The Yukon River Trail existed for hundreds of years before I chased its snaking beauty on a mountain bike. The Southern Tutchone, Whitehorse’s local First Nation, used it as a hunting and travel route for ages. Gold rushers in the late 1890s marched the sandy path on their way to Dawson City and the Klondike. Since then the trail has slowly changed from a commute to work to Whitehorse’s premier mountain bike trail, swooping along high cliffs and bluffs, cutting across hillsides, climbing to lofty viewpoints and then bombing back down.
That’s the thing with the trails around Whitehorse. They aren’t just trails. In three days of riding, photographer Ryan Creary and I pedal past dilapidated prospectors cabins, rusting mining equipment, abandoned telegraph lines and a road built by a famous Robert Service character. By the time I sat my sore legs down for the flight south, I realized that in the Yukon, almost every trail has a colourful story.
Ironically, for a rider no story is more compelling than a dry statistic: 300 km. That’s how much singletrack trail has been mapped within Whitehorse city limits. Plus, there’s 400 km of doubletrack and old road.
The city is actively building more cycling paths. Whitehorse is one of Canada’s largest cities by area.
To get a sense for the quality we met up with Anthony DeLorenzo. The communications specialist with the territorial government moonlights as a mountain bike guide for Boreale Biking, a Whitehorse-based mountain bike tour company. But, more than either of those, he’s a cyclist. He rides his Surly Pugsly all winter and mountain bikes and builds trails from early May, when the snow melts, until it returns in October.
“When I started riding seven or eight years ago I knew everyone I’d meet on the trail,” DeLorenzo says as a way of introducing the Whitehorse mountain biking scene. “Now I pass whole groups where I don’t know anyone.”
He says the change coincided with the city taking a serious interest in the trail network. Since 2008, city council has invested $1 million in trail signs, improvements to existing trails and 20 km of new trail. And that doesn’t include simultaneous and significant volunteer contributions.
DeLorenzo starts us off with Whitehorse’s premier loop. We drive up Grey Mountain, a gravel road snaking away from town to Easy Money, a short steep climb followed by a pitching descent through the forest. It feeds onto Payback and links to SFD and Girlfriend. We’ve been riding for 30 minutes and haven’t left singletrack. Another seamless junction spits us onto Juicy, classic old school XC. We climb and descend on open benches, riding through grassy, aspen meadows with snowy mountains as our backdrop. It feels like Canmore, but wilder.
Juicy eventually meets the Yukon River and turns into the appropriately-named Yukon River Trail. The riding only gets better as we head downstream, climbing and descending, banking into the forest and then swooping along the ridge far above the river. At Canyon City, where foundations are all that remains of a boom town, we ride at river level. Be careful on the Rim Trail as one wrong move could result in a big cliff jump into the canyon. This trail leads onto another set of trails around Hidden Lakes. From here, we popped out onto our first road – some 24 km from where we started the ride and two doors down from DeLorenzo’s house.
The next day we learn about Mount McIntyre’s trail system. In the winter, Mount Mac is a cross country ski area. In the summer, it’s the focal point of the new trail development. In two years, 20 km have been built here by the city’s paid trail crew. With a skills park, jump lines and plenty of banked corners, the riding here is more modern and freeride-inspired than the Grey Mountain trails.
On our final day we headed an hour south of Whitehorse to Carcross. The trails here that crisscross Montana Mountain were converted over the years from old mining foot and wagon trails by youths.
Montana Mountain is massive and, even by September, half-covered in snow. That meant we weren’t able to do the all-day epic Mountain Hero Trail, which climbs for 20 km and then meanders through the alpine on old mining trails all the way back to town, but there are plenty of other shorter trails that keep us busy lower down. The riding is mostly shuttle-style with a good feeder road.
We start on an old telegraph line, a straight shot downhill covered in snow. It’s fun, but the highlight is Tin Cup, where we dive into the forest, picking up speed as we swing back and forth across the fall line. The trail snakes along, flowing smoothly into a 200-foot slick granite rock section. The features are tricky and steep, but everything rolls smoothly.
Finally, we hit the Sam McGee trail. While he was never cremated on the shores of Lake Labarge, he did exist. He worked on Montana Mountain and built the road we’re now riding on. As I manoeuvre along his 100-year-old handiwork, I realize what makes riding in the Yukon special. It’s not just the excellent trails – the best I’ve ever ridden – it’s that each one has a story to tell.
Air Canada flies from Vancouver and Air North flies direct from Vancouver and Edmonton. By land, Whitehorse is a long, but scenic drive from just about everywhere in southern Canada. Find the Alaska Highway in northern B.C. and turn north.
What to eat:
Restaurant options are surprisingly diverse with chains, hotel lobby style restaurants and plenty of funky eateries and ethnic spots. Prices are slightly more expensive than elsewhere in Canada. Try Sanchez for authentic and filling Mexican. Excellent souvlaki and other middle eastern food can be found at The Kebabery. Hit Burnt Toast Cafe for a cosmopolitan atmosphere and menu.
For coffee, Midnight Sun Coffee Roasters shares space with iCycle Sports, one of the two bike shops in town. And for another type of beverage, Yukon Brewing is the north’s only micro brew.
Where to stay:
Boreale Biking’s Yurtville, a collection of yurts on the Gray Mountain trails, are available to visiting cyclists for rental by the night. In town, hotels, bed and breakfasts and motels come in many styles and price ranges. For campers, the most convenient option is the Robert Service Campground beside the Yukon River a couple of minutes from downtown Whitehorse.
Options around town are mostly limited to out and back trips. Longer tours are possible, especially one-way routes into Alaska. One of the best known biking events in the area is the Kluane-Chilkat International Bike Relay, an eight stage, 240 km ride to the ocean.
Ryan Stuart is a freelance writer based in the Comox Valley of Vancouver Island. When he’s not typing, he can be found riding his singlespeed on the mountain bike trails in his bumpy backyard.