I have been doing quite a bit of obsessing lately about bikepacking routes in Ontario, and recently stumbled across the Simcoe County Loop Trail.
The Simcoe County Loop Trail is a 160km loop trail starting in Barrie that follows old rail trail to Elmvale onto Penetanguishene and Midland before cutting back East to Orilla and then back down to Barrie.
What better way to test myself for my first bikepacking adventure, the Cannonball 300, only three weeks away.
Please read on to hear learn about the various sections of trail, the attractions you’ll see, a great place for coffee, and what happens when you experience the bonk.
While on the trail I continued to test my new GoPro Hero 8 and created my first video ride report. Although not bad for a first try, It seems that vlogging, and everything that goes along with it, will require a bit more practice.
Trip Planning and Bikepacking Setup
In preparation for my first multi-day ride I stopped by MEC to pick up a pannier rack and a set of panniers. Although I had originally been considering a large seatpack and/or framepack, I ended up going with panniers due to the lower cost of entry.
It didn’t take long to realize that my 29″ mountain bike, with no upper or lower mounting screws, is not designed to handle a pannier rack. I called a few local bike stores and was told by everyone that there was nothing to be done.
I then decided to take my bike to Silent Sports to see if they had a framepack that might fit. I am pleased to report that their lead bike tech Kai was able to do the impossible and MacGyver the framepack on. Thanks, Kai.
Looking back at last years ride home, the one regret I have was not giving myself enough time to enjoy the sights and sounds, or to give myself enough time to take a few pictures along the way.
For me, this ride, and the Cannonball 300, are less about my time to finish, and more about the experience. Rather than worrying about time, I want to focus on the adventure itself. The places to explore, the things to see, and the plans I can make for future mini family adventures.
With that in mind, I planned an eight to nine-hour ride, with three hours of wiggle room to take things slow and enjoy the day.
For the day’s itinerary I planned to stop at the Elmvale Spring, lunch at Balm Beach, snacks at Grounded Coffee in Midland, and a light dinner at Em’s Cafe in Coldwater.
My intended starting point was the Snow Valley parking lot, the most popular starting point according to Ride with GPS. I panicked the night before that Snow Valley’s lot would be closed due to COVID, and instead ended up parking just north of Barrie at the Oro-Medonte Trail Parking Lot.
I highly recommend parking here, since you will get the climb through Barrie out of the way early. At the same time eliminating any risk of riding Barrie’s roads at night.
I should also call out the importance of planning, and making a list and checking it twice. I learned this lesson when I rode my first mountain bike race, the Hardwood SingleTrack Classic where I managed to forget my shoes, instead having to ride in a new pair of Vans.
With that memory always present, I made sure to detail out all food, sunscreen, emergency supplies, masks, sanitizers, and even some backup clothing in case I decided to go for a swim. Luckily, at the last minute, I realized that shoes and helmet were not on the list, and quickly made the edits, redid the packing and was all set to go.
Barrie – Start to 20km
Waking up at 6:25 was probably the earliest I’ve had to wake since COVID, although a little groggy, it was nothing a strong coffee couldn’t fix. I ate a quick breakfast, passed our now excited puppy to my sleeping wife, loaded the car, marvelled at the blue skies and the perfect forecast, and was off.
I made Barrie in record time. Although the roads were clear, and there was lots of parking, the trail itself was quite busy.
It seems that I wasn’t the only person planning adventure today.
The ride starts with a slow traverse along the highly trafficked Barrie North Shore Trail, into downtown Barrie, before heading north along Sunnidale Road and Anne Street to Snow Valley Road. There was one short section of trail where Anne Street ends that follows an ATV trail and a treacherous and sandy downhill to Snow Valley Road. Although a little ominous for a start, it was by far the only bad section of trail.
Just before starting on the North Simcoe Rail Trail, I passed through the beautiful but, I’m sure somewhat creepy at night, Hodge Research Area.
North Simcoe Rail Trail into Elmvale – 20-42km
Like most of the trail on this ride, this section of the trail is scenic, fast, and well maintained.
The North Simcoe Rail Trail is eighty percent on trail, with a short section of road riding, where I snapped this awesome photo of Usher’s Road. I figured the symbolism of a long dirt road was quite symbolic of the day ahead.
The North Simcoe Rail Trail finishes in Elmvale, passing by the Elmvale Springs, just south of Hwy 27 and Flos Road 11 West.
According to Canadian Geographic, the Elmvale Spring is considered to be some of the purest water in the world, containing less lead by a factor of 5 then the cleanest ice layers in the arctic.
This spring and Balm Beach were perhaps the two parts of the trip that I was looking forward to the most. My daughter even made me promise to bring home of the purest spring water to taste.
The spring itself has three taps that gush water all day. I’m not sure what I was expecting it to taste like, what I wasn’t expecting was the slight sulphur smell and taste. I later read that like a fine wine, this water needs to be decanted for the sulphur smell and taste to go away. I wish I saved a bottle as I’m still curious as to what the arguably purest water in the world tastes like, without the sulphur.
Tiny Trail to Penetanguishene (Balm Beach Detour) – 42-73km
Tiny Trail is another great section of trail that parallels Hwy 27 up to Perkinsfield before turning towards Penetanguishene.
Following my itinerary, I veered off at Concession Road 9 West so that I could make my way to Georgian Bay and Balm Beach. This side trip is part of what I really like about these rides and the places you get to explore. It’s amazing how many beautiful beach towns existed that I never heard of.
That said, due to COVID non-residents can’t park anywhere near Balm Beach, so who knows how many of these local beaches are actually accessible this year.
Although a little reminiscent of some of the photos seen out of Florida, the social distancing wasn’t terrible as it looks.
The change of scenery also made for an excellent spot to stop for some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and my wife’s amazing pumpkin bread.
The final section into Penetanguishene contains perhaps the most fun to ride, albeit small, part of the entire journey, starting at the 1:12 mark of the video above.
Penetanguishene to Sainte-Marie among the Hurons – 72-85km
Perhaps my favourite part of the day with lots of variety, good food, and great sights to see.
The ride through Penetanguishene passed by Wendat park which led to the second big climb of the day up to the Mid-Pen Link Trail, another amazing section fun to ride trail.
I have to hand it to the City of Penetanguishene, they have invested in, and maintain some of the best trails I have seen.
After leaving the Mid-Pen Link Trail I was welcomed into downtown Midland with an amazing view of the largest outdoor historical painted mural in North America, the “Huron Native and Jesuit Priest at Sainte-Marie”. This 80×250 foot mural which is part of a larger mural walking tour.
A minute later I was in downtown Midland for another rest break, at the Grounded Coffee Company, where I enjoyed a fantastic cold brew nitro coffee, and a deliciously sweet oatmeal crumble bar, all while enjoying terrific views of the harbour.
I then headed over to the lighthouse mural for an iconic photo before heading back out.
A few minutes later as I was leaving Midland I passed by Sainte-Marie among the Hurons. I remember having great memories of being here on a grade school trip, many years ago, and what I could see of it didn’t disappoint. Although it’s closed for COVID, you can tell it’s well maintained and will definitely be worth taking my kids to when the world is in a better place.
Uhthoff Trail to Coldwater – 85-110km
Not too busy, well maintained, paved trail, that passes through Victoria Beach, Caswell’s Beach, Sturgeon Beach, and Waubaushene Beach. After the 400 the trail turns back into hardpack for the final 8km into Coldwater.
It was in Coldwater where I made my big mistake of the day. The plan all along was to hit Coldwater, about 2 hours out of Midland for a proper rest break, and a decent meal, at Em’s Cafe. What I wanted were sugar and caffeine, but unfortunately, it closed a half-hour prior to my 3:30 arrival.
There were a few chain options in town those didn’t interest me. I did consider eating at the Coldwater Grist Mill’s but ultimately decided that the fare would be too heavy for my needs.
With that, I decided I felt good enough, downed two more pieces of my wife’s pumpkin bread, and decided to push onto Orilla.
Uhtoff Trail – Coldwater to Orilla – 110-136km
I think I unfairly hated this section of the trail, not for the trail itself, but for a variety of reasons which I’ll explain below.
Although the trail was hard and fast. It was overgrown, with high grasses constantly brushing up against my legs, adding a bit of tick anxiety, to my already tired and hungry mental state.
When planning the trip, I was fearful that this section of the Simcoe County Loop Trail would be painful as it contains a gentle but persistent grade over its 26km.
As I started out, I was surprised to see that the grade didn’t exist and that I was instead presented with a slight downhill. Feeling fresh, I decided to take advantage of it while I could, to kick up the effort, and try to make good time into Orilla. That was a bad idea.
I remember hearing an analogy once about cycling, effort, and the importance of not overdoing it. This particular analogy focused on why you should use your easy gears with a high cadence, rather than muscling through your hard gears at a low cadence.
If I recall correctly, it went something like this. When you start out a day of cycling, your energy can be equated to something like a pack of matches. If you have a pack of matches, you can slowly burn one match at a time, maximizing your time and duration, all while producing a decent amount of heat. Now when you reach a big hill or a hard stretch, you may need to burn a few more matches. What’s important is to not overdo it and burn too many matches at once, because if you do, you will soon be finished.
I think it’s safe to say that I used all my matches on a 5km stretch, located about 10km out of Orilla, after that, I was done. The day went to hell, and life sucked. I didn’t even realize it was happening at the time, all I knew was in a mere matter of minutes I went from fantastic to garbage. I didn’t even realize I was tired, thirsty, or hungry. All I knew was I hated everything. I can’t say for certain but I can only imagine this is what bonking feels like.
I decided to push through the craziness Couchiching Beach, and the Mariposa Market, in Orilla. Instead, I ended up resting up at a gas station just before the Oro-Medonte Trail start in south Orilla, where I forced myself to down two Snickers, a Coca Cola, and a Gatorade.
Fifteen minutes later the sugar hit and I was back to normal.
Lesson learned when your tired and hungry you sometimes don’t even know it. It is critical to plan your food, hydration, and rest. If you don’t, you will bonk and not even know why.
The other discovery when arriving home was that there was no downhill after the 400. Instead, it truly was a consistent uphill grade, which presented as a false flat.
I’m sure that desire to maintain speed on the false downhill only added to the physical and mental exhaustion.
Oro-Medonte Rail Trail – Orilla to Barrie – 136-165km
Perhaps it was the rest, or the sugar, or knowing I was almost done. Whatever it was, this section of trail was a fantastic way to finish the day, where I also maintained my highest sustained speeds of the day.
For anyone who might be considering a smaller day trip, the Oro-Medonte Trail would make for an excellent out and back day trip from Barrie.
What I really like about this trail was the prevalent signage that provided some excellent history of the area. If I wasn’t in such a hurry, I would have read every one.
Although there were definitely a few low points on the Simcoe County Loop Trail, I’m happy to say that this ride was a cakewalk compared to last years ride home from the cottage.
Where that ride was done in by one 18km stretch of beach sand on the Haliburton Rail Trail. This ride countered with scenic, well maintained, rail trail, that was well worth the ride.
That’s not to say the day was perfect, there were definitely some mistakes, and lessons learned, but all in all, it was well worth the ride.
If you ever decide to ride the Simcoe County Loop Trail I would love to hear how it went.
Thanks for reading,