I stumbled onto the Angel’s Staircase route when I saw this Freehub article and video. I’m a sucker for alpine rides so it grabbed my interest and I started plotting. My buddy Mike and I were planning to head to the Chilcotins this August, but as the trip got closer the smoke from BC’s epic wildfire season and some heavy rain made us doubt the wisdom of heading north of Pemberton. I fired Mike the link above and suggested we hit up the Angel’s Staircase and he was game.
Riding BC Ferries with my truck is expensive and Mike offered to pick me up at the Tsawassen Ferry Terminal as it was more or less on the way to the US border from his home in Vancouver. Riding a bike on the ferry is painless and costs $2 each way vs. $60+ for my truck. Mike also kindly agreed to bring all the group camping gear we needed so I could ride light. I jumped on an early ferry last Thursday and met Mike on the mainland where we quickly loaded up his bling new Subaru for the roadtrip south and east.
The border guards let us into the US and we made a fast stop in Bellingham for beers, burgers and groceries. Our route took us along the very pleasant State Highway 20 towards Twisp. It’s a very chill drive with lovely views and enough service stops to keep everyone happy. We chowed down in Winthrop on Mexican food as we didn’t plan to do any cooking in camp.
It took us a couple wrong turns before we found our campground near the trailhead. We didn’t know it, but the sign had fallen over and we couldn’t read it when we drove past it up the mountain. A few bonus kilometres later we explored the campground, which was pretty much empty. Paid our $8 fee and settled in for a few more beers and prepping our gear for the big ride. Mike is a strong rider and meticulous about his gear so the whole trip was low drama and I knew he’d be ready to rumble.
I’m fairly useless after 4 beers and the sun goes down unless there is a big ass sound system and a DJ pumping bass at my face so I passed out and apologized in advance for my snoring! Luckily for Mike our campsite was next to a gurgling creek and our tents were far enough apart for the white noise to mask my rumbling. Waking at first light we made some tea/coffee and ate a cold breakfast while we packed our gear.
Parking at the trailhead there were a few cars there and a couple other riders showed up as we were futzing with our gear. We ended up leap frogging each other throughout the day, which was nice as the ride didn’t feel as remote as it would have without any other folks on the route. Finally we set off with a lot of anticipation. I treat alpine rides like marathons so I like to start slowly and build momentum with [hopefully] a strong finish. My bike was set up with a much lower gear than Mike’s – 28T x 46T vs. 30T x 42T. So he blasted past me to keep up a minimum cadence while I rolled on behind.
The trail up to Cooney Lake was lovely. We had a lot of climbing to do on this ride and while the trail went up relentlessly it did so at a very reasonable gradient. When there was a steep tech section it wasn’t sustained and the next segment would be less demanding so we could get our breath back. The dirt was very very dry and loose so we had to be a bit careful we didn’t lose the front wheel on corners and rear wheel traction was a challenge sometime. Working our way uphill it was really nice to pop out of the trees into scree fields and alpine meadows.
One of our concerns for the ride was the 32 deg C forecast for the area. As luck would have it our starting altitude of ~4750′ and overcast skies meant very pleasant temperatures. In fact when we reached the highest points of the ride brisk winds actually felt cold and I pondered busting out my windbreaker. Another concern was having enough water. I carried ~2.6L and drank ~2.3L on the ride. However, there were numerous creeks and lakes along our route so I could have carried less and just refilled as we rode. I’ll definitely do that next time.
Cooney Lake would be an amazing destination on most rides, but we had bigger ambitions and we were only a quarter through the day so we didn’t stop for long. Above the lake is the first of two hike-a-bike sections. I actually like the change of pace from riding to give my body a different set of motions to do and although the push up was steep it never got silly and was over in 15-20mins or so. The pay off was spectacular views from the ridge above the lake.
We continued along the ridge to the top of the Angel’s Staircase, which is a shale choked zig zag down the steep face of the opposite side of the ridge. The riding is challenging due to the tight switchbacks, narrow trail, loose chunks of shale and exposure if you go off the wrong side of the trail. My strategy for getting through it was to keep my speed up and my weight balance shifted to the rear of the bike then steer with body english. Oh ya and say a prayer to the Bike Gods that I did’t flat my tires. We passed the two other riders on the Angel’s Staircase as they were dealing with a slashed sidewall.
Although the Angel’s Staircase is the crux of the ride there is a lot more riding to be done to get back to the car. We cruised through gorgeous alpine meadows on dusty buff singletrack with the occasional rock section or creek to keep us honest. The clouds had burnt off by this point and the day was getting hot. Eating and drinking became really important to maintain energy levels and ensure we didn’t bonk. Rolling along the trail we ended up at Boiling Lake, which looks to be a spring fed lake and is equally as picturesque as our first lake of the day. It’s easy to get sensory overload on this ride with stunning views everywhere you look.
Boiling Lake leads to the second significant hike-a-bike of the day. It’s far less demanding than the first effort, but we had far more mileage in our legs so it was not nothing. At least the views on the push up were so nice you forgot about the sweating! I should also note that you get up to 8000’+ so at times the air felt really thin for us sea level folks. The reward for this last push is ~12kms of epic downhill on the Eagle Lake Trail back to the car. I don’t use the term epic lightly. It’s a world class mix of chunk blasting rocky scree fields, alpine meadows and forest singletrack. I stopped a few times to let my brakes, shock and hands have a break. Not to mention my face was strained from the ear to ear grin.
The last section back to the trailhead we doubled back on our original ride in. Except this time going down at high speed instead of cranking up in a low gear. The trail got very dusty and soft add in how tired I was and I had a few close calls with my front tire washing out. That got my attention and I stayed focused on good technique until the last rock I jumped off of and landed by the car.
The loop took us ~7.5hrs to cover 35.5kms with 1536m/5040′ of climbing. Cold beers never tasted so great! That was easily one of the best days of my life on a mountain bike. We just couldn’t believe the quality of the riding and how consistently amazing it was all day long. We are already making plans for another visit in the fall when the larches turn golden. If you have solid fitness and strong technical skills I can’t recommend this ride enough. On the other hand if you are lacking in either area this route will kick your ass so don’t under estimate it.