Northwest Quebec Explorer
Northwest Quebec was once a part of Canada where only the hardiest of men went. They went to work as miners, lumberjacks, log drivers and more. Fast forward a couple hundred years and it is now bikepackers that are the tough men and women taking on the challenges of Quebec by riding the Northwest Quebec Explorer.
The beautiful thing about the Northwest Quebec Explorer (NWQE) is that there are so many places where one could start riding the loop. Originally created as a means of connecting the Grande-O (Outaouais Loop) to the Trouble in Tremblant Loop, it has since developed into a legit challenge of its own. Taking the rider through the Papineau-Labelle Nature Reserve, across rail-trail, onto Devil Mountain single-track trails and through rugged ATV trails as you make you way through the regional park, beautiful gravel roads leading you to Maniwaki after which you will ride a combination of rail-trail, gravel roads and single-track as you wind your way back towards Gracefield.
- Papineau Labelle Nature Reserve: This epic area of lakes and wilderness will challenge your bike handling abilities as you ride on roads littered with loose gravel and fist-sized rocks.
- Petit Train du Nord: Ride an epic rail-trail that goes from Montreal to Mont Laurier. While large sections of it are paved, I consider as unpaved, since it’s not on the road and is a safe way to ride and explore.
- Montagne du Diable Regional Park: Devils Mountain is a regional park with a great area of single and double track, as well as ATV trails, hiking trails and more. There is a daily user fee that should be paid to ride the trails.
- Covered Bridges: This regions has many covered bridges that are historically significant and make for great photo opportunities.
- Lac des Cèdres: A beautiful area full of trails between the big and small lake. A great little break from the gravel roads and hills you are riding in the area.
- Papineau-Labelle: Make sure you pack lots of food for the section through the Papineau-Labelle Nature Reserve as it doesn’t have many places to stock up on supplies. It is also important to pack extra water and to have either a water filter or purification tables as you will most definitely need to fill up your bottles in lakes and rivers.
- Le Petit Train du Nord: A wonderful rail trail from Montreal to Mont Laurier. Many cafes, restaurants and shops along the way.
- Montagne du Diable: Devil Mountain’s single-track will challenge you, especially with a fully-loaded bicycle. Take it easy on the descents through the enduro park and feel free to skip sections you feel are out of you level of experience.
- Resupply: Resupply before leaving Ferme Neuve as you will have a 100km section without a chance to get food.
- Recommended Bike: Although this route is long and there are lots of gravel roads that could be ridden at a quicker pace on a gravel bike, the sections in Papineau-Labelle and Montagne du Diable are rough and you will save your body a lot of punishment by riding a mountain bike.
- Minimum tire size: It could probably be ridden with a 50C gravel bike, but will be very hard on the body, especially is riding big days on the bike.
- Recommended tire size: I’d recommend a mountain bike with 2.2″ or bigger tires in order to as comfortable as possible throughout the ride and to save your arms, shoulders and back from a real beating.
- Starting in Gracefield, the NWQE takes you for the first 24km on and off gravel roads as you make your way towards the Chemin du Point Comfort, where the roads turn to gravel and take you to the town of Notre-Dame-du-Laus, where you will take on your first challenge and follow some skidoo trails for around 40km until you on just on the edge of the Papineau-Labelle Wildlife Reserve. From there you will start making your way through the reserve following road 8 for 25km. Be aware that road 8 can get pretty narrow and you should keep be aware of your surroundings, in case any ATVs are coming in the other direction. Eventually you turn onto road 3 and follow that for a few kilometres before taking on some 13km of cross-country skiing trails that eventually lead you back onto gravel roads that take you out of the reserve for a short time before jumping back into it and taking on some pretty rugged roads that are not recommended for vehicles without 4-wheel drive.
- At the 186km mark, you will reach La Conception and make your way up to the “Le Petit Train du Nord” rail-trail. For most of the next 100km you will be riding the rail trail, with a small detour to go hit up some fun trails near Lac Nominingue. When you reach Val Barrette you will leave the trail and take some back roads up to Lac-des-Écorces and then start winding your way north on a mix of paved and gravel roads until reaching your northern most town of Mont-Saint-Michel.
- Turning south-west, you begin to make your way towards La Montagne du Diable Regional Park, where you will have a chance to ride some really fun single-track trails. For the most part the trails have lots of small rollers and punchy climbs. Super fun. Be aware that the little loop that starts just before km 413 takes you up many switch-backs into the enduro park. When you get to the top of the climb, you have the choice of riding the enduro park down (Rodeo Drive), taking the big double track (unnamed) or taking another challenging route (12e Rue). I opted for the enduro park and found it to be super fun, but that you should keep it fairly slow as you wouldn’t want to jump a BOB with a loaded bike. There are also two drops, one at the beginning and one a bit further down that you may want to skip. After exiting the enduro park, you cruise down Bourbon Street until you get back to Abbey Road. You climb back up the switch-backs of St-Laurent until you reach the junction and then finish off with a fun, flowy descent down Lombard until you reach back to the parking lot and start heading north-west on the main road.
- Make you way up to the trail-head which will take you through the park for the next 8km until you reach the Windigo Waterfalls and Beach. There is camping here, and this would be a great place to find a place for the night. They are currently building a new building which will hopefully include a store in the future. The next 9km take you southwards through the park before exiting the park and making your way back towards civilization. If you are low on supplies and need some food, a short detour south at km 449 will take you into Ducharme where there is a small grocery store where you can stock up.
- Reaching Grand Remous at km 474 there are restaurants and grocery stores for you to make the most of before heading south on Hwy 105, crossing the Savoyard covered bridge a few kilometres later and getting off the busy roads. Making your way towards Maniwaki, you will be taking a mix of gravel and paved roads, following the Gatineau River until you reach the city.
- Leaving Maniwaki, you will take the Veloroute des Draveurs for about 10km before leaving the route for some gravel roads that take you into the Grand lac des Cèdres trail network. After a bit of riding around through their trails, you continue your south-westward loop until reaching back to Gracefield at kilometre 621.
- Hotels: Gracefield, Mont Laurier, Ferme Neuve, Maniwak
- Campgrounds: Many campgrounds in Papineau-Labelle, la Conception, Village de Labelle, Riviere Rouge, Chutes Saint Phillippe, Lac des Cedre.
- Wild camping: Pretty much the entire route provides excellent places to wild camp, particularly Papineau-Labelle, Montagne du Diable, and Lac des Cedres regions.
- Fresh water everywhere: Lots of lakes and creeks to fill up your water bottles. There are also water taps near the areas with camping where you can fill up.
- Restaurants/Cafes/Bars: Most important things regarding food is to stock up before entering Papineau-Labelle just before taking on the Montagne du Diable Regional Park. These are large regions with minimal chances of resupply.
Average Physical Difficulty – 6
From easy rail trail to rolling gravel roads to rugged and unrelenting terrain with steep climbs, the Northwest Quebec Explorer provides some amazing riding opportunities. The Papineau Labelle Nature Reserve is a very rugged part of the route with short punch climbs that are often littered with loose rock. Because of this, the Northwest Quebec Explorer is more difficult that you may anticipate. Montagne du Diable will challenge you with singletrack, ATV trails, and backcountry roads and trails, much of which would be in the difficulty range of 6-7.
Average Technical Difficulty – 6
The Northwest Quebec Explorer bikepacking route gives you every type of trail imaginable to ride. From the smooth gravel rail trail of the Petit Train du Nord to the Papineau Labelle Nature Reserve with it’s continuous roads that are rocky and plastered with loose rock, the singletrack of Montagne du Diable and beautiful rolling gravel roads in cottage country are sure to provide exactly the technical challenge one would expect on a 621km long route.
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