The Fruitful Frontier A Taste of Everything in the Okanagan Valley
Accelerating down the rocky, loose trail below my tires, I couldn’t seem to take my eyes off the pristine waters of Okanagan Lake far below.
On a section that deserved my full attention, the view was too mesmerizing to focus on the jagged rocks that peppered the trail. We were in the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia's premier wine country. But it wasn’t the cabernet sauvignon that brought us halfway across the province, it was the amazing singletrack that laces the valley walls.
Sitting in south-central British Columbia, the valley is defined by Okanagan Lake—an inland fjord stretching nearly 85 miles. The steely blue water is surrounded by rolling hills and steep white cliffs, making up a landscape that is ideal for outdoor recreation, which happens to be one the of the main economic drivers in the valley.
Before recreation became fashionable, the region was rich with trading and agriculture. In the early 19th century, the valley was used by Hudson’s Bay Company fur traders to transport furs, goods and supplies. In the early 1900s, the valley turned to fruit production, using sternwheeler steamboats to transport fruit up and down the lake. Due to the steep cliffs that lined the shoreline, it was challenging to build roads and railways. Most of the orchards have since been replaced by vineyards, turning the area into the wine country it is today.
Starting at the south end of the Okanagan Lake in Penticton, we had a loosely planned trip, making our way up the shoreline through Kelowna and on to Vernon. Our hope was to experience the Okanagan Valley’s superb singletrack with friends and local riders Sonya Looney and Johnny Smoke showing us a taste of what the valley has to offer.
Sandwiched between Okanagan Lake and Skaha Lake, Penticton happens to be one of two cities in the world that sits between two lakes (the other being Interlaken, in Switzerland). With the unique location comes immaculate sandy beaches that are a hub for locals and visitors in the summer months. On the east end of town sits the SS Sicamous—the largest sternwheeler steamboat that used to navigate these waters. Used to deliver fruit between the communities until 1937, she now sits beached on the shore as a museum.
After arriving, we met Looney and Smoke and set our sights on Three Blind Mice. Sitting just northeast of downtown Penticton, the Three Blind Mice trail network is a popular riding area littered with quality trails. This network alone is home to nearly 90 miles of singletrack. Luckily, these were Smoke’s local trails and he knew them like the back of his hand.
Residing in Peachland, just north of Penticton, Smoke has been exploring the Okanagan Valley for years. Working as a bike and ski guide in the area for more than a decade, he has become an encyclopedia of the region. Paired with a witty sense of humor and a smug smirk to follow, Smoke ensures things never get too serious.
We dropped into Rusty Muffler, one of the main veins of the Three Blind Mice that snakes through the middle of the network, before splitting off to a trail called Eagle and then onto High Roller. Here, the rocky terrain that Penticton is known for consumed the trail. This section was scattered with chunder and rock rolls, all surrounded by stunning ponderosa pines and tall grasslands. The terrain was jagged but fast, and the descent seemed to go on forever.
Smoke then led us onto a ridgeline where Wedding Crashers drops in. This was a rocky freeride trail with some sections that were only navigable by a few cairns—and diverting from the line could result in catastrophe. As we peered down the trail, clouds appeared in a matter of minutes and soon the first drops of rain began to fall, making the exposure even more daunting.
As we peered down the trail, clouds appeared in a matter of minutes and soon the first drops of rain began to fall, making the exposure even more daunting.
Descending the ridge, we closed in on the lake sprawling below. The trail was fast and loose with quick—and now slick—rock moves that required total vigilance. We had finally gotten into some classic Okanagan riding.
By the time we reached the bottom, we knew we’d earned some post-ride aprés before pointing it north to our next stop in Kelowna. As we pulled out of Penticton, the sun beginning to set behind the mountains, the horizon danced with colors bouncing vibrantly off the lake—a perfect finale to our first day of riding in the valley.
We woke early the next morning in Kelowna, made the mandatory pit stop for a fresh cup of coffee, and headed for the Rose Valley trail network. We crossed over the William R. Bennett Bridge—the only bridge that crosses Okanagan Lake—to West Kelowna, driving up to Rose Valley Park. In the short 15-minute drive from downtown Kelowna, we passed numerous vineyards. Rose Valley is Looney’s stomping grounds and it was now her turn to take the lead.
Living and riding in Kelowna for the past five years, Looney is a veteran when it comes to racing. She’s won numerous 24-hour races and has podiumed at some of the world’s toughest races, including the Breck 100, Nimby Fifty, BC Bike Race and Trans New Zealand Enduro. To say the least, she is a force when it comes to riding and has a gleaming personality to match.
Starting from the Rose Valley parking lot, Looney took us up a trail called Red Rock where we were greeted with an amazing view of the Okanagan Valley. To the east was Okanagan Lake and to the west was Rose Valley Lake—a reservoir that dissects the Rose Valley Park in half. On the far side of the reservoir, we could make out a rider navigating the steep cliff bands that darted up from the east bank of Rose Valley Lake. Looney told us that was a section of trail called Jabbarocky—a name fitting for the boney landscape that the trail traveled through.
After soaking in the views from the summit, Looney steered us toward one of her favorite trails in the park, Bear Bones. This section felt as though it was carved from the mountain and followed a long, rocky ridgeline. We rode parallel with the reservoir, down rocky technical terrain with fast switchbacks and punchy climbs. This trail had a little taste of everything.
Wrapping around the south end of the mountain, the trail transitioned into a fast and flowy section through a sea of vibrantly bright yellow Arrowleaf balsamroots. Our stomachs churned as we rode into the parking lot, our morning coffee wearing off and hunger setting in.
After a quick pit stop at Okanagan Street Food—a local hole in the wall restaurant—we headed toward Knox mountain for some afternoon laps. Settled just north of downtown Kelowna, it was apparent that Knox is an epicenter for outdoor recreation. Even though it was midweek, the park was filled with runners, hikers, cyclists, dog walkers and other outdoor enthusiasts.
We shuttled up the paved Knox Mountain Drive to the summit as Smoke explained that the road was the route for the annual Knox Mountain Hill Climb. Even though it’s only 2.2 miles with 800 feet of elevation, the car race has been held for more than 60 years, making it the longest-standing paved Hillclimb in North America. As we rounded the hair-pin turns to the top, we could see black scuff marks on the road barriers that showed how willing the racers are to push it.
At the summit, we were greeted with the Knox Mountain lookout—a scenic gazebo that provided breathtaking views of the lake and downtown Kelowna. The Shale Trail began right off the summit, starting with a technical rock move that had numerous lines to choose from. This is where Looney’s homecourt advantage really showed as she fully committed down one of the more difficult lines, leaving the rest of us in her dust.
Once down the initial rock move, it was time to let go of the brakes as we dropped into a fast and wide-open trail leading into a larger step up and big double jumps. About halfway down, the trail crossed the Knox Mountain Road, offering two choices; continue on Shale Trail for fun flowy berms or divert off to the right for Shale Trail Direct, which has steeper, old-school-style rock rolls. Either way was a good choice, but after a good dose of flow above, I adventured to the steep rock slabs. They were steep moves that I crept into, making sure I wouldn’t lose control.
We were spat out at the base of Knox Mountain, where there was a grassy park butted up against the lake shoreline—the perfect spot for a post-ride dip.
Sitting in the northern-most part of Okanagan Lake, Vernon was the final stop of our Okanagan tour. After some local beta, we had our sights set on two new trails, Mantle and Granite. What makes these trails unique is that they are located at Predator Ridge, one of Canada's premier golf resorts. I couldn’t help but wonder what the cultural amalgamation of mountain biking and golf might look like. We arrived to find that it was members day and the country club was packed. Smoke was quick to note that his 4Runner was most likely the oldest vehicle in the vicinity, and definitely the only shuttle rig.
I couldn’t help but wonder what the cultural amalgamation of mountain biking and golf might look like. We arrived to find that it was members day and the country club was packed.
Walking into the club house, we were met by a herd of members getting ready tee off for the day. To say the least, I was a little skeptical as to how we would be received with our dirty shoes and t-shirts. Surprisingly, we were welcomed by everyone and even had a few inquiries as to what trails we were going to ride.
The resort’s Recreation Coordinator, Brett Woods, joined us as our tour guide to the resort and its fresh trails. Woods explained that the resort has been investing a lot into developing a riding program and now has more than 8 miles of dedicated mountain bike trails, with even more in the works. Conveniently, this small trail network sits directly above Ellison Provincial Park—one of Vernon's most popular riding areas—allowing riders easy access to an even bigger network of trails.
The plan for the day was to check out one of the newest additions to the trails at Predator, a double black dubbed Mantle. We made the short ascent via a tight and tricky climb. Once again, we were greeted with amazing views of Okanagan Lake—a vantage that we luckily couldn't seem to escape in the valley.
Mantle started down a rocky ridgeline that dove immediately into a steep rock face. There was hardly any warm-up and it quickly became apparent that this trail was full-on. Apparently just because a trail is at a golf resort doesn’t mean it’s easy. The steep rock slabs ensued and I found that I was constantly second guessing myself as rock faces seemed to roll over into steeper and steeper terrain as we continued down the trail.
Woods had warned us that Mantle ended with an optional line that was the one of the more challenging moves on the trail. A steep and loose chute that exited into a right-hand corner, it definitely deserved a solid look. Even Smoke and Looney gave it a double-take as it was a committing line. They both crept into it, picking up speed through the middle section and rocketing out of the corner. Hoots and hollers quickly followed as they both cruised out of the bottom. This was a fun line that definitely capped off an amazing section of trail.
Mantle then connected into the single-black trail Granite. This was a fast and flowy section that had snappy berms and natural jumps, an ideal cool down from the steep and technical rock slaps that made up Mantle. Exiting the trail, our spirits were high and legs tired after three days of riding in the valley.
The Okanagan Valley may offer some of the most diverse and vast networks of trails I have ever seen. Looking at the maps, a lifetime of trails await. In our three days, we had only sampled the prestigious and superlative trails of the valley, with so many others gems undoubtedly awaiting beyond. Paired with the cool waters of Okanagan Lake and local culture, this region delivers an experience totally unique to the province.