Words and photos by Taryn Davis (@tleigh.d)
The Butter Tart 700 is a 760-kilometre loop that explores some of the prettiest and hilliest countryside in southwestern Ontario. Leaving from St. Jacobs, the route brings cyclists up to Lake Huron, around Bruce and Grey counties, and shoots back down through Dufferin and Wellington counties, all in a fashion that is never direct and constantly delivers surprises.
Matt Kadey pieced together the route after years of scouting and dreaming up trail connectors with his partner Tabi. The inaugural Grand Depart in 2019 saw an array of cyclists, including those looking to complete the route at race pace to those interested in soaking in the trip, one pedal stroke and butter tart at a time. Due to pandemic restrictions, the 2020 Grand Depart extended over an entire weekend, allowing riders to trickle out while still creating an exciting energy between riders, trail fairies, and communities along the way.
Like many bikepacking routes, the terrain is best suited for whatever bike you have. Setups ranged from drop bar gravel bikes to mountain bikes with tri-bars. All bikes had one thing in common, however: a rider at the helm full of wanderlust and ready for adventure. And adventure the route did dish out! There were beautiful gravel roads, killer hills, rocky descents, precarious trails, ATV pump track, and flowy singletrack. Amidst the jam-packed terrain, riders had their pick of wild camping, designated campsites and indoor options like guesthouses and motels.
The route started off with relatively flat gravel roads and rail trails lined with farmers’ fields, which are a treat if the wind is headed in the right direction (such was not the case). This faded away as riders approached Lake Huron, in which they were introduced to some seriously rutted ATV trail, best treated as a mini pump track for optimal enjoyment. Riders were rewarded for their hard work when they reached the blissful shores of Lake Huron.
The terrain didn’t stay flat for long. Between Port Elgin and Owen Sound riders had a chance to get their legs warmed up on rolling hills. The 2020 route saw a few tweaks, including the addition of a gravel extension outside of Wiarton. This stretch was serene, a quiet beauty. The punches started shortly thereafter. Accurately named on the point of interest map as ‘start of some relentless hills’, the hills kept on for some time. Most were surmountable while others required hefty hike-a-bike, all in the spirit of adventure.
The hills eventually subsided and riders were presented with what seemed like a gift: flowy singletrack followed by rail trail and relatively flat gravel roads once again. After several hundred kilometres of riding, aches and pains made themselves known on such a flat section. The fatigue and soreness provided a sense of accomplishment though, fuelling the fire to finish the route.
The general stores scattered throughout the route were a cyclist’s haven. Most had the staples required to fuel riders, such as water, caffeine, butter tarts, and other baked goods. Some, however, went a step above and beyond and put out water coolers and fridges full of assorted drinks for riders to stock up on outside of business hours. The stores were also a great place to meet and chat up locals, sharing details of the trip and swapping adventure stories.
This hospitality was extended amongst the aid stations that fellow BTers and community members set up in their yards. Bike washing stations, repair tools, bananas, pre-made PB&J sandwiches, gummies, a guest book. Not to mention lots of dogs to pet. You name it, they had it! Indeed, 2020 brought a unique set of challenges to the event but this did not dampen the friendships and connections made throughout the journey. Although official rider numbers were down compared to 2019, those who did venture out were rewarded with laughter, thoughtfulness, and a sense of community.
If you’re looking for a bikepacking adventure full of rugged beauty, this is it. Although the route can be enjoyed at any time of the year, the excitement and camaraderie that the Grand Depart brings is second to none. Get on out there and enjoy what southwestern Ontario has to offer!
There’s still a big group of riders out on the route, so head over to the 2020 BT 700 event listing to follow along live. Congrats to Taryn, and everyone else participating this year.