Cycling Quebec’s Le Petit Train du Nord

Station Val-David on the P'tit Train du Nord cycling path | Nathalie Gauthier
Station Val-David on the P'tit Train du Nord cycling path | Nathalie Gauthier

by Robin Esrock

Exploring lush Laurentian forests on a blue-sky summer day, my first multi-day bicycle trip spoiled me for life. Up to this point, I had associated bicycle touring with poor souls slogging up mountain highways on overloaded bikes, their faces beet red as cars narrowly screamed past. Kudos to anyone who wants to pedal from Tofino to Halifax, but that’s way too intense for most of us adventure muggles. Then I arrived in Saint-Jérôme Quebec, picked out a comfortable bike, and was shuttled north to Labelle. This would be my starting point on Le P’tit Train du Nord, a 230-kilometre (143mi) bike trail along a decommissioned railway track and the longest linear park in Canada. Safe from car traffic, I’d be counting down the miles riding down the trail, although ‘down’ suggests hills and gratefully, hills have never been associated with railway tracks.

Flat and car-free, the converted railway trail offers a worry-free biking experience |  <i>Robin Esrock</i>

Over the course of five days, I’d steadily pedal my way to Mile Zero in Saint-Jérôme, forgoing heavy saddle bags (known as panniers) and carrying just the essentials. Conveniently, my bags and clothing would be shuttled up ahead, waiting for me at the next overnight stop. Fantastic auberges and B&Bs located off the trail had been hand-picked for me by Great Canadian Trails, usually with a homely bistro nearby. I didn’t expect the ride to be a culinary adventure too, but the eating is fine in this part of the world, and let’s face it: any exercise results in guilt-free feasting at the end of the day.

It takes a couple of days for my body to acclimatize to the idea of getting on a saddle each morning, carrying a little more weight thanks to another hearty breakfast. When you’re riding south along an abandoned railway line, it’s all but impossible to get lost (especially with handy mile markers counting you down to your destination). The trail is never very busy, but I start to recognize other riders sharing the journey and often stop to chat with local volunteers who seem to live on the trail in the hopes they can be of service. The days start easy enough: first 23km/14mi, then 30km/19mi, then 42km/26mi, and I notice how quickly my body adapts, how my legs get stronger, and my lungs grow larger to breathe in all that fresh forest air.

Explore le P'tit Train du Nord linear park at your own pace |  <i>Robin Esrock</i>

Departing each village, Le P’tit Train du Nord snakes through the Laurentians, crossing bubbling brooks, wetlands, forests, beaches, rivers, rapids, and the occasional golf course. More than once, I have to brake for squirrels, chipmunks and deer, and I greet each passing cyclist with a ‘bonjour’ and smile. It’s easy to smile in a beautiful part of the world. Some days I listen to music on my headphones; other days, I prefer to hear the sound of wheels on asphalt or gravel (from the north section, about two-thirds of the trail is paved and, therefore, a lot smoother). At rest stops, I meet families, couples and grandparents from around the country, some of whom join me for a lunch in a local bistro. When you travel by yourself, you’re only lonely if you want to be.

Many rest stops are lovely restored century-old train stations |  <i>Robin Esrock</i>

Every five to ten kilometres, there’s a rest stop, often located at a restored century-old train station now functioning as a café, art gallery or museum. Some cabooses have been converted into restaurants, and there are handy bike tools available too. There’s also plenty of time to explore villages along the trail, many of which are having some sort of summer celebration or art festival. Other than water, sunscreen and a warm or wet layer in my panniers, there’s plenty of space for souvenirs or treats. I also packed a small towel for refreshing dips in a lake or swimming hole. By late afternoon, I’d reach the day’s destination, navigate to the night’s lodging, grab my bags from the lobby if they’re not already waiting in my room, and enjoy a hot shower before heading out to explore Mont Tremblant, Saint-Faustin-Lac-Carré or Val-David.

The village-relais of Labelle is a former train station |  <i>Nathalie Gauthier</i>

Le P’tit Train du Nord operated as a passenger rail service for decades before the service was discontinued in 1981. It took fifteen years for the rails to be removed and a trail was created for cyclists and hikers in summer and snowmobilers and cross-country skiers in winter. You could certainly knock off the entire trail in a couple of days, but biking Le P’tit Train du Nord is all about discovering the region, not simply getting from A to B. With just a 4% maximum incline, hybrid bikes are ideal, and if fitness is a real issue, you can always choose an e-bike and take it as easy as you wish. It did rain on my third day, but I was gliding through protective tree tunnels, and the storm passed quickly. Canada’s notorious boreal bugs also weren’t an issue, although I did apply some bug spray when I stopped to pick some juicy wild berries. The Laurentians is perhaps the most popular tourist region in Quebec, and the trail is popular with cyclists from around the country. As a result, you don’t need to know French to visit this part of the world, and you’ll find menus and locals happy to engage you in English. It's a bittersweet accomplishment when I reach Mile Zero in Saint-Jérôme. On the one hand, I’m elated to have successfully self-guided my way on this 5-day bike trip on le P'tit Train du Nord without incident, overcoming any nerves in the process. On the other, I’d had so much fun I could easily just turn the bike around and do it all over again in the opposite direction.

Congrats! You've reached Mile Zero of le P'tit Train du Nord, Saint-Jérôme |  <i>Robin Esrock</i>

All good things come to an end, and for my hybrid bike – an able and trusty companion throughout the week – that end is the rental shop. A shuttle is waiting to take me on the hour’s drive back to Montreal, and I’m already thinking of the next bike trip: the 256-km Blueberry Circuit in Lac Saint-Jean? The Kettle Valley Heritage Trail through BC’s wine region, on a similarly flat railway trail? The following summer, my next trip turned out to be a week-long bike ride across Prince Edward Island. Le P’tit Train du Nord set the tone and pace of what bike touring can be, and I’ve never looked back.

Robin Esrock is the bestselling author of The Great Canadian Bucket List.

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