"It's like someone dropped Whistler's bike park in the middle of nowhere."
That's photographer Ryan Creary. He is usually subdued, but with the sun out, a dusting of snow on the trees and Valemount's bike park all to ourselves, he’s lit up with excitement. I think he's photographed every feature since we dropped into High Roller, an immaculate mile of machine-built jumps and berms.
He's not alone in his love affair with Valemount. It's the first stop on our road trip along British Columbia's Yellowhead Highway and one of our favorites. Everyone we ride with over the next eight days inevitably mentions Valemount followed by a long stream of compliments.
The quality of the riding is definitely world-class and worth the drive to get here. But, I think it's the back story that really wins everyone over.
Valemount sits near the Alberta border, in a deep, wide valley surrounded by three mountain ranges. It's spectacular but a long way from anywhere—at least three hours to the nearest airport and five hours from Edmonton, the closest big city. The town used to rely on logging until 2006 when the lumber mill closed, taking 120 jobs and dozens more related ones. The school shrank in half as young families moved away. Shops closed.
Several proposals promised salvation for the depressed town: a jail, mushroom farm, spas, ski hills. None materialized. Residents grew wary and frustrated.
So the local hiking group promised little when in 2012 they teamed up with IMBA to create a mountain biking master plan for 5-Mile Hill, the mountainside behind town. At the time an access road ran to a radio tower at the top and a couple of old-school downhill trails plunged back down. The club envisioned much more. To get it done, they handed the project to Curtis Pawliuk, the man largely responsible for turning Valemount into one of B.C.'s best snowmobiling destinations. He started building bike trails in 2014. Four years and $500,000 later the master plan is complete and the local club, VARDA, is working on the next phase.
"The advantage of starting from scratch is that you can build it right from the beginning," Pawliuk says. "We're trying to make it fun for everyone. Our idea is that from any staging area there will be a green, blue and black."
The riding is mostly gravity-focused, but there are a couple blue and green trails winding around the bottom of the hill and right into Valemount's downtown. A 4-mile, machine-built climbing trail meanders most of the way up at a grade so perfect it almost feels effortless. But most people shuttle up the access road to the four different staging areas and the dozen downhill trails.
High Roller is the one everyone is talking about, and it’s immediately obvious why. It starts at the top of the mountain, twists and turns through the forest, hits a huge log leading to a long rock drop and then pops out into a clear-cut full of big tabletops, massive berms and views across the valley to the Cariboo Mountains. When the good times end, the trail flows right into the next: either a handbuilt-feeling ramble or more machine-built goodness. Berms turn everything into flow. Little airs are everywhere. And short shots send us into loamy goodness.
As we tumble down the mountain, the pitch slackens up and the trails get easier, but no less fun, right to the parking lot. All in, it's 2,600 feet of vertical descending.
With early snow on the trees we’re the only ones out. That’s unusual. Electronic trail counters logged more than 200 people on busy Saturdays and a record 4,000 users in July. With more than 20 miles of trail it’s not busy, but it’s a huge economic boost to Valemount.
Since 2014, a shuttle service, bike shop and snack bar opened, specifically to serve riders. They’ve made a food truck more viable and allowed the Three Ranges Brewery to expand.
"Biking has changed Valemount," says Pawliuk. "I don't want to say it saved the town, but it has made a big difference. People are energized for the first time in a long time.”
And so they should be. Valemount is a town of 1,000 people with a world-class bike park in its backyard. In my books that’s better than Whistler.
Stay: Reserve a campsite right on the river at the Yellowhead Campground and you can ride everywhere, including to the trails.
Coffee: The Valemount Swiss Bakery makes amazing pastries, coffee and 60 kinds of artisan bread.
Beer: Ten percent of proceeds from pints of Pale Tail beer at Three Ranges Brewing goes to trail development.
Food: Eat a goat burger and onion rings with vodka mustard at the Funky Goat food truck right next to the brewery.
Shuttle: Peak Shuttles runs a 15 passenger van and trailer up the access road Thursday to Sunday.