Nestled in the heart of British Columbia’s West Kootenay region is Rossland, a little mountain town with international repute. Not only has it been called the mountain biking capital of Canada (a pretty ballsy statement, if you ask me), it’s also home to the Seven Summits trail. Named an official epic by the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), and awarded 2007 ‘Trail of the Year’ by Bike magazine, it’s considered the crown jewel of Rossland’s trail network.
In fact, Canada only has three IMBA epics, all of them located in British Columbia. This accolade is bestowed on trails that deliver a “true backcountry riding experience”. As the IMBA says, official epics are “immersive rides that are technically and physical challenging, beautiful to behold and worthy of celebration”. They must also be “demanding, majority singletrack trail experiences in a natural setting and at least 20 miles in length”.
I can confirm that the Seven Summits trail ticks all of those boxes.
It’s long, spanning 30.4km (36km when combined with the Dewdney trail). It’s demanding, with 1,035m of vertical gain and a high point of 2,194m. It’s 95% singletrack, slap bang in the middle of the Rossland range. And it’s challenging, taking the average Joe six hours or more to complete.
Those are the stats. But what’s it like to ride?
Rocky. Relentless. And really f*@king fun.
I rode the Seven Summits on a glorious September day during a perfect weather window – no smoke, no rain and just the right temperature.
Confusingly, you don’t actually ‘summit’ seven different peaks. You do, however, pass by them in one way or another. This is a relief, because frankly, there’s quite enough climbing involved for any normal human being. For the most part, these climbs are 100% rideable if you have the legs. There are some steep sections and technical elements, but advanced riders with good fitness will stay on their bikes the entire time.
I wish I could say that I breezed along with the endurance of a XC athlete, but that would be a lie. I played it tactically, setting a gentle pace and walking the steeper uphill sections. The first climb to the top of Mount Elgood is the worst, taking you from the highway to the highest point on the trail.
After about an hour I started to question my decision – was I going to be able to make it to the end? My apprehension wasn’t helped by a conversation I’d had with some locals the night before. After mentioning that I was doing the Seven Summits in the morning, I was met with groans and mutterings of “why, why are you doing that to yourself? I HOPE YOU LIKE ROCKS!”
At the top of Mount Elgood, however, my faith was restored. The forest gives way to the sub-alpine, where the weary pedaller is treated to 360° views. The sky was clear and I could see right across the Rossland range to neighbouring Washington state. Then it was time for the first descent. Fast and flowy singletrack swept me quickly along the ridgeline. The terrain in this section isn’t technically difficult, the scenery is beautiful and a great big grin was plastered across my face.
Tight, loose and lumpy
Soon enough my confidence was wavering once again as I reach a highly exposed and narrow section of the trail. This was the only time I had to walk on the descent – I just don’t have a head for heights. Even so, I was feeling buoyed by the sheer awesomeness of my surroundings. From what I’d sampled, the downhills were going to be seriously fun and cruisy.
Actually, the rest of the trail can’t really be described as ‘cruisy’. Fun, yes, but the technicality of the terrain steps up a notch later on. Those locals I’d met in the bar the night before weren’t joking about the rocks, either. At times it’s tight, loose and lumpy, although manageable for the intermediate rider. While the Seven Summits is rated as a black diamond, I suspect that’s mainly due to the physical demands of the trail. For B.C., it’s probably more of a blue with a black section here and there.
And demanding it most certainly is. I found the middle part of the trail especially hard-going, physically and mentally. At this stage you’re encased in the forest, and the climbs seem to come thick and fast. Sometimes I’d just be getting into the groove on a downhill when it was time to pedal again. I hauled myself up the last major ascent with the elation of someone who’s just summited Everest. I was assured that there’d be no more climbing thereafter. That information was misleading, as there were still a few short, punchy hills to tackle.
Thankfully, I wasn’t so exhausted that I couldn’t enjoy the final descent, which included the 6km Dewdney trail. And my god, what a descent it is. You begin in open grasslands, weave your way down through the forest and end up back at the highway. There are a few forest service roads to cross along the way, which proved useful for resting my hands.
An epic trail
I arrived in the parking lot smiling from ear to ear. I found the day challenging, but in a good way. Compared to somewhere like the Chilcotins, for example, the trail maintenance is superb. Despite being a backcountry experience, you can ride the length of the trail – no hike-a-bike needed. The landscape is spectacular and forever changing. You go from the forest, to the alpine, through a ski resort, past wildflowers, along grassy slopes and back into the forest once again.
And in my opinion, the riding is highly entertaining. It might not float everyone’s boat – it’s rocky and there are no features. But the swooping singletrack is so much fun, while the odd technical section keeps you on your toes. The final descent was probably the longest, fastest downhill I’ve ever experienced, and for me made the effort of the preceding six hours totally worth it.
In short, the Seven Summits is the total package.
Mountain biking the Seven Summits trail – what you need to know
When to ride the Seven Summits
The trail is typically ridden from early July to early October when the first snow falls. The Kootenay Columbia Trails Society (KCTS) carries out annual maintenance before officially ‘opening’ the trail each summer. Take a look at their Facebook page for updates.
The Seven Summits trail is officially 30.4km long, but 36km if you tag the Dewdney trail to the end (which is highly recommended). It is intended to be ridden from north to south. When going in this direction, it starts just behind the parking lot at the Nancy Green Summit/Strawberry Pass trailhead. Once on the trail, the route is well-marked, so there’s no point in me providing a detailed account. If in doubt, take a look at Trailforks. When you round Grey Mountain (which is part of Red Mountain Resort) then you’re about halfway.
The KCTS carry out extensive maintenance, so the entire thing is rideable.
The Seven Summits trail is a point-to-point ride, so you’ll need two vehicles. Park one vehicle at the bottom of the Dewdney trail – this is where you’ll end. The parking lot is located on Highway 22, 12km south of Rossland. Pile into the second vehicle and head back towards Rossland, this time diverting up Highway 3B to the Nancy Green Summit/Strawberry Pass trailhead. This is where you’ll start your ride.
If you don’t have two vehicles, you can use a shuttle service.
The Kootenay Gateway is an adventure centre in Rossland which offers a shuttle service for the Seven Summits trail. Reservations are required. Departure times are usually 7am or 8am. You meet outside the store in town (2118 Columbia Avenue) 15 minutes before departure and load your bike onto the trailer. You then follow the minibus in your own vehicle to the parking lot at the bottom of the Dewdney trail. Once you’ve parked, you hop in the minibus with all your gear and get transported to the starting point. That way, your car is waiting for you at the end of the day.
Food and water
Water sources along the trail are slim-to-none. Don’t expect to be able to refill your water bottles. You’ll need to carry a lot of water – and snacks!
Black bears are commonly sighted along the Seven Summits trail.
How long does it take?
How long is a piece of string? It’s impossible to answer this question. If you know how long you’d normally take to ride 36km with 1,035m of vertical gain at altitude, then you have your answer. Personally, it took me 6.5 hours and I stopped a lot for food, rest and photos. I also walked some sections of the climbs. I was the slowest person on the shuttle bus that day.
E-bikes are not currently allowed on the Seven Summits trail. Having said that, there was someone on my shuttle with an e-bike, which is weird now I think about it…
Exiting the trail
If you need to exit the trail for any reason, then there are two hiking trails between Mount Plewman and Grey Mountain, both of which lead to a parking lot on Highway 3B. The south-side road at Red Mountain Resort is your last option to leave the trail. After this, you have to see it through to the end.
The Seven Summits is a black diamond trail, while the Dewdney trail is a blue square. Trailforks states that the Seven Summits is ‘not suitable for beginners, with the majority of riding falling between intermediate and advance levels’.
I agree that it’s definitely not suitable for beginners. At the time of riding, I was hovering around the intermediate level, able to clean some (but not all) black diamond trails in the Sea to Sky corridor. I was worried that the Seven Summits would be beyond my ability. As it turned out, I rode the entire thing from end to end, save one section which has a lot of exposure. However, that was due to my fear of heights rather than the difficulty of the trail.
While the first half of the trail is flowy singletrack, the second half does become tighter and more technical. There are no features. You won’t find any drops, jumps, woodwork or big berms. But what you will find is loose, rocky terrain. It’s hard to gauge whether someone is ‘good enough’ to ride the Seven Summits trail. If you’re comfortable on tech, then you’ll be in good standing.
As for fitness, well, it’s a big day out. 36km over a mountain range is obviously going to involve a serious amount of cardio. Trailforks describes the climbs as ‘lung bursting’, which is pretty accurate. They’re also relentless, the first one being four miles long. Although it’s then followed by a descent, it’s not long before you’re pedalling once again. That process is repeated over, and over, and over again. Physical and mental endurance is essential, as is a decent level of cardiovascular fitness. So long as you start early, you can take it at your own pace and walk sections of the climb where the grade becomes steep.
There is a toilet near the start of the Nancy Green Summit/Strawberry Pass trailhead. Leave the parking lot and pedal through a relatively flat area of forest for a few minutes. You’ll then reach the ‘Booty’s’ backcountry shelter and outhouse – which is not stocked with toilet paper. This is the only facility on trail.
Did I mention the trail is rocky? Pinch flats are a real concern. Take spare inner tubes and the necessary bike tools. You’re in the backcountry, so you need to be self-sufficient. Phone service is patchy, so taking a satellite communication device is a good idea (along with the other 10 Essentials!)