Saturday, May 1, 2010

Why does mountain biking suck in the Ottawa region?

It does. And it shouldn't.

Notwithstanding the heroic efforts of the Ottawa Mountain Biking Association, who have selflessly and persistently built some fantastic trails in Kanata Lakes, the Ottawa region is inexcusably devoid of good mountain biking. This despite having a world-class landscape with immense trail potential and a vibrant local cycling community.

I'm not making an uninformed claim. As a mountain biker since 1987, when I moved to Ottawa in 1994 one of the first things I did was explore the region's rides. Since then I've ridden pretty much every metre of rideable trail and road within 100 km of Almonte, where I live. Those were some epic days. Now I'm exploring further by motorbike, trying to find untapped potential.

Tragically, much of the good stuff I used to ride years ago has disappeared under the developers paving machine, been marked "no trespassing", been legislated out of access by the NCC, or succumbed to the fear of liability. Consider the following rides:

- Gatineau Park. Once the local riding mecca with many kilometers of epic technical singletrack, the NCC has incrementally banned riding from almost every interesting area except the #1 fireroad. Great... your only option is to weave around families pushing strollers, pets on 20' leashes, and groups walking five abreast. No one's happy with that situation, least of whom riders. Of course, the NCC justifies their actions as "protecting nature". I'm all for protecting nature too, which is why it baffles me that the NCC's "environmental" activity includes allowing rich people to build houses in the park, roads to be blasted into tourist sites, and pristine remote singletrack to be bulldozed and widened so strollers can navigate it (think trails north of Lac Phillippe). Don't get me started on the NCC's rock climbing restrictions!

- Kanata Lakes. The poorly conceived Terry Fox extension planned for this year will destroy a major chunk of a unique part of the Carp Ridge. We already lost half of Kanata Lakes to vinyl-clad houses, whose developers blasted the crap out of every feature that made the place desirable in the first place, so they could create byzantine tangles of suburban sprawl.

- Mt. Pakenham. This area had mega trail potential just a short drive from Ottawa. I used to ride cross country there. I and a few others saw potential for 50-100km of world-class mountain bike park. However, I was told by the Wilderness Tours owners that liability concerns have shut the area to riders, so now it sits unused in the summer.

- Calabogie Peaks. Same as Mt. Pakenham, except they did have a short period of officially sanctioned riding. Unfortunately, it's just that bit too far from Ottawa to make business sense, but why not allow volunteer trail makers do some work?

- Wilderness Tours. The Rafters to Rapids trail is nice, but the minimal trail development doesn't justify the $10 fee and the one-hour drive each way.

- Eastern Ontario trails system. Now this has potential, but it's a looooonnnnggg way from support even for motorized riders, and the trails aren't designed for mountain biking. Still, an impressive epic potential--if you don't mind 100km between food and water opportunities.

- Stoney Swamp. Nice riding in a pinch or for beginners, but flat and limited in potential compared to other areas. Nevertheless, much kudos to the City of Ottawa for letting us ride there without the kind of neurotic, self-serving restrictions that some other government organizations would impose.

That's pretty much it for local rides. Quebec has its ATV trails, Toronto area has the fantastic Uxbridge Forest and Hardwood Hills, and there's the forest in Peterborough. Lots of ATV trails throughout the province. But only three hours away is the Adirondacks with a huge trail network and no bugs. I'd prefer to spend my money at home--even better, to ride right from home.

The Ottawa area has the raw ingredients to become a truly world-class ride center on par with centres in Oregon, Washington State, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, France, the UK, British Columbia, Switzerland, Slovakia, and many other places. It would be a great way to bring tourist dollars into the region. Worried about liability? How come the snowmobilers and ATVers can figure it out, with thousands of km of their own trails in Ontario accessible for only $150 a year? They have a great model. Mountain bikers know how to build trails, we have the labour and equipment, and we have organizations like IMBA to provide expert guidance on access and technical issues.

We just need our local government agencies to open their minds and consider cycling an important part of urban and suburban planning. Without that support, it's hard to get private landowners to take it seriously either.

Update (Aug 25, 2014): This post certainly resonated with readers. I'm happy to report that in the years since posting, I've negotiated land access agreements with local landowners, roped in some volunteers, and built 8 km of flowy single track connecting Almonte to the Mill of Kintail. We are currently working on a new trail network in the area, provided we can get all the necessary approvals. It's been challenging to work with the various public agencies (much harder than working with private landowners!) but fortunately some of them have been highly supportive of our efforts.

Update (March 17, 2015): Almost five years after posting this rant, and it's encouraging to see some real progress in local trails: OMBA and the NCC are working together to increase summer and winter (fatbiking) access to Gatineau Park; OMBA volunteers have further refined the South March Highlands trail network and undertaken some new trail development projects in cooperation with the City of Ottawa; Mississippi Mills (which includes Almonte) has been tremendously supportive of local trail initiatives, and we are in the process of extending our Almonte Riverside Trail through the Mill of Kintail to Bennie's Corners, which will give a total of about 20km of local singletrack; local landowners are stepping up to engage in discussions about how to secure trail access across their property. While the region is still not the dense trail mecca of a Kingdom Trails, there are many positive developments that should result in more trails over the next few years, with many benefits to the communities that support these efforts.


  1. There have been huge efforts to work together between OTC and IMBA over the years. The lack of a driven provincial policy mechanism "The Ontario Trails Strategy - 2007" and the lack of public awareness of trails available in the Ottawa region are two factors. We would welcome a regional voice at where we talk about such issues as your blog post. Thanks

  2. With respect to Gatineau Park: Last fall I established a website devoted to Gatineau Park. Since then I have been covering news, events and history about the park.

    I see the Climbers' Coalition as a proxy for other Park users in that the NCC has developed a pattern of establishing MOUs (memorandums of understanding) with Climbers, the IMBA and I predict Geocachers and others.

    The NCC has a terrible reputation for public consultation and there is much cynicism and distrust. This was at the root of the mandate review of 2006 which resulted in a restructuring of the top management structure of the NCC. The CEO and Board Chair have driven an "open and transparent" initiative and the NCC website claims that they "strongly believe that public involvement and open dialogue with the public are key determining factors in the success of our projects, plans and programs."

    Yet the NCC continues to struggle to make this open and transparent dialogue a reality with Gatineau Park users. The rock climbers appear to have made honest efforts at dialogue but don't feel that there really has been any dialogue--they feel dictated to.

    Accordingly I have been encouraging people to support the rock climbers even if they don't climb, simply because I believe that their frustration is representative of what many other users also feel.

    The real objective of the NCC should be to shake the distrust of Park users. That is the best route to Park protection. To gain users trust again they must redouble their efforts at dialogue. Partnering with groups such as the IMBA and Climbers' Coalition requires those parties to be committed to the MOUs. When one party doesn't feel included in the process that can't happen.

  3. Thank you for your comments. I appreciate hearing from readers!

    I'm really glad to hear about the Ontario Trails - IMBA connection. I wasn't aware of it. Except for hardcore ATVers and snowmobilers, few people I know are aware of the incredible trail system that OFSC and OTC have built up over the years. Certainly none of the Ottawa mountain biking community I know is aware of it. I'm keen to help bridge the gap.

    My wife and I used to be avid rock climbers in Gatineau Park, Bon Echo, the Adirondacks, and other points west and south. My observation is there's been a generational shift in the outdoor climbing crowd. Like us, many of our peers and mentors have backed off climbing to raise families or pursue other interests. The younger climbers we knew were more gym-oriented, or they were more sport-climbing oriented and there just aren't many bolted routes in this region. The outdoor climbing community hollowed out in the last decade, and now I suspect there isn't a local critical mass left to put up a decent reality check with the NCC. I feel pretty hopeless when I see how the NCC operates.

    I used to climb as a member of the Alpine Club of Canada, and like my peers, I advocated a respectful approach to our local crags. I honestly don't think the ACC was part of the purported environmental problem. However, we often did encounter other ad hoc groups who took a more destructive approach at the crags, most likely as a result of their ignorance. Whatever; all climbers got painted with the same bad brush and we all lost out as a result. I don't want to see that happen with mountain biking.

    I guess I got on this whole rant after reading some favourite mountain biking mags (Singletrack and Bike). I've often thought, if the editors came to this area to evaluate the riding, where would I take them? Probably to the Gats to ride #1 to O'Brien, and around Lac Phillippe. Then Kanata Lakes. But that's about it for options. The ATV trails are beautiful but remote and long, and not really designed for mountain biking flow. Other than KL, there's hardly any remarkable singletrack here. I'd love to see this area get an IMBA trail centre. Some nice flowy trails like what's happening at KL, but in more vertical terrain.


    After working on most of the trails in KL. I am trying to get Mont Ste Marie into a destination MTB'ing hot spot. There is tons of potential with scenic views out of this world and lots of vertical terrain. MsM is only 50 minutes north of Ottawa and with all the highway improvements as planned this will get shorter.
    Follow the links below to keep informed and come out and help us build trails. The next trail building day is Saturday June 25th.

    Please, need you to help us turn things around.


    Hope to see you then.


    Peter V

  5. OK try this link instead of the first one above.

    Peter V

  6. I have been riding the Riverside trail regularly this year. It is great, thanks.
    Where can I learn more about the extension you refer to. we ride from Almonte to the mill and back each weekend but would be interested if there are more trails to ride. Chalmers Reed

    1. We post trail news on the FB group "Almonte Outdoors". The Bennies Corner extension to our existing trail is still under development and currently only rideable on fat bikes in the winter. But it's a great fatback ride! From Almonte to the end and back is 30 km. Hope to have a trail through Mill of Kintail in place soon, once we get the draft agreement finalized and signed.

  7. What are your thoughts on Camp Fortune? I'm not a well versed rider, but I have been there a couple of times as well as Kanata Laked. CF seems good to me.

  8. Paul - I used to ride Fortune regularly, as well as ski and climb in the Gats every week. However, I now rarely use the park except to road ride, as I find it too restrictive otherwise. OMBA has worked hard and made some good progress in terms of gaining access to the park, but it's a slow process with the NCC.

    Now I mainly ride at KL, on the Carp Ridge, on the Mississippi Valley Trails that I built (15 km of single track, through my work with OMBA since first posting this blog article 8 years ago), Forest Lea, Vallee Bras du Nord, Mont Ste Marie, and Kingdom Trails, among others. There's more riding around that isn't CF -- and I like to explore new areas for XC where it's possible to build great trails.

  9. You might want to check out Dacre Heights, located about 20 minutes northwest of Calabogie. I purchased the old ski hill last year and allow public access for hiking, mountain biking and skiing.

    Oh, and thanks for setting up the Almonte Riverside Trail - I've walked and enjoyed it many times over the past few years.