​Spirit, Soul & Vibe

Whether approaching from the Yellowhead Highway or Highway 97, the first impression of Northern British Columbia, Canada can be summed up in two words: limitless terrain. Most of British Columbia’s population is located near the 49th parallel, leaving the northern portion of the province largely untouched. Mountains, wildlife and lakes outnumber the towns and their inhabitants by a significant margin. Many of the small communities exist due to the resource industry. On the other hand, some towns exist solely for their solitude and pristine wilderness access. Each community has a unique character that blends old-school industry with new-school eco-conservation, and what is remarkable is how these seemingly opposing groups not only coexist, but in general they are understanding of each other’s needs and supportive of one another. 

Northern BC is a true wilderness experience, regardless of the natural resource industry. The majority of the area is either Provincial Park or protected wilderness, and the outdoor recreation opportunities are infinite. Guests to this area should make time for more than just the mountain biking. Blending rides with hiking, fishing, paddling the lake and rivers, and mountaineering will bestow travelers a more profound appreciation for this area.

Join Rocky Mountain team riders as they explore a few of Northern BC's finest riding areas.

Although it varies depending on proximity to the coast and surrounding microclimates, Northern BC has near perfect riding weather during the summer months. Temperatures rarely exceed the eighties, and most areas get just the right amount of precipitation during the summer months: enough to keep the trails tacky, not so much to dampen spirits or interrupt an itinerary.

There are a number of possible riding stops along Highway 16, including Prince George, Vanderhoof, Fort Saint James, Burns Lake, Smithers, and Terrace. All of these areas are within a short hour or two drive from one another and would make for an excellent trip. We'll focus this guide on Prince George and Smithers - the two most popular areas - with some sprinkled Burns Lake beta for good measure.


Prince George

Prince George, located at the confluence of the Fraser and Nechako rivers, is known as the "capital" of Northern BC. With a population of around 80,000 it is the largest city in the region by a significant margin. Although the First Nations have been in the area for centuries, Europeans first arrived in the early 1,800's after the creation of a fur trading post. After CN Rail arrived, Prince George became and remains a hub for British Columbia’s industrial economy. Even though PG remains industrial, they have broadened their economic and employment opportunities through all types of eco-tourism. Mountain biking has always had a presence in Prince George (remember Kyle Norbraten's Train Gap from the Inside Out?), is now growing, and after having ridden in the area we’re quite pleased that it has.

On The Way

For those coming from the south, the perfect spot for a thermos of coffee and a history lesson is Fort George Canyon Provincial Park. It's a short hike to the canyon, where the Fraser River churns abruptly around huge rocks, whirlpools and small islands. Those arriving on the Yellowhead should definitely check out the Ancient Forest hike near Slim Creek, a couple hours before PG. Like Fort George Canyon, the Ancient Forest is a mellow hike, but worthwhile as the forest is a unique combination of temperate rain and boreal forest. We have to admit that we are guilty tree-hugging from time to time, plus these giants offer a nice break from the road and are a great way to get better acquainted with the area.

Where To Ride

Most of the trails in PG are a result of the passionate members of the Prince George Cycling Club. This diverse group does everything from road rides to trail building. Locals don’t seem to care what or how anybody rides, they’re simply stoked to see people out riding. It isn’t uncommon to see a $250 Walmart bike ripping trail alongside a $6,000 trail bike. The crew at Ruckus not only turn wrenches, but they ride hard and are more than happy to point visitors in the right direction.

Cruising through endless trees at Otway. - Photo by Graeme Paterson

At the shop's recommendation, we checked out the Otway trails first and it is now our preferred starting point for a trip to PG. The Otway trail network is based at the Caledonia Nordic Ski Club and is perfect for groups with varying skill levels. Most trails can be enjoyed by beginners, but we still found ourselves giggling our way down since the trails are the perfect grade for advanced riders to hit most sections at warp speed. The trails are smooth enough that they encourage riders to let go of their brakes. There is just enough rocks and roots that riding at speed requires full attention. Our favorite option for a quick ride is to climb Curves and Espresso, get a couple of short laps on Freeway and Bad Dog, followed by a longer descent on Rollercoaster, Twister, Deliverance, and wrapping up with Karma, which ends right back at the ski club. This loop takes a couple of hours, helps to shake out the cobwebs from the drive, and can put a grin on just about any rider’s face. Riders looking for a bigger rides can link Otway to the University Trails by riding an hour long double-track connector, but there’s more than enough in this zone to whet your appetite.

In this video by Josh Patterson, watch as Ben Yeager samples some awesome Pidherny soil before picking up his big bike.

Our preferred riding spot anytime we’re in town are the Pidherny Trails. More challenging options can be found in this area and DH bikes are common. This area is more quality than quantity. Older trails have been updated where necessary, but mostly left untouched, and newer trails make great use of the terrain. A perfect example is New England Clam Chowder: a mixed bag of man-made berms, bridges, and natural rhythm sections that offers bonus features and free speed the whole way for riders looking to squeeze every drop from the trail. Though we’re not generally fans of wooden berms, nor do we seek out ladder bridges, PG’s seems to put a smile on our faces every time we visit. A new trail called The Kitchen Sink is quickly becoming a local's favorite:

Dropping into The Kitchen Sink. - Photo by Devon Budd

Papa Woods DH is another one within Pidherny that we love: the trail begins with a start ramp that could probably pass a building inspection, then endless small jumps, drops and rollers encourage riders to go airborne the whole way down. Our favorite feature on is a small dirt-to-dirt lefthand hip after an optional skinny. It can be boosted or squashed and provides that perfect feeling of flow that only the optimal combination of speed, rhythm and air seem to offer. Just about every feature on the trail can be rolled or sent, and missing tranny isn’t a major concern in either case. A second lap or following a local definitely makes things more entertaining and encourages riders to make the most out of each feature.

Riders looking for a more adventurous ride should check out Vineyards. This six mile out and back alpine ride is can be a true test of technical climbing skill, and is an absolute blast to descend. From the ridge, riders have the option to hike the 7,000 foot Apse Peak, a mid-sized summit within the Cariboo (Columbia) Mountain Range. Although bikes are permitted, this trail was originally build for hiking and is still a popular route, so give this one a miss on a sunny Saturday.

 

Where To Stay

Norton Ranch Cottages are located just west of Prince George, but they are worth the drive. There are three cottages to choose from, all of which are perfect for mellowing out after a long day on the trails. The ranch blends country and contemporary in a unique way and is a perfect venue for a couples’ mountain bike retreat. When traveling on a more modest budget, we’ve always been stoked on Blue Cedars RV Park, which is located just minutes from the Forest of the World and University trails, which also connect to Otway. It’s possible to spend a few days riding right from the campsite, which is always a blessing after a day or two of travel getting to Prince George.

Where To Eat

With a population of over 70,000 people, and the slogan “where rugged wilderness and urban sophistication collide,” one might have high expectations for a plethora of dining options. Prince George has great local joints for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and while we haven’t had the opportunity to visit them all we’re more than happy to point visitors in the right direction based on our experience. Margo’s Café and Sassafras Savouries are both unassuming local spots where visitors and folks alike can get a bite to eat and a caffeine fix before a day on the trails. Amigo’s Taco Shop is a quick, delicious Mexican option for lunch and now has two locations in town. Achillion Greek Cuisine and Nancy O’s are two of our favorite casual dinner spots and they’re only a few blocks apart. 

With hydration being such an important part of mountain biking, we would be foolish not to include some of Prince George’s best opportunities to rehydrate after a ride. Pacific Western Brewing has been refining their craft for half a century and it shows in each of their brews. Don’t believe us? Fortunately they’ve got a tasting room for folks to draw their own conclusion. Cariboo Brewing is a British Columbia classic, and depending on accommodations riders might be heading conveniently past on the way to and from Pidherny. Crossroads Brewing is an ongoing project, but they’re hoping to be up and running in late 2016. Those who prefer that the beer come to them needn’t worry: The Kask Taproom and Eatery is set to open shortly too. 


Smithers

The Northern BC town of Smithers is situated along the Bulkley River and is flanked by the Hudson Bay and Babine Mountain Ranges. This small town is unique from the surrounding communities and is one of our favorite towns in all of British Columbia. While many inhabitants in towns such as Prince George are largely industry focused, “Smithereens” are faithful environmental stewards. The red brick sidewalks, Swiss-style alpine rooflines, art and music scene, and town culture all seem to cater to outdoor recreationalists, rather than industrialists. The legacy of artists, musicians and athletes who have come from this small community imply that Smithers is a little bit of a special place, and we admit that we’re in agreement. This town is well worth the trip. 

On The Way

Fortunately for riders, heading to Smithers from Prince George means opportunities to stop in Vanderhoof, Fort Saint James, and Burns Lake for additional riding opportunities.

Thanks to a recent trail expansion effort to the tune of more than a million dollars, Burns Lake is very deserving of a day or two of your journey. We aren’t really sure how many members the Burns Lake Mountain Bike Association has, but we’re guessing that those they do have are extremely passionate riders, builders and cycling advocates. For just a couple thousand residents, Burns Lake boasts an enormous trail network. Boer Mountain has a handful of excellent trails. When Pigs Fly is a Gravity Logic project that milks every foot of elevation loss; advanced riders will have a blast airing out of corners and hitting the well-built tabletops, and intermediate riders can keep their wheels on the ground without having to worry about gaps, drops or the like. 

The view from the top of Razorback trail near Burns Lake is well worth the climb, and the ride back down is a blast. - Photo by Glenn King

Razorback is an ambidextrous cross country option with a few viewpoints, and accesses the upper trails for those looking for meandering singletrack rather than road. Since our quick loops generally turn into a full day, we fill up at Alternative Grounds with a breakfast skillet and a coffee.


Where To Ride

We already admitted that we’re a little bit smitten over Smithers. The Cronin Trail and Silver King Basin are part of the reason. Ever since our first ride, we’ve wanted to return in order to soak it all in once again. This ride can be done as an out-and-back or as a shuttle up Babine Lake Road, and is our “must-do” in Smithers. The trail uses a combination of mining roads and hiking trails, so the riding itself isn’t berms and flow. It can be challenging in spots and physically strenuous in others, but the Babine Mountain backdrop and Joe L’orsa Cabin are worth the effort. This is an inspiring place to ride, and it encourages you to explore deeper, further and more remote locations that are yet to become beaten paths. Because this route is quite popular with hikers, we recommend riding here mid-week to maximize fun on the descent.

The Silverking Basin and Babine Mountain backdrop are breathtaking. - Photo by Melissa G

The Ptarmigan Trails are perfect for riders seeking flow and fun. The first time we rode Huckin’ Eh we were a little intimidated by the name… until we came to realize that hucks seemed to be encouraged, rather than mandatory. The rollers can be gapped, rhythmed or simply ignored, but in honor of the trail’s namesake we suggest yanking on the bars whenever the opportunity presents itself. Trannies are good, landings have visibility and goon riding on Huckin’ Eh is a blast. Pump Daddy is a more modern flow trail also worth checking out. There are a handful of short offshoots and stunts lurking in the woods for those with a keen eye too.

Those who remember 'Routes' the movie will no doubt recall Wayne Goss and Eric Hillen shredding in Smithers as well.

Silver King views aside, Piper Down to Backdoor is our favorite MTB specific ride in the valley. Photos of the Piper Down plane gap are floating all over the internet, but our favorite sections of the trail are the natural steeps and slabs between the features. Similarly, the best sections of Backdoor are the natural sections between the built features and lend themselves perfectly to the modern trail bike. The dirt, roots, rocks and grade all combine to make an ideal all-mountain descent that will have riders yipping the whole way down. There are even a few wooden features and creek crossings for variety. In combination, these two trails add up to a six mile, 5,000 foot ride. Wipe the grin off, grab a snack and either repeat the exact same loop, explore the other upper trails, or head to the nearby Bluff Trails to keep the party going. 

 

Where To Stay

Anybody keen to ride in the Babine Mountains and discover the nearby lakes and ridges fully should check out the Aspen Bay Cabins. The cabins are surrounded by trails and anglers can catch dinner in Chapman Lake. In town, Smithers Par 3 & RV and the Municipal RV Park and Campground are clean, quiet and our favorite spots to catch a catnap in between adventures.

Where To Eat

Every morning in Smithers should begin with an espresso from the Bugwood Bean. This small, family owned coffee shop not only makes a great brew, but they’ve got fresh baked goods for a quick breakfast on route to the trails. Chatters Pizzeria and Bistro will have jalapeño lovers saluting either the North Central or Chicken Sunrise pizzas, plus there are a plethora of other options for those with milder tastes. Delivery is an option too for those who prefer the food come to them. Our favorite post-ride dinner and drink spot is the Trackside Cantina. This Mexican restaurant combines traditional dishes, local ingredients and a little panache. We must admit that we fancy ourselves as burrito connoisseurs, and the Trackside is top notch. 

Does it get better than this? - Photo by Graeme Paterson

What else can we say? If it isn’t obvious already, we’re having a little bit of a tough time condensing a lifetime of riding into a few paragraphs. Northern BC is larger than many states and has just about every type of ecosystem you can think of. On top of that there are a pile of villages, towns and cities that are absolutely mental for bikes. We would like to encourage travelers to Northern BC take the time to do it right, rather than trying to pack it all in. Prince George and Smithers are just two examples of what this region offers and there is just too much to experience in a hurried trip to. Our advice is to pack every piece of outdoor gear, a sense of adventure, and start heading north. 

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 in Burns Lake

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