Kettle Valley Railway: Exploring BC on Our First Cycle Touring Trip

The Kettle River with Our Bikes

It was a Monday and it was raining in Vancouver. Gili  and I packed the car with two pairs of bikes, a children’s trailer, panniers, sleeping bags and mats, some food, and all the rest of the equipment that we needed for about 12 days of riding. It was about a six hour drive to a small town called Midway (midway across BC east to west) where we planned to start the ride from. After we passed Hope, the skies cleared and the sun was shining. We were on our way to ride the Kettle Valley Railway.

The Starting Point – Midway

Once upon a time there was a gold rush in British Columbia and there was a need for a train to pass through numerous small villages, many of which don’t exist anymore. The Kettle Valley Railway ran from Midway to Hope, and was active between 1915 and 1975. In that year the train stopped running and the rails were gradually taken away, leaving us with more than 600 kilometres of trails perfectly suited for cycling. The trail passes through wonderful canyons, rivers and valleys and passes beside countless lakes. We had only been living in Canada for nine months then, so it was a great way to get to know another beautiful part of BC.

Hanging Our Food: The Daily Ritual

We left the car in the parking lot of a supermarket in the small town of Midway. It was already five o’clock in the afternoon by the time we got there, so we only rode for a few hours. From the second day and on we had long and full days of riding, as it was June and the days were long. At night we had a routine: find a good place for our tent, stretch, pitch the tent, cook dinner far from the tent, and after dinner we gathered our food and tooth paste and hung it all in a sack on a tall tree. It was one of our first Canadian wilderness experiences and we still hadn’t seen any bears. This whole business of hanging our food seemed bizarre to me at first.

Along the way we didn’t see many people and the scenery was amazing. We saw many animals such as deer, grouse, Canadian geese, marmots, one moose and too many snakes. On one of our snack breaks we looked aside and a few meters from us there was a coyote sniffing around. When he noticed us he ran back in the direction he had come. On another occasion we stopped to look at the map. While Gili was busy with the map I looked aside and suddenly noticed that someone was watching us. It was an owl just sitting on a branch not far from us, moving its head around as only owls can do.

Barred Owl

The road kept on changing. There were days when we only rode uphill, and we felt as if we were not getting anywhere. There were downhill days, during which we just flew down the trail. There were sections that seemed like a desert and sections where you could still see a lot of snow on the mountains.

In the days of the train there were huge trestles (wooden bridges) in many sections. A well known section of the trail called Myra Canyon contains about fifteen trestles. Unfortunately, a few years ago there was a fire and the bridges burned down. They are now rebuilding the bridges in the same way that they were originally built. We cycled a few of the bridges that had already been rebuilt, but at a certain point we had to turn around and go back.

Myra Canyon

The next day we left the railway, riding on a trail that bypasses the canyon and meets up with the railway later on. This trail was steeper than the rail bed, but very beautiful and many flowers were blooming. On this section we rode up and down constantly, and it was then that we realized that taking a kids trailer to such a trip might not be the best idea. On one of the downhill sections the connection between the trailer and the bike broke. Gili worked on fixing it for about half an hour and improvised a solution that wasn’t great, but kept us going for the rest of the trip.

 

Rough Trail for a Trailer

After a few days of riding we reached Penticton, the only real city we passed on the way. We ate pizza and ice cream and bought a few supplies. We also found a cherry tree that kept us busy for a while. From there we took a detour along a side spur of the railway that leads to Osoyoos. This area is called the Okanagan Valley, and it is famous as “Canada’s only real desert”. For us it was more of a wine country than an actual desert. A local family that we met on the way told us two secrets, one good and one bad. The good secret was how to identify Saskatoons, a small berry that grows on trees all around there. The other secret was a warning about poison ivy, that we started seeing everywhere after they showed us how to identify it.

I found a cherry tree in Penticton

We had to go to the hospital in Oliver twice due to an allergic reaction of mine (probably not poison ivy). My eyes were red and swollen, but I could still see so it didn’t hold us back too long. The allergy pills and antibiotics made me quite tired which added an extra challenge to the ride. As an outcome of the hospital visits we met some very nice people from Osoyoos which we became friends with. In the end they even drove our car from Midway to their house in Osoyoos, shortening the distance we had to travel to retrieve our car.

On the day before the last day, we reached a small village called Brookmere where they don’t even have a school, and the children are educated in home schooling. We had some difficulties on the next leg of the railway, the Coquihalla subdivision. A few years ago there was a washout that took away part of the trail. Volunteers built a small detour, but we discovered that part of the detour had washed out as well. It was quite challenging not to say scary to pass the washout with two bikes, full panniers, and a trailer. After we survived this section and I was happy to be back on the trail, Gili told me that there is another washout just 700 meters ahead. Same story there, the detour had washed out as well. It was already quite late so we pitched our tent right before the washout and went to sleep. Here it was extremely important to hang our food because there was bear scat everywhere.

Washout

The next morning we woke up an hour earlier to cross the washout. It was like “Survival”. We had to cross this washout with all our equipment right above the raging Coldwater river. But we did it faster than I expected, and at 7:40 we were on our way with still more than 80km to Hope, our final destination. It was still early in the day, so when I heard Gili saying: “Maya, I think I see someone in the distance with a llama” I thought I was dreaming or just not hearing right. But it wasn’t his imagination. It was Kathy, a woman from Vancouver Island walking part of the Trans Canada Trail with her own llama! She was quite a character and very funny and sweet. She didn’t know how long and till when she would be hiking, just as long as she felt like continuing.

Katy, Lama, Gili

After we said goodbye to Kathy and the llama, we entered an amazing section, with dense forest and high cliffs on both sides. Then we saw a bear, from about 100m away. We watched him from a distance for a few moments and when he noticed us he ran away. It was quite an exciting moment for us, the first bear we had seen in nature. However, the second bear we saw was much more remarkable. After a few kilometres, Gili stopped riding because he heard a noise in the bushes. He jumped off his bike just as a bear ran out from the bushes and crossed to the other side of the trail, only a few meters away.

Otter Lake

Just before Hope we passed through the Othello tunnels, which are an impressive set of tunnels above the rough Coquihalla River. This was actually the end of the journey as we were only a few kilometres away from our final destination. After 11 days and 646km we reached Hope, and felt very satisfied to have successfully finished this hard but very rewarding journey.

10 Kilograms of Cherries

The next morning we left our bikes and gear at the campsite and hitch hiked back to Osooyos. The first ride was with a couple from Quebec, the second ride was with a small old lady smoking a cigarette and driving a huge pickup truck, and the third ride was with a group of young friends that were on a road trip from Vancouver to Toronto in a van that had been converted into a camper by one of them. It was for sure much shorter than taking the bus, and much cheaper, of course. In Osoyoos we met our friends again, who had driven our car for us from Midway. This was just the beginning of the cherry season, and there were cherry orchards everywhere. As we were riding we passed many U-Picks along the way and dreamt about all the cherries we would be picking of we weren’t on our bikes. We returned to Vancouver with 10kg of cherries picked by us and many good memories from this incredible journey.

More photos

Close to the end – Othello Tunnels

This entry was posted in British Columbia (and nearby), Coquihalla, Cycling & Cycle Touring, Okanagan, Trip Reports. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Kettle Valley Railway: Exploring BC on Our First Cycle Touring Trip

  1. Frank_Z says:

    I wish I read about that scary washout earlier, I had to pass it after sunset in pitch dark last October, ramming the pedal into the sand like an ice axe each time I lifted and moved the bicycle.
    The Othello tunnels are actually not closed because of rock fall, the foundation of the bridge between 2 of the tunnels is falling apart. Because of the closure I was forced to camp at the East end since it was late and I was too tired to cycle back to the highway. I wish they would announce the closure on the signs near the highway. I cycled to the gate on the other side the next morning, but I didn’t see a way around on both sides.

  2. Gili says:

    Hey Frank – wow, too bad that that washout is still there! It must have been very tough to cross it in the dark, on a cold October night. Note that some updates on trail conditions are available on the guidebook’s website at http://www.kettlevalleyrailway.ca/ (under “News”).

    Regarding Othello Tunnels – actually they are currently closed due to both reasons… The first closure appears to be an annual winter closure of all the tunnels, due to possible rockfall. After sneaking in around that, we found a second closure: indeed part of the foundations of one of the bridges can be seen downstream of it. It’s kind of scary, and it’s an unfortunate place for something like that to happen – it will be expensive to fix, but I hope they plan to do so. The park website says it’s closed while they repair it (http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/coquihalla_cyn/) so let’s cross our fingers. I kind of wonder if cyclists are still sneaking past both of the closures 🙂

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