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Solo Bikepacking the Central Ontario Loop Trail: COLT

August 27, 2016
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This summer I have been busy exploring my local snowmobile trails whenever I could find a free afternoon. They were the perfect place to for my plus-sized Surly Krampus to run wild, offering loose sandy sections, chunky rocks, and hundreds of kilometers of trails that are barely ever used in the summer. A few months ago I stumbled upon some brief, and incomplete, references of a 450km bike route in Central Ontario that was apparently made up of rail trails and side roads. I was very intrigued to say the least. After a bit of digging and a few emails with local tourism associations, I discovered that the Central Ontario Loop Trail (COLT) was an Ontario tourism initiative that was proposed but never fully developed.

I decided to pick up where they left off.

 

The COLT Reborn

Using a variety of digital and printed maps, computer software, and satellite imagery, I began piecing together a mountain bike route that started in Fenelon Falls, travelled South all the way to Port Hope on Lake Ontario, skirted along the lake to Trenton before heading all the way North to Bancroft, then finally making a return trip through the Halliburton Highlands back to Fenelon Falls. The COLT was reborn, and I knew I needed to be the first to ride it.

ROUTE MAP

The finished COLT, complete with points of interest, camping options, and some tourist attractions.

 

I started hyping up the route on social media, in hopes that I would find some brave souls that would step up as guinea pigs, but the only taker I got was my 51-year-old mother who had all the enthusiasm in the world, but pretty much none of the required gear. I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone who hasn’t bikepacked before, but this route does cover some solid distances over some fairly rough terrain, so there is some gear that can’t be skimped on. More on that later. With some personal time constraints, and an unwillingness to wait around for some knight in shining armour to come ride into the unknown with me, I made the decision to ride the 450km loop solo. My first solo bikepacking trip, I was stoked.

 

My Bikepacking Setup

After completing the infamous Kokopelli Trail and a trip within the iconic Algonquin Provincial Park, as well as more day trips than I can count, I’ve become very confident in both my bike and the gear I use.

I have found perfect harmony between my gear, my riding style, and my bike. The Surly Krampus is a CroMoly steel-framed workhorse boasting 3″ plus-sized tires, a generous bottom bracket height, and the heart of a true trail bike. I’ve tackled steep, rocky descents with comfort and climbed tight, rooty singletrack with ease… it just happens to look so natural loaded up with all of my camping gear as well.

My Surly Krampus fully loaded.

My Surly Krampus fully loaded.

Revelate Designs saddle bag + gas tank + top tube bags and my own custom frame bag made by yours truly!

Revelate Designs saddle bag + gas tank + top tube bags and my own custom frame bag made by yours truly!

A Revelate Designs handlebar harness is a simple and effective way to strap a large drybag up front.

A Revelate Designs handlebar harness is a simple and effective way to strap a large drybag up front.

The 3” Surly Knards on Rabbit Hole rims ready to plow over whatever gets in my way.

The 3” Surly Knards on Rabbit Hole rims ready to plow over whatever gets in my way.

 

For first time bikepackers, it isn’t necessary to go out and buy the gear I use. You can often get away with some nylon straps and dry bags, one on the saddle and one on the handlebar, or even with panniers if you already have some. Get creative.

My Bikepacking Complete Gear List

 

Custom Frame Bag
– Extra tube
– Tent poles and stakes
– Primus ETA Lite canister stove with fuel canister
– Food for the day
– Small personal items bag (sunscreen, electronics, batteries, headlamp…)

Revelate Designs Handlebar Harness
– 2 extra cycling socks, camp shorts and shirt, extra boxers
– Outdoor Research Ferrosi Jacket
– Outdoor Research Helium Jacket
– GSI Fairshare Mug (with handle removed)
– Food for next day
– Thermarest NeoAir Xlite

Osprey Talon 18 Backpack
– Personal Items
– Snacks
– 2L water bladder
– Pocket knife
– Whistle
– Any maps

Other
– Olympus OMD E-M5 Mark II mirrorless camera on custom handlebar bag
– 750ml cycling bottle on custom handlebar bag
– 1L stainless steel bottle on downtube
– Smith Forefront Helmet with MIPS

 

Day 1: Fenelon Falls to Sandaraska Park Campground 80km

I wanted a solid staging area to pack up and I wanted to ensure overnight parking was accessible for future COLT riders – Fenelon Falls fit the bill. They have a beautiful beach and a large parking area complete with picnic tables, washrooms, and a place to fill your water bottles. I was starting the day a bit late, around 12:00, and needed to make it to Sandaraska Park Campground, located on the North-Western tip of the Ganaraska Forest.

Packing up and strapping things down in the park. In 5 days, I would be swimming here!

Packing up and strapping things down in the park. In 5 days, I would be swimming here!

 

After a frustrating mishap involving a lost wallet (my wallet) and a new credit card (my girlfriend’s credit card), I was finally on my way! The journey started off on the rural Victoria Rail Trail, skirting alongside farmers fields and marshes on lightly packed crushed gravel.

Straight, flat, and fast on day 1.

Straight, flat, and fast on day 1.

Not a bad way to start a 5 day ride through Central Ontario.

Not a bad way to start a 5 day ride through Central Ontario.

2 of the 6 total cyclists I would see on my entire trip, expect plenty of time alone on the trail.

2 of the 6 total cyclists I would see on my entire trip, expect plenty of time alone on the trail.

 

About 30km into the day, I made my first stop in Lindsay. I wanted to check out any locks along the Trent Severn Waterway, as these locations offer very cheap ($4.90) camping for cyclists. They are often centrally located, which makes for great camping if you are looking to grab a bite to eat as well. It never really gets old watching boats travel through the locks, and there is an awesome heritage site right next door as well.

National Historic Site at Lock 33 in Lindsay

National Historic Site at Lock 33 in Lindsay

Lock 33, the Victoria Rail Trail continues from here on the left side of the lock.

Lock 33, the Victoria Rail Trail continues from here on the left side of the lock.

 

After picking up the Victoria Rail Trail once again, travelling South towards Dranoel, things started to get a bit more remote, and I started getting into a pretty good groove. Crossing a railroad, passing more farms, trying to deal with the incredible humidity we have been tormented with all summer… I decided to take a detour into Milbrook to stop at the Pastry Peddler and Frog Cycles Bike Shop.

The railroad heading East to Dranoel, the trail crosses here and joins a fire road.

The railroad heading East to Dranoel, the trail crosses here and joins a fire road.

Moo.

Moo.

The Pastry Peddler in Milbrook.

The Pastry Peddler in Milbrook.

Thai Mango salad was on point.

Thai Mango salad was on point.

 

Although the detour was a bit further than expected, and involved a lengthy climb out of town back to my route, I needed the food and I would definitely recommend the stop to anyone cycling in the area. Once I was back near Highway 115, I jumped onto Sandaraska Road and cruised into camp.

Sandaraska Road.

Sandaraska Road.

 

Sandaraska Park Campground was packed full of RVs and trailers, as well as ATVs and dirtbikers taking advantage of the vast network of trails in the Ganaraska Forest. I made use of the free showers, put some water on to boil for my premade couscous dinner, and before I knew it I was fast asleep.

The Primus ETA Lite is the perfect solo canister stove for boil-only meals.

The Primus ETA Lite is the perfect solo canister stove for boil-only meals.

Day 1 complete, all smiles!

Day 1 complete, all smiles!

 

Day 2: Ganaraska Forest to Presqu’ile Provincial Park 117km

I start each morning the same way on these trips. I wake up a couple minutes before my alarm has a chance to disturb me, out of habit, and flick through my phone for a bit. Often responding to a message from my mom or my girlfriend, letting them know where I would be that day. I premade my breakfasts a few days before the trip; a mix of quick oats, some nuts, chocolate chips, and brown sugar – all I need to do is add some boiling water and I’m set. Doesn’t get any easier than that!

I always crave something sweet in the mornings.

I always crave something sweet in the mornings.

Teva’s make a great camp shoe, highly recommended.

Teva’s make a great camp shoe, highly recommended.

La Barn at Sandaraska Park Campground

La Barn at Sandaraska Park Campground

The thick sand of the Ganaraska Forest, plus sized tires really pay off in here.

The thick sand of the Ganaraska Forest, plus sized tires really pay off in here.

 

Soon after entering the Ganaraska Forest section, I began noticing white blazes on the trees around me and out of interest I followed them religiously. I quickly realized these were the Ganaraska Hiking trail markers, which actually end up leading you all the way to downtown Port Hope. So that’s what my morning looked like! Down dirt roads, through some hike-a-bike sections, and even over a makeshift bridge, the Ganaraska Hiking trail was definitely unique to the entire route.

The white blaze of the Ganaraska Trail

The white blaze of the Ganaraska Trail

Although it may not be apparent, civilization is never too far away.

Although it may not be apparent, civilization is never too far away.

A few small sections weren’t quite bike worthy in the current condition.

A few small sections weren’t quite bike worthy in the current condition.

The Ganaraska Trail

The Ganaraska Trail

 

Just North of Sylvan Glen Conservation Area, I knew I had missed a connection to my route but after riding back and forth along a dirt road a few times I was stopped by a friendly local. He introduced himself as Derek and after hearing about the COLT, invited me to his porch for a glass of water. A lifelong local to the area, Derek quickly became my local guide and storyteller. Stories of young lads jumping the train and riding it into Port Hope, photos of a once functioning railroad, and the history of a massive flood in 1980, the effects of which you can still see today. He proceeded to join me on my ride for a bit, on a section of trail he had long since ventured down, it was a great pleasure to have met him.

Derek – the local.

Derek – the local.

Photo of the old railroad – now the Ganaraska Trail.

Photo of the old railroad – now the Ganaraska Trail.

Derrick crossing a makeshift bridge with ease; wasn’t quite the case for me.

Derrick crossing a makeshift bridge with ease; wasn’t quite the case for me.

Hawkins Road, it’s a nice one.

Hawkins Road, it’s a nice one.

Just South of Corbitt’s Dam, after crossing under the 401.

Just South of Corbitt’s Dam, after crossing under the 401.

Kawartha Dairy – always a good choice.

Kawartha Dairy – always a good choice.

Port Hope Beach – get your bikepack selfie game on point.

Port Hope Beach – get your bikepack selfie game on point.

Lake Ontario is wavy!

Lake Ontario is wavy!

 

The section from Port Hope to Brighton follows the Waterfront Trail. This is the largest paved section of the entire loop, with amazing views of Lake Ontario, and avoids most of Highway 2 that can get pretty busy with tourist traffic. The entire section is well marked with large signage; just keep your head up. Presqu’ile Provincial Park and the town of Brighton should be a mandatory stop for the COLT. Just a few kilometers from the park you will see Presqu’ile Craft Brewery + Dougalls on the Bay restaurant, a dangerous pairing that deserves your attention. I made sure I arrived at the newly opened brewery before it closed, and had a great introduction to the business and what their brews are all about. It came down to a small batch brewery that focuses on easy to drink (easy to love) session beers that are incredibly cyclist friendly. Dougalls on the Bay is right next door, and it’s a great option for dinner on a waterfront patio after a long day of riding.

I brought the IPA back to camp with me.

I brought the IPA back to camp with me.

Waterfront patio with dinner was fantastic.

Waterfront patio with dinner was fantastic.

Brie, mushroom, onions... all on a burger with a fresh salad.

Brie, mushroom, onions… all on a burger with a fresh salad.

Waterfront campground at Presqu’ile Provincial Park.

Waterfront campground at Presqu’ile Provincial Park.

Sunset views.

Sunset views.

Sunset brews.

Sunset brews.

 

My second night on the COLT was incredibly relaxing. A waterfront campground, a locally brewed IPA, and a dip in Lake Ontario before bed; Provincial Parks might be a bit expensive, but this was a night you just couldn’t beat.

 

Day 3: Brighton to Marmora KOA 84km

After leaving Brighton, I scoped out a small road that runs beside the canal. I thought to myself, “this will be a nice scenic route to start the day!”… I was partly correct, but I didn’t anticipate the road to be mostly canal-like as well. Canal Road leads to Trenton, which joins up with the Lower Trent Trail leading North to Glenn Ross, transitioning into the Hastings Heritage Trail.

Canal Road... #packrafting anyone?

Canal Road… #packrafting anyone?

Canal Road... #packrafting anyone? I found a car detailer in Trenton that let me wash my gear down!

Canal Road… #packrafting anyone? I found a car detailer in Trenton that let me wash my gear down!

Trenton!

Trenton!

Lower Trent Trail

Lower Trent Trail

One of the nicer sections of trail I encountered.

One of the nicer sections of trail I encountered.

Heading North via the Hastings Heritage Trail / E106 snowmobile trail.

Heading North via the Hastings Heritage Trail / E106 snowmobile trail.

Selfie game is still strong.

Selfie game is still strong.

Very strong.

Very strong.

Sidetrip to the Marmora Pit Mine. It’s an old mine filled with water, it’s neat.

Sidetrip to the Marmora Pit Mine. It’s an old mine filled with water, it’s neat.

 

I’ve never stayed at a KOA before, and in Ontario they seem to be all over the place. I snagged a reasonably priced campsite beside a larger family gathering, and I originally anticipated a long night, but it turned out to be quite the opposite. In fact, they offered me plenty of food and beer and I slept like a baby.

Appetizer – thanks friends!

Appetizer – thanks friends!

The main course – so much chicken.

The main course – so much chicken.

My homemade couscous, almond, date mix for dessert.

My homemade couscous, almond, date mix for dessert.

 

Day 4: Marmora to Brancroft 87km

My trip continued on the Hastings Heritage Trail, heading further North towards Bancroft. This section looks and feels quite different than the days before. There was a greater sense of vastness around me as I slowly made my way through the loose and washboard-covered snowmobile trails. I would ride for hours before seeing a single person, and after a local mentioned some timber wolves in the area with paw prints bigger than most bears he’d seen, I was slightly on edge.

Another friend.

Another friend.

A very well marked trail, complete with distance markers.

A very well marked trail, complete with distance markers.

Take a picture with Hogan’s Hotel, it’s unofficially mandatory.

Take a picture with Hogan’s Hotel, it’s unofficially mandatory.

Still smiling, a good sign!

Still smiling, a good sign!

A lot of marshy sections along the trail, but the trail bed was always dry as a bone.

A lot of marshy sections along the trail, but the trail bed was always dry as a bone.

 

I guess I had failed to piece it together in my head, but I had been ice climbing in Bancroft some months earlier, and only really realized as I came into Bancroft and saw the huge cliffs right in the middle of town. It’s a pretty cool sight if you’ve never been there before.

Bancroft.

Bancroft.

 

Before grabbing some food I swung by Trips & Trails Adventure Outfitting to grab some oil for my chain. I got chatting with the storeowner, Clive, and he was the first person I’ve ever met who actually knows what the COLT was! I think he deserves a visit from anyone riding the route. He’s a good dude. I went to the Bancroft Eatery and Brew Pub for dinner, and won the lottery because I showed up as appetizers were ½ price. Garlic bread + perogies + quesadilla = good times.

Trips & Trails Adventure Outfitting

Trips & Trails Adventure Outfitting

All mine, all ½ price.

All mine, all ½ price.

My spot at River Bend Cabins Tent Trailer Park.

My spot at River Bend Cabins Tent Trailer Park.

A quick dip in the river to cool off.

A quick dip in the river to cool off.

 

If you are looking for a quiet campground with no frills, then check out River Bend Cabins Tent Trailer Park, just North from Clive’s shop on York River Drive. There was only one other couple camping there, and once again, they graciously offered me food and beverage as we swapped stories. It just so happens that they we one their return journey from an East Coast road trip, and stopped at many of the same spots my girlfriend and I had just 2 weeks earlier! Thanks for the pizza Stephane!

 

Day 5: Bancroft to Fenelon Falls 130km

I planned for a big push on my final day, and woke up early to make it happen. This section includes the highest most point along the route, and a few other big climbs through the Haliburton Highlands. It’s a picturesque gravel / road tour all the way to Wilberforce, where I joined up on the IB & O Rail Trail that heads South to Gooderham. A few backroads later, I found myself at a crossing for the Haliburton County Rail Trail, which shoots South before transitioning into the Victoria Rail Trail that leads right down to the Fenelon Falls Beach where I started!

Looking ready to ride 130km

Looking ready to ride 130km

A few food stops on Loop Road, a popular cycling route.

A few food stops on Loop Road, a popular cycling route.

Waterfront views.

Waterfront views.

Final Day!

Final Day!

 

About halfway into the day I spotted a chip truck on the side of the road, and instantly craved whatever they could offer me. I only had a bit of cash left, so I wanted to get the most bang for my buck. I saw a poutine for $8.00, went for it, and they served me this whopping load of fries, cheese curds, and gravy that ended up living in my pack for the rest of the day. I just couldn’t eat it all!

The biggest poutine I’ve seen.

The biggest poutine I’ve seen.

This gentlemen from Toronto heard of Riding Feels Good and tossed some bikepacking terminology my way, he knew I’d appreciate it.

This gentlemen from Toronto heard of Riding Feels Good and tossed some bikepacking terminology my way, he knew I’d appreciate it.

Rail trails for days.

Rail trails for days.

Canadian shield things.

Canadian shield things.

Old trestle bridges as you get closer to Fenelon Falls.

Old trestle bridges as you get closer to Fenelon Falls.

Pat yourself on the back once you reach Cameron Lake, you’re almost there!

Pat yourself on the back once you reach Cameron Lake, you’re almost there!

Tan lines.

Tan lines.

My finish line. Fenelon Falls beach, exactly where I started 5 days ago.

My finish line. Fenelon Falls beach, exactly where I started 5 days ago.

 

Final Thoughts

I am incredibly proud to have been the guinea pig for the Central Ontario Loop Trail, especially because the development and planning of the route itself was all completed by me as well. Riding the loop solo was liberating, and allowed me to meet people I likely wouldn’t have if I were in a group. Everyone I met along the way were so helpful and supportive of the trip, it really made for a fantastic adventure.

As a bikepacking route in Ontario, I don’t think you can get any better. Seasoned cyclists can challenge themselves with long days in the saddle and by punishing themselves on the surprisingly rugged terrain, while novice riders can easily ride small sections of the trail at a time without sacrificing safety or proximity to local amenities.

The only thing to do now is to get more people out there riding the COLT, and perhaps Ontario tourism will hop back on board to develop it further.

Miles grew up in a small town in rural Ontario, and as a young lad he quite literally feared riding bikes. Throughout his studies at Trent University for business and Algonquin College for Outdoor Adventure guide training, he slowly developed a strong desire for all things bike related. Today, Miles is usually riding, writing about, and documenting bikepacking opportunities in Canada

Fox 34

16 Comments

  1. Well done Miles, on both the article and the completion of the COLT. Can’t wait to give it a go myself.

  2. Thanks @cameron_dube !

  3. Great ride and write up Miles. Nothing better then a long bike ride. Good that you found COLT. It would be a good thing for our part of the world to have more trails like this. Support your local trail workers who are spending their time on the same goal.

  4. Thanks @tom_shaw – Ontario has all of the right people and trails for countless other multi-day routes like this. I expect good things! I think the Eastern Ontario Loop Trail might already be in the works… 😉

  5. Your Welcome Miles. I look forward to your next multi-day route write up. Using sled trails is difficult since they usually go through private property, which is why they need an organization and a valid permit for use. The Central Ontario Loop Trail (COLT) that was an Ontario tourism initiative proposal was probably never fully developed because it lacked a well funded organization. There is more interest in these multi use routes and it will be fun to see how it evolves and how they are paid for.

  6. nice work Miles…looks like a lovely ride, thanks for sharing…any chance the gpx files is available? patrick

  7. Well documented. I had mapped out a nearly same route from Newcastle. I would have joined you for sure if I had seen your shout out. Tony

  8. @patrick_martin here is the online file: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/13754570

    @tony_whetham next time!

  9. It’s too bad you didn’t come along a few years earlier – the stretch of between Kinmount and Haliburton used to be amazing, now we don’t ride that trail north of Kinmount anymore because of the atv damage. I’ve never done the COLT as a continuous loop, but taken almost every mile of it in pieces as part of bigger adventures.

    Since this post is likely to be the most comprehensive info on the COLT online right now I’ll add a couple notes. The original trail brochure and map actually has one small detour from your route – in the photo where you’re punting at the map, the “official” COLT route is the 108 trail east through Stirling and Madoc, not through Marmora, and there’s actually an interesting feature near Crookston where the 108/COLT and Trans Canada trails meet – a trail over pass. The east-west rail line had a bridge over the north-south line down in the valley – today both lines are rail trail.

    The original map also shows the Trans Canada Trail as a possible detour/short cut. At Lindsay head east on the rail trail to Peterborough instead – a popular and very scenic route with soaring rail trestles – and continue that trail to Hastings. A few years back when I last tried the trail ended there and you had to take the road through Cambellford to Stirling, but perhaps they’ve completed the Trans Canada Trail by now. I know it was planned and you could see where the trail should be even then.

    Otherwise awesome trip. I would have gladly joined you had I known, but serious biker packers in this province seem to be few and far between. I’ve had some plans to try to remedy that with a website of all the routes I’ve pieced together this far and community forum, but this far time hasn’t permitted

  10. @brandon_mcgregor thanks for the info on the original colt , not many people have even heard of it. The great thing about the route is that there are so many options to add or limit distance, I doubt not many people will ride it exactly how I did!

  11. * I doubt many…

  12. Thanks for such a great report! I’m familiar with parts of this route, but not all. It appears that a gravel bike with 40c rubber should be adequate for the trip, but I’d appreciate your thoughts on that.

  13. @rod_helm Thanks Rod. I’d say a good portion of it would be very doable on 40c rubber, but the other chunks would be quite difficult or impossible on something that skinny. It would be fairly easy to find alternative routes though as side roads are never too far away. I was happy to be riding plus-sized tires on some of the rough ATV / snowmobile trails, thats for sure!

  14. Loved this! I heard about the COLT through bikepacking.com and found your writeup through google. I am keen to give this a go this coming summer. I have a 29er with road bars & 2.1″ tyres. Not quite as rugged as your Krampus, but I think it would do great. I’ve never done anything like this before so I’m also planning a semi-supported 5 day tour in southwestern Ontario early this summer. Hoping that will help work out any kinks in my setup before I tackle this one solo. I’m still assembling some lighter, more bikepacking friendly, gear as well. My plan would be to do it in August or September depending on how a few other things work out. Thanks for the writeup, I will be re-reading it several times before I head out I’m sure!

  15. @jondwilson – Thanks for the response. You’ll definitely do great on 2.1’s , there are plenty of sections that you’ll be flying down where I was slogging. Don’t forget you are never that far from civilization, which makes it a great trip even if you’re still getting used to the idea of bikepacking. If there is pizza and beer nearby every night, I think that makes for a solid time. Feel free to message me or email me if you have any specific questions, always keen to get more people riding it.

  16. For anyone interested, we have a dedicated thread in the forum here on RFG to try and develop, grow and share with others interested in Bikepacking through Ontario and Quebec. Thanks to Miles, there is a ton of interest in riding the C.O.L.T. as well as other routes. Please join us and the discussion. Thanks to Miles and others for their comments and contributions here. http://www.ridingfeelsgood.com/topic/the-ontario-bikepacking-thread/

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