The VBN website has good information about activities in the area and fantastic pics and videos, but is a little lacking in practical info for first-time visitors. So I'm going to focus on a few things that should make a weekend trip to VBN a lot easier to figure out.
We drove from Ottawa which is about 5 hours west of St. Raymond. This meant getting past the traffic mess that is Montreal. Autoroute 50 through Gatineau and over the top of Montreal is an excellent way to bypass the mess. Highly recommended.
Where to stay
St. Raymond is the main town in the area and the most convenient base for riding. The VBN website lists several options (mostly B&Bs or small inns) and many of these are well suited to contain bikers. However, things book up fast on weekends. The best option seems to be the Hotel Roquemont on the edge of town, right at the trailhead of one of the two main trail networks in the area. It contains an information centre where you can buy trail passes and, more importantly, a very good brew-pub restaurant. Across the parking lot is a bike rental centre sponsored by Rocky Mountain where you can also buy spare parts, get your bike serviced, and change into riding clothes. There's lots of parking and a free bike wash. Even if you don't stay here, this is a good starting point for your first rides in the area.
We were unable to reserve accommodation in St. Raymond and ended up renting a house in a hamlet on Route 367 about 10 minutes northwest of town. It was spartan but clean and affordable, and included WiFi and a fully stocked kitchen and two fridges so we could cook our own meals. This is a great option for larger groups although it does mean driving for 20 minutes or so to reach the trails.
Below is the view from the patio of our rental house. Right behind the trees is a rails-to-trails path that appears to be part of the popular Route Verte network. Although we didn't explore this trail, we did see many road-oriented riders on it--especially on the section that passes through St. Raymond.
We were fortunate to have a local contact--the awesome Paul--who knew the trails intimately and directed us on a good exploration of the riding options. Here's the itinerary we followed for a 3-day long weekend. Refer to the official trail map (copies available at the information centre and online) for details.
Since we drove down in the morning, we only had half a day to ride. After getting lunch and passes at the Hotel Roquemont, we hit the trails of the St. Raymond sector right out of the hotel parking lot. These consisted of flowy, switchbacked routes over predominantly sandy ground through pine and hardwood forest backing onto a ski hill. Unfortunately it was pouring rain, but the excellent drainage of the soil meant that traction was good and mud minimal. Lots of roots in places and some fast, narrow downhills with tight corners, jumps, and whoops kept us both exhilarated and exhausted. This area makes a good warm-up and introduction to the area. We ended up riding a few sections several times before winding our way back to the parking lot, tuckered out from having to climb back up the ski hill several times on each loop.
For us, the real gem of the area is the trail network at Shannahan Sector. Compared to the rolling countryside around St. Raymond, the land at Shannahan rises dramatically into a glacial valleys with bare cliffs, steep hillsides, and dense mixed pine and hardwood forest. It looks a lot like parts of Alaska and really makes you feel like you've traveled somewhere special, far from home.
Considerable investment has gone into developing the welcome centre at the Shanahan trailhead. Here you'll find ample parking and access to myriad other activities, including kayaking and canoeing on the river nearby, and Via Ferrata on the cliff looming over the parking lot. The area is popular with families but not crowded. There's also the option here to rent a yurt for accommodation, complete with a hand-pulled cart to bring all your stuff into the woods.
We started with a few warm-up loops on the machine-built trails immediately after the suspension bridge (isn't that an awesome bridge!?). These roll over packed sandy soil and make a fine introduction to the flavour of the area.
Ranging further, we then hit the stunning Chute a Gilles (known locally as Chute de Gilles because of all the times Gilles crashed on it) which passes through a waterfall.
This led on to Grand Ourse and then Petite Ourse, where there's a great place to have lunch under the bridge. No mosquitoes!
The flagship trail here is La Neilson which we saved for the afternoon. It requires a 40 minute climb up a steep gravel fire road before dipping into the woods and following a magic carpet ride of downhill XC bliss over rocks and bridges. It's a tough workout both up and down, but the stunning scenery and breathtaking flow are absolutely worth the effort. However, you've got to be on your game: this is not an easy trail and pretty much everyone wiped out at some point. In my case it was a slow-speed high-side when I came across some riders stopped on the trail and lost my balance, falling down a slope and injuring my shoulder. This section of the trail is still under development and was simply not rideable in places, especially where there was deep mud. Fortunately there's a natural bike wash on the roadside where you exit the trail. The water was potable (and delicious!), and in our case it allowed our wheels to turn again.
Ending the day with a cold beer and dip in the river was heaven.
With everyone nursing aches and pains from the day before, we returned to Shannahan for a few hours of easy riding on the trails on the other side of the suspension bridge and to the far left. These are all textbook trails right out of the IMBA manual and lots of fun to play on. Then it was another wash in the river and time to head home.
The riding was perfect for a 29er on the more enduro end of the XC spectrum. Given all the climbing required, you will appreciate a light bike. The trails are bumpy but nothing that 4-5" of travel can't eat up. Tires like the Nobby Nic are perfect in wet conditions; a hardpack tire would be fine in drier conditions, but beware that the sand will also loosen up and require knobs. It is essential to bring chain lube and use it often--especially in wet conditions.
I was running a 32T single front ring with a standard 10-speed MTB cassette and would've appreciated having a 30T on the front to make climbing when tired a little easier. Compared to riding around Ottawa or even Kingdom Trails, I found I used the lower end of my gearing a lot more (and for longer) at VBN.
VBN is a great alternative to Kingdom Trails for Canadian riders stung by our lousy exchange rate. The St. Raymond area also has much to offer in terms of accommodation and restaurants, road riding, canoeing, and climbing. It was also tremendously popular for motorcycle touring. The people are friendly and helpful, and there was a cheery vibe especially at Shannahan. I'll be heading back next season for sure.