Gravel Gold: Exploring the Cariboo
If the cycling world could summarize what British Columbia, Canada is known for, there’s a good chance they would say mountain biking. They’re not wrong, as BC has some of the best mountain biking trails, bike parks, and talent anywhere on the planet. Yet, from a broader view, BC offers more than mountain biking.
British Columbia’s mining history and commercial forestry have carved a playground of gravel access roads throughout the province. Point to almost anywhere on a map and you’ll see what I’m talking about. A spiderweb of dirt roads where dirt roads shouldn’t be - far into the backcountry, through mountain passes, and deep within Boreal forests. Thousands of untouched kilometres of gravel goodness - more than you’ll see in a lifetime - are there for the taking. For gravel cyclists, BC’s dirt road network is a bike park. Roads that are so perfectly laid out, you’d think someone designed them specifically for gravel bikes.
In fact, the explosion of gravel cycling over the past few years has taken the industry by storm. They used to say that road biking was the new golf, but now gravel cycling seems to be taking over where road riding left off. Gravel bikes are everywhere. Mostly every bike shop has invested heavily in this fledgling activity. Aging mountain bikers are looking for mellower two-wheeled activities while maintaining the need to explore nature. I’m happy to lump myself into that demographic as I explore further into my backyard.
It’s tough to narrow down one area of British Columbia as being the best for gravel biking. There are far too many areas to comprehend as “the best”. Yet, one could argue that the Cariboo Region of the province is the clear winner. I have yet to explore every gravel-riding area of BC, but I would cast a vote in favour of the Cariboo.
Atop the province's geographical centre and in an area known as the Bonaparte Plateau, The Cariboo is a gravel grinder’s playground. Spreading out from towns such as Clinton and 70 Mile House, you’ll soon discover endless smooth dirt roads waiting for you. Roads that were cut in because of the gold rush were soon used by ranchers, farmers and now gravel cyclists. These roads are quiet, as you may only encounter a single vehicle in a two-hour ride. Your only traffic concerns are of the bovine variety.
Although the riding is epic, the scenery is the true champion here. Long stretches of gravel roads will take you through sprawling ranches, aqua-coloured lakes, and snow-capped mountain ranges. The upper Fraser river commands this region, as it carves a massive canyon of silt bluffs and post-glacial hoodoos with dirt roads interspersed around them. If you have an excuse to bring a proper camera with you, this is it. If your legs are up to the challenge, descend down to the Big Bar ferry. This is a river current-operated cable ferry that will take you across the mighty Fraser. On the other side is a whole other section of possibly the best gravel roads in existence. Once there, you are one of a small handful of people to have ever ridden a bicycle on these roads. You truly feel as though you are hundreds of kilometres from civilization.
Morning view of the Marble Range mountains from Meadowlake Guest Ranch
A must-see viewing area is Cougar Point. Even if you decide to drive to it, it’s worthwhile to go there for the scenery. At over 900 meters (3000 feet), you’re looking almost straight down to the Fraser river. Dropping in is not for the faint of heart, and once you do, you’re committed. Within minutes, you’re wondering when the last time it was you checked your brake pads. Fortunately, there are several 180-degree switchbacks to take a break on. You’ll ask yourself, why didn’t I bring my mountain bike? But when you hit the bottom, you’re glad you chose the gravel kind. Full commitment here means long rides with monstrous climbs and butt-clenching descents. You’re in it to win it or die trying.
Cougar Point. If you look way down to the valley bottom, you can see quite possibly the best gravel roads in the country.
The Mighty Fraser River. This is big country.
The Cariboo is not your average backyard jaunt. These are long, arduous rides. Being prepared is an understatement. Everything is big here - the landscape, the climbs, the descents, and the distance. Copious amounts of water and ample supplies of food are a must to complete the job. I'd recommend four-wheel drive vehicles with low range to rescue stranded riders, depending on where they are. I’ve driven to the good parts with beginners to give them a glimpse of the possibilities of this area. I would never take a fledgling cyclist into these depths without some sort of bailout. And if you are bailing people out, make sure your car has enough fuel, as the nearest petrol station is a long way away.
A bike with at least 40c tires will do, but wider tires will probably make you happier.
While the little town of Clinton is a good enough starting point, you’ll be much better off making the midway point your home base. I’d suggest checking into Meadow Lake Guest Ranch. You’ll use these luxurious log homes as a hopping-off point to explore this vast region. Starting at Meadow Lake allows beginner riders to enjoy themselves as the surrounding roads are, for the most part, flat. Seasoned vets will enjoy this home base as they embark on all-day rides, looping back to the property. You can make the rides as long or as short as you want. If exploration is your motive here, guaranteed you’ll be out for hours. Riders of all skill levels can fan out from the lodge and choose the length of their routes.
If you’re lucky, you’ll see a moose, a bear, a fox, and possibly a wolf. Meanwhile, deer are plentiful, so prepare for an encounter. Mosquitoes are abundant, enough so that in summer months, they might carry you away. Best to visit in early fall when the mozzies are all gone and the larches are glowing yellow. This is Canada’s wild west, so expect anything and everything.
The crowds can be a bit judgy.
The Roadhouse at Meadow Lake Guest Ranch. There are more modern log homes to stay in, but this is one of our favourites.
From Meadow Lake, you can ride far enough to find yourself at Gang Ranch, a working cattle ranch that has been in operation since the 1800s. As you travel through narrow, twisting roads, out of nowhere is the Churn Creek suspension bridge, dating back to 1914. Take your time and enjoy the grandeur of your surroundings. This part of the Cariboo is so remote, you’ll be surprised that anyone lives here, let alone earns a living being this far from civilization. A patchwork of hay pastures nestles below silt cliffs and rolling grasslands - a perfect backdrop for an adventure.
The Churn Creek Bridge at Gang Ranch.
Adventure is the keyword here. To engulf yourself in your ride, you need to embrace the landscape around you. Explore the side roads, wave to the locals, and be prepared to be on your bike for hours. These roads entice you to see what’s around the next corner. And remember, take photos.
As for bike setup, any off-the-shelf gravel bike will do. You won’t need ultra-wide rubber, but anything in the 40-44c width would be ideal. Fresh brake pads are a must, especially if you want to tackle the descent from Cougar Point. If you do find yourself committed to one of these monster downhills, you’ll have to ride back up an equally steep, lengthy climb. Low gearing will save you from taking your bike for a walk. Most important - bring supplies. On-bike storage with lots of water and food to help get you out of those massive canyons.
A massive fire devastated the area in 2020, and some of the rides take you through ground zero.
No colour edits are needed. The colours are really that bright.
Fall foliage in this region is like no other... and the mozzies have gone into hibernation.
Finally, don’t feel ashamed of doing many, smaller loops. Not all of us have the fitness to lay down a hundred-kilometre ride in this region, and that’s okay. Remember, this area is very remote and you’ll soon regret not being prepared. Have fun, take in the views, and live in the moment.
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Documenting my experiences and travels through photography.