Cycling the Véloroute des Bleuets in Québec – Part Four: Riding the Véloroute du Fjord du Saguenay

If you are going to make the effort to travel all the way up to Lac Saint-Jean to ride the Véloroute des Bleuets (as detailed in the first, second, and third articles in this four-part series) it probably makes sense to also ride the adjacent bike route system known as the Véloroute du Fjord du Saguenay.  This beautiful bike route is connected to the Véloroute des Bleuets by the Véloroute de Horst de Kénogami. Logistically, it also provides an opportunity to connect with a scenic railroad (that carries bikes) so that you can get back to Quebec City where connections are easier to get back home.

While the entire Véloroute encircles the fjord with a number of side routes to various towns or parks, most riders probably do not ride the entire thing. For example, most of the route is nowhere near the actual fjord (which would be difficult to ride along anyway due its steepness). In order to actually see the fjord, you would have to go sharply downhill from the route to the fjord’s various access points (and then go back up again). To remedy this, a ferry service is offered that travels the entire length of the fjord.  So after studying the map, I determined that I would use the ferry for a portion of the distance. My plan also involved riding on the route only on one side, instead of making the complete circle. I didn’t have enough time to do the whole circuit, plus I needed to get to La Malbaie where I could catch the scenic railroad to Quebec City. The southern half of the route took me to Saint-Siméon, within 33 km of La Malbaie.

A full map of the Véloroute du Fjord du Saguenay can be found in the guidebook for the Véloroute des Bleuets on page 2. As we discovered in riding around Lac Saint-Jean, the map shows routes colored green, yellow and red.  Green means off-road bike paths. Yellow means riding along roads, or bike paths with hills. But once you cross over to the Véloroute du Fjord du Saguenay, you are dealing with lots of red. Red means you are riding on roads…with hills.  Steep, long hills.

Signs direct you to the Véloroute de Horst de Kénogami towards Saguenay.

When we left off in Part 3, I had just had a relaxing swim at a beautiful beach in Métabetchouan-Lac-à-la-Croix  where I was serenaded by a guitar strumming musician at a beachfront restaurant. I changed back into my cycling clothes and off I went on the Véloroute de Horst de Kénogami, riding 18 km to Hébertville where I knew there would be a municipal campground by a lake. The guidebook indicated that there were few restaurants near the campground, so I resolved to stop at the supermarket in Hébertville to buy food for the next day and also check out one of their two restaurants for dinner. 

The first segment of the Véloroute de Horst de Kénogami was marked red, and it did not disappoint. There was plenty of uphill as I headed away from the lake and towards the foothills of the Laurentian Mountains. But the views from the road were spectacular and the hills were worth the effort. Finally, I arrived in Hébertville and I searched around for the tw0 restaurants. I picked the one that was not associated with a gas station, called Chez Charly, a casse-croûte on the edge of town. If you are familiar with Where’s Waldo books, this restaurant was dedicated to the French version “Où Est Charlie” and there were pictures of Waldo (or Charlie) everywhere. The food was very good, and the service was super friendly.

Beautiful scenes of farms and mountains await you on the Véloroute de Horst de Kénogami.

When I arrived at the municipal campground in Hébertville, it was in a beautiful spot along a lake. But since it was after 6 p.m., the office was closed.  I had no idea what to do. So I found a really nice campsite right on the lake and I set up my tent, hoping nobody else had reserved it for the evening. Lakefront camping sites seemed to be popular with other cyclists.  I saw two families who were bike touring set up here with their tents. I tried going for a swim in the lake, but it was super shallow. So I gave up on swimming and just sat on the dock and read a book.

The next morning the campground office was open, so I paid for my site and took off. I would need to make it across the foothills to get to the City of Saguenay, which is the hub of the entire Lac Saint-Jean and Fjord du Saguenay region. The following day I would catch the ferry and cruise the fjord part way with my bike. So I ate the breakfast I bought the night before and I got going.

Saguenay Bike Route 1

The City of Saguenay has a robust bike path network, often taking you right along the river, which eventually flows into the Saguenay Fjord.

After a lot of on-road riding through the higher altitudes of the Véloroute de Horst de Kénogami, I descended into the City of Saguenay which was a city much larger than I had anticipated. Saguenay was made up of three sectors: the Jonquière District (the final destination of the train I took in Part 3), the Chicoutimi District and La Baie District.  Each district was connected via a robust urban bike route network that took me right through the industrial hub of the city: a giant aluminum smelter that was the major source of employment in the region.

Saguenay was the main stop for big city conveniences on this ride.  They had ATMs for every bank. Plus there was an awesome chocolate shop that sold ice cream, candies….and erotic shaped chocolates. While I passed on the chocolate, I enjoyed my ice cream in a river front park next to a fountain (made of aluminum) that featured porpoises joyously playing. I would later learn that this fountain was constructed to commemorate the loss of the porpoises…due to a government program many years ago that incentivized their slaughter out of fear they were endangering the cod industry. Well, that sucks!

Porpoise fountain Saguenay

This lovely fountain of porpoises and whales is the centerpiece of a vibrant waterfront plaza in the Chicoutimi sector of Saguenay.

After 84 km of riding, I ended in La Baie district of Saguenay. Misplaced signs again had me riding on a high traffic road I was not supposed to be on. But it was OK, once I got to La Baie and I saw the beauty of the Baie de Ha! Ha!, I no longer cared. The Fjord du Saguenay was beautiful.  I sat there and I watched the giant bauxite ships come in with the ore that was destined for the aluminum smelter I had ridden past earlier. Then I bought some groceries and I headed to a super nice campground called Camping Au Jardin de Mon Père. (Camping in the garden of my father). Listed as the “only 5-star campground in Saguenay-Lac- Saint-Jean” I was curious to see what it would be like.

Saguenay Campground

A special area marked “Bienvenue Cyclistes!” was reserved just for bikes at the Campground Au Jardin de Mon Père.

This campground was seriously nice.  It had a pool, a restaurant, a store and a number of sites right along the one of the rivers that fed the bay. I stretched out and sat on a bench along the river enjoying the soothing sound of the rushing water….and then a loud freight train horn blared as a train passed on the other side of the river carrying bauxite from the bay to the smelter.  Well, I guess it was good my campsite was not on the river! I went to the pool, had dinner at the restaurant and called it a night. 

The next morning I headed out early, back to the dock on the Baie de Ha! Ha! to catch the ferry.  I was really excited to catch this ferry because it would be the best way to see the fjord. Also, it would mean not having to ride up and down a number of serious hills. 

A delightful passenger ferry is the best way to see the Fjord du Saguenay. It will also save you from having to bike up some serious hills.

Because I was unsure about capacity on the ferry, I went through the effort of reserving a ferry ticket in advance. The ferry schedule was confusing. When I looked it up online I had a tough time figuring out the route of the ferry, and how it would take me down the fjord to a place where I could start riding again. So after a lot of research I pre-bought a ticket from La Baie to L’Anse-Saint-Jean, figuring that after I took the ferry ride, I would have the entire afternoon and evening to ride from L’Anse-Saint-Jean to Saint-Siméon where there was another campground.

The flag of the Saguenay region flies next to the Canadian flag almost everywhere.

It turned out I did not have to worry about overbooking.  I was the lone passenger on the ferry for the first part of the ride. So I had the boat to myself for about an hour. I got to ask the tour guide lots of questions about Saguenay and the fjord. The story of the region was best summed up by the flag I had been seeing throughout my journey. The bottom half of the flag was yellow for agriculture.  The top half of the flag was green, for forestry. The flag was divided into quadrants by a silver cross, which stood for aluminum. The cross was outlined in red, for the blood of the people. The tour guide also told me that the region had been doing a lot to try to attract cruise ships to the fjord. The ferry dock that we left in La Baie was improved with government subsidies to meet cruise ship standards. Now about 60 cruise ships arrive every fall, when the foliage is exploding with color. 

Saint-Rose-du-Nord

Sainte-Rose-du-Nord is a speck of a town in a very lovely setting along the fjord.

As the ferry moved east through the fjord, we stopped in the lovely town of Sainte-Rose-du-Nord and then later at a dock within the Parc National du Fjord-du-Sagueney, where we saw rock climbers scaling the fjord’s walls. They waved to us right before we passed a statue of the Virgin Mary on top of the bluffs overlooking the fjord. The boat stopped to play Ave Maria in gratitude to the Blessed Mother who watches over the boats in the fjord.

Can you spot the rock climbers? They are tiny specks on this huge rock face. It will take them 3 days to do the climb!

Afterwards we headed to our next port,  L’Anse-Saint-Jean. When the boat arrived, we were greeted by live music at the dock as the boat unloaded.  All of the other passengers would have a 2 hour break in L’Anse Saint-Jean to get lunch before getting back on the boat.  But I had different plans. I would need to ride a grueling 78 km with 917 m of vertical elevation gain to make it to Saint-Siméon.  There were very few services in between where I was and where I needed to go, so I had to get moving.  I called ahead to make sure I had a campsite reserved for me. Also, I verified that there would be a restaurant in Saint-Siméon  to get dinner when I arrived.

L’Anse-Saint-Jean has a covered bridge in the center of town.

Heading out of  L’Anse-Saint-Jean the ride was no joke.  There were hills I needed to conquer. But at the same time, the scenery was spectacular, and the road was quiet. I stopped in the small town of Petit-Saguenay to buy a late lunch and groceries at a convenience store.  To my surprise, there was a roadside artisanal bakery in town, so I stopped inside and bought one of the pastries they still had left. It was amazing and it gave me energy for the next set of hills.

More of the typical farm and mountain scenery you will see from the road.

Back on the bike, I still had 55 km to go with  635 more meters more of climbing. So that pastry went a long way. Finally, I arrived at Saint-Siméon around dinner time.  There was a great restaurant right in town. I ate dinner and then headed to a campground that was built right into the steep cliffs of the Saint Lawrence River. Once again, I enjoyed the campground pool and I lulled myself to sleep.  The next morning, I checked out the observation deck at the campground to see if I could catch any whales frolicking in the Saint Lawrence (no luck).

Get ready for hills!

For the final day of my ride, I needed to go 33 km from Saint-Siméon to La Malbaie to catch a scenic railroad to Quebec City.  Riding along the Saint Lawrence River how hard could it be? Hard. Harder than I ever imagined. This was way tougher than any riding I ever experienced in the Hudson Valley.  Imagine screaming down the steepest and longest of hills….only you have to go back up an equivalent level or steepness and length on the opposite side with logging trucks zooming past you. It was absolutely brutal. But at the same time, the scenery was beautiful, so that was a nice distraction.  As I descended into la Malbaie, its valley looked like a soup bowl, filled with low hanging clouds. This was the hub of the Charlevoix region, and I would meet the Train de Charlevoix and experience its scenic journey as it took me south to Quebec City where I would meet my family.

La Malbaie

I was riding above the clouds until I got to La Malbaie where fog had settled into its narrow valley.

I rode through La Malbaie, a quaint town along the Saint Lawrence River, and I had time to get lunch before boarding the train. But once on the train (since I was still hungry) I was able to order great food and beer from the Charlevoix region, which made this super scenic train ride even more enjoyable.

The Train de Charlevoix was a beautiful ride to Quebec City. It went right along the Saint Lawrence River.

The train ride was relaxing, but it required a transfer at Baie Saint-Paul where both the northbound and southbound passengers all had to switch trains to continue the journey.  I ordered a second round of local refreshments, and by 6 p.m. the train had pulled into a station right next to Montmorency Falls. The ride was over. It was time to enjoy Quebec City with my family for a few days before driving back home to New York.

Train de Charlevoix 2

The train dropped me off right next to Montmorency Falls. My weeklong bike tour had just come to an end.

Want to see the other articles in this series?  Check out:

Part One – A beautiful cycling route that is challenging to get to!

Part Two – Biking to Montreal from Burlington, Vermont – A Great 2-Day Ride!

Part Three – Riding Around Lac Saint-Jean

Cycling the Véloroute des Bleuets in Québec – Part Three: Riding Around Lac Saint-Jean

If you have been following along with the first and second article in this four-part series, you already know that a great bicycle adventure awaits on the Véloroute des Bleuets…but getting there can be complicated. But at this point in our story I am already in Montreal, ready to take an 8 hour train ride to Chambord, which is known as the “gateway to Lac Saint-Jean”. When I arrived there, the plan was to spend 3 days riding around Lac Saint-Jean, and then 3 more days riding the Véloroute du Fjord du Saguenay to get to another train which would take me to Quebec City. 

(If you want to follow along on a map, click here to download official guidebook and follow along on the map on page 2)

Despite being  long, the train ride is pretty straightforward. The ticket was also inexpensive, costing me only about $60 Canadian to transport both myself and my bicycle, thanks to generous government subsidies to get more tourists to the Lac Saint-Jean and Saguenay region. 

A number of cyclists took this train to Chambord, a great launching point for the Véloroute des Bleuets

While the train was scheduled to leave Montreal at 8:15, the VIA Rail Canada agents I spoke with on the phone prior to the trip told me to get there at least an hour early because my bike would need to be loaded into the baggage car, and could potentially need to be put in a box if the train was carrying a lot of freight.  Not wanting to mess around, I got up early and rode my bike to Montreal’s central train station to check in. There were about 7 other cyclists who showed up the same time as me, which was encouraging. All of us were told to remove the paniers and other bags from our bikes, which we had to carry onto the train to our seat.  Then we handed the bikes to the agent at the baggage desk and – fingers crossed – our bikes would be on the train. 

This whole process took about 20 minutes, so I still had 40 minutes left to get breakfast. You will want to do this before you get on the train.  You will also want to go to a store (perhaps the day before) and buy yourself lunch. The food on the train looked pretty awful. Plus, when the train pulled into Chambord that afternoon at 4:30, I wanted to be ready to ride. I didn’t want to have to stop first and eat. 

When the train departs, you realize that this will be an unhurried affair.  First, they made us line up the train gate when the departure announcement was made.  Then we all stood there for at least 20 minutes, holding our bags for apparently no reason. Finally, they sent us down to the train, which was actually two trains linked together.  Each train had an engine, a luggage car and a passenger coach. I found out that about halfway through the ride, they would separate the train, sending the other half to the remote town of Senneterre, while my half would go to Jonquière.

The train takes you through some very remote areas, where you make some unusual stops. A canoeing group got on at a whistle stop next to a raging river.

The train conductor and staff were super friendly, which was good, since you would see these people all day. The conductor made his way up and down the car chatting with everyone, getting to know us as we settled in for the long trip. The train ride was fantastic, but long. After passing through suburban Montreal and surrounding farmland, we were soon in the wilderness, making stops at teeny-tiny stations. Some places were logging towns. Others were remote wilderness resorts with few roads, where the train was the primary access. To my surprise, people were constantly getting on and off of the train at these little whistle stops, with all kinds of baggage, including canoes and cases of beer, all of which were loaded into the baggage car with the bikes. 

Finally, the train made it to the other side of the wilderness and Chambord was the first stop, right near the lake.  Most of the other cyclists got off here, and we all reassembled our bikes right at the station. Right in the parking lot was a directional sign for the Véloroute des Bleuets. So I just followed the signs, and I was on my way.

A couple of blocks away from the train station is the bike path. You have arrived!

When I got on the bike, I had no idea what to expect or what I would see.  So I was amazed at how clearly the Véloroute was marked. Rolling through Chambord, there were signs and lane markings everywhere. And as I left town, I soon found myself on a beautiful bike path in between the road and Lac Saint-Jean. I had no idea it was going to be this nice!

With only a few hours of daylight, after consulting the comprehensive guide of the route,  I decided I would ride to Val-Jalbert, which was described as a “ghost town” historic site that also has camping and a restaurant. The detailed maps in the printed route guide made it very easy to plan my afternoon (and the subsequent days).  The route around the lake has mileposts noting kilometers running clockwise (Chambord is at KM 102). The route is also color coded, with green meaning bike paths and yellow meaning on-road riding. Val-Jalbert was only 9 KM away, so I could do a small warm-up ride, lay out my tent, have a nice dinner and check out some local history. 

However, once I arrived at Val-Jalbert,I realized there were a couple of key details the guide left out. While the campground was beautiful with a pool and great facilities, Val-Jalbert turned out to be more of a super-commerciallized, touristy outdoor museum than a ghost town. Their restaurant turned out to be this involved affair that required reservations, often paired with a room booking. Anything related to the historic site was locked behind gates (which closed at 6), requiring you to pay a $30 admission.  This was clearly something that you would go to and spend an entire day (and night) at and it’s completely useless for people just passing through at the end of the day. It would have been nice to know this beforehand, since I could have potentially planned more time to visit it. And of course, now I had no place to eat dinner. Thankfully I overindulged on paté on the train and I wasn’t super hungry.  So I bought 2 pre-packaged egg salad sandwiches out of the campground store, went to the pool, saw a rainbow, and called it a night. Still not so bad, I guess.

The only part of the Val-Jalbert “ghost town” you can see for free. But it’s a lovely hike from the campground.

The next morning, I availed myself of the campground’s hiking trail and I hiked up the Ouiatchouan River, on the opposite bank from the historic park.  A massive waterfall awaited me at the end. At least I got to see something! After eating an energy bar (for lack of other options) I rode 7 KM on a glorious bike path to Roberval, the next big town along the lake. This town had a wide range of services, so getting a late breakfast was easy. At that point, given the nice weather, I decided to try to make it to Albanel, 67 KM away. Albanel had a municipal campground and a restaurant. It was also at the junction of a secondary bike route, called Au Fil des Rivières, which was a loop promising waterfalls and blueberry fields. If I stayed in Albanel, depending on how I was feeling, I could ride this loop in the evening, or early the next day. 

Fuel for the road!

Once I started riding, I took my time, taking in sweeping views of both farms and lake. As the guidebook promised, I passed by a farm that was in the middle of harvesting raspberries. I got a huge basket for only $6. They must have been picked that day, they were so fresh! Further on down the road, the guidebook alerted me to an organic, artisanal fromagerie, Bouchard Artisian Bio  – a farm owned by the same family for five generations. After tasting all of the amazing cheddar, I bought a brick of it along with a bag curds. All I needed was some bread from a store and this would be lunch and snacks all day.

One of many fromageries you will pass.

By late afternoon, I had reached Albanel. Since it was my first full day (and the campground had a pool!) I decided to save the Au Fil des Rivières side loop for the next day and instead enjoy the sunset with a beer after unwinding in the pool. In Albanel, very few people spoke English, so I had to rely on my high-school French from decades ago. So after arranging for my campsite in my horrible French, I headed over to the local blueberry museum, which is a must-see if you are ever in Albanel. They sell slushies made with local blueberries, which are unbelievably refreshing after a day of riding. 

One of several blueberry exhibits you will pass.

Albanel only had one restaurant, a casse-croûte (a type of restaurant featuring poutines, hamburgers, etc.) that also had pizza. So the dining choices were limited. Fortunately, the town also had a supermarket, so I was able to buy food for the next day as well.  At this point, I was finding it advantageous to keep stocking my panniers with fresh, yet durable, foods that I could snack on all day, and that could also serve as a meal if I needed it to. So this meant buying a lot of breads, local cheeses, cheese curds and fruit. And speaking of fruit…sometimes I could just pick it myself. 

I got an early start and resolved to do the the 44 km Au Fil des Rivières side loop before pressing on along the rest of the Véloroute des Bleuets.  Being a loop, I left my camping gear and a pannier at my campsite while I did the ride to make my bike lighter. I cruised down a road that was long and straight, yet it rolled up and down with a topography that changed. I reached the super small town of Girardville where there was a general store that sold pastries baked on the premises. I could see the huge baking room behind the register. I bought a huge raspberry pastry packed in a styrofoam tray wrapped in shrink wrap. I bought coffee out of a machine and I had a great mid-ride breakfast. I stashed the remaining 80% of the pastry in a pannier and took off for the ride back to Albanel, on an off-road path that went through endless blueberry fields and along a series of waterfalls. It was here that I stopped several times for snacks of blueberries that I simply picked myself.

You can see (and taste) endless blueberry fields along the Au Fil des Rivières bike path.

Back in Albanel it was time to get serious about the day’s ride. Because I had reserved a waterfront campsite at Pointe-Taillon National Park  I needed to ride 55 km to Péribonka to catch a ferry to the park. The last ferry was at 6 p.m. and, if I missed it, it would add 30 more km of riding for the day.  Since I had already ridden 44 km, I was motivated!

Having studied the maps in the guide, and checking what was ahead in each town by using Google Maps, I was able to determine that I could get everything I needed in Péribonka for dinner and a camping breakfast. So I got on my way, riding through more beautiful landscapes, on a combination of clearly signed, bike paths and on-street bike routes.  However, I began to notice that in some of the larger towns, the wayfinding breaks down due to missing (or confusing) signs or pavement markings that have eroded away. As a result, I occasionally found myself riding on high-traffic roads that were stressful to ride since I had strayed from the route. It was frustrating since on my 6-day trip, this kind of situation happened about once per day.

When the Véloroute shares a roadway, this is what it typically looks like.

I trucked on to Péribonka fearful that if I was on the last ferry of the day, it could be full, since the guidebook stated it only had room for 12 bikes.  I had seen a lot of cyclists riding that day, so who knows how many more people are taking this ferry? Péribonka had a nice restaurant facing the lake. When I arrived there, I checked with the ferry operator to see what my options were. The 5 p.m. ferry was waiting….with nobody on it.  The 6 p.m. was likely to be just as empty. So I had an hour to eat dinner and shop for supplies at the only store in town, a convenience store near the ferry dock. 

At 6, I was the lone passenger on the ferry. So I chatted with the captain as he brought me across. I was now in Pointe-Taillon National Park, which is not really a national park. (Quebec calls its provincial parks “national parks”). But it didn’t matter – the place was amazing! I continued along a bike path that went through forests, wetlands and dunes. I scanned the horizon for wildlife until the path went next to the lake with a series of beautiful sand beaches along it.  I found one overlooked by a bench, with a safe accessway down to the water. So I stopped, changed into a suit and went for a swim as the sun began to sink in the sky. It was so refreshing after more than 100 km of riding!

Back on the bike, I rode the final few km to my campsite. The site was wooded, but with a view of the lake and easy lake access.  After setting up my tent, I went for another swim as the sun set. I watched a huge orange moon rise over the lake, and then I went to bed.

This quiet beach at Pointe-Taillon National Park offered the opportunity for a refreshing swim near the end of the day’s ride.

The next morning, I took down my tent, left my bags at the site and rode around the park’s bike paths to see more of the natural areas. I was not disappointed by a wildlife sighting of two large birds running across the path. It was worth the extra riding to see. I also checked out some of the other campsites in the park. Some of them were right on the sand by the water. Others were larger, for bigger groups. But all were the same in the sense that you could only bike or hike to all of these sites.  No cars allowed!

On my final day around Lac Saint-Jean, I would need to ride at least 86 km to Métabetchouan-Lac-à-la-Croix. That was a sizable town that had restaurants and motels. If I wanted to go further, I could press on 18 km more to Hébertville where I could camp. I would decide when I got there. 

The ride that day was busy, since I passed through the City of Alma, the largest municipality along the lake, positioned on an island between the Grande-Décharge River and the Petite-Décharge River.  It was here that I began to see (and ride across) a number of hydroelectric dams that were associated with the rivers, both of which confluenced into the Saguenay River, the main river of the region which flowed between Lac Saint-Jean and the Saint Lawrence River.

Riding around Lac Saint-Jean you cross many streams and rivers, often with waterfalls and rapids. Some falls have the remnants of mills that once harnessed the water power.

I was able to skip the main part of the City (and shave off a few miles) by taking another delightful bike ferry across the river. Once again I was the only passenger.  After Alma, it was back riding along the picturesque lake all the way to Métabetchouan-Lac-à-la-Croix where I needed to decide my final plans for the day. But good fortune allowed me to consider this decision on a sandy beach with changing rooms, a restaurant and live music. I changed, took a relaxing swim, and listened to the music while I contemplated that I had enough daylight to push on to Hébertville.  I would leave the shores of Lac Saint-Jean at this point and head west along the Horst de Kénogami bike route. This would be a 72 km long, mostly on-road bike route that would no longer be flat. Instead I would go over some more serious hills on my way to the regional capital of Saguenay where I would experience the Fjord du Saguenay.  I’ll tell you all about this in the fourth and final installment of this series. 

At the end of the day, I rode my last 18 km on the Horst de Kénogami bike route to Hébertville. I camped right along the lake in the distance.

Biking to Montreal from Burlington, Vermont – A Great 2-Day Ride!

(Part two of our series on the Véloroute des Bleuets in Quebec)

If you read our last blog article about cycling the Véloroute des Bleuets you will have gotten a sense of just how complicated it is to get to this beautiful cycling route from New York City. If you are relying on a flight to get you (and your bike) to Montreal, everything falls apart if that flight is cancelled or substantially delayed. So why even bother with the flight, when you can just drive to Burlington, Vermont and do a relaxing 2-day ride to get to Montreal, with about 50 miles of riding each day?  It’s the perfect “warm-up” ride for doing the Véloroute des Bleuets because it’s relatively flat. Plus, the time it takes you to drive to Burlington from NYC pretty much cancels out the time it takes you to pack up your bike in a box, get to the airport, wait for your flight, etc. Why put yourself through this stress when (if you have the time) you can just do a great 2-day bike ride?

Burlington is the perfect place to begin a ride like this. As Vermont’s largest city, there are many services, restaurants and places to stay before you start your ride. I was able to rent a pick-up truck at a bargain price from a local Enterprise Rent-a-Car near me and I paid $50 extra to drop it off at their location in South Burlington. When I arrived, it took me 10 minutes to return the truck, set up my bike, use the bathroom….and then I was off!  Burlington’s waterfront bike path was only a half-mile away!

The Island Line trail runs between the lake and the train, and is clearly signed.

If you enjoy urban waterfront bike paths, Burlington’s 14-mile long Island Line Trail is one of the best. Well maintained with clear signage, it takes you right along the shore of Lake Champlain, in between the water and the tracks for the Vermont Railway. Restaurants, stores and bike shops line the bike path on the city-side as you approach downtown. Then, after passing through beautiful parkland (with a swimming beach right on the trail) the trail crosses the Winooski River and reaches a long, spectacular causeway that goes out into the center of Lake Champlain, taking  you to South Hero Island. But before you get to the island, you have to cross a 200-foot gap in the causeway. Fortunately a local non-profit called Local Motion operates a bike ferry to close this gap. It’s smooth sailing to South Hero Island. 

Once you are off the causeway, it’s back to road riding. But riding across South Hero Island and North Hero Island is fantastic, with scenic low-traffic back roads that you can enjoy. At some points you will need to ride on US Route 2, but that road isn’t super busy or scary. The main concern at this point will be making sure you know where you are staying the night and know where you can get lunch and/or dinner. It’s at least 32 miles to get from the end of the causeway to the Canadian border. Since stores, restaurants and accommodations are rather spread out, you will want to plan out where you will stay (and where you will eat beforehand).  One place that you will need to pass by (since the island is narrow in this location and you can only ride on Route 2) is Hero’s Welcome general store. They make great sandwiches. Stop here if it’s lunchtime!

The border town of Alburg, Vermont is about halfway between Burlington and Montreal.  So if you are doing this ride over 2 days, you will need to decide if you want to spend the night in Canada or the USA. If you are looking for a B&B or an Inn, you can find a few of these on the Vermont side if you want to ride a little less than half the distance on the first day.  For a motel, your best bet is to cross over into New York (via ferry or bridge) where a motel is available in the border town of Rouses Point. There is also a hotel in the Quebec town of Blackpool, but it’s next to a big highway.

Alburg, VT has a smaller border crossing that’s easy for bikes.

If you are looking to camp, a great option is Sleepy Hollow Campground in Noyan, Quebec. Staying here allows you to go through a very quiet border crossing between Alburg and Noyan.  The roads on the Quebec side are absolutely delightful, with wide farm vistas leading down to the Richelieu River. It’s about 5 miles from the border crossing to the campground. All of it on beautiful riding on roads with hardly any cars. 

The roads between the border and the campground look like this.

The campground is a real gem – with its own beach right on the river and boats you can rent to go out on the water.  They have a restaurant that’s open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, so you do not need to worry about where you will eat. However, the campground is cash only and you’ll need to ride 2.5 miles (each way) to get to an ATM (and the nearest store if you need to buy anything).  But the ride into town is flat, easy, and goes over a beautiful bridge. 

Sunset at Sleepy Hollow Campground

No matter where you spend the night, the second day of riding is almost as nice as the first. From the campground in Noyan, it’s about 50 miles to downtown Montreal. (It’s a little less from the hotels along the highway, a little more if you stayed the night in Vermont).  The terrain is mostly flat as you head through the farms and suburban areas of southern Quebec. And there are plenty of great bike paths you can take so that you don’t have to ride with cars.  

The first bike path you ride in Quebec is super quiet

The first bike path is a 16-mile long rail trail that is flat and straight between Lacolle and Sainte-Clothilde-de-Chateauguay. If you ride in the summer, the quiet nature of this trail allows it to be filled with grasshoppers (who jump out of your way as you ride through) and butterflies (who flutter past).  After the path it’s a couple of miles on quiet farm roads, and then its back on another 6.5-mile bike path that runs alongside one of the major arterials into Montreal. The trail also runs alongside a huge wind-farm.

Quiet roads next to fields of wheat connect the bike paths

After this bike path, you only have to ride about 4 miles on another quiet road, once again next to farms, until you get to the suburban municipality of Saint-Constant and the bike paths start up again.  It is here that you’ll get a real appreciation for just how much focus has been put on bicycle paths in the Montreal metro area, particularly with new residential developments. It’s 11 miles to Montreal…and it’s bike paths the whole way.  The last few miles are the most spectacular as you ride along the Saint Lawrence River…and cross it on a bikes-only bridge that goes directly to Nun’s Island, one of the smaller islands next to the larger Ile de Montreal. It’s here that the City of Montreal’s excellent bike route network begins, which can take you anywhere you want to go in the city. 

The suburban bike network in Saint-Constant is unlike anything you would see in most American suburbs

Montreal is a great destination for cyclists looking to ride around a city for a couple of days. In my case, it would just be a stop-over before catching a train the next morning to Chambord to access the Véloroute des Bleuets. So I stayed at the very bike-friendly Hostelling International Montreal which has a bike storage area and is only a few blocks away from Montreal’s central train station. 

A bridge for bikes only takes you into Montreal

 Check out the first blog article in this series to learn more about getting to and riding the the Véloroute des Bleuets.

Check out the third article in this series to find out what happens next. 

Cycling the Véloroute des Bleuets in Québec – Part One: A beautiful cycling route that is challenging to get to!

 

A typical view on the Veloroute des Bleuets

A typical view on the Véloroute des Bleuets.

The Véloroute des Bleuets- or the blueberry route – conjures up an enticing image for most touring cyclists. A circular route that goes around a beautiful lake in the northern wilds of Quebec with endless fields of blueberries. Quebec has long been known as one of the premier cycling destinations in North America, thanks to its comprehensive bicycle route system known as the Route Verte. But this spectacular route has remained relatively unknown to most American cyclists until recently when the Quebec tourism agency stepped up its efforts to promote it in cycling magazines and at travel shows here in America.

While the main Véloroute des Bleuets circles Lac Saint-Jean, the lake also feeds the Saguenay River, which becomes a beautiful fjord as it flows towards the Saint Lawrence River. And of course another cycling route –  the Véloroute du Fjord du Saguenay – goes along both sides of the fjord and connects to the Véloroute des Bleuets. When you combine both systems, you get an expansive network of more than 700 km of cycling routes ranging from off-road pathways to on-street bike routes. 

The Véloroute des Bleuets and the Véloroute du Fjord du Saguenay encircle Lac Saint-Jean and the Saguenay fjord in northern Quebec. This remote, yet populated, region is well north of Quebec City, at a latitude just north of the northern end of Maine. It is a substantial distance from New York City.

In addition to being a spectacular bike ride, you’d be hard-pressed to find another region in North America that is more set up for bicycle tourism than the Lac Saint-Jean/Saguenay region of Quebec. Every two years they produce a comprehensive guide in both English and French that details every aspect of both routes including the locations of all accommodations, services, transportation and points of interest. With this guide, you can plan out every aspect of your trip. 

But the guide also allows you to leave some aspects of your tour unplanned, since the plethora of information contained in it lets you know your options with each town you ride through. 

The map and guidebook for the Véloroute des Bleuets and the Véloroute du Fjord du Saguenay shows every town you will pass through and the type of bicycle facility you will ride. Green means paved, flat bike paths. Yellow means dirt bike paths or riding on a road. Red means riding on a road with hills. The guide gives so much information, it is almost overwhelming.

When I did this tour, I felt I only needed to book one accommodation in advance – a lakefront campsite at Pointe Taillon National Park – since those appeared to be in high demand. For all other accommodations, I had confidence that armed with this guide, I would find a place each night to rest my head. My plan was to camp each night if the weather was good. If not, I’d get a room at a hotel or motel.  There were so many options in the guide, I figured it would not be an issue. So many accommodations were listed as “Bienvenue Cyclistes!” accommodations, meaning they were certified as bike friendly. I would figure it out as I went along. There are also trip planning services that will book your accommodations for you and carry your gear. But you will have to start and end your ride in the City of Alma and you will have to follow a particular itinerary and stay in certain places.

While this all seems easy and straightforward at first, you must first tackle the challenge of figuring out how you will get to such a remote region, especially if you intend to ride your own bicycle. When I met the friendly Quebec tourism folks at the 2019 Bike Expo New York, I asked them about it.  How do I get there? They didn’t really have a good answer other than to drive the approximately 650 miles between New York City and Lac Saint-Jean and park in one of the designated parking areas for the route (of which there are several). But doing this has a number of disadvantages. First, it would lock me in to starting and ending the ride at the same spot, which wasn’t going to work for me since I wanted to do both the Véloroute des Bleuets and the Véloroute du Fjord. It was too complicated to do both without backtracking a substantial distance to get back to the car, which would also add days to the trip which I did not have (I only had a week).  While Equinox Adventures offered a 6-day tour out of Alma that did both the lake and the fjord where I could also get bag carrying services, this was only available for private groups of 4 or more, and I didn’t have 3 other friends to bring with me. Plus, since I am a New Yorker who doesn’t own a car, what am I supposed to do, rent a car to just have it sit in a parking lot for a week?

Fortunately, there was another way, but it involved stitching together a number of bike-friendly train and ferry services. I liked the route offered by Equinox Adventures – a six day itinerary where 3 days are spent going around Lac Saint-Jean, one day is spent riding between the lake and the fjord, one day is spent on the fjord, and the last day to get back to Alma by shuttle. But in my case, instead of getting back to a car parked in Alma, I would go to Quebec City instead by train. There I would meet my wife and son and they would drive me home.  But even if they could not do this, there are ways to get home from Quebec City with a bike using Via Rail to Montreal and then taking it from there (and that’s a story for another day). 

So to set this up, even though this route is highly amenitized once I get up there, it would take an enormous amount  of planning. How do I get up there? How do I make sure I can get back? What if something goes wrong and I miss a connection?  This was the first part of the adventure.

The train from Montreal to Chambord is actually two trains stuck together. They separate halfway and go to different towns. Each half of the train is an engine, a passenger car and a baggage car. So you really get to know the other passengers and crew during your 8 hour journey!

The plan I hatched was to fly from LaGuardia to Montreal on American Airlines.  American now allows bikes that are packed into boxes as checked baggage with just the standard baggage fees (or no fee if you have an American Airlines credit card). So this would be great.  I would fly to Montreal with my bike in a box and unpack and assemble my bike at the Montreal airport using one of their handy bike stations. Then I would ride my bike to downtown (on a great bike path!) and stay overnight at the bike-friendly Hosteling International hostel near Montreal’s central train station. The next morning I would just ride a few blocks to the station and get on an 8-hour train ride to Chambord,

There is a vast wilderness between Montreal and Lac Saint-Jean, and the train goes right through it. It takes 8 hours, and you stop at many train stations like these – mere huts in the middle of the woods. It’s a unique experience you’ll find only in Quebec!

which is right on Lac Saint-Jean. This train ride is long, but the ticket is very cheap ($60 CAD) and the bike rides for free with no box in the baggage car. I’d get in at 4:30 p.m. and then I could either stay the night in Chambord, or if I felt up for it, ride a little on the Véloroute and stay in the next town. 

Towards the end of my ride, my plan was to utilize a ferry service to cut some of the riding distance along the Véloroute du Fjord du Saguenay. Since the route doesn’t really go along the water (and is very hilly), I figured it would be worth it to see more of the fjord from the boat and spare myself the hills. I would end my ride on this route in Saint-Simeon and then ride to La Malbaie on the final day. In La Malbaie I could board a scenic railroad –  the Train de Charlevoix – which would take me to Quebec City with my bike. 

The ferry, which runs the length of the Saguenay Fjord.

The Train de Charlevoix, a scenic railroad that goes between La Malbaie and Quebec City.

 

So after spending many, many hours planning this out and making the various reservations for the plane, two trains and a ferry, I was ready to roll. But it turned out that the day of my departure was LaGuardia’s second busiest passenger day of its history (thanks to flight-cancelling thunderstorms the day before). When I finally got on my (massively delayed) flight, more thunderstorms rolled in and the flight was cancelled. This is when the dominoes started to fall. That train between Montreal and Chambord?  Well it only runs Monday-Wednesday-Friday. So now I had to figure out another way to get to Montreal and arrive on either a Sunday, Tuesday or Thursday to get the train. I would also need to re-book the ferry ride, my lakefront camping reservation and the ride back on the scenic railroad. Wow. 

The solution I concocted was unorthodox, but it worked!  In fact, it worked better than my initial plan. I would now rent a pick-up truck and throw my bike in the back. I’d drive to Burlington, Vermont on Friday and then I’d spend Saturday and Sunday riding between Burlington and Montreal. This ride would be fantastic – worth the aggravation.  And I will give you all the details in the next blog article!