Eat Your Cake on the KVR

Enjoying the view of Lake Okanagan from the Kettle Valley Rail Trail | Rob Feakins
Enjoying the view of Lake Okanagan from the Kettle Valley Rail Trail | Rob Feakins

By Robin Esrock  

Have you ever driven pass a cyclist struggling up a steep hill with loaded saddlebags?  Peddling through gorgeous countryside for a week sounds fun, if not the thought of being that sweating cyclist.  Perhaps, like myself, you’d prefer a cycling adventure without the punishing physicality.  Is it possible to have our cake with the bike forks to eat it too?   Yes, we can.   

Opened in 1915, the Kettle Valley Railway (KVR) was not only a feat of extraordinary engineering, it was the primary means of transportation through the rugged mountains, valleys and lakes of southern British Columbia.  Building five hundred kilometres of track across this terrain was no easy task: it involved thousands of immigrant labourers slogging in back-breaking, often deadly conditions.  Somehow, they were able to blast tunnels, traverse perilous cliffs, and engineer some of the most striking wooden trestles in North America.  By 1964, highways had eliminated the passenger service, and in 1989, the Kettle Valley Railway was discontinued altogether.  With the tracks removed, the KVR was reinvented as a rail trail, shepherding cyclists and hikers through the Okanagan region with a maximum 2.2% grade.  This translates as no hills, easy riding, and a bucket list cycling adventure for everyone.  Especially when Great Canadian Trails organizes the bikes, accommodation, an excellent self-guided trail app, and shuttles your bags ahead.  

The Myra Canyon on the KVR |  <i>Nathalie Gauthier</i>

Great Canadian Trails does the logistical heavy lifting, so expect less time sweating over the details and more time ogling at the views.  Although the terrain is mostly flat, I opt for an e-bike because I’m as fit as a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.   The bike shuttle collects me in West Kelowna, where the itinerary begins at a lovely B&B with scrumptious breakfasts and a sweeping vista of Lake Okanagan.  My e-bike has a comfortably wide seat, an easy-to-operate pedal-assist system, and a saddle bag for water, sunblock, and packed snacks.   From here, it’s about an hour’s drive to the trailhead near Lake Idabel Lake, and onto the KVR we go.  

It’s downhill all the way to the KVR’s rockstar highlight:  the Myra Canyon Trestles.  Entering this BC Provincial Park and National Historic Site, the gravel trail enters a 12-kilometre (7.5 miles) one-way stretch across 18 wooden trestles and through two rock tunnels.  The views of the valley and mountains are extraordinary, and volunteers rebuilt several trestles after a devastating wildfire in 2003.  Some trestles are longer and higher than others, but all provide a thrilling crossing.  While visitors to the park can rent bikes at the trailhead for an out-and-back ride, I continue along the KVR towards the evening’s lakeside accommodation.  

The views are spectacular as you cycle high along the winding Myra Canyon |  <i>Rob Feakins</i>

While the gradient is kind, the gravel trail gets choppy in some areas.  Still, there’s no rush as I make my way through a lush forest bursting with the colours of fireweed, balsamroot, wild rose and lupine.  Working off my phone’s GPS (no cell phone coverage is required), the GCT trail app lets me track my progress, and it’s all but impossible to get lost.   My bag awaits me inside a comfortable glamping tent when I get to Chute Lake Lodge, with a cold craft beer, a refreshing swim in the tea-coloured lake, and a pub-style dinner.  There’s a special charging station for e-bikes, and the cozy lodge has board games and couches to see out the night.   Since I don’t ride much, my butt feels a little tender, but doing any exercise feels good at the end of the day.  I sleep like a resting boulder.  

It’s a 40-kilometre (25 miles) ride along the KVR all the way to Penticton, and in truth, I wonder how Day 2 of this three-day ride could possibly outdo Day 1.  Substitute mountains for dense pine forests and sparkling lakes, that’s how.  The gentle downhill slope makes the riding particularly easy and, at times, almost meditative.  I make frequent stops to enjoy the views and keep an eye out for wildlife.  

From here, it's a breezy coast downhill to the Naramata Bench |  <i>Rob Feakins</i>

I roll into the vineyards and bursting orchards of the Naramata Bench around lunchtime, immediately bee-lining for the Abandoned Railway Brewery for lunch and a refreshing dry-hopped lager.  The O.K Whistlestop B&B is a large house run by a lovely German family, with a pool in the backyard and an orchard exploding with peaches, plums, apples, and apricots.  It’s right off the trail, and nearby vineyards like Red Rooster, Ruby Blues, D’Angelo and Little Engine make for a fine afternoon wine tasting session.  I hop back on the KVR to ride downhill into Penticton for dinner, confident the e-bike easily will take care of the hill on the way back.   

The Naramata Bench in BC is recognized for its high density of wineries |  <i>Robin Esrock</i>

The shuttle picks me up in the morning to drop me off at the trailhead in Summerland for the final day’s ride.  The KVR cuts through wild sage bush from Summerland to Penticton, along the Penticton channel and onto a trail that circumnavigates Skaha Lake.  I stop for lunch in Okanagan Falls, locally known as OK Falls, and ride back along a paved, twisty road to rejoin the KVR to make my way back to the B&B in Naramata.  It’s a warm, dry summer, and the pool is much appreciated!  After a short rest, I ride back into Penticton for dinner at a Turkish restaurant called Elma, overlooking the boulevard alongside Lake Okanagan.  The wind is warm, the food delicious, and life is grand.  Selecting Turbo on the e-bike makes short work of the hill up to the Naramata Bench.   

Biking on the Kettle Valley Rail Trail through orchards and vineyards |  <i>Robin Esrock</i>

Over three days, I had covered a combined distance of about 150 kilometres (93 miles), but Great Canadian Trails curates the very best 150 kilometres of the KVR.  The Okanagan, one of Canada’s largest fruit and wine-producing regions, is a magnificent part of the world.  Taking it all in by bicycle – without sweat or slog – is a family-friendly adventure tailor-made for fans of cycling, wine, history, and the beautiful Canadian wilderness.     

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

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