This might be the best overnight bikepacking loop near Vancouver.
That’s what I kept thinking to myself in the warm fall sun as I climbed up through the Birkenhead River valley, surrounded by fall colours and craggy peaks, the sound of the river roaring below. Unfortunately, overnight, winter showed up with a vengeance, bringing nearly 6 inches of snow up high by the time we were rolling out, and likely shutting this route down until summer 2019, but either way, here’s the route and some photos.
The idea behind this loop is to use leg power to access the, usually heli-dropped, Mount Babour alpine trail, a 20km or so single track descent from just shy of the summit, all the way to Lillooet River valley. As a bonus, the route starts and ends in the biking Mecca of Pemberton, offers the chance to sleep in an awesome backcountry hut and passes a farm cafe on your first morning and a farm brewery near the end of your second day. Like I said, it might be the best overnight/weekend bikepacking loop near Vancouver.
The route starts in Pemberton with the option of riding out on the shoulder of Highway 99, riding the gravel Friendship Trail that parallels it or heading up through the miles of single track north of the town. The attached Ride with GPS route follows the road through Mount Currie, but a suggested route would be to take trails to link up with the Mount Currie to Birkenhead section of the Sea to Sky trail, which would take you along single track and logging roads up to the junction with the Birkenhead FSR.
Either way, you can get great breakfast and coffee at either Mount Currie coffee or at North Arm Farm a little up the road before you get moving and whatever route you take, you’ll have beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and relatively easy riding up until to reach the Birkenhead FSR.
At the Birkenhead FSR, the real climbing begins. The first big push brings you up into the Birkenhead river valley, with sweeping views of Sun God Mountain, Birkenhead Peak and other surrounding mountains. The route then levels out for a bit and gives you a bit of a descent before spiking up once more to give your legs and lungs a solid test.
At the time of riding, all the climbs were rideable, but there’s nothing wrong with some hike-a-bike to catch your breath and take in the scenery.
Eventually, you’ll reach an intersection and have to turn onto the Tenquille Creek branch of the Birkenhead FSR. Depending on the time of year, there is a motor vehicle closure on this road as it runs into prime Grizzly habitat, and you may have to hop a barrier to keep going.
You’ll probably start seeing a lot more bear scat on this stretch of road, along with a number of creek crossings that, depending on the time of year, could get pretty spicy.
At around km 45 or 46, the road dead ends and you have to cross another creek onto the Owl-Tenquille trail system.
For about 3km, follow the trail. Some sections (depending on the amount of mud and your bike handling skills) can be ridden, but for the most part, this is a pretty gruelling hike-a-bike with creek crossings, deep mud and some downed trees.
Eventually, you’ll link up with the Mount Babour trail and pop out at Tenquille Lake. For most mortals, it makes sense to head to the Tenquille Hut on the far side of the lake (the trail on either shore will get you there), and climb up the Babour trail the next morning.
The Tenquille Lake hut is an amazingly well stocked mountain hut with a wood stove for heat and a propane stove for cooking, along with a wide selection of plates, cutlery, pots/pans, etc… It has a sleeping loft with some large foam pads, and can probably sleep 12-16 before it gets way too crowded. It is a busy hut, so if you’re headed up on the weekend, be prepared to pack in.
If you want to use the stove in the hut, you’ll need to bring a green 1L propane canister though, so it might be lighter just bring your own. There is a small amount of wood at the cabin in the summer, but the caretakers ask that it be reserved for warming/emergency use.
To finish the loop, you can choose whether or not you want to ride the full Mount Babour descent and, if so, retrace your steps back to the trail junction and climb up the trail to where heli-drops start just below the summit. From there, ride back to the hut and past it about 3km to a trail junction where you have 2 options. The Tenquille Lake descent or the Branch 12 trail. The Tenquille Lake descent is longer and steeper, but seems to be maintained more for biking. The Branch 12 trail is borderline rideable in many sections and for most people will be a solid hike-a-bike, but it will drop you on some good double track that takes you out to the Hurley River Road, a well graded gravel descent to the valley bottom.
Whichever way you head down, you’ll get some fast descending and end up eventually crossing the Lillooet River and riding through Pemberton Meadows back to town. Stop off at the Beer Farmers and grab a beer before you make it back to town proper, then grab another one at the Pony, Pemberton Brewing or Mile One before you head out.