At just 360 miles, you could probably ride the entire length of Canada’s second-smallest province in a day, including Cape Breton Island on the north end. Having said that, you could also spend a good 3-4 weeks exploring the coastal roads that encompass Nova Scotia. But despite the appeal of the many lightly-traveled roads along the coast, the main allure for me and many motorcyclists all over North America are the legendary roads on Cape Breton Island.
My first stop in Nova Scotia was along the South Shore. From here, the ride was about 190 miles to the Canso Causeway, which joins Cape Breton Island to the mainland. As soon as you are within a couple miles of Port Hastings, the first town you enter once you cross over the causeway, you will immediately notice an increase in the bike-to-car ratio.
Although the Trans Canada Highway runs up the middle of the island and is the more direct route to the Cabot Trail from Port Hastings, you would be doing yourself a disservice by cutting out Trunk 19, also known as the Ceilidh Trail. It is a 66-mile scenic road that rims the Gulf of St. Lawrence, starting at Port Hastings and ending at Margaree Forks, which is a southern point on the Cabot Trail. The paved road passes through quaint Scottish towns offering reasonably priced accommodations that are more accessible than the lodgings on the Cabot Trail.
Up until this point in my trip, I would use my last fuel stop of the day as an opportunity to pull out my phone and assess the availability of the local motels. This strategy will not work on the Cabot Trail, especially if you are planning your trip over a weekend in the summer, because everything seemed to book up really fast. However, there is an abundance of B&Bs in the towns along Trunk 19, a perfect location since it is less than an hour’s ride to the Cabot Trail.
Although you could probably ride the entire trail in 5-6 hours, it took me nearly eight with frequent breaks due to the heatwave conditions in early August. On the advice of the locals, I filled my tank in Chéticamp, a small Acadian village with a main street lined with cafés and restaurants. It is a good place to fill up your tank and grab a bite to eat since both fuel and food start to become scarce after passing this village. Chéticamp was bustling with tourists when I arrived, but this is not a reflection of what your ride will be like on the trail. Because of its vastness, I oftentimes felt as if I had the road to myself, despite the fact that it was a Friday afternoon on a beautiful summer day.
The ride between Petit Étang (which is less than two miles north of Chéticamp) to Ingonish was probably my favorite part of the trail. I enjoyed everything from the spectacular view of the coast north of Petit Étang, to the long sweeping turns around the mountain, to the challenges presented by the switchbacks before descending down the coast to Pleasant Bay. There are many excellent lookout points along the trail, presenting a good opportunity to stretch your legs, snap a few pictures and take in the stunning view of the coast from the mountain.
There is a longstanding debate among the locals over the best way to ride the trail, clockwise or counterclockwise. Although riding counter will put you in the lane closer to the coast, a few of the locals have told me that riding it clockwise is more enjoyable, as you experience the steep descent down MacKenzie Mountain. This was probably the highlight of my entire ride, so I have definitely become biased toward clockwise.
After reaching Cape North, the northernmost part of the trail, you will approach South Harbour. Just past this point, taking a left turn onto White Point Road will bring you down a narrow, paved road along the coast to a small fishing town. It was recommended to me by some locals, and it was a nice 7-mile venture off the trail. It’s a great place to dismount, stretch your legs and take in the beautiful scenery as you listen to the waves crashing against the rocks. The road eventually turns into New Haven Road, which will connect you back to the Cabot Trail.
I ended the loop by riding back to Margaree Forks just before the sun started to set. As a precaution, you may want to time your rides so that you are parked by dusk. Moose are known to frequent Cape Breton Island, and I was told they usually come out around 7:30 to 8:00 p.m. each evening. Not feeling too great about my chances of survival against a moose, I tried to limit any potential exposure to them.
Despite the fact that it is a 186-mile loop, the hours you spend in the saddle on the Cabot Trail will fly by. The three mountains — MacKenzie Mountain, French Mountain and Smokey Mountain — offer different backdrops for your ride, and the tight corners and changes in elevation will present an equal combination of challenge and thrill.
If I could only make one ride in British Columbia, the Duffey Lake loop would be it. No other route boasts such diversity: a fjord walled by granite mountains, temperate rainforests and flowing glaciers, merging into a dry, semi-arid landscape of sagebrush and ponderosa pine, all on the doorstep of one of the world’s most beautiful cities, Vancouver. I am not getting paid nearly enough to tell you about this gem, but journalists are their own worst enemies when it comes to holding back on a good thing.
Duffey Lake refers to the landmark close to midpoint on a loop tour that can be completed in about 10 hours at a steady pace, but is best done over two to three days, stopping to enjoy the scenery and locals, visit a winery and perhaps camp under a clear canopy of stars. The journey begins just northwest of Vancouver on Highway 99 – the Sea to Sky Highway – at postcard-perfect Horseshoe Bay, and continues northward alongside the sparkling fjord of Howe Sound lined by the Coast Mountains.
The highway was significantly upgraded for the 2010 Winter Olympics, and allows motorcyclists to zip along at a comfortable clip, watchful for police radar at the village of Lions Bay. Along the way, consider stopping to gawk at Shannon Falls, hopping on the Sea To Sky Gondola with its spectacular views or watching mountain climbers on the sheer granite walls of the famous Stawamus Chief.
Just ahead is the former logging town of Squamish, now a mecca for outdoor recreation, including kiteboarding at Squamish Spit. Café racers tend to gather at Starbucks, and cruisers at Howe Sound Brewing or Backcountry Brewing, the latter known for its amazing thin-crust pizza.
Road signs warn of black bears as you continue northward to North America’s top-rated ski resort, Whistler. This perfect little village makes for a great first night’s stay, with strolls through shops in the shadow of towering snow-topped peaks, but don’t expect heavy discounts in summer.
From Whistler, Highway 99 heads to the potato-growing Pemberton Valley, and your last chance for gas for about 60 miles as you proceed eastward through the aboriginal community of Lil’wat at Mount Currie. If you arrive in May you can even catch the community’s annual rodeo.
As you pass Lillooet Lake, the two-lane highway begins a steep, switchback ascent into high-elevation wilderness without a hint of commercialism. The road plateaus shortly after Joffre Lakes Provincial Park, a great spot for hikes to a series of lakes, backdropped by Matier Glacier. Don’t let the alpine vistas distract you from the job ahead: lots of twists and turns, with little in the way of shoulders and the potential for patches of loose gravel.
Duffey Lake is a jewel, and makes for a good photo stop at an elevation of about 4,000 feet. It can get cold here even on summer days so be prepared for changing conditions. Continuing eastward, alongside fast-flowing Cayoosh Creek you’ll find several rustic campgrounds, the best of which is Cottonwood, which offers well-tended outhouses, chopped firewood and an on-site caretaker.
You’ll notice some big changes continuing eastward: evergreen forests replaced by ponderosa pines, sagebrush and craggy rock bluffs, the weather becoming warmer and drier. Expect a stunning view of turquoise Seton Lake – and perhaps some mountain goats on the high cliffs – as you wind steeply downhill to Lillooet, an historic gold-rush town on the banks of British Columbia’s greatest river, the Fraser.
If you’re staying overnight, pick the newer rooms at the affordable 4 Pines Motel, just a block off Main Street. Try some wine tasting at Fort Berens Estate Winery across the river via the Bridge of the 23 Camels, a reference to some bizarre pack animals imported from Asia during the Cariboo Gold Rush of 1858. The Rugged Bean Café is your best bet in town for a soup-and-sandwich lunch.
You’ve now accomplished half of the Duffey Lake loop, and have three choices for the ride back to Vancouver. Street riders take Highway 12 along the east side of the Fraser Canyon to the Canadian hot spot of Lytton, watching carefully for hairpin turns and a landslide area where the highway is reduced to one lane.
One false move here and it’s a one-way trip down a steep embankment. At Lytton, take Highway 1 south to Vancouver, or divert to Highway 7 at Hope for a quieter alternative to the bustling freeway. Street riders might also consider doing the loop counterclockwise to avoid having the setting sun in their eyes for the last few hours.
Dual-sport bikes have a couple of gravel options at Lillooet. One is Texas Creek Road, on the west side of the Fraser Canyon, which passes through remote First Nation reserves perched on elevated benches of farmland that once formed the river bottom. Access Lytton via a fascinating, free “reaction ferry” that employs the power of the river to cross from one side to the other. Note that the service can be suspended during high waters of the spring freshet.
The second option for dual-sports is to head north from Lillooet via Bridge River Road, stopping in summer to watch the ancient scene of aboriginals catching migrating salmon to be hung from wooden drying racks. The gravel road boasts rugged scenery as it continues to Carpenter Lake, Bralorne and Gold Bridge before dropping down into the Pemberton Valley for the ride home on the Sea to Sky Highway.
Whichever route you choose, you won’t be disappointed. The diversity and isolation so close to a North American metropolis makes the Duffey Lake loop an unbeatable riding experience.
“So, what’s in Yellowknife?” asked my doctor while he examined me after I informed him about my upcoming plans.
“Well,” I responded, “it’s an isolated city on the Canadian Shield in the Northwest Territories overlooking the Great Slave Lake. It’s also far enough north for excellent viewing of the aurora borealis.”
“But what else is there?” he emphatically demanded.
Fearing that he was missing the point I responded, “As a touring motorcyclist I look forward to the trek to a distant place at the end of the road,” and let it go at that.
And so I set forth to discover what, indeed, there was of note in Yellowknife. My numerous rides west from Albany, New York, follow a familiar itinerary: Albany to Conneaut, Ohio, the first day for 466 miles. Thereafter, I turn north out of Toledo, Ohio, to Bay City, Michigan; then Bemidji, Minnesota; Williston, North Dakota; and Shelby, Montana. From there I head north into the Canadian Rockies.
In Mackinaw City, though, I picked up a riding partner during a lunch stop at a hot dog stand that seemed a convergence for motorcyclists. Gene is from Windsor, Ontario, aboard a Suzuki Bandit bound for Edmonton, Alberta, to visit family. He was content to follow my pace and schedule as we followed U.S. Route 2 west. I’ve always been a lone wolf during my 53 years of touring, because seldom do I encounter a more compatible riding companion. It certainly made the long slog westward more tolerable.
In Williston, North Dakota, we met two Honda ST1300 riders returning to their homes in Edmonton after a visit to the Black Hills. We were invited to tag along entering Montana, but their pace left us a diminishing view in their rearview mirrors. “Albertans seem always in a hurry,” Gene would later inform me. He and I separated outside Calgary. He directed me to Alberta Highway 22 through the picturesque Turner Valley. Many motorcyclists were enjoying the route, and each waved, including the high-riser Harleyists.
Riding the Banff-Jasper route on the way to Canada’s Northern Territories is an imperative. During my last tour through here on my way to Alaska three years ago it was rainy and 48 degrees. This time around the Canadian Rockies unwound like a Technicolor film reel. Kicking Horse Pass led me into the heart of them, and a hanging waterfall plunging 1,250 feet.The Icefields Parkway glided by ragged peaks lapped by glacial tongues.
Alberta Highway 40 out of Hinton is billed as the scenic route to Alaska. It plows through a large watershed for a lonely 325 kilometers to Grande Prairie. Signs warn of potentially dangerous encounters with caribou. Grande Prairie itself is a crossroads where one splits northwest to Alaska, east toward Edmonton, or due north for the Territories, as I do. The colorfully striking suspension bridge over the Peace River suddenly looms against a backdrop of calendar art. Within an hour I arrive at ground zero in Grimshaw.
The granite mile-zero marker of the Mackenzie Highway in Grimshaw may not be as famous as Mile 0 of the Alaskan Highway 125 miles due west of here, but the town makes the most of it by providing an extensive park with a lot of informative signage. The highway is named after Alexander Mackenzie, a Scottish fur trader who explored the Northwest Territories and traveled the full course of his namesake river, approximately 2,550 miles. I only have 600 miles now to Yellowknife, according to the marker.
Reaching the 60th parallel on the border with the Northwest Territories now means I am halfway to Yellowknife along the Mackenzie Highway. There’s a very nice visitor center here with a campground. But it’s raining, and I wouldn’t camp anyway because it appears the Northwest Territories is prime bug-breeding ground. They swarm me at every stop, a phalanx of horseflies, blackflies, dragonflies, yellowjackets, mosquitoes and midges. Occasionally at speed a fat one would ricochet off my helmet like a pistol shot. Flagmen at road construction sites wear mesh hoods. Alaska was never this bad.
This section of the Mackenzie passes through an extensive Bison Management Zone, and they are given free range, which means they occasionally amble onto the road. At one point I encounter an entire herd alongside the highway. They display their indifference at my passing. I test the antilock brakes on the BMW when I see a baby bison leaping across the road ahead like a deer. Remain alert, I remind myself.
Near Enterprise, Alexandra Falls thunders into the Hay River Gorge, and kayakers have risked their lives plunging into its raging torrent, so says my whitewater-running eldest son, who assures me he has no notions himself of attempting the feat. Another low octane fill up at Enterprise, all that’s available up here. But I learn to top off where I can because fuel may not be obtainable at the next stop.
The Deh Cho Bridge frames the horizon on my approach to the mighty Mackenzie River, Canada’s largest watercourse and the second largest river system in North America. Considered an engineering marvel that took four years to construct because of extreme weather, the Deh Cho (indigenous term for the Mackenzie River) was completed in 2012. Previously, ferry service was provided and an ice road was maintained during the winter. I thread its intimidating isosceles pylons over the Mackenzie and into Fort Providence, where I fill up for the next 200 miles into Yellowknife.
The last 60 miles of road into Yellowknife are the worst I encounter. I’m carefully negotiating numerous gravel sections, bouncing over buckled pavement and dipping into whoop-de-dos. Seeing the “Welcome to Yellowknife” sign is a relief, but it’s elevated on a hillside, making getting the bike into the picture a precarious undertaking.
I locate my B&B, the Bayside, in Old Town. This is where Yellowknife was originally settled when gold was discovered in the 1930s. Diamond mining is the new gold standard for this city of 20,000 and capital of the Northwest Territories. To gain a perspective of the city I climb the steep, zigzag staircase to the top of Pilot Hill, otherwise known as “The Rock,” an escarpment of bedrock forming the Canadian Shield.
An obelisk monument here pays tribute to the bush pilots who mapped the area and brought supplies to the fledgling settlement. Colorful houseboats cluster in the bay, while seaplanes skim the water like dragonflies, leaving broad wakes as they take off and land. Great Slave Lake sparkles in cyan radiance to the horizon, perhaps because it’s the deepest lake in North America.
My B&B provides a delicious breakfast, and has its own restaurant called the Dancing Moose that serves gourmet fare. But to experience an Old Town tradition I am directed to the Wildcat Café, Yellowknife’s oldest restaurant located in a log heritage building. Bison burgers are on the menu, and so is a variation of a Canadian standard, bison poutine. Just up the road is quirky Bullock’s Bistro, offering wild game and the “freshest fish in the Territory.” But you’ll pay handsomely for it. I have my best repast on my final day at the Woodyard Brewhouse–a decadent charcuterie and cheese board washed down with a flight of NWT suds.
Riding out of Old Town toward downtown I squirm over Ragged Ass Road. This lane is so-named by the gold-rush era prospectors who had gone stone broke (ragged ass), and so built their ramshackle cabins here. The road is in no better shape now, as noted. Nearby is a rock face carved and painted with cultural symbols representing the indigenous Inuit, Métis and Inuvialuit.
In downtown Yellowknife I locate a mural that depicts Northwest Territories themes, including a colorful aurora borealis. Given the nearly 24-hour daylight I was not going to actually see them on this trip. I had learned the best time to view the northern lights was before the spring equinox, or in the dead of winter. Hmm, the first time period was too early to risk a motorcycle ride, and forget the latter option. Regardless, there are many variables that affect the viewing of northern lights. The aurora is a magnetic storm caused by the capricious solar winds, so predicting and timing their ephemeral nature is a veritable crapshoot.
Regardless of the disappointment, I was content to ride this deep into the Territories, especially feeling smug having learned there is not a single road between here and the Arctic Ocean yet to challenge. I had seen few touring motorcyclists, and perhaps only two local riders. I got to thinking, the Mackenzie and Alaska highways both have deep territorial reach, but the Mackenzie is half the length of the Alaska. Why aren’t there more brethren exploring its terminus? Organizers of the Iron Butt Rally should take note.
Maybe I found nothing too exceptional in Yellowknife, and the northern lights didn’t display themselves, but I return home with the satisfaction of achieving yet another distant horizon, which should be the goal of any adventurous touring motorcyclist.