation properties available right in town. 

Where To Eat

In an area surrounded by cattle ranches, we would be silly not to point folks towards the best beef options. The Hitch n’ Post Restaurant gets their beef directly from the Douglas Lake Ranch, has an appropriately country atmosphere, and may make the best steak sandwich we’ve ever tasted. The Kekuli Café is another unique local option. Great coffee and a breakfast bannock sandwich is a low-key, delicious way to start the day before heading to Iron Mountain. 


Kamloops

On The Way

Kamloops is one of the larger cities in the Thompson Okanagan. We wouldn’t describe ourselves as “city slickers,” but we do enjoy the creature comforts that often arrive with a larger population base. One creature comfort is that there always seems to be some kind of community event that allows travelers to experience the city’s culture, rather than just passing through. The Kamloops Ribfest would make for an excellent cherry on top of a big day in the saddle, followed by a dip in any one of the numerous lakes and rivers. The Daybreak Rotary group puts this great event together not only to provide Kamloops locals and guests with a great time, but to raise funds for various local community groups. Brew Loops is a more bike-centric festival that features tastings, seminars, group rides, and even a grassroots race. The timing of this event couldn’t be better, as the best riding we’ve ever experienced in Kamloops has been during the fall when temperatures are a little more moderate and the dirt is tacky.

Getting to Kamloops is a simple, convenient drive regardless of direction which makes it a perfect location for a weekend trip or a long-term stay. For this reason, the city makes for a perfect "on the way" destination in its own right and we often find ourselves extending vacations by a few days in order to shred trails, enjoy the weather, and catch up with our desert dwelling brethren.

Where To Ride

Kamloops is home to multi-World Cup winning and World Champion Catharine Pendrel, Fest Series, Rampage animal Graham Agassiz, and is arguably the birthplace of freeride. Regardless of discipline, skill or fitness, this town has enough riding to keep guests and locals more than happy. 

Our favorite trail riding destination is Harper Mountain, which is just outside of town near Paul Lake. On the way up Paul Lake Road, attentive passengers will be able to spot Josh Bender’s Jah Drop on the right hand side of the road… the thing is absolutely mental. The lower trails on Harper Mountain can be shuttled (hit up Mostly Mental Shuttles). We generally park at the lower lot right of Paul Lake, climb to the top of the mountain along the meandering Ket-R-Done, and descend right back down for a dip in the lake. Ket-R-Done takes around an hour of middle-ring climbing along interior plateau ranges and overlooks the city of Kamloops. Riders who regroup at lookouts often spot wild horses in the rolling hills opposite the climb. 

Hailey Elise unlocks some serious speed on Harper's Unicorn DH trail. - Photo by Mark Mackay

Dropping in from the summit, the first impression Harper offers is sheer speed. We’re talking eye-watering fast. The forests are less dense compared with much of the province, so trails tend to flow rather than wind down the hills and advanced riders can absolutely haul. Our favorite descent is Unicorn DH to Tempus Fugit. With around 2,500 feet and three and a half miles of descending, this combination is sure to please. Unicorn DH has been used a number of times for grassroots racing and is a high speed affair with a few technical rock sections, reasonably sized gaps (that can be avoided), and supportive corners. The relative absence of undergrowth allows riders to choose their lines well in advance and we often find ourselves carrying bike park speed – thirty miles per hour is likely for riders who let go. Tempus Fugit is an intermediate trail, however speeds still remain ludicrous as it contours along the hillside, making use of every inch of elevation gain.

Closer to town, Rio and Kamloops Bike Ranch are spots you can't miss. Matty Miles demonstrates why in one of the raddest web videos ever made.

Pineview, located on the south side of Kamloops, is an expansive cross country network overlooking Kamloops Lake. The trails there aren’t too technical, however like the rest of Kamloops, the open trees and moderate grades allow riders to climb comfortably and descend aggressively without too many concerns. Mine Trail is a classic Kamloops all-mountain trail and our favorite option in Pineview. There are short climbs and a few technical rock rolls, but much of the trail remains high speed meadow riding. What makes this trail a classic (for us) are the wide-open sections that give riders the feeling that they’re on a dirt bike, watching buddies rally in front and listening to the laughs and cheers from behind. The additional bonus is that the Mine Trail carries on for nearly fifteen minutes.

Matty Miles throws down again in this classic Sun Peaks video by Silvia. Yeow!

The Sun Peaks Resort Bike Park is the perfect complement to a vast trail network in town. If the speeds on Unicorn DH felt fast, this place will put that feeling into perspective as the sound barrier seems to be within reach on some sections of trail. Even in the summer months, Sun Peaks has a relaxed atmosphere with lines rarely exceeding a few chairs, and yet there always seems to be a posse of locals to chase down the mountain. The resort has held the Canadian National Downhill Championships for the last few seasons, in addition to the newly minted Canadian National Enduro Championship, and for good reason. What makes Sun Peaks a good choice for either race is the variety of trails from tight and twisty to flat out, wide-open options. We love riding our “little bikes” at Sun Peaks, although they tend to take a bit of a beating, especially mid-season when the braking bumps feel more like motocross whoops.

So sick! Dylan Sherrard lays it over at Sun Peaks. - Photo by Steve Riffel

Our favorite meandering trail at Sun Peaks is Sugar. Slightly removed from the main network of trails, it is an unassumingly awesome descent with a little bit of everything and flows like a natural pump track, especially once riders get familiar with each section. We seem to enjoy Sugar a little bit more each time, unlocking free speed and preserving momentum better than the previous attempt. Insanity One and Honey Drop are steeper, rocky options that require excellent bike handling and confidence to be ridden, rather than survived. A number of trails filter into our overall favorite: Arm Pump. Where the trail really gets fun is once it enters the lower woods. The rider traffic has produced a number of tall roots, but there are numerous ways to navigate each section depending on skill level. The most smile-inducing spot is two consecutive step-downs through roots which bypasses slower, albeit less committing options on the right hand side.

 

Where To Stay

With a population slowly approaching 100,000 inhabitants, Kamloops has many of the large hotel chains in addition to local motels, vacation rentals, and resorts. Since we prefer Harper Mountain for riding, we generally situate ourselves as close to Paul Lake as possible. Pinantan Lake Resort is a short distance from trails, offers great fishing, and has cabins for rent. In the name of convenience we usually camp at Paul Lake Provincial Park, literally a few hundred feet from the Ket-R-Done climb. Kamloops receives over 2,000 hours of sunshine per year, and with pretty reliable weather we’re happiest under the stars. Additional accommodation options are listed here.

Where To Eat

For breakfast or brunch, Hello Toast is our favorite option in town. This unassuming café has too many great dishes to list, but our favorite has to be the breakfast skillet. Even though we usually camp beyond the northern town limits, Hello Toast is a must-do on our way through town as we head to Pineview, the Kamloops Bike Ranch, or Rose Hill for a day of riding. Whenever we’re looking for dinner, we tend to wander through Kamloops’ downtown area. There are numerous options for every taste and budget. On our last trip we were feeling frivolous (by our frugal standards) and spent an evening at the Brownstone Restaurant where we enjoyed the ambiance in a repurposed historic building and compared their seared rainbow trout to our Pinantan Lake catch-of-the-day. Theirs > Ours... no surprise there.


Additional Stops To Consider

Looking for flowing XC, iconic hucks, or amazing lift-access? The Thompson Okanagan ticks every box. Established mountain biking communities like Kamloops, Kelowna, Penticton, Vernon, and Salmon Arm each justify a prolonged visit while hidden gems such as Merrit, Princeton, Grand Forks, and Sicamous are worthy in their own right. Add in the fact that the region has too many lakes to count, a plethora of alternative recreation and tourism, and it isn’t a surprise that this area is filled with travelers of all kinds.

  • Kelowna - The Okanagan Valley’s largest city offers "an amazing foodie scene, wineries, breweries, awesome entertainment, and a soulful urban vibe. In as little as 5 minutes from downtown, you can ride 20 minutes up Knox Mountain trails to conquer a network of cross-country tracks including berms and jump lines for a heart-pounding fast paced decent. Or head a few minutes further out of the city for more cross-country trail networks, and some single track, all-mountain, and downhill action."
  • Vernon - With several freshly made trails in the last few years, Vernon is a budding destination with "great hillsides and mountains right next to the city. Nearby Silver Star, Kalamalka and Ellison Provincial Parks all have mountain biking trails... The beauty of some of these trails is that you can jump in the lake after a great ride!"
  • Salmon Arm - Canada’s Shuswap region is "a hub for lakeside adventures. Over 470km of mountain bike trails and cross country tracks serve up spokes of serious highland fun in all directions -  big hit downhill, flow, berms, old school, cross-country, in town/out of town, backcountry wild and close-country au naturale, bike park features, loops, lines, descent, and distance."

See More

Rad Rides, Eats & More is a Vital MTB series meant to provide you with intimate local knowledge of excellent mountain bike destinations. Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks as Vital's BC local contributor, Joel Harwood, dives deep into the woods and explores the many mountains of six British Columbia regions in partnership with Mountain Biking BC and Super, Natural British Columbia.

Title image by John Wellburn

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