The Ultimate B.C. Staycation Guide: Cycling the Kettle Valley Rail Trail

Cyclists, you're going to want to do this.

That beer is going to taste so good.

As a motivational mantra, the phrase does lack elegance. But hey, whatever works.

It’s been several hours since the four of us set out by bike from Chute Lake Lodge, a rustic retreat tucked into the mountains above the wine country of the Naramata Bench. Our mission, which we accepted all too cavalierly: ride down to Penticton and back along the Kettle Valley Rail (KVR) Trail. We’re reasonably fit people in our early 50s or so, and no strangers to cycling. How hard can it be?

Kettle Valley Rail Trail 2Destination BC/@vancouverfoodie

After all, today’s 60-kilometre round trip covers just a slice of the KVR Trail, which follows the bed of an abandoned railway. The entire 500-kilometre network, part of the Trans Canada Trail, stretches from Hope to Castlegar. 

Aerobically speaking, we might not have chosen the best time to test ourselves. Our two-night visit in September falls at the tail end of that infamous pall of woodsmoke, blown north from U.S. wildfires, that blanketed B.C. skies for more than a week. But after months of pandemic lockdowns, we aren’t feeling that particular about particulate matter.

Kettle Valley Rail Trail 3Destination BC/Hubert Kang

And to be fair, we’re cheating a little at Chute Lake Lodge. Arnie, a lanky, bearded Belgian, sets us up with our rented rides—big-boned Trek e-bikes whose knobby tires look wide enough to serve a meal on. As something of a cycling masochist, I’ve looked down my nose at going electric, but this is a perfect chance to wimp out. Or so I think.

Young, friendly and laid-back, Arnie and his fellow staffers bring new life to an old hotel with a gritty origin story. What’s now Chute Lake Lodge opened its doors a century ago as a bunkhouse for loggers. The property, which soon became a water stop for KVR steam engines,  grew into a popular vacation spot before falling into disuse. Local tour operator Hoodoo Adventures reopened it in 2018, later handing the keys to investors who had backed the revival.

Today, the lodge on narrow Chute Lake is a jumping-off point for cyclists, boaters, hikers, snowshoers and cross-country skiers—and a favourite of small wedding parties, we’re told. Accessible by dirt road, it’s also a village of sorts. Besides the two-storey lodge, an ascetic log structure that houses a restaurant, there are cabins, yurts, campsites and glamping tents. 

We’re staying in the main building, where guests share bathrooms. The beds in our small, second-floor rooms keep us cozy, but be warned: the walls are thinner than the plump, white duvets. Good thing the downstairs restaurant closes early.

Kettle Valley Rail TrailDestination BC/Kari Medig

We soon leave those comforts behind as we hit the trail on an overcast day, with smoke still lingering above the tall pines like fog. The gravel beneath our tires feels mostly stable, but this ride has its uh-oh moments, especially when the shoulder drops away to the right.

Gliding downhill on a gentle incline, we follow the Z-shaped route that the KVR’s builders blasted through the rocky terrain from 1910 to 1915. Although the tracks are long gone, other signs of the past remain—like the cluster of stone ovens that railway labourers once fired up to feed themselves. About a quarter of the way down, we dismount and tiptoe into closed-off Adra Tunnel, whose dark mouth could be a gate to the underworld.

From lookouts along the way, smoke obscures what is usually a spectacularly colourful view of Okanagan Lake. But we soon reach Little Tunnel, a busy pit stop that sits on a paved section of the car-friendly trail, and make our way to the Naramata Bench. Departing Yosemite Sam country, we find ourselves in an alternate version of Provence. We skirt banks of vineyards that roll down to the lake. Barrel through an apple orchard, its fallen red fruit scattered on the ground. Zip past stands of pale green sagebrush as delicate as coral.

Kettle Valley Rail Trail 4

At a lakefront park in Penticton, everyone devours a packed lunch of hearty sandwiches provided by the lodge, washing it down with a bottle of bubbly rosé we picked up the day before at Mocojo Winery and Vineyard in Naramata.

Then, with nightfall on its way, it’s back on the bikes for what turns out to be a gruelling uphill battle. The KVR Trail’s easygoing 2.2-percent grade should make the climb to home base a snap, right? Not so fast. Once we’re on the mountain again, watching breathlessly for distance markers becomes a ritual. E-bikes don’t pedal themselves, I remind myself while downing the last of my water. And they still may pack plenty of battery power, but fear of running out of juice keeps us frugal until we spot the Mile 107 sign near Chute Lake Lodge.

That beer plucked from the cooler doesn’t disappoint. After drinks in the garden, we move inside for a dinner of what’s billed as Canadiana lodge food—think burgers, grilled salmon and mac and cheese, with a vegan curry thrown in for good measure. Whatever works after a long day on the trail.

MORE STAYCATIONS: 21 Hidden Places to Hike, Bike, Paddle and Chill in Your Own Backyard