COLT Bikepacking Route (444km)
Updated: Nov 8, 2020
Author: Melanie Chambers
Featuring some of the province’s most iconic trestle and suspension bridges, hospitable rural communities, and former rail trails, the Central Ontario Loop Trail (COLT) makes for an ideal introduction to multi-day bikepacking. There are two official versions available. The original 460km route, created by Miles Arbour at Bikepacking.com, that skirts the northern shores of Lake Ontario, and a shorter 444km version developed by Matt Kadey, author of the Butter Tart 700, which eschews the lake in favour of an inland traverse of the Kawarthas.
The following details Melanie Chambers’ experiences riding the shorter version of the COLT over the course of five days starting clockwise from the town of Lindsay, in the fall of 2020. Be sure to check out her blog - The Spoked Traveller - to find out more about her cycling adventures!
Day One: Lindsay to Wilberforce
The COLT starts out on the Victoria Rail Trail, a smooth 55 km stretch of former railroad built in 1874. The rail trail traverses through tunnels of yellow and red birch and maple, so the end of September is the best time to catch the leaves changing colour.
It wasn’t long before we crossed our first railway bridge. With its rusted metal struts, wooden planks, and lingering smell of tar, the bridge is a reminder of the old days, when mining and forestry, rather than tourism, sustained the area.
Not long after, we rode into the cute town of Fenelon Falls; referred to as the “Jewel of the Kawarthas”, this town has an ample amount of green space on the waterfront and a selection of great coffee shops, making for an ideal rest stop.
Heading into Haliburton, you begin to get a taste of country life: mounds of chopped wood in front of houses, trucks in driveways, and expansive lawns. Space isn’t an issue here. We rode on the paved shoulder of Highway 118 past multiple lakes to reach Wilberforce before dark.
Day Two: Wilberforce to Gilmore
Leaving Wilberforce on some paved rolling hills, we veered onto Bowan Road where a precocious fox stood on top of the first (of many) steep climbs.
Shortly before Bancroft, we took a half hour detour through a scenic, but new and bumpy singletrack; not ideal for my friend’s 34 mm tires.
Upon reaching Bancroft, we took advantage of two fantastic bakeries for refueling - stock up on supplies here, as the next 100 kms or so provide few options for real food.
Heading north from Bancroft, we quickly discovered that the Hastings Heritage Trail - designed primarily for ATV and snowmobile traffic - is at its soupiest here, with sand and gravel a good half foot thick in some places. We tried riding the edge of the trail as much as possible, but it was slow going and we only made nine kilometres in a little over an hour and a half.
Worrying that we’d never get through the rough gravel, we made the call to ride the shoulder of Highway 62 instead to our campsite on the shores of Bow Lake.
Day Three: Gilmour to Marmora
Starting the day by making our way to the village of Gilmour, we once again decided to deviate slightly from the official route by riding the shoulder of Highway 62, and thus avoiding the Hastings Heritage Trail. Highway 62 is a tight squeeze with a narrow-paved shoulder. Be on the look out for motorists, especially in the fall when they may be paying more attention to the glorious colours rather than the road.
After a rest stop at Trudy’s Place in Gilmour, we continued on the Hastings Heritage Trail, which became much smoother and easier to navigate heading south out of town. Meanwhile, a later section of marshland reminded me of the Dagobah System featured in the Empire Strikes Back: swampy, with a tinge of sadness. Adding to the gloom was a leather tool belt wrapped around a tree - a memorial to a local construction worker who perished nearby.
We eventually wild camped off-trail in the dense forest outside of the village of Marmora. After going unseen by a few passing ATVs, we were lulled to sleep by the local frogs and waterfowl, only to be awoken sometime around 3am by the howling of nearby coyotes and the hooting of a solitary owl.
Day Four: Marmora to Peterborough
Coming out of Campbellford, we reached the Ranney Gorge Suspension Bridge, which spans 300 feet across the Trent River along the Great Trail path. Selfies galore here.
The day kept getting better: whether it was the cows licking our hands on Loucks Road, the picturesque historical farms, such as Taylor homestead dating from the 1850s, or the grand vistas from the peak at almost 500 meters. I swear you could just about see Lake Ontario from there.
Rolling into Peterborough on the blissfully smooth Great Trail, we set up camp near town at the Beavermead Campground and proceeded to fill our bellies with some well-earned Thai takeout.
Day Five: Peterborough to Lindsay
Cycling on the Great Trail outside Peterborough, for the first time on the trip we picked up some speed, managing to complete the final 35 kms before noon.
Our longest stop was to take a barrage of selfies on the Doubes Bridge, which is more scenic than the Ranney Gorge suspension bridge, in my opinion. Built in 1883, the 200-metre span looms above the Buttermilk Valley, where a stream cuts through the thick forest below.
Flying through a series of small towns, we stopped to rest on a bench along the Trent River in Hastings; we almost got to cross the nearby swing bridge, but it was closed for the season. The bridge’s closure forced us to take a detour up a monster climb, but the view from the top was well worth the effort.
Zipping through the Omemee Trail and onwards to Lindsay, where it all began, we toasted our success with Thanksgiving bagels at the main park across from Tim Horton’s. What a ride.
Given the big miles inherent in long-distance bikepacking, a properly fitted bike is essential to avoid sore shoulders/neck, body cramps and other related issues. I rode the Liv Devote Advanced 1, one of Giant’s new all-carbon gravel bikes. It’s compact and comfortable woman-specific geometry, lightweight frame and fast-rolling tires meant I could tackle the climbs, and not feel shaky descending the rough patches, including the intermittent rough singletrack found on route.
Grippy handlebar tape is also beneficial, as it allowed me to feel much more stable when hopping over some bigger rocks. A small detail, but it gave me confidence on the shaky sections.
Finally, a long day in the saddle means that one’s hands can go numb - so the option for multiple hand positions are a must. Drops, or similar bars, will ensure that you can change positions and relieve any pressure on your wrists.
What would I do differently?
Ride bigger tires - like 50mm or larger. I rode on 45mm tires and wished they were little bigger at times. Sections of the Hastings Heritage Trail are meant for plus or fat tires.
Bigger saddle bags. Travelling light is great, but a change of clothes after a long day is welcome.