By Bjorn Leiren
I love bike-packing. The problem is that it’s hard to find a lot of great resources to identify trails that are well-suited to the sport. What makes for a five-skull cross-country trail does not necessarily equate to a trail I want to attempt with my load of gear for spending the night.
My solution: pay it forward. If somebody else is looking for information on where to take four goofballs out into the woods for a couple days of decent riding and two nights of fun and campfires and they get some value reading about our trip, then I am happy. Also note, this is my first time blogging, so go easy on me. I want to take a minute to thank Peter Ospral from Bikepirate for inviting me to write up our Bike-packing trip for this blog. So here I am, and here’s my story about the North Boundary Trail – or at least the section from the Celestine Lake Trailhead to Snake Indian falls & Seldom Inn Backcountry campground.
Our morning started in Hinton, AB where the two factions in our crew, Edmonton and Calgary riders, had met the night before to sleep.
The most complicated part of our trip was right at the very outset:
The Celestine Lake road from Hwy 16 to our trailhead.
Complicated because the road is one-way time-controlled, and once you are on it it’s obvious why that is. I would not want to meet a vehicle coming the other direction on one of the narrow, winding, cliff side sections and then have an argument with the other driver over who has to start backing up. If you go, please adhere to the schedule.
Hinton to the start of the trailhead is 75 kms, plus a trip through the Jasper National park gate to purchase park passes. So what to do – wake up at some ungodly early hour and attempt to make the 8-9 inbound window or enjoy a leisurely breakfast in Hinton, and roll up to the Celestine Lake gate at the decadent start time of 11am? I bet you can guess which option won out.
With important business like breakfast, coffee, fees & documentation, and actually transporting ourselves to the trailhead out of the way, thus began the process of constructing our bike-packing rigs, which requires some assembly. After three years our crew has become scary efficient at. I have seen lots of different set-ups for biking your camping gear into the woods but I’ve never seen anyone else who does it quite like us. Take one hardtail mountain bike, add one rear-mounted bicycle rack, strap-down with bungee cords, one Outdoor Research large Dry Sack containing Tent, Sleeping Bag, a bit of food, and a change of clothes and you are ready to roll. I like this set-up because it allows you to keep most of the weight off your back. My backpack contains only a hydration pack, the tool kit for the bikes, first aid kit, bear spray, lunch for day one, and my rain layer. Other than that, all the big ticket items ride on the bike. Our crew happens to all ride Specialized Rockhoppers. That’s not necessarily a plug for them, but also, it totally is.
My preferred rack is an Axiom Journey Adjustable. I keep my rack on my bike year round, and to be honest it does feel a little odd to turn your high-performance, point and shoot, razor’s edge trail machine into something that looks like a grocery-runner. You just can’t let that bother you. I would love to say that I’d never had any problems with this rack, but unfortunately on the now-infamous second year bike trip when we attempted the Rock Lake trail, which turned out to be an all-but impassable, way-too-technical, horse hoof beaten, root garden-y, singletrack nightmare – one of the racks broke. We performed a field repair, kept rolling and when we got home Axiom honored their guarantee no-questions-asked and replaced the rack with a new one, free of charge.
Anyway, back to the trail. Once the bikes were assembled we set off and found that the trail itself begins with a relatively quick descent towards an old bridge crossing the Snake Indian River, the first of three times you’ll encounter the river on the trip. That is of course followed by an equally steep but much-less-quick climb away from the Snake Indian. Eat your Wheaties.
From that point on, the trail is largely unremarkable. I’ve actually heard it described as boring. It’s not, but I’ll be honest, loaded down with all our backpacking gear, unremarkable is exactly what we were looking for. Full disclosure – the other guys that join me on these trips are neither avid backpackers nor mountain bikers. Some call me nuts for heading into the woods with an inexperienced crew – but these guys have the most important quality that I’m looking for: they showed up. All it means is that our choice of trail for one of these weekends is a little complicated.
It needs to be:
– Long enough that it feels worthwhile, like you actually accomplished something. 26 kms to camp seemed to fit the bill.
– Not so physically demanding that the guys on the trip who never workout or take care of themselves can’t do it, but not so easy that the guys who do those things are bored.
– Not prohibitively technical, but still provide a bit of fun. If I can help it, I try not to subject our racks & packs to a lot of undue stress.
– A bit of both up & down on both the in-day and the out-day. No one wants their first day to be a grim death march and to have to wait overnight before actually enjoying their trip.
And on those metrics, the North Boundary from Celestine Lake to Snake Indian is, with no exaggeration, the perfect trail for bike-packing. The Elbow Loop in the Kananaskis fits those criteria as well, if you were looking for a comparison trail. While it may have been an old Fire Road at one time, it’s a proper trail today. You spend a lot of time in 1st gear on the uphills on the first day but you will also get to do some 2nd gear cruising on the flats. The long, flowy descent into Shalebanks campground is really something to enjoy.
When I planned the trip I had no idea how long it would take us. 26 kms of “old fire road” could mean anything. In total, the inbound trip from the car to the camp site took us five and half hours. That counts lunch, and a lot of waiting for our group to form up again as not every member was equally fit and it is not a good idea to separate as you are deep in bear country.
After Shalebanks you have another 8kms of predominantly climbing before you make Seldom Inn. Seldom Inn campground is about as basic as it gets. It offers a fire ring, a privy (IE: hole in the ground with a log to hang over), and some flat ground to pitch tents. But it’s your home while you are out there, and you make it feel that way. Whiskey helps with that.
We found a flowing water source not far past the camp, but it’s little more than a trickle running through the woods and I still think one should only drink at their own risk. Any water I pulled from there I both water-tabbed and boiled, resolving myself to fill my Camelbak from the river the next day when we went to see the falls. Which are spectacular, by thee way.
The path to the Snake Indian Falls is located 1.5kms further along the trail past Seldom Inn Campground. Make sure to keep your eyes out for the sign to turn down the 100m trail to the falls. It might be possible to miss it, I suppose, but not really because you can actually hear the falls from the main trail. Our second day was spent doing nothing more ambitious than sitting on the rocks by the falls, enjoying backpacking lunch treats and getting a tan.
Finally, our third day, the Out-day. What took us 5 hours to do inbound took a little more than three hours outbound. It is fast and fun and you will be sliding your load around a couple of tight downhill turns and it will be the most fun you’ll have all week, I promise you.
Plan accordingly around which outbound window on the Celestine Lake Road that you want to hit. We incorrectly thought that our inbound and outbound times would be similar, so we left with the intention of making the 330pm outbound window. Since we were two hours faster than we expected we arrived at the car just as the 1230-1330 outbound window was ending and so decided not to risk encountering any inbound traffic. That meant waiting around for the 330 window anyway.
Driving out on the Celestine Lake road was just about all my poor old Front-wheel drive Mazda Protégé could handle. Should I return I hope to have acquired an AWD vehicle. We drove the 15 mins into Jasper for supper at the Jasper Brewing Company, which we found by googling the phrase “Places to eat in Jasper” and now I highly endorse. I strongly recommend the Rockhopper IPA, because it’s good, and I ride a Rockhopper. I also recommend the Bearhill Chicken, which is amazing, I think. It may just have been the fact that it was the first real food I’d eaten after two days in the woods. I don’t think it’s just that, but maybe.
Overall, I give the North Boundary trail my highest review: a thumbs-up.
I would love to return and venture further than we did, maybe to Horseshoe or Willow Creek or to Welbourne campground. I don’t believe I would ever attempt the North Boundary in its entirety on a bike, travelling its total 180+ kms all the way to Mt. Robson. But if I ever do I’ll be sure to provide updates.