the mid 1990s when mountain biker D’Arcy Burke started exploring the South Chilcotin mountains three hours to the north of his home in Whistler, British Columbia, his only encounters on the trail were with grizzly bears. On a three-day, self-supported mountain bike ride that took Burke and a friend through valleys only seen by a handful of people a summer, they ran into a total of eight grizzlies. It was the wild feeling of the range that drew Burke in, along with some of the greatest trails he’d ever ridden.
“It’s such beautiful scenery and rideable terrain,” says Burke, head tech at Chromag Bikes and grooming supervisor at Whistler Blackcomb. “There are these long approaches with clean climbs and 5-kilometer descents on smooth ribbons of dirt where you get so in tune with the trail. It was my first experience getting drunk on singletrack.”
While the Sea-to-Sky corridor from Vancouver to Whistler is chock-full of world-class mountain biking, the trails are rugged, steep and technical. Bikers push, carry and grind their way up climbs, only to drop straight back down brake-pad burning descents. The South Chilcotins that divide the jagged Coast Mountains from the grasslands of the Chilcotin Plateau offer an entirely different experience. The area’s broad, gently-sloping valleys, dome-shaped summits, alpine passes, wildflower-filled meadows, golden shale slopes and connecting ridges hold some 200 kilometers of flowing trails built by horses and miners, but ideal for mountain bikes. “Horses take such beautiful, meandering routes through the mountains that translate well to mountain biking,” says Burke. “The amount of terrain you can ride cleanly without putting your foot down is incredible.”
In fact, the zone boasts one of the largest networks of contiguously-linked subalpine and alpine singletrack in North America. Since Burke’s pioneering days, the area has grown so popular, more than 56,000 hectares became South Chilcotin Mountains Provincial Park in 2010. Mountain bikers can access the Park in a variety of ways, but a float-plane drop proves the most efficient, scenic and memorable way to get out there. For less than $400 CAD, family-run Tyax Adventures—humble experts of the South Chilcotin—fly guests and their bikes on a six-passenger de Havilland Beaver float plane from Tyaughton Lake (or Whistler for $700 CAD per person) to a glacier-fed lake. From there, mountain bikers ascend and descend anywhere from 25 to 40 kilometers of rolling singletrack through tundra, vibrant wildflower meadows, picturesque aspen groves, rocky sections with spectacular vistas and under the dark spruce canopy.
A single day isn’t enough to experience the splendor of the area and the multitude of trails, which is why Tyax Adventures offers five backcountry camps accessed via float plane, horses, hiking or mountain biking. Link them up for a hut-to-hut bike adventure to hit all the classic rides, or base out of one, and ride the surrounding singletrack. Tyax founder Dale Douglas has been flying float planes and riding in the area for more than 20 years but he didn’t acquire the historic camps, previously used by miners and hunters, until 2012. Since then, guest numbers have grown steadily, with more bikers, horse riders and hikers using the camps during each summer season. Tya x offers customized options that include a high-end menu, horse pack support and more.
bottom left: Checking out the ride ahead, from above. right: Classic Chilcotin trails through the aspen forests
Whistler-based photographer, Anthony Bonello, spent a night at Bear Paw Camp and a night at Spruce Camp during a three-day trip with Swedish photographer Mattias Fredriksson and friends last September. Years prior, he and friends flew in to Lorna Lake and camped at Spruce Lake, which required a lot of logistics (Bonello brought a live lobster to one-up his campmates).
“It was pretty cool to roll in and be taken care of,” says Bonello, referring to the host who prepares the meals and maintains camp. Bear Paw’s remote location requires a two-day horse ride to pack in food, beer and supplies. Luckily, Tyax owns 35 horses and employs a team of wranglers to keep the camps stocked. Bonello and his group rode the same loop they had on his previous camping trip, but staying at the cabin allowed them to ride other trails in the area.
Every effort uphill gives you so much in return on the other side of the passes,” says Fredriksson. “It’s never too steep, just flowy and fun. It is really the best trail riding in the world and the feeling of remote adventure combines to create an experience that is hard to beat.”
Folks often begin with a drop at Lorna Lake and a night or two at Bear Paw Camp. Then, they’ll move on to Trigger or Spruce camp via Deer Pass and perhaps do a final night at Eldorado Camp, Tyax’s highest camp that boasts a wood-fired sauna. The popular Spruce Camp delivers the most amenities and is the perfect place to start the classic Windy Pass ride. After a few hours of pedaling uphill, riders drop a long, winding descent to Eldorado Pass, Camel Pass and down to Tyax Lodge. It’s all intermediate cross-country mountain biking suited to riders with endurance and Tyax offers everything from overnight trips to seven-day guided options. Mountain bikers who want to ride the best of the Chilcotins without sacrificing hot showers and access to a massage therapist can book a three-day package that includes daily float plane drops, guides and lodging at Tyax Wilderness Resort & Spa.
If you’re the DIY type, several free camping zones provide self-powered access to excellent riding. Camping on the shores of Tyaughton Lake near Tyax Wilderness Resort and Spa (owned separately) offers shuttle opportunities and access to several rides doable on your own power. The Gun Creek site at the confluence of Gun Creek and Carpenter Lake offers well-established sites with picnic tables and lake and creek access. Mowson Pond boasts seven convenient sites and access to Lick Creek or a point-to-point Windy Pass epic that takes Burke just over eight hours.
The key to it all, say local riders, is Douglas, the true pioneer of the area. The pilot and former national champion cyclist has built and maintained trails between the backcountry camps and even flown a trail crew in to re-route a popular descent. His role as champion for the mountain bike community is more critical than ever with the Park’s mountain bike access at stake due to a contentious management plan put forth by BC Parks that seeks to find a balance between conservation and recreation.
Despite mountain bike travel, the grizzly population is on the rise in the area, which is also brimming with moose, wolverines, wolves, coyotes, deer, big horn sheep, eagles, owls, herons and more. The land’s original inhabitants, the Tsilhqot’in (Chilcotin) and St’at’imc (Lillooet) First Nations, called it “Skumakun” or “Land of Plenty” for its abundance of fish and wildlife. Prospectors first discovered gold in the late 1800s. By the 1930s, thousands of fortune seekers had settled in South Chilcotin boom towns like Bralorne and the aptly named Gold Bridge. But by the early 1970s, after extracting over 4 million ounces of gold, most of the mines closed and the population plummeted. Soon, horseback riders found an ideal setting, followed by mountain bikers.
Former professional mountain biker and ski guide Joe Schwartz says the Chilcotins are as close to backcountry skiing as he’s found on a bike. “The area offers the opportunity to travel through terrain on your bike unlike anything else in the world,” he says. “There is so much more to explore—it’s a vast expanse of mountain bike potential.”