Exploring Atlantic Canada’s Mountain Biking Trails

We’re standing in the kitchen. Dirty plates are piled high and the salad is still being picked at. As is the beer tub. Somebody’s at the piano. Unlike the sometimes drunken battering of the keys, this sounds good. The chatter in the kitchen is all about trails, advocacy, and ways to grow the sport without spoiling the smalltown vibe. This is how a lot of apres rides end up in these parts. Many bodies – some showered, most not – gathered in somebody’s kitchen, eating good food, drinking good beer and enjoying the company of friends. It’s the quintessential east coast kitchen party.

Jutting into the Atlantic Ocean, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland are home to a wealth and diversity of coastline. From rocky cliffs to sandy beaches, our geography ranges from rough and rugged to easy and inviting – not unlike the mountain bike trails that run through it.

To truly experience the diversity of trails we have on offer, you’ll want to pack the Subaru, load your bikes and hit the road. Thanks to our comparatively compact geography, you’re never more than a few hours from your next ride so linking a couple of destinations in a day is always in the cards.

Minto

Minto, New Brunswick

We get started in Minto. Located almost smack dab in the middle of New Brunswick, Minto flourished as a coal mining town until only a decade ago. You’ll realize that coal mining legacy when you drop into the trails. Shaped by the huge earth movers of the coal mining industry, the landscape has been rendered perfect for trails, features and views unique to this area. Maintained by Mountain Bike Minto, 40 kms of trails now span over two networks, Northfield and New England, providing no shortage of trails from which to choose.

We grab breakfast at the Omega Restaurant and stock up on some post ride suds at T and L Convenience before heading over to the New England network. Our ride begins with Tabula Rasa linked to Caveat Emptor, Spoil Banks, Serenity Now, Insanity Later finishing with Scotia Banks and Highwall. This roughly 13 km loop is highlighted with Minto’s signature trail, Insanity Later and makes for the perfect run if your stint is limited to getting in a half day of riding.

If you’ve got the full day, follow your morning ride with a dip in the Mucky Ducky pond and a sausage from Willie’s food truck before heading over to the legacy trails of Northfield Avenue. With 13 km of riding, the Northfield Loop comes highly recommended and will take you from forest to desert to jungle. Be sure to ride Mud Dump clockwise and Geiger Counter South to North for the best experience.

Cap your visit to Minto with a well deserved and highly caloric “Taco-In-A-Bag” from the Big Dipper. It’s Minto’s answer to the burrito and pairs well with cold beverages from tall cans.

We generally hit Minto before heading over to the Fundy coast. But if you’re planning to stay in the area, rustic accommodations include the Grand Lake Campground on Booth Road or check out the local offerings on Airbnb. There are also plenty of choices for food and accommodation in the capital city of Fredericton only 35 minutes down the road.

 

Fundy National Park

Alma, New Brunswick

From Minto, it was off to the Bay of Fundy coast. After less than 2 hours of driving, we venture into Fundy National Park to get the lowdown on what’s up with mountain bike trails in Canada’s National Parks and how it is that Fundy, of all parks, is taking the lead.

Currently one of a handful of National Parks in Canada hosting a network of singletrack for mountain biking, Fundy National Park is home to the rolling and rounded mountains of the Caledonia Highlands. It’s position in the transition zone between boreal forest to the north and mostly deciduous forest to the south, gives the park a diversity of tree and plant life. The geography, forest and cool, salty air combined with newly established trails for riders of all abilities makes for the kind of experience you would expect to have in a National Park. Only better.

These trails, coupled with a new pump track and recently-completed pavilion are establishing the park as a true mountain bike destination. With over 65 kms of trails accessible to mountain bikes, riders have numerous options for laying tread as they explore the park on two wheels.

Mountain biking is a relatively new activity to the park. As a way to increase visitation, the National Park System has recently focused on providing services and amenities to specific user groups, including mountain bikers. This is great news for riders as mountain biking is being recognized as a valuable component of Canada’s National Parks program. Traditionally reserved for hikers, many of the trails in the park held great potential for mountain biking and are now being opened as multi use trails catering to riders and hikers alike. The importance of this cannot be overstated as we are now seeing mountain biking not only being accepted, but helping to direct and shape the future of some of Canada’s most important and valued outdoor spaces.

We set up camp at the Chignecto Campground. Located high above the giant tides of the Bay of Fundy, Chignecto offers quick access to a number of trail heads as well as the Fundy Pavilion. With washrooms, showers, a picnic shelter, and a bicycle wash station, the new pavilion is a hub for the flourishing mountain bike scene growing in the park. Here, you will also find Outdoor Elements for bike rentals and maintenance. It’s also here that you will find Fundy’s world class pump track, where you can pump, roll and just generally get out of breath under the canopy of an east coast old growth forest.

Riding across the road from the campground, we drop into Whitetail. Originally established as a hiking trail, Whitetail has undergone numerous modifications and upgrades to establish it as a ‘must ride’ stretch of trail in the maritimes. Smooth, well groomed singletrack with the occasional rocky rooty section, Whitetail drops 300 meters over 4 kms down to the fundy coast. With the rolling nature of the trail, it’s easy to get up to speed, so keep an eye out for other trail users along the way.

If you haven’t planned for a shuttle pickup at the base, your descent will be rewarded with a lung-busting climb back to the top. Barring that, you can work your way down Point Wolfe Road to the Goose River Trailhead for a coastal ride like no other. As part of the Trans Canada Trail, the Goose River Trail is the original cart path connecting the logging villages of Goose River and Point Wolfe, and is largely unchanged. This leads me to believe they must have been mountain biking back then as this trail flows so well along the undulations of the coast. The twists, turns, ups and downs make this trail one you won’t want to miss.

Following our ride, we clean up and head down the hill to the village of Alma. Alma is a port rich with bounty. Restaurants, cafes, accommodation, a craft brewery, gas, booze, fishing tackle – Alma’s got you covered. We drop into the Holy Whale for some locally crafted cold ones before hitting up Fundy Take-Out for some deep fried east coast goodness.

After nearly a decade of integrating mountain biking into the park, Fundy National Park has transitioned from ‘up and coming’ to ‘up and running’. Incorporate Fundy into your next road trip. You’ll be happy you did.

Mark Arendz Provincial Park at Brookvale

Mark Arendz Provincial Park at Brookvale, Prince Edward Island

For our next destination, we head northeast to the Confederation Bridge and Prince Edward Island. From the moment you arrive on the Island, you somehow get the sense you’re in a place where you can let go of the urgency of life. It’s a place I’ve always found that time loosens its grip a little and I can lose myself in the place. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s an island, operating on island time. Maybe it’s how PEI integrates work with the land, tying the clock to the rhythm of nature. Maybe it’s simply the timelessness felt lost in the beauty of the place. Maybe it’s the mountain bike trails.

In PEI, the riding is like no other in the maritimes. Brookvale is home to Atlantic Canada’s flow trails. Pumping, rolling, boosting and roosting, the place begs to be ridden hard and fast. Originally established as a cross-country ski facility for the 1991 Canada Winter Games, Brookvale has evolved to host more than 25 kms of single track – and tasty single track at that. Despite the lack of mountains, you’ll be lots cooked after having milked as much fun as possible from the sculpted features of the trails here.

While you’ll still find plenty of the original, old school, east coast jank, the new trails are sculpted works of art. New school flow trails like ‘Coastline’ roll out like ribbons. Despite the tabletops and booters, these trails are built to be accessible to all riders regardless of ability. And while ‘Green Machine’ was mostly destroyed by Hurricane Dorion last fall, it is slated for resurrection this summer and makes for a great trail to round out the choices on offer.

Leapfrogging from the growth of the trails is the number of riders taking advantage of them. The Rigid Riders Mountain Bike Program has established a strong mountain bike culture in the province with a healthy representation of youth ridership – something to which all trail communities can aspire. Meridian 63 MTB has also been involved, offering instruction and guided rides to locals and visitors alike.

A quick search will reveal plenty of options for accommodations on the Island. Treetop Haven is a pretty cool option and worth looking into. If you’re looking to offset your rough day of riding with the soft touches of a luxury hotel, the Holman Grand will keep you plenty pampered. Aside from those options, Charlottetown has a myriad of choices for you to rest your tired bones.

Options for refueling run the gamut here, as well. The Island offers options for pre, midday, apres, and standard requisite dining needs. Oysters are harvested locally, as is the beer and you can find plenty of options for both. Hop Yard is great for all occasions including apres and late night. If you’re looking to dine, Sim’s Corner Steakhouse and Slaymaker and Nichols are both good options. We also make it a point to drop in on our friends at Upstreet Brewing to get the skinny on trail conditions and Upstreet’s latest brews.

Mountain biking has found a home in National Parks here as well with the Robinson Island Trail Network in Prince Edward Island National Park. With roughly 5 kms of beginner trails and a pump track at the trailhead, Robinson Island is perfect for young riders, families and the mountain bike curious. To round out the trails, there are skinnies, rock roll overs, a teeter totter and other technical features found along the trails to help riders advance their skills.

If you’re a maritimer, PEI is an annual pilgrimage, not to mention a staple for young riding families. If you’re visiting from ‘away’, Prince Edward Island is a must.

Keppoch Mountain

Antigonish, Nova Scotia

We take the ferry from Prince Edward Island to Caribou, Nova Scotia and travel less than an hour east to Keppoch Mountain Recreation Area.

Once geared up, we nestle in on the benches of the bed of Keppoch Mountain’s shuttle rig. A couple of thumps on the roof and we’re off, bouncing our way up the summit road with bikes strapped hard to the trailer in tow. Dual crown forks, full face helmets and DH gear are all the norm here. Located just outside of Antigonish, Keppoch is one of only a few gravity destinations in Atlantic Canada.

Keppoch Mountain was originally established as a ski hill in the 1960’s providing Antigonish and surrounding communities with a valuable community asset. Families enjoyed the benefits of a local ski hill until the mid 90’s when dwindling populations and lean winters rendered the hill no longer financially viable.

Fast forward to the early 2000s when a group of local residents, recognizing outdoor activities as essential to the overall health of the community, worked to resurrect the area as a hub for outdoor recreation. In 2010 Keppoch Mountain Recreation Area was established by Positive Action for Keppoch as the facility we enjoy today. Complete with a base lodge, change rooms, disc golf course, climbing boulders, a pump track, summit shuttle, and all the hiking, nordic skiing, trail running and mountain bike trails you could want, the facility is a flagship trail destination in Nova Scotia. Today, Keppoch boasts 365-24-7 access to roughly 500 acres and over 40 km of downhill and cross country mountain bike trails.

From old school gnar to new school jump lines to green circle cross country tracks, Keppoch offers riding for all ages and abilities. It’s another perfect family riding destination in the maritimes where it’s not uncommon to see entire families loading bikes for another lap.

Like most Atlantic Canadian destinations, sustenance and lodging are just a hop, skip and a jump away. Located just up the road, the university town of Antigonish will easily suit all the needs of your visit. We like coffee and sandwiches from Tall and Small but options abound. The Townhouse serves locally sourced dishes. For those looking for low thought, high calorie, The Wheel offers delicious pizza while Piper’s Pub provides for all your pub fare needs. If you’re looking for something a little finer, Gabrieau’s Bistro provides options for the more critical diner. Take a little road trip outside of town and you’ll also find Half Cocked Brewing and Steinhart Distillery for your associated pleasures.

After you’ve been fed and watered, rest awaits at the Claymore, Maritime Inn, St. Francis Xavier Hotel or Airbnb of your choice.

McIntosh Run

Halifax, Nova Scotia

The last day of this trip brings us back to my hometown on the coast. Halifax is the largest urban center in Atlantic Canada and is home to one of the most striking and legendary trail networks in the region. The trails of the McIntosh Run Watershed wind through an area known as the coastal backlands – a landscape of white granite bluffs extending south toward the Atlantic Coast. Located adjacent to the community of Spryfield only minutes from downtown, the McIntosh Run trails are perched high above the city, offering vistas of Halifax and the harbour, all the way to the Atlantic.

We’ve added some riders to our crew for this one and as some are experiencing these trails for the first time, they’re itching to dive into this immersive trail network. We unload bikes, pull on pads and drop in. Pinning it from the start, the group is quickly rewarded with the first stretch of trail. Freehubs buzz as we wind our way over, around and through the natural skatepark-like features of the landscape. As we warm to the rhythm of the changing contours, I hear the whoops and yips begin to surface behind me. This is the common response of those experiencing these trails for the first time.

Formerly known as Fight Trail, this trail network has been a staple of riding in the city for just about as long as mountain biking has existed here. The first rule of Fight Trail was you don’t talk about Fight Trail. Originally built by rogue builders with the all-to-familiar rickety stunts of the time, this trail was a proving ground for many. This held appeal for more experienced riders but left nothing for those looking to access the sport from the ground floor – a common problem of early mountain bike days in most places.

We stop at one of the signature overlooks peering down to Flat Lake and south through the watershed. The white granite of the terrain stretches to Herring Cove and beyond to the deep blue horizon.

Presumably caused by a campfire gone sideways, this whole place went up in flames just over a decade ago. The fire that burned here consumed 800 hectares of the backlands and 8 homes. Following the burn, with leaves and dense underbrush gone, the entire landscape was changed. The stark contrast of black ash and white granite, trees rising like burnt matchsticks from the now exposed earth looked like something from a Tolkien novel. Aside from the new esthetic, the burn had the added effect of improving sight lines, allowing the trails to flow better than ever. Regardless, they were still illegit.

Moving ever-deeper into the network, it’s clear that the trails we are riding are not the ramshackle paths of the past. From signage and rock armouring to boardwalks and berms, these trails are definitely on the up n’ up. While older trails have been upgraded to sustainable standards and newer ones designed and built from the ground up, they all retain that rugged flavour for which the riding here is known. For this, we have the McIntosh Run Watershed Association to thank.

The McIntosh Run Watershed Association (MRWA) was established in 1994 with the goal of enhancing conservation efforts and community stewardship in the watershed and to facilitate sustainable public access. In 2011, the organization began working with municipal and provincial land agencies to develop a plan for the development of sustainable multi use trails throughout the watershed. Through endless hard work and multiple public consultations, land use agreements were established with the municipal and provincial land owners and trail construction began in 2016. Since then, countless 1000s of volunteer hours have been invested in the project with over 25 kms of trail constructed and more slated for construction in the coming years.

The trails here are not your typical mountain bike single track. Built from glacially sculpted granite, these trails weave through glacial erratics and endless undulations linking together whalebacks, drumlins and other unique geological features. These natural trail features, coupled with the beauty of the area, make the McIntosh Run a truly special place to ride.

Thanks in part to the momentum generated by MRWA, mountain biking in Halifax is quickly growing. With the East Coast Mountain Bikers welcoming new riders into the fold and instruction providers like Ride East teaching the skills necessary to tackle trails safely, ridership is on the rise. In addition, the recently established Mountain Bike Halifax is working to further trail development in other areas of the municipality. These elements, coupled with the myriad of bike shops around town have Halifax set up as a region poised for mountain bike growth and development.

Post ride, we head to Station Six to sample their beer and shareables in celebration of a great few days of riding. As locals, we followed this up with a backyard bbq and kitchen party. But as downtown Halifax is a stone’s throw from the trails, endless opportunities abound for food, drink and good times, followed by a place to lay your head when the aforementioned have run their course.

Back in the kitchen, the piano plays on. As it turns out it’s an eight year old at the keys. His playing is unassuming and although it’s worth paying attention to, the lot of his piano playing potential will be realized in the years to come. Mountain biking in Atlantic Canada is not that different. While we’ve got great trails, noteworthy towns and a refreshing lack of crowds, our potential as a mountain bike destination is just beginning to be realized. The future of mountain biking in Atlantic Canada is promising and with new trail development ongoing, I’m looking forward to seeing where this wild ride takes us in the years to come.

Written by Chuck Sutton – Ride East // Photos by Tim FosterDose Media  // Originally published on PinkBike.com

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