Photos by Leslie Kehmeier
Nearly two decades ago, I ventured out into Chilcotin Country, a remote region of British Columbia's vast wilderness, for the first time. Joining a group of eight other mountain bikers, we set out from our campground at Tyaughton Lake, the spot where most of Chilcotin alpine adventures begin, and made our way up toward Windy Pass. We spent hours climbing, snaking our way up the copper-colored slopes until we reached tree line and could see the summit up ahead. Then, our day took a quick detour.
Someone in our group spotted a massive adult grizzly bear on an adjacent scree slope just 500 meters away. The bear stopped in its tracks, staring at us from afar as we stared back. With jaws dropped and adrenaline pumping through our veins, we watched as the bear charged toward us. It sprinted 20 meters before grounding its paws into the loose shale slope and stopping to stare at us once again
After a few minutes, our group decided to continue forward with the bear still frozen in its tracks. We figured the bear was either sending a warning shot or was bluffing, so we chanced it and kept riding. But then the bear charged again, running another 20 meters before stopping and staring with its eery frozen stature.
This time, we made a better choice, turning around and racing back down the trail in the direction we'd come. The grizzly was likely protecting a food cache or its territory, but we were happy not to stick around and find out. It was the right decision and we never saw the bear again.
The Chilcotin region is named for Canada’s Tsilhqot'in Nation, who are also known as the People of the River. The area is home to an incredible amount of wildlife. You'll see everything from grizzly bears to cougars, lynx, bobcats, beavers, marmots, bighorn sheep, wolves, wild horses, and more. It boasts over 200 kilometers of singletrack trails that will fill any mountain biker’s soul to the very top. It’s also a place that requires preparation and respect. There’s no cell coverage in these mountains and no alpine villages at the summits to feast on beer and cake. It's 100% pure Canadian wilderness, and that's what makes it so special.
So, when a couple of long-time friends from Colorado visited BC this summer and asked me to join them for a girls’ trip to the Chilcotin, I was torn. My memory of the place was vivid: A grizzly bear encounter is something you never lose. The Chilcotin is wild country. It’s vast, expansive, but it’s also mind-blowingly beautiful. Returning to this place was something I needed to do.
I met Jen Zeuner over 20 years ago. We competed in dual slalom and downhill together in the ’90s at NORBA and World Cup events, and we became fast friends, literally and figuratively. We’ve kept in touch over the years and just like our friendship, our passion for mountain biking has never waned. Jen is the type of friend where you pick up right where you left off.
Through Jen, I've also become close friends with her partner in life and business, Anne Keller. Both Anne ad Jen founded the infamous Hot Tomato Pizzeria in Fruita, Colorado and they’ve become cornerstones of their Colorado community on several fronts. Their story was recently featured in a Patagonia film short called “Life of Pie’” and what makes their pizzeria worth mentioning here is the fact they brought their world-class Stromboli to the Chilcotin. Tucked away in the freezer of their RV, the Stromboli was prepped and ready for eating after one of our scheduled high-up-in-the-alpine rides.
Joining our trip into the beautiful forests, lakes, and mountainous terrain of the Chilcotin was my dear friend and world-traveling-buddy Leslie Kehmeier. And rounding out the group of six were my local buddies, Jennie Helmer and Suelyn Wirth. Jennie is a legendary Pemberton potato farmer and paramedic, and her partner Suelyn is a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer who works the Whistler beat. Both Jennie and Suelyn are amazing riders, awesome people, and, most importantly, super fun!
We booked a campsite at Tyax resort, which is set on the shores of Tyaughton Lake. This would make the ultimate basecamp for our next few days of adventuring. With a cooler than normal summer in BC, we'd be able to enjoy evening campfires and outdoor cooking. Tyax is about 300 kilometers north of Vancouver and a four to six-hour drive depending on your route and method of transportation. We stopped in the small community of Pemberton on our way to the camp spot. First, at the Beer Farmers brewery, because we were thirsty, and then to the Pemberton Bike Co to buy some maps.
Jen, Anne, Leslie, and I decided to do a small warm-up ride when we arrived on Friday afternoon and we found a short route close to our camp. Almost every other ride in this area requires a minimum of four hours, so this shorter option looked like a good choice. While it was short, our warm-up trail turned out to be straight up and we pedaled and pushed our bikes for almost three miles and climbed over 2,000 feet of elevation. Once at the top, however, we were treated to some spectacular descents. We started with the black diamond rated Molly Dog trail that then fed into Pepper Dog and finished off with Ken’s Trail. All three trails were purpose-built for mountain biking. The quality, flow, and fun of these shorter trails had us super stoked for the next few days.
On one of our main days of riding that weekend, we started with a climb up Taylor Creek Basin. Several more gals showed up that morning just as we were heading out to ride. They were friends of friends and we welcomed the new additions to our group. It's the more the merrier out here, as I learned the last time I visited Chilcotin.
If there's one thing that stands out about British Columbia, it's the amount of extremely talented female outdoor athletes. They’re moms, ski guides, business owners, engineers, you-name-it. But all share a love and respect for the mountains, and have the talent and tenacity to enjoy it to the max. Some of these women are originally from BC, others have flocked to this area from different parts of the world. If you love fresh air, big mountains, endless single track, and a laid-back lifestyle, there's no place like it. And nothing exemplifies the BC life more than riding bikes in the Chilcotin.
Most rides in the south Chilcotin start at Taylor Creek, and once above tree line, you can see your endless options. The Taylor Creek cabin is a popular regroup spot, about two hours up from the start of the climb. The old trapper cabin is only slightly habitable and it features a bunch of etched names, dates, and quotes on the walls. There are some old pots, pans, and cooking gear to take you into the past when this area was scoped as a mining zone. The hillsides are rusty red, orange, grey, and brown and the wildflowers were prime this time of year. There are hundreds of species of plants, shrubs, and flowers in this high-country zone with massive peaks and mountain ranges in every direction. Oh, and the hike-a-biking. It wouldn't be a BC backcountry adventure without some pushing. It's ok though; it gave us a chance to absorb our surroundings and be in absolute awe of the terrain.
We headed up towards Camel Pass from Taylor Creek Cabin and then onto Ridge-O-Rama west, a wide-open ridgeline where you feel like you're riding the earth's spine. From there, we dropped into North Cinnabar, a nine-kilometer black diamond singletrack that drops over 3,700 feet to the valley floor where we started. Cinnabar was mucky in spots with some long sections of blowdown and avalanche debris that made for some shin-bashin’ hike-a-bikin', but we prevailed. It's not a bike park; it's wild, challenging, and sometimes dangerous country.
Friends came and went throughout the weekend. Some could only join for a day, others the entire weekend. For our last day of riding Jen, Anne, Leslie, and I decided to check in with Tyax Adventures about a floatplane drop to Spruce Lake. There are other lakes farther up from Spruce where you can also get dropped, but these adventures can often take days to complete.
We were lucky to secure the last opening on a floatplane drop to Spruce on Monday afternoon. It was a 10-minute flight from Tyaughton Lake to Spruce Lake, and the descent we chose was 24 kilometers of singletrack bliss. We rode through Gun Creek Meadows, which turned into lower Gun Creek Trail, a fast blue square singletrack that crisscrossed Gun Creek several times. This ride was well-curated, fast, and very doable for a range of skill levels. It's consistently downhill but there are punchy climbs throughout the entire route, so plan on being pleasantly tired by the time you reach the bottom. There's no shortage of places to stop and take pictures or sit in a grassy, flowery meadow eating Stromboli. This is the Canadian wilderness in all its glory. We loved every minute of our final ride of the trip.
The trails in Chilcotin are epic. You’d be hard-pressed to find another backcountry zone like this with so many options for riding, camping, and day-long adventures. Besides mountain biking, this area is a notorious spot for horses, hikers, anglers, and backpackers, all sharing the trails with each other. It’s part of what makes BC, and especially Chilcotin, so special. The more we respect different user groups on the trail, the more we can all enjoy these resources. And that means we're all invested in protecting the privilege to use it.
Chilcotin is cut off from the rest of the world and that's what makes this place special. The weekend getaway was well within reach and we found this experience much more rejuvenating than any fancy spa treatment. I guess you could say we’re the type of women who prefer the “awe treatment.”