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.
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.
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
– 2L water bladder
– Pocket knife
– Any maps
– 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.