Note from the author: 2020 was weird and 2021 is shaping up to be just as unpredictable. It’s hard to know what travel will look like this year for both domestic and international tourism in BC. What I do know is that daydreaming about these incredible riding destinations and making plans for when travel is both safe and responsible is good for the soul and keeps me motivated to ride the trainer in my garage.This episode was produced in August 2020 when BC Covid cases were extremely low, travel was allowed and all pertinent safety measures were taken into consideration from face masks, physical distancing and buckets of hand sanitizer. For updated advise on travel restrictions and provincial guidelines visit the BC CDC website and Tourism Fernie’s Covid-19 travel section. Enjoy, keep dreaming and stay safe out there.
THE COMPLETE RIDING GUIDE TO
FERNIE, BRITISH COLUMBIA
Words, photos, & video by Ben HaggarPresented by
Fernie sits right in the south-eastern corner of BC, nestled in the picturesque Elk Valley. The landscape is classic Canadian Rocky Mountains with emerald rivers flowing through heavily wooded valleys and towering limestone peaks reaching skywards as far as the eye can see. The riding here mirrors the natural terrain with easier green and blue trails generally lower in the valley with the black and double black trails beginning higher in elevation where the mountains become steeper.
For as long as I can remember, Fernie has been that one destination sitting right near the top of my hit list for either a summer or winter road trip that hadn’t been realized. Year after year Fernie kept getting passed up for the numerous world class destinations closer to home on the BC coast that seemed to be screaming louder for my attention. It just felt slightly too far of a drive to the Alberta border. But after finally spending a few days in Fernie, I now see the error of my ways.
Humbly flying just under the main media radar in the glut that is mountain biking in British Columbia, Fernie has retained a unique and understated character. Let's put it this way - things that are awesome don't need to tell you they're awesome - after the first taste, you just know. Fernie has a very well established riding scene that has been steadily growing for the past 30+ years. The newer trails have evolved with the times embracing flow and air time while the older trails preserve their raw and rugged heritage that the riding here has evolved from. There is an absolute ton of riding here and no matter what you’re in to be it shuttle laps dropping steep ridge lines, ripping BC’s oldest bike park, cranking out endless enduro laps all over the valley, or getting your gravel grind on to remote mountain valleys, Fernie has you covered.
A Bit About the Region
Before national and territorial borders were established, peoples of the Ktunaxa Nation, also known as the Kootenai, ranged from central BC down to northern Washington, Idaho, Montana and further east into Alberta. The Elk Valley and Crowsnest Pass (now highway 3) was a well trodden trade route and the main artery across the Rocky Mountains to the eastern plains to hunt Bison. Today, the Ktunaxa number around 1500 people spread through the Elk valley and surrounding region, and retain linguistic and cultural ties to Bands in Idaho and Montana in the Tobacco Plains.
Fernie is named after William Fernie who, alongside Colonel James Baker, was the driving force behind the coal mines located here. With the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railroad in Fernie in 1898, the production of coal in the Elk Valley began in earnest and the new town of Fernie took shape opposite the CPR tracks. It wasn't smooth sailing however. In the coming years, the town of Fernie would burn to the ground twice in 1904 and 1908, suffer floods, and Canada’s largest mining disaster which killed 128 miners in 1902. Fernie has since staved off disaster and the town centre if full of beautifully kept heritage buildings - most built out of brick because of the previous two versions of the town burning to the ground.
The roots of coal mining are still present in Fernie with 5 active mine sites in the Elk Valley supplying well paying jobs to residents of Fernie and neighbouring Sparwood and Elkford. But the main games in town these days are in tourism, hospitality or the trades to support the active town of 5200 year round residents and the thousands of tourists that come to enjoy the mountains each year. There’s basically every mountain or river sport on offer here and Fernie does every one of them very very well.
Getting to Fernie
Fernie sits on highway 3 which is the southernmost of the three highways that cross the Canadian Rockies only 3 hours from the closest major city - Calgary. Maps can be a little bit misleading when planning your trip. Driving from Vancouver to Fernie, which looks like a roughly straight line across southern BC is anything but and is a deceptively lengthy drive. Clocking in at around 11 hours, it’s still doable in a long day. But for our southern neighbours, the landscape is a bit more conducive to faster access. Missoula, MT and Spokane, WA are a short 4 and 4.5 hours drive respectively. What came as a surprise to me is that cities which I would have thought to be much further away than Vancouver like Portland, OR (10 hours) and Seattle, WA (9 hours) are easily within striking distance for an extended weekend road trip. A car isn’t necessary in town but is a nice option to see the area.
For domestic travel, the closest airport to Fernie is in Cranbrook (YXC
) 115 km west and roughly a 70 min drive. There are daily flights from Calgary, Kelowna, and Vancouver operated by Air Canada, Westjet, and Pacific Coastal. The best airport for international travellers is Calgary International (YYC
). You’ll find all of the major car rental companies and regular bus and charters that will get you the last 3 hours to Fernie. You can find more detailed travel info here
Fernie is just as much of a winter destination as a summer one - even for biking! Expect cold and snowy winters for groomed fat bike trails with temperatures in the -10 to -2 °C (14-28 °F) range and an average snowfall of 9m (30 feet)!. Summers are hot and dry with daily temperatures in the high 20’s (80°F). Spring and fall are great times to visit with the trails thawing out in April and staying ridable through October and in decreasing numbers in November. The most precipitation falls in May/June and Oct/Nov but there are lots of sunny days mixed in to each month. Mornings are generally cool and great options for riding before the mercury hits the high 20’s and 30’s in the summer.
The Best Trails to Ride in Fernie
This could easily turn into a realllllly long list so I’ll keep it to the ultra classics. Fernie sits 1000m above sea level with the highest trails another 1000m on top of that so the elevation could take some getting used to for those of us residing at sea level. One of the best features of Fernie is the proximity of the riding areas to town. You can easily hit one or two riding area in the morning, have lunch in town, take a lap on the opposite side of the valley, and still be in town for a beer in the sun. In fact, Fernie Brewing took this idea in 2016 and created the Trail to Ale Challenge
Mount Proctor is the northernmost riding area on the west side of the valley and is conveniently the closest network to the brewery for that afternoon ride.Key Trail: Swine Flu
: The star of the show on Mount Proctor. Accessed via the creatively named blue rated Swine Flu Climb
, the second half of the climb is steeper and more technical before reaching a bench at the view point and the piggy mascot. It’s basically all downhill from there on a screaming fast and flowy descent with amazing berms and small root drops.
Fernie Ridge / Ridgemont
The Fernie Ridge and Ridgemont areas blend together on the north-eastern side of the valley. Due to the proximity to town and generally shorter trails, Ridgemont is a great place to get acquainted with the Fernie dirt and also get a quick fix of sweet singletrack. It’s one of the first areas to become ridable in the spring and dries out quickly after a rain and is popular with local riders.A great intro loop
: Climb Cemetery Bypass, Kiddy Up
and Eco Terrorist
, then cross over the Ridgemont Road to descend Eric’s Trail
and Space Unicorn
. If you want to add a few more kilometres and a bit more difficulty, continue your climb from Eco Terrorist
and drop in to Oh Dear
. Connect onto the Coal Discovery Trail
and the Town Loop
to bring you back to town.Key Trail: Big Money
: For a bigger more technical objective Big Money
can deliver the goods if you’re willing to put in the effort to get there. For some true punishment, climb from the valley straight up Lower
and Upper Bear Chutes
- big props if you can clean the whole thing. Alternatively, you can gain some elevation on the Riffle Range Road and link in to Upper Bear Chutes
. The descent is fast, loose, and fun!
Montane / Castle Mountain
Just south of Ridgemont is Castle Mountain with the Montane riding area occupying the lower flanks of the mountain. Montane is a great year round riding area with fast xc style riding which is even groomed in the winter for fat biking. Upper trails on Castle mountain are much steeper and more rugged with incredible views of the entire Elk Valley.Key Trail: Montane Blue
: This is the classic Tour du Montane. If you can keep yourself from lingering at the amazing view from the Montane Hut (which is a great sunset spot), this 11 km loop will take you about an hour with around 290m of elevation gain and loss. For a totally different experience, it’s also groomed in the winter for fat bikes!Key Trail: Hyperventilation / Hyperextension
: One of the most prominent and in my opinion best trails in the valley. Climb Montane Blue
and branch off onto Roots
to get the lungs ready for the Hypervent
grind to the top. Make sure to enjoy the view from the top because you’re going to be focused on the fast technical 2km descent down the incredible ridge top of Hyperextension
. Key Trail: Southern Comfort
: Same access as Hyperextension
, but branch off right near the top of Hypervent
and continue climbing another kilometre to Castle Rocks. The descent is a mix of steep tech and fast sections. Southern Comfort
finishes at the midpoint of South Castle
which descends to Cokato Road. Either pedal the road back to town or link into a series of blue connector trails above the road.
This is the main DH shuttling area. It’s more burly, steeper with bigger jumps than other areas. Access to Dirt Diggler
and Al Matador
is via the Coal Creek Road, then make a right on the Matheson Creek Road. For quicker lap options head out Cokato Road and turn left at the bottom of Three Kings
. A number of trails cross the upper shuttle road so quicker lap options are available. These are serious trails so bring your A-game and be prepared.Key Trail: Dirt Diggle
r: At 5km in length and dropping nearly 1000m, this is the biggest descent in Fernie and host of its own DH race every September. Begin down steep sidehill benches on the open slopes, then make sure you don’t fall dropping in to an old coal chute. The trail finishes off with some sizeable jumps for those inclined.Key Trail: 48 hours
: Another steep technical descent which gets easier and flowier as you get further down. Access via the top of the Cokato shuttle zone or link in from Al Matador
. About a quarter of the way down you have a few options: very steep double black on the right, steep in the centre or a mellow line on the left where you can opt out to the easier Blue Matador
or Three Kings
Fernie Alpine Resort
Hauling riders since 1990, this is BC’s oldest lift access bike park and one of the oldest in North America. The resort boasts 38 trails, has some of the most fun green trails around, and laps can be linked outside of the resort all the way to the base of Mount Fernie. There are also groomed multi use trails in winter for fat biking at the resort and a weekly summer race series.
*Due to uncertainties around Covid-19, the Elk Chair was the only lift running in 2020.Key Trail: Duff Dynasty
: Great warm up trail and a fun rip down for any skill level. Lots of sneaky doubles once you get to know the trail.Key Trail: Top Gun
: This high speed crowd pleaser is sure to make you feel like Tom Cruise buzzing the tower in an F-18. Top to bottom berms and rollers through the woods.Key Trail: Cat’s Pyjamas
: To crank up the spice level, hit this short but steep tech trail. Similar to its next door neighbour Kodiak Karnage
, both are worth a visit.
Mount Fernie Provincial Park sits at the base of Island Lake Road and is more wooded than the east side of the valley which makes it a great choice for hot summer days. The terrain is typically steeper with punchier climbs and loads of technical black descents.Key Trail: Project 9
: Gain 280m in elevation via the steep, unrelenting old jeep track south of the descent. It’s pure bliss when you finally point your bike downhill into the forest. The trail is a great mix of technical roots gaining flow as you lose elevation. Take Lazy Lizard
to milk a bit more flowy singletrack at the bottom instead of riding the road.Key Trail: Slunt (S-Bomb)
: This instant classic will have you screaming for more. Access via Phat B, Lactic Ridge, Moc-Assassin
and Stupid Traverse
. There are great views all the way up to keep your mind off of your aching lungs. The descent is fast “BC flow” where at times you feel like you’re riding a jackhammer down the natural root staircase. Options to the valley are via Brokeback Ridge
- both are outstanding.Key Trail: Lazy Lizard
: Probably the best and most scenic green trail you will every ride. This out and back 17km round trip epic gains 600m in elevation through old growth cedar forest finishing at the world class Island Lake Lodge. Have lunch on their patio with incredible views of the lake and the Lizard Range, then enjoy the beautiful flowy descent. Just remember it’s a two-way trail so save the KOMs for some place else.
Bring ‘em if you got ‘em. If you’re driving here and have enough room at your accommodation, Fernie has something for every bike in the quiver. Long travel bikes are mandatory for the shuttle trails but might be a bit of overkill for the bike park. You are going to have to pedal to most of the trails here so something in the mid enduro range will be your most versatile option on the chunky descents if you can only bring one bike. There is so much riding here that no matter what bike you bring (if you only bring one), there is a ton to ride in each and every category including the increasingly popular gravel grinds.
Local Clubs and AdvocatesFernie Trails Alliance
is the blanket trail organization which handles trail maintenance, advocacy and development, and a few events. The FTA is made up of member group of stakeholders such as the Fernie Mountain Bike Club
(which run the events and weekly rides) and Stag Leap Running. Despite primarily using trails not maintained by the FTA, the Fernie Trails and Ski Touring Club and the Nordic Society also participate in meetings and support the FTA.
An organization like the FTA is critical to sustaining the trails in Fernie. Much of the surrounding land is privately owned so agreements to preserve and revive trails is an ever evolving process. Fernie has a paid trail crew of four and hold weekly volunteer dig days on Thursday evenings. I like to donate $10-15 per day when I'm travelling to ride and I highly recommend anyone visiting to Fernie to donate to help with maintenance and stewardship to either the FTA
or on Trailforks. There are a lot of volunteers who help maintain the trails as well - notably the local shuttle crews up on Morrissey Ridge.
Local Bike Shops
All shops are right in downtown. Most shops organize weekly group rides which is a great way to make new friends and get acquainted with the local riding scene.Straight Line Bicycles
- The only dedicated year round bike shop bike shop in town. Good service and it’s the spot if your suspension needs some work.Guides Hut
- Quality bike mechanics, guiding services and bike lessons.The Ski Base
- More of an outdoor store, still has a good selection of parts and bikes.GearHub Sports
- Another great option for bike service and checking out a new ride.
Accommodation and Food
Fernie is a well established year round tourist destination and has the infrastructure to handle any and all types of travellers on any budget. As with most small mountain towns these days, Air B&B is quite a popular option - especially if you have a group of friends. There are a number of campsites in town with Mount Fernie taking top spot for forested sites and proximity to some amazing riding. Tourism Fernie has a comprehensive list
of the larger hotels and lodges for something a little more upscale.
For the gastro enthusiast, you’re in luck! Just like the bike trails, there’s diversity and high quality represented with loads of international culinary delights.Breakfast: Rooftop Coffee Roasters
- Top quality coffee roasted right upstairs from the cafe. There's also pain au chocolate, croissants and little donuts.Bridge Bistro
- More traditional breakfasts and eggs Benny. Great riverside patio for summer!Lunch: Big Bang Bagels
- It’s an easy spot to find, just look for the lineup extending out the door, down the main street and around the corner. This small eatery has great bagels and bagle-wiches. Don’t get discouraged by the line though, the service is fast and worth the short wait.The Chopstick Truck
- A great option if you’re coming back from riding Mt Fernie. This food truck is parked across the bridge west of town serving up Vietnamese inspired street food like bao bun tacos, bowls and wraps and of course Vietnamese iced coffee.The Lunchbox
- The name says it all - homemade chilli, sandwiches, wraps, salads and smoothies.Dinner: Himalayan Spice Bistro
- Atmospheric South Asian and Himalayan restaurant. Curries and vegetarian dishes are the specialty here. They’re also open for breakfast and serve one of my favourites - Shakshuka eggs!Nevados / Luchadora Burrito Co.
- Mexican tapas, tacos, burritos, and a huge tequila selection. The vine covered shaded patio is a great spot to sample a traditional spicy margarita or one of the many tequilas, mescals, or craft beers.Yamagoya Sushi
- No matter how far from the ocean, ski towns always seem to have high quality sushi and Yamagoya is no exception.
Other TipsCast a Fly
: Fernie is a great fly fishing
destination with easy access to a number of lakes and rivers. The Elk River holds one of the largest populations of pure strain Western Cutthroat Trout and monster Bull Trout.Get out on the River
: The Elk River which flows right through Fernie has a ton to offer. Go rafting and cliff jumping with Canyon Raft Co
or Mountain High River Adventures
. For something more toned down, take a float on any device that can hold some air for a lazy afternoon post ride cool off. Put in at the bridge by Tim Hortons and float down to Dogwood Park at the south end of town.Gain some elevation
: Fernie has some incredible hikes which is the only way to access the upper reaches of the dramatic peaks in the area. One of the highlights is the Three Sisters
- the prominent collection of peaks north west of town is 19.6 km return and is a must do.Mt Fernie mountain biking trails