A Rugged Adventure in the Chilcotin Mountains
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Dakota and Paul head into the rugged wilderness of British Columbia’s South Chilcotin Mountains for a five-day, self-supported bikepacking adventure, setting up two different base camps along the way as launching points for unloaded riding. Learn more about their route, Dakota’s gear and vegan meal plan, plus a selection of photos…
Words and photos by Dakota Gale (@TraipsingAbout)
Call it bike-induced amnesia, but I’ve already forgotten all the hard work required to bikepack in the Chilcotin Mountains. Memories of sweaty hike-a-bikes up mountain passes drift away, replaced by stunning vistas, brake-melting descents, and a goofy grin plastered across my face.
Our goals for the trip simple: pedal bikes laden with six days worth of food into British Columbia’s backcountry. Keep the plan flexible. Make decisions knowing that help won’t arrive for a long time if we mess up. And, lastly, the most difficult and important goal: don’t eat all the good snacks on day one.
The verdict: WHOA. The Chilcotins are as beautiful and physically challenging as we’d heard. The terrain might best be described as the love child of Iceland and the Pacific Northwest, ranging from tree-lined lakes to icy creek crossings to alpine passes with scree traverses. This remote area contains all the ingredients for a delightful backcountry adventure. All you need is food, maps, pedal power, and ear plugs to ignore all the large bears chipmunks that stomp around during the night.
To reach the South Chilcotin Mountains, drive north from Whistler. Way north. There are two road options: 1. via the tire-eating beast of a fire road called The Harvey; or 2. via Lillooet, a town with the motto Guaranteed Rugged. Either way, it’s at least a two-hour, off-the-grid drive that makes you wonder if you’ll end up in Alaska. Most people who visit the Chilcotins use a float plane from Tyax Adventures, a tour operator that ferries people and gear in and out. Though enticing, parting with hundreds of dollars to avoid a little sweat seemed unnecessary, at best… and irresponsible, at worst. We hauled in all our stuff, including spray for encounters with grizzly bears, the real locals. Our idea was to set up two different base camps for unloaded mountain biking.
I wasn’t expecting an all-fun trip (excellent adventures never are, right?). Hard work sharpens enjoyment, which is why chocolate tastes so damn good on top of a mountain pass. But honestly, the trip wasn’t too bad. Even with my bags stuffed with 11 freeze-dried meals and a jar of peanut butter, sweeping views were my appetizers and staring at mountains while eating pad thai was a double whammy dinner.
Friends warned us about the push required to get into the Chilcotins. Horse hooves created the backbone for these mountain trails, so they are A) steep as hell, and B) rugged. Many times pedaling simply didn’t make sense and we’d hike-a-bike, leaning into the bars. Some sections are so steep that pushing a loaded bike isn’t possible. The routine was step, push up with the bike, lock brakes, move feet, push up, repeat.
The upside to pushing: unlike with a headwind, there’s always fun to be had on the other side of a difficult, uphill effort. The reward is solitude on mountain passes, and the adrenaline fairy dishing out large helpings of excitement on the downhills. Another thing we quickly learned was the “Chilcotins Pace.” By that, I mean slow In an eight-hour day, we could cover about 20 miles. Creek crossings abounded, as did swampy/muddy sections, mountain passes, and rooty/rocky riding. Every time we’d get cocky, we’d get smacked upside the head by reality. This was an experience, not simply a mountain bike ride.
It’s all worth it
Yeah, it’s hard work in dem mountains. Whatever. That’s the price of entry for bikepacking the Chilcotins. But that’s not the reason to go there. It’s possible to melt brakes riding downhill all day with zero work at Whistler Bike Park, after all. Beyond all the amazing riding, our time also included camping by a quiet, beautiful lake. Sunsets over mountains. Solitude in the alpine listening to marmots whistle. Starry skies that made our eyes sing. And a sense of adventure that’s tough to find on manicured, purpose-built trails.
Perhaps best of all, we didn’t have to use any bear spray.
Logistics and Details for Bikepacking the Chilcotins
Looking to skip the float plane and pedal in yourself? Here are a few logistical tips:
- Bring spare brake pads! Loaded touring + steep passes = toasted pads.
- Buy a paper map of the area, or at least the Gaia one. Navigation via just Trailforks is possible, but a physical map is a good idea in case things go wrong.
- Go in the summer. Our mid-August trip featured perfect temps, few mosquitoes, and minimal rain.
- Water is plentiful. This ain’t the desert: you’ll only need to carry one full water bottle, except maybe over the passes.
- Respect the Chilcotins Pace. We found that planning to go 20 miles in an eight-hour day out was a good estimate (on a typical ride in most places, I move 3-4x faster).
- This is bear country. Bring bear spray! Spruce Lake and Lorna Lake have bear boxes to stash food in. You’ll need to hang food in trees if you camp elsewhere, so bring some rope for that.
- There are two ways to pedal in: a relatively easy route up Gun Creek Trail or a burly climb over Windy Pass. If you’re looking for alpine terrain like we were, take Windy Pass.
- Basecamping treated us well as a way to explore on an unloaded bike for a few days. Our camps: two nights at Spruce Lake and two below Manson Col.
- Layer up! The weather is fickle and moves in fast on mountain passes.
Here are each day’s details, as recorded on Strava. I suspect moving times should be longer, but my GPS thought I wasn’t moving on some of the steeper, uphill hike-a-bikes… Apparently “glacial pace” isn’t a Garmin option?
- Day 1: Tyax Lodge to Spruce Lake via Windy Pass on Tyaughton Creek Trail. Relatively fast going and mostly rideable, except Windy Pass. Stats: 20 miles, 4.5 hrs moving time, 5300′ climbing.
- Day 2: Deer Pass loop (CCW) from Spruce Lake via Mid Tyaughton Creek Trail with return on Mid-Gun Creek Trail. Slow going on Mid Ty Creek, almost 100% hike-a-bike over the pass, and rideable from there. Stats: 25 miles, 5.25 hrs moving, 5000′ climbing (unloaded).
- Day 3: Moving base camp to sub-alpine camp on Manson Creek, then unloaded riding/pushing up to Manson Col. This is a rad, lesser known area. Stats: 17 miles, 4.5 hrs moving, 4300′ climbing.
- Day 4: A big CCW up Manson Col, Little Paradise, Little Graveyard, Big Creek, and Lorna Pass. Fair warning that Little Graveyard and Big Creek are muddy, frustratingly slow trails if it rained recently. Stats: 22 miles, 5.25 hrs moving, 4400′ climbing (unloaded).
- Day 5: Up, over, and out! Down Manson and Mid Tyaughton Creeks, up Windy Pass (get ready for barely doable hike-a-bike) and then back to Tyax Lodge via High Trail and Molly Dog and Pepper Dog trails. Stats: 30 miles, 5.75 hrs moving, 5000′ climbing.
I rode a Why Cycles Wayward hardtail with a standard bikepacking setup, similar to my Oregon Timber Trail setup. Here’s the spreadsheet of my Chilcotins packing list for those who want to get in the weeds!
- Max gear weight (bike, bags, food for the entire trip, 64 oz of water, gear I wore): ~80 lbs. No wonder those passes were hard, that’s almost half my body weight!
- Bike weight + unloaded bags: 37 lbs
- Gear (sleeping, cooking, clothing, tech): 20 lbs
- Max food weight: 14 lbs
Allow to me geek out… Weight matters, but adding a few pounds doesn’t change much. My reasoning: if my bike plus me weighs 250 lbs, even adding five pounds of weight is only 2% more overall. I could have doubled my food for only 5% extra weight. I doubt it would have slowed me down much. My takeaway: Unless you’re racing, that extra chocolate bar and warm layer are totally worth it!
If you’re aiming to do a bikepacking trip like this, you probably know what your body needs. If it helps, I brought ~20,000 calories, or about ~3,500/day. Enough to keep the fire hot! Dense calories is the name of the game, with a few luxuries. Here’s my complete food list. Note that I’m vegan, so it’s all plant-based.
- 11 freeze-dried meals. Backpacker’s Pantry pad thai is my favorite, with Kathmandu curry and other vegan options. One for dinner and another that I’d make in the morning and eat by noon each day…or 10:00 AM, heh.
- Dried soy curls, pre-mixed with a custom fajita mix for delicious tacos on night one. Pro tip: bring hot sauce.
- Oatmeal. Two packets per morning.
- 10 tortillas.
- A (plastic) jar of peanut butter and jam that I pre-mixed for trail burritos or for adding to oatmeal.
- 2 bars per day. Picky Bars are my favorite. Pro Bars are a calorie-dense option as well.
- Trail mix to eat/add to oatmeal and trail burritos.
- Pickles (carried sans juice in a plastic bag). Zero calories, heavy, and a divine gift from the gods at the top of a mountain pass. Totally worth it.
- Olives (transferred to a plastic baggie). All part of my attempt to not only have sweet treats. Great for adding to freeze-dried meals or eaten alone.
- Annie’s gummies
- Dried fruit (pineapple, mango, dates)
- 2 chocolate bars
About Dakota Gale
Dakota Gale is a blogger, business owner, vegan and (new) podcaster who’d rather explore the world on a bike than sit in an office. Recently, he’s bikepacked/toured 10,000+ miles through 17 countries and explored the U.S. for three years in his DIY camper van with his wife Chelsea. Follow his blog, Traipsing About, for tales of mishaps and (very occasional) glory.