Note from the author: This episode of Local Flavors was produced in August 2020 when cases of Covid-19 were zero in the Northern Health Region. Despite this, every precaution from keeping distance, wearing face masks, and buckets of hand sanitizer were used to minimize risk. The towns in northern BC are small with limited medical resources and hospital facilities so I strongly encourage everyone to follow the current BC CDC travel recommendations and restrictions. If it's not safe to travel, please don't visit here putting the local communities at risk. I'm optimistic that we will be able to travel in BC this summer and I know we are all in need of a good long road trip and a change of scenery. Northern BC is a great place to start and I hope this episode will create some stoke and help out with those summer travel plans. Stay safe and enjoy mind shredding the north.
With so many incredible riding destinations and diverse regions, British Columbia feels like it was built for mountain bike road trips. Apart from one minor detail: the province is huge and there’s no straight lines to anywhere! This is both a blessing and a curse and is especially true for Northern BC. If you are willing to put in the miles to get here, you’ll be rewarded with one of BC’s true hidden gems of mountain biking nirvana. Starting in the Coast Mountains in the far west, we’re going to be checking out Terrace, Smithers and Burns Lake in Part 1; and Prince George and Valemount in Part 2.
First off, calling this area Northern BC is a bit of a misnomer seeing that it’s only half way up the province, but that’s kind of what we do in Canada. 66% of our total population lives within 100km of the US border which only represents about 4% of our total land area. So for most of us, anything outside of a few hours drive from our southern neighbours seems to be labeled as “North”. One unique aspect of a road trip across northern BC is that you get to see a perfect cross section of the geological diversity of the province from the lush moss cloaked forests of the Coast Mountains, rolling plains, aspen hillsides and picturesque farmland of the Interior Plateau and the towering craggy peaks of the Rocky Mountains which gives a truly varied experience. And the riding is just as diverse as the scenery.
The other aspect which makes a road trip here unforgettable is the people. The welcoming community of riders in the north are not only willing, but excited to share their plethora of trails from XC, enduro, DH shuttle laps, alpine epics or infinite gravel grinds. The passion for their local trails is hard earned as most rider help to build and maintain their networks and those of their up and coming neighbours such as New Hazelton, Houston and Fort St. James.
The coastal areas around Terrace and Haida Gwaii are one of the oldest continually occupied regions on earth. Before European contact, this area was one of the most densely populated areas north of Mexico and remains the traditional lands of the Kitsumkalum and Kitselas peoples of the Tsimshian Nation. Known as the cedar pole capital of the world, logging laid the foundation for Terrace (pop. 12,700) and forestry is still a major employer in town.
The mountains along the Skeena River are called Ganeeks Laxha, which in the Tsimshian language means the "Stairway to Heaven”. This is especially true for the professionals and young families moving to town for the endless recreation opportunities like the legendary skiing at Shames Mountain (the first not for profit community co-op ski hill in Canada), the world class fishing, and great small town vibe. Oh, and not to mention the biking!
Getting to Terrace
This one is pretty simple, unless you’re coming from Prince Rupert or Haida Gwaii, you’re driving in from the east on highway 16. Terrace is 200 km (2.5hrs) from the next ‘major’ centre Smithers, 575 km (7hrs) from Prince George - the largest city in Northern BC, and 1350 km (16 hrs) from Vancouver. Terrace is also close to the junction with highway 37 which is the major coastal artery connecting BC with the Yukon and Alaska.
Air Canada and Westjet fly to Northwest Regional Airport
(YXT) in Terrace with daily flights from Vancouver, Victoria, Prince George and Kelowna. But to really experience all that Terrace and Northern BC has to offer, you’re gonna want to have your own wheels.
If wet roots and saturated slabs aren’t your thing, you might struggle to pick your riding days here. Terrace has a northern maritime climate with cool summers where the mercury rarely exceeds the high teens. Around 1400 mm (57 inches) of precipitation fall annually and sitting only 72m above sea level, most of it comes down as rain. 100mm rain storms aren’t uncommon during the wettest months of October through January. June is the driest month with 50mm (2 inches) of rain. Winters are mild and wet with the ski resort receiving an incredible 12m (40 feet) of snow annually! The biking season is long beginning in March and running into November or December.
The Best Trails to Ride in Terrace
This is a relatively young trail network with the first purpose built bike trail (Flathead
) completed in 2006. If you’ve ever ridden in the coast mountains (Squamish, Sunshine Coast) then you’ll be right at home with the golden dirt, granite rock slabs, and steep technical roots. The two riding areas are Terrace Mountain
- which is right in town and is the most popular with an enduro and XC feel and Copper Mountain
is the spot for shuttling and holds some of the oldest trails in Terrace which almost seem to reloam themselves each year.Key trail - Shangri-La
: Incredible machine and hand built descent with optional jumps, drops and slabs. Access via Spring Creek and Lichen Loop
.Key trail - Flathead
: Be ready for steep technical rooty climbs and descents on this challenging 7km clockwise XC loop. The ripping descent and view points are well worth the up.Key trail - Maroon Mountain
: If you’re lucky enough to time your trip with good weather, this alpine out and back will not disappoint. This is a very remote and demanding trail in the backcountry so give yourself lots of time, bring bear spray, don’t attempt in questionable weather and go prepared!
A good all rounder is the go here. The trails are rugged with technical climbs and descents so a slack mid travel bike would be the best to maximize your experience. Only bring a DH bike if you’re on a dedicated shuttling road trip.
Local Clubs and AdvocatesTORCA
is the lead organization dedicated to advocacy, maintenance and events. They leverage the ‘get yer hands dirty’ ethic present in Terrace and log around 1000 volunteer hours per year to maintain the network. Grants from the Northern Development Fund and others are the driver for new trails. TORCA has a lot of expansion plans - most notably the HUB project which is a skills area closer to town. An all weather paved pumptrack was completed in late 2020 and the hillside above is allocated for a network of short laps progressing in difficulty. A few of TORCA’s board and community members have recently trained as coaches and run weekly free skills development sessions.
Accommodation and Food
Terrace has a large range of accommodation from hotels and motels clustered around downtown and out towards the airport as well as about half a dozen campgrounds and RV parks within a short drive from or in town. Air B&Bs are popular or splurge on one of the beautiful mountain lodges
There are loads of great and diverse options for eating out in town from pubs to international cuisine. Here
is a bigger list of restaurants and cafes.Breakfast: Expo Coffee
- Great coffee truck conveniently located outside the local bakery.Lunch:
Redneck Kitchen - Great southern BBQ food truck. Check their Facebook page
for their location as they move around a bit.Dinner: Chef Ahbi's
- Mouth watering Indian curries and great ambiance.Ninja
- Sushi and Korean cuisine. Extensive menu and they do a mean ramen.
Local Bike ShopsR.E.D Cycles
- Very cool maintenance and gear shop. It feels like you’re in your buddy’s garage working on your bike.Wild Bike
- More of your classic bike shop with a large selection of parts, bikes and good service.
Other TipsBring some waders
- Steelhead fishing
is world class in Terrace. Best times for Steelhead are early spring and fall with different runs of Salmon filling in the summer months. The world record Chinook Salmon (99 lbs.) was caught in Terrace!Native arts
- It’s apparent that Terrace has a vibrant arts scene
with all of the gigantic murals. There are a number of art shops, galleries and a farmers market with First Nations paintings, carvings, and traditional crafts for you to take some home and support the local artisans.Terrace Mountain biking trails
Smithers is the traditional home of the Witsuwit’en who have built a strong sense of identity and artisan culture shaped by the rugged Babine Mountains. On the unexpected side, Smithers is like the east Vancouver of northern BC (I wish I came up with that one myself, but I can’t take credit for it - thanks Aleksa!). This observation is spot on. Not that town is filled with hipsters and beard oil shops (and there’s definitely no artisan firewood for sale up here), but Smithers has its finger on the pulse of style. Everyone takes a lot of pride in making things look really nice here from the food, breweries, shops and definitely the bike trails. Mix in a Bavarian ski town vibe, a vibrant culinary scene and some rugged northern sensibility and you’ve got one top notch destination.
Smithers is also the grandfather of mountain biking in northern BC. Long before the surrounding towns had this once fringe sport on their radars, Smithers locals were taking inspiration from their yearly trips to Whistler and the North Shore. Bringing the concepts and features back home. The local crew ‘Children of the Bluff” turned the dial up to 11 with some of the ladder bridges, gaps and drops on the local trails since the early 90’s.
Getting to Smithers
There’s two choices here - highway 16 or highway 16. Really, the only choice is coming from the east or the west (on highway 16). It takes roughly 2.5 hours to drive the 200km from Terrace and is just under 2 hours (140km) from our next destination: Burns Lake.
For a different way to see the countryside, Via Rail also stops in Terrace, Smithers and Burns Lake on their east to west route. Service has been reduced to once per week (each direction) due to Covid-19 so check the Via Rail website
for updated info.
Smithers sits around 500m above sea level and gets less rainfall than Terrace being further inland from the coast but still receives 540mm (21 inches) of rain per year. The driest month is March and precipitation amounts steadily climb through the summer peaking in October. Summer temperatures are comfortable for riding averaging in the low 20’s (72°F). The trails thaw out in May and become snowbound again by November.
The Best Trails to Ride in Smithers
The riding is centred around The Bluff
which conveniently backs right on to town. There are some great trails in the Piper Rec
area out towards the ski hill on Hudson Bay Mountain, and the Ptarmigan Rec
area south of town. There’s also some alpine riding at Cronin Pass
in the Babine Mountains Provincial Park which requires a shuttle or a very big day in the saddle.Key trail - Piper Down
: Recently rebuilt steep fast DH style trail with jumps, slabs and a wooden gap jump over a crashed plane. Best to shuttle and enjoy a lap on neighbouring Pay Dirt
as well.Key trail - The Shining
: Classic 1km bluffs descent with a bit of everything from tech, flow, berms and some larger wooden drops.Key trail - Backdoor
: One of the original trails in Smithers and a solid 1000m descent over 6km. It’s steep and rooty so pick the right day to tackle this beast. Access is the same as Piper Down
, but branch off at the top of Pay Dirt
and hike a bike up the jeep track to the start of the trail.
To maximize your options, a larger enduro bike is your best option. The riding here is more technical, steeper, and rugged than its neighbours so a bit more travel will treat you well. But like most BC towns, there’s a lot to ride here and you really could find some trails to suit any bike from a big rig down to an XC or roadie setup.
Local Clubs and AdvocatesThe Smithers Mountain Bike Association
(SMBA) has been working to improve the trail network in Smithers since 2009. Beginning as an advocacy group, the main goals of the SMBA are to maintain, expand and strengthen the MTB community and culture in town. Network expansion is based around grant funding while the trails are entirely volunteer maintained. Donations from travelling riders are much appreciated and go a long way.
Accommodation and Food
Smithers is set up well for year round tourism and has a wide range of accommodation
options from hotels to guest houses. Camping is very popular here and there are a number of great spots to choose from like Riverside RV and Camping right on the Bulkley River and close to town.
There are loads of great and diverse options for eating out in town from pubs to international cuisine. Here
is a bigger list of restaurants and cafes.Breakfast: Bugwood Coffee
- Cool outdoor coffee house with some outstanding brews and baked goods.Lunch: Two Sisters Eatery
- High quality modern style local fare guaranteed to fuel you up for a full day of shredding.Dinner: Masa Yama
- Quirky little Japanese restaurant with great sushi.Roadhouse
- Upscale restaurant with a diverse menu from thai curry to pulled pork poutine. Top quality selection of whiskeys and spirits as well.
Local Bike ShopsMc Bike
- Full service bike shop and sporting goods store downtown on the main street.
Other TipsTour du Hops
- Smithers has two great breweries that are always a must after riding. Smithers Brewing
is a stylish brewery with great experimental beers and their own Kombucha. Bulkley Valley Brewing
is the OG brewery in Smithers with a diverse and excellent lineup of beers.Park Life
- Check out some of the stunning Provincial Parks and Rec sites surrounding Smithers for great swimming, hiking, waterfalls and camping.The Bluff Recreation Area mountain biking trails
Burns is the perfect ‘How To’ model for small towns who would like to become a world class mountain biking destination and is the definition of community. On the surface, Burns Lake is like most other small quiet mill towns which is the norm in this part of the province, but it’s the passionate local riders who have created a distinct character, culture and identity here. In the early 2000’s the idea was put forth to turn Burns into a mountain bike mecca and was generally laughed off. But when the grant money started to roll in around 2009, their first trail was appropriately named When Pigs Fly. The momentum continues today with 49 trails totalling 85 km of high quality riding. For their hard work and continued dedication, Burns Lake received the first IMBA Ride Centre distinction in Canada but the real gift is the improved quality of life of the town's residents. The extensive trail network not only brings in tourism dollars but has been an inspiration for traditionally sedentary locals who are much healthier and happier after discovering the rich outdoor culture accessible from their doorstep.
Getting to Burns Lake
Burns Lake is an easy 2.5 - 3 hour drive on highway 16 to Prince George - the main hub city of northern BC. Vancouver is 1000km south on highway 97. This is a beautiful drive that will take a solid 12 hours to do in a single push.
Burns is noted for setting some of the coldest temperature records in BC and can drop below freezing any night of the year. Summers are a perfect temperature for riding in the low 20’s (70°F) and warm enough to enjoy a swim at the end of the day. It’s generally drier here than surrounding towns but you can still expect a decent amount of rain in any month of the year. There is year round riding here with groomed fat bike trails in winter while the dirt thaws out from late April until the end of October.
The Best Trails to Ride in Burns LakeThe Burns Lake Bike Park
is located up on Boer Mountain. The locals have taken that name on as “Boar” Mountain hence the hogcentric theme to the trail names. There’s a shuttle road to the top which can also be pedalled and funding has been secured for a dedicated climbing trail to the top of the mountain with a rough completion date for 2022.Key trail - Razorback
: For the rider who wants a bit of everything. Provides technical challenges, great climbs and outstanding views. Combine Razorback, Star Lake Trail and Pigasus
for a 32 km perimeter epic.Key trail - Swoopy Hollow
: As the name suggests, well supported swoopy berms through a wooded gully - braking optional.Key trail - Hogzilla
: Burns’ new version of A-Line
. Freshly opened at the end of 2020, this top to bottom machine built masterpiece has sizeable hits, drops and berms for nearly 5km!
It’s mainly machine built flow with lots of jumps and berms here. Trails are well designed without many abrupt obstacles and generally, are not overly steep or gnarly, so really, most bike preform well here. Something in the 140-150mm range with larger wheels to handle the chunkier rock sections would be the ideal weapon of choice.
Local Clubs and AdvocatesRide Burns
was established in 2006 and it’s hard to imagine what the town would look like without the countless volunteer hours put in by the dedicated board members. With the ability to milk every cent out of grant money received, Ride Burns has been prolific and with this comes a lot of maintenance. Luckily, everyone is so hooked on riding, the weekly work bees are packed with about 30 locals and include a shuttle lap and beers at Kager Lake. There’s a donation box at the base of the mountain or you can donate on Trailforks.Spirit North
is another notable organization which provides bikes, helmets, coaching, and mentorship to local First Nations’ youth. Rachelle van Zanten and her husband Chris started a branch of the program in Burns and are dedicated to creating stoke and fostering a connection to their territory with year round adventures for the 25 youth who frequent the program.
Accommodation and Food
There are a number of pleasant lakeside lodges and resorts scattered throughout town and the surrounding area. Make sure to book ahead
as I had trouble finding accommodation due to beds being booked for pipeline workers. For the real experience though, there is a beautiful campground right at the base of Boer Mountain on Kager Lake.Breakfast: Old and Bold Espresso Bar
- Burns Lake has a great coffee culture with a number of coffee houses all serving nice roasts and top quality baked goods.Lunch: Woodland Bakery
- Located in the mall, there’s a big grocery store to augment the delicious breads and pastries.Dinner: Burns Lake Pizza
- Classic pizza parlour with everything you’d expect.The Office Pub and Grill
- The usual pub fare and a good selection of beers on tap.
Local Bike ShopsBurnt Bikes
is a funky little full service shop and provides a shuttle service 2-3 times per week.
Other TipsGet out on the water
- They don’t call this the lakes district for nothing! There are tons of gorgeous lakes for swimming, fishing, or just chilling in a canoe.Swing a pulask
- If you’re around on a Wednesday afternoon, join in for the weekly work bee. It’s a great way to meet some (most) of the locals, milk another shuttle lap, and lend a hand to the trails. Check in with Burnt Bikes for meeting times.Boer Mountain and Kager Lake mountain biking trails