Off the Beaten Path: The Best Places to Mountain Bike in Canada
In Whistler, British Columbia, says Kim Wilson, “it all comes together.”
It does not refer to the legendary ski slopes in the mountains, where everything actually leads down, but to a much more robust sport, which has seen phenomenal growth in Canada in recent years.
As the owner and operator of Whistler ATV Towers, one of the premier outdoor tour companies in the area, Wilson’s mission is to introduce you to nature. Vertically.
All-terrain vehicles, or ATVs (also called quads) and their UTV siblings are motorized all-terrain vehicles that look like something of a madmax Movie: A vestigial frame with bone-crushing tires that can handle mud, rocks, lava fields, and waterways with ease.
The former, intended for a single rider, is essentially a rugged motorcycle with four wheels for off-road stability. The rider straddles the saddle and guides himself with the handlebars. UTVs (all-terrain utility vehicles or side-by-sides) have been developed for multiple users and offer more comfort, with car-like features ideal for families: bench seats or bucket seats, seat belts, steering wheel and roll bar above the head.
Because an ATV is a go-anywhere vehicle, it meets the criteria of people who like to do extreme things.
— Wayne Daub, CEO of the Canadian Quad Council
ATVs are lighter, narrower and easier to maneuver than UTVs, but both models promise adventure, the thrill of leaving the beaten asphalt and experiencing nature in the wild.
“It really does feel like you’re in a different world,” says Wilson, describing the spectacular views that define his Top of the World tour, which climbs to heights of 5,000 feet (1,524 meters). “We never tire.”
Over the past three years, the popularity of off-roading has skyrocketed: in 2020, sales of new ATVs increased by 30% compared to 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic played a big role in this abrupt increase – closures and restrictions have left city dwellers craving outdoor activities that would also allow them to socially distance. “People who live in condos just wanted to get out,” says Wilson.
Wayne Daub, General Manager of Canadian Quad Advice, estimates that there are currently between 1 and 1.5 million all-terrain vehicles in Canada, with the sport contributing (as of 2015) approximately $1.68 billion – including downstream revenue – to the economy Canadian. “I think it’s probably 20% higher now,” he says. Updated figures are expected for the coming year.
As demand continues to increase, tour operators and retailers are facing another COVID-19 effect: a shortage of new vehicles, due to supply chain issues on the manufacturing side. “In 2020, we sold everything,” says Daub. “Ten-year-old vehicles sell for more than their original price.”
His organization emphasizes the need for responsible off-road riding to protect both the rider and the wilderness environment. Certified safety equipment (especially helmet) and conscientious use of designated trails are considered essential. It is also crucial to choose a vehicle suitable for the age, height, weight and skill level of the driver. Youth ATV engines range from 50 to 250cc and adult vehicles can go up to 1000cc, but 500cc is more than enough for most riders, says Daub.
“Because an ATV is a go-anywhere vehicle, it meets the criteria of people who like to do extreme things,” says Daub. “But there are definitely a lot more beginner riders.” He recommends newcomers take a recognized training course or, at the very least, confirm that their tour operator will offer basic instruction before heading out into the wild.
Steve Levesque, General Manager and Lead Guide at Outdoor Adventures MTB, agrees. “Safety is our number one priority,” he says. Each tour begins with a safety briefing and a flat practice run before moving on to increasingly challenging terrain. “Ninety-five percent of our customers have never been on an ATV before.”
His company operates along the wild northwest edge of Algonquin Park in Ontario; the vast Crown lands offer cyclists “a great variety of trails” and the exciting opportunity to view wildlife. “Our location is unique, with very few people,” he says. “On each visit you will likely see a moose, bear or wolf.”
Lévesque has been riding for 30 years and says: “it never gets boring”. The thrill is discovering unused paths, overcoming challenges, accessing the inaccessible.
“The unknown,” he thinks, “there are many out there.”
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In the largely rural provinces of Atlantic Canada, ATVs are almost a way of life. With a wealth of wilderness to explore, clubs, associations and trail maps abound, catering to the more independent cyclist. Trails can range from five kilometers – an afternoon excursion to enjoy a hidden waterfall or fish in a tranquil lake – to the 883 kilometer adventure that is awesome Newfoundland. T’Railway.
A redeveloped rail line whose 130 bridges and trestles are maintained by a provincially funded council, the T’Railway connects St. John’s on the island’s east coast to Port aux Basques in the west, with various branch lines that don’t just waiting to be explored along the way. Memorable scenery and the chance to interact with a moose or two give this course its distinctive Newfoundland charm. Spectacular visuals can also be found on the Powder Horn Traila hilly and winding ride through the high glacial moors of the island.
Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and even tiny Prince Edward Island all have communities of off-road enthusiasts, with trails that wander through woods and farmland, along lakes and coasts and sleepy little towns.
From Baddeck, Nova Scotia, to the southern border of Cape Breton’s famous Cabot Trail, a well-maintained network of off-road trails leads into the hills, offering spectacular views and eventually connecting to the park’s upland trails Cape Breton Highlands National. To park. In New Brunswick, an old rail line running along the southwest Miramichi River provides a scenic drive through second and third growth forest, while in PEI. herons prowling in the shallows.