The partnership of Quebec’s Vallée Bras-du-Nord and Vermont’s Kingdom Trails has been a win for mountain bikers on both sides of the border
The last few times I visited Kingdom Trails in East Burke, Vermont, I heard tons of buzz about a trail center in Quebec called Vallée Bras-du-Nord. Officially the sister network of Kingdom Trails, VBDN is located in the sleepy Quebecois town of Saint-Raymond. I’d like to say that VBDN is Eastern Canada’s best-kept secret, but it’s quickly becoming the hottest new spot to ride this summer.
If you’re unfamiliar with Kingdom Trails, here's a quick rundown. Located in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, Kingdom Trails is a non-profit organization that has created a world-class trail network. Private landowners have allowed KT to build trails on their property, because they recognize the huge social and economic impact of attracting riders to the underserved region.
I have visited the Kingdom many times and made some great friends up there. On my last trip I rode with Lilias and Knight Ide. Lilias is Kingdom Trails Events and Marketing Manager, and her brother Knight is a highly sought-after private trail builder.
They had just gotten back from a family trip to Quebec to visit Kingdom Trails’ sister network, Vallée Bras-du-Nord. “There is so much to explore up at VBDN,” Lilias explained. “There is great family riding as well as super raw natural terrain."
“The Shannahan District at VBDN is like a slice of British Columbia mountain biking here in the east,” Knight said. “The trail center is in a very remote location with trails that snake along a raging river.”
I had just enough bandwidth on my trip to enjoy a long weekend in KT and make a run across the border into Quebec to check out VBDN. With only a handful of days to spend in East Burke, I tried to get in as much riding as I could. I wanted to make sure that I had enough time to enjoy the sweet trail riding at Kingdom Trails, as well as getting plenty of laps at the outstanding Burke Mountain Bike Park.Burke Mountain Resort
The brand new Burke Mountain Hotel is a great place to stay if you want to enjoy easy access to the resort as well as the Kingdom Trails network. The gorgeous hotel sits at mid-mountain and has stunning views of the valley. There is locked bike storage, full-service restaurants on-site, as well as a terrific pool and hot tub facility. I brought my family on this trip and they had much to enjoy while I was out riding.
Kingdom Trails is one of the most popular riding spots on the East Coast, so it’s not unusual to run into friends from all over at East Burke. My riding partner, Joey Lakein and I were riding the bike park at Burke when we ran into our friends Casey Coull and Rich “Shaggy” Kidd. Casey is from Eastern Pennsylvania and Shaggy is from Knoxville, Tennessee, and both are absolute shredders.
Joey and I had just done a warm-up run on the top-notch green trail, Roly Grail, when we met up with Casey and Shaggy. IMBA Trail Solutions built Roly Grail with a grant from Bell Helmets. It is a great trail for beginner riders to get the flow of riding berms and rollers.
Casey suggested that we do a run down the blue jump trail Jester, then step our game up to the black diamond trail Knight Slayer. “The Burke trail crew is really on it,” Casey said as we got set to drop into Jester. “The trails are running so smoothly, with no braking bumps and nice clean lips on the jumps.”
After ripping both of the jump trails, Shaggy suggested that we take a lap from the summit of Burke Mountain. “The resort runs a shuttle to the top of the mountain,” Shaggy explained. We made a beeline to the shuttle pick-up spot and grabbed a lift to the top of the nearly 4,000 foot peak.
When we got to the top, we took a moment to enjoy the amazing 360-degree view of the rolling green landscape dotted with deep blue lakes. “We have several options down,” Casey explained. “My favorite is the Upper J-Bar Trail.”
The J-Bar Trail is pure Beast Coast old school technical riding. The summit trails are rough but an absolute pleasure to ride, especially when it’s a bit wet and loose. J-Bar offers endless natural drops, doubles and steep granite roll-downs to keep you on your toes the entire ride. Eventually the Upper J-Bar trail connects to Lower J-Bar in the bike park. From the Lower J-Bar, we traversed the mountain to reach the classic trail, Moose Alley. “Moose Alley has to be one of my favorite trails of all time,” Shaggy said. “There are so many cool features and the flow is amazing.”
Moose Alley is a super fast trail with perfect berms and extra credit features everywhere you look. A big shout-out to KT’s Trails Manager CJ Scott and the rest of the trail crew for their amazing job building and maintaining the buff network of trails. It simply does not get better than Kingdom Trails for a day of trail riding.Darling Hill
Stoked by a taste of the KT network on Moose Alley, Joey and I spent the following day shredding the Darling Hill area. Darling Hill is the first zone that Kingdom Trails developed, and is one of the finest trail centers in the country - if not the world.
From the hotel, we hopped onto lower Roly Grail and took that to Burnham Down. Burnham goes from the resort area into town, and is an amazing trail in its own right. The trail has miles of ladder bridges with tons of flow.
Burnham Down dumps you into town, and it’s a quick 15-minute ride to the top of Darling Hill. If you need drinks, food or any last-minute bike repairs before dropping into the network, stop at Village Sport Shop Trailside. Everyone at Village is super friendly, and can help you get dialed in for your ride. At Darling Hill, Joey and I linked up with Lilias, Knight and Knight’s son, Day. Nothing can compare to riding KT’s best buffed-out singletrack with riders who know the trails like the back of their hands. It was great following them on great trails like Tody's Tour, Tap n' Die, and of course Troll Stroll.
We rode everything on Darling Hill from Farm Junk to Pines. During our ride, Lilias took the time to explain how the relationship between Kingdom Trails and Vallée Bras-du-Nord got started and why it’s so beneficial to both organizations. “Four years ago, VBDN reached out to us to come up and check out their network,” Lilias explained. “I was really impressed with their product as well as their enthusiasm to work with us to make their trails even better.”
“I went up the following season as an ambassador of our community to help them design their signature double black trail,” Knight said. “They were super receptive to my ideas and had the resources to execute them.” The relationship between VBDN and KT has blossomed the last few years. The two outfits work together in marketing endeavours to help increase tourism in both regions. “We solely rely on ticket and season pass sales to support our trails,” Lilias explained. “A large percentage of our guests are from Quebec, and the folks at VBDN have really helped us reach them.”
VBDN and KT have worked together many times at trade shows and regional tourism events to help promote both trail centers. “They are so enthusiastic about recommending us to their rider base and we are happy to do the same,” Lilias said with a smile. “When I was riding up at VBDN, they were telling every rider that we met on the trails that they should check out KT.” To have the blessing of one of the most respected trail networks in the United States is a big feather in the cap of Vallée Bras-du-Nord. Frankly, the ringing endorsement from Lilias and Knight sold me on making the four-hour trip from East Burke up to Saint-Raymond.Vallée Bras-du-Nord
It was a beautiful drive through the Quebec countryside to reach VBDN. Located about 40-miles northwest of Quebec City, Saint-Raymond is a picturesque city of about 10,000 people. Before the city became a destination for mountain bikers, it was well known for its comprehensive snowmobiling network. Lilias had arranged for us to meet up with Frederic Asselin and Mathieu Dupuis Bourassa of VBDN at their offices in Saint-Raymond. Their location is within a cooperative that includes a bike shop, hotel and craft brewery as well as several other businesses. Over a tasty brew at Hotel Roquemont, Mathieu and Frederic explained how they got started and described the sites they were excited to show us during our time at VBDN.
“A good friend and trail designer, Gilles Morneau took me on my first visit to Kingdom Trails in 2007,” Frederic said. “I was blown away by their trails and what a positive impact they had on their community. When I came home I wanted to build great mountain biking trails for the people of Saint-Raymond.”
Frederic explained that he had a lot of experience building hiking trails in the region. Perhaps even more important, Frederic had a great working relationship with the local government and understood how to obtain funding for his vision. “For us, Kingdom Trails is the gold standard to strive for. They are our Babe Ruth,” Frederic commented. “What I saw in East Burke was a community doing something wonderful for themselves, and then sharing it with the world. They have stayed true to their roots and found a way to make money doing it.”
Just ten years after Frederic’s first visit to Kingdom Trails, he and Mathieu have turned the idea of creating an amazing mountain bike network for their community into a reality. They have worked tirelessly as liaisons between the provincial government, land managers and the local mountain bike club, to forge their vision into reality. I am here to tell you that their efforts are nothing short of amazing.
To shake off the car ride, Frederic and Mathieu took us on a sweet ride right from the Hotel Roquemont. “This area is most similar to the Darling Hill area in Kingdom Trails,” Mathieu explained. “It is located mostly on private lands and goes through fields and small mountains.” The climbs were all short and the descents were super fun. “Knight helped design this next trail,” Mathieu said as I strapped in for what was sure to be a rad time. Big drops, jumps and tons of flow are the main ingredients on any trail that Knight has a hand in.
The next climb took us to a small church that overlooked the city of Saint-Raymond. We took a small break to eat and enjoy the beautiful views. Once back on our bikes, Mathieu gave us a heads-up on what was next on the trail. “There are some very steep rollers coming with a sharp corner at the very bottom,” he said as he strapped on his helmet. “Make sure not to take the right-hander with too much speed.”
The downhill back to the hotel was great, and I was stoked to head out to the more remote Shannahan sector the next day. The plan was to meet up with local legend Tommy Paquet for a tour of some of the trails in Shannahan. At the last minute, Tommy wasn’t able to join us but was able to pull his nephew Jeff Nadeau out of high school for the day to join us.The Shannahan Sector
On the 20-minute drive from Saint-Raymond to the Shannahan sector, Jeff gave us an itinerary of what we’d be riding over the next few days. “Today I will show you some of the more mellow trails down in the valley,” he said. “Tomorrow Frederic will guide you on the more technical Full Neilson trail. You will see some amazing natural beauty on both days.”
Jeff wasn’t lying when he described the majestic glacial valley. We crossed the raging Neilson River on a suspension bridge and immersed ourselves in the lush forest of the district. The trails had tons of flow and Jeff made sure to show us the many beautiful waterfalls and overlooks.
The highlight of the day for me was riding the black diamond Tomahawk trail. There is a big wooden bridge with handrails at the top of the trail, giving you the feeling that you are in a World Cup downhill start gate. Straight off the bridge you are into a series of big doubles and well-transitioned drops. Jeff showed us how to get it done on the slick rock gardens and long log rides.
The following day we got up early and got to Shannahan by 8 a.m. “It’s important to get an early start because the Full Neilson takes all day long,” Frederic said. We grabbed a shuttle up the mellow gravel road climb and got right on the trail. I’ve ridden some of the best trails in the world, and the Full Neilson stacks up with them all. At the top you are in lush, loamy old-growth forest with tremendous views of the river and gorge. The trails are buff at the top with fast berms and big features that you’d expect to find in a bike park, not the backcountry.
The descent to the bottom of the gorge seemed endless, with ribbons of handbuilt switchbacks that eventually link to a trail that hugs the river. The amount of rockwork on the river trail was staggering. The execution of that much placement in such a remote zone is truly unbelievable.
The interweaving of natural rock formations with massive bridges and stone armoring was something to behold. I felt like my bike was on rails, and all I had to do was hold on and trust. The knowing hand of the trail builder guided my path like I had ridden the trail thousands of times before.
For me, mountain biking is church. Riding the Shannahan sector is like a Catholic going to Rome, or a Muslim visiting Mecca. The Full Neilson encompasses everything that I love about mountain biking - being surrounded by the beauty of nature and the adrenaline rush of riding a finely crafted trail.
Make the trip to VBDN and you will not be disappointed. The Hotel Roquemont is a cool place to stay and has great food and brews. If you are interested in being off the grid and in the middle of nature, there are wicked ride-in cabins in the Shannahan sector that are amazing. Either way you can’t go wrong, but keep in mind that there is no cellular reception in Shannahan.
Thanks to everyone at Kingdom Trails, Burke Mountain and Vallée Bras-du-Nord who made this trip such a wonderful experience. Thanks again to Lilias and CJ at Kingdom Trails; Knight and Day, Frederic and Mathieu at VBDN; and Jessica Sechler at Burke. Thanks to the Ibis family for keeping me rolling, as well as Scott Boyd at the Hayes Group, Kristen Smart and Dave Watson at Sombrio/Sugoi, Logan Davies at LH Thomson, Andrew Slowey at Cane Creek, Blaike Hennessey at Thule, Jeff Clark at Schwalbe, Jon Hadfield at OneUp, and Brendan Moore at Wolf Tooth.