Lord of the Squirrels
Whistler’s Hidden Mountain-Biking Gem
After a couple of summer trips to Whistler, B.C., we were excited to finally get the chance to ride an amazing trail dubbed one of the best riding experiences in the world, the infamous Lord of the Squirrels. Built over the course of three years by the Whistler Off-Road Cycling Association (WORCA), this route is truly a masterpiece when it comes to delivering scenery, riding and an alpine-cycling adventure to remember.
Although locals may suggest that on this trail you’re not really that far away from civilization, it often felt that we were heading “nowhere” or . . . into bear territory. The map pointed somewhere up in the mountains, just beneath Mount Sproatt, and the statistics showed us that the route was no joke. A 1,700-metre ascent from the valley floor at Creekside was ahead of us, followed by another 1,700 metres of descent. Okay, full disclosure, that descent was the “real” reason why we climbed.
One year earlier, we couldn’t realize this bucket-list adventure because it was snow-covered, and we returned home knowing that we had to come back one day. With the trail now open and only a couple sections of it under snow, there was no turning back and our small crew of riders immediately undertook its challenge. Despite our enthusiasm, 13 straight days of riding in North Vancouver, Roberts Creek, Pemberton and Squamish left us feeling a bit tired. To be totally honest, our legs cramped up from time to time. Joining our six-rider group was a longtime friend, Nicholas Sousa, who has worked in Whistler for the past two years, but never ridden the renowned loop. In fact, despite being a bike-park rat, he’d never even heard of it.
Into the Mystic – Earning the Ride
“Where we’re going, there’s no rush or time schedule. The destination doesn’t matter,” remarked Filipe, one of the fittest guys in our crew, with a sneaky smile. “Yeah, yeah, stop being so philosophical. I hope you have a rope to drag me to the top,” I quipped.
The journey begins in Creekside, which saw five new trails open this past summer, adding more route options to enjoy at Whistler Bike Park. We crossed the Sea to Sky Highway with its stunning views of beautiful Nita Lake and then traversed a railway trail to begin the first part of the climb. The tarmac road weaved along beside some luxurious houses on the hillside before taking us to a fire road, where we finally got our tires dirty.
“We’re going to suffer, boys,” said Tiago, looking at the Trailforks graphics while keeping his pedals turning. “We knew that before leaving home this morning,” said a smiling Filipe, who was super-excited to begin pedaling upward, while everyone else was taking their time. Along the steepest part of the climb, we met a couple of bike-park instructors with three kids all geared up in tow. “Are you heading up to Squirrels?” they asked. “Yes, first time for us,” I replied. “Lucky you. It’s quite something else. Enjoy the pain and have fun,” said one of the guides as we parted company.
A part of me yearned to follow those kids down the blue line they were taking, but our destination was upward. The decision had been made and we cut to the chase and began pushing our bikes up a one-kilometre fire road called Leftovers. The 200-metre climb was unrideable and the pedaling effort was cruel. Soon, my calves were burning from being constantly on my toes.
Finally at the top, we arrived at Into the Mystic, a 12-kilometre trail with 1,100 of metres of climbing that really kicked off our journey to Lord of the Squirrels. This machine-built non-technical climb is wide enough to ride beside your buddies and offers the perfect balance of steep sections with small descents or flat sections that allow you to recover. “It would be so cool if the uphill was actually like this all the way to the top,” said Tiago. “No way,” we replied in unison.
The climb just went on and on below the tree line, zigzagging all the way with an unbelievable flow. “Now I understand why it took so much time to build. The way they took advantage of the mountain is incredible,” observed Roberto, who is responsible for developing our trail network at home on Madeira Island. “It’s a work of art.” The effort, the sweat and the pain paid off with spectacular views and the feeling of really being in the middle of nowhere. We
were earning this ride and the descent that lay ahead of us.
Once we reached the alpine, the trail took on a different look. We kept pedaling up, balancing our breathing and enjoying the incredible views while we toiled at the task at hand. I tried to catch up with Roberto as the altitude kicked in and the fresh air filled my lungs with oxygen. The singletrack continued up amidst the massive mountains as Into the Mystic linked up with On the Rocks, a 3.6-kilometre ride with 200 metres of climbing. This two-way trail winding through the alpine to the top of Mount Sproatt was also machine-built, though a bit more rocky and technical. We were stoked to take on these final pedal strokes to reach Lord of the Squirrels and realize a dream come true.
Respect for Builders
To reach the alpine meant we crossed freshwater streams via wooden bridges. We took a rest stop and quickly refilled our bottles after our dry throats enjoyed the brief refreshment. The sun was stronger as we gained altitude, but we were up to the challenge, refreshed by the mountain stream’s magical cold liquid.
But getting to the top also meant that we’d have to cross some sections that were still snow-covered, and it actually felt great to get our socks wet in these conditions. Along the way, we split into two groups.
“Where’s Paulo?” I asked, wondering if he was up the road. Tiago couldn’t stop laughing, but didn’t give us an answer. Ahead of us, Paulo appeared butt-naked as he exited a small lake that was still surrounded by snow just below Tonic Peak. Being quite a hairy guy, we were a bit stunned, as we thought a grizzly bear might be upon us. “It was so hot, and you guys were taking so long,” he said smiling. “I was sweating my ass off the entire ascent.” As he quickly dressed, he challenged us to take a dip in the lake, but there were no brave takers willing to jump into the freezing-cold water.
As we waited for Paulo, we saw a small group of WORCA trail builders coming from the opposite direction carrying tools and small orange flags to mark the way through the dense snow. So work on the trails didn’t stop for these fine folk. We learned that it took five years of planning and three years to build Lord of the Squirrels, with an estimated 8,784 hours of work during that period of time.
Approximately 13% of the trail was built in 2014, another 57% was completed in 2015 and the final section was built in 2016. The trail includes a total of 60 elevated rock walls and 29 bridges. We still had all of this ahead of us. “Thank you, guys,” we said in unison before embarking on the final kilometre of trail of the legendary Lord of the Squirrels.
Although I was initially reluctant as I’m not a big fan of climbing, reflecting on this adventurous journey revealed to me what mountain biking is really all about, and it made me appreciate all the hard work put in by WORCA personnel. They are true architects of fun. Their creative thinking and imagination got us from the bottom of the valley, through fir, hemlock and cedar forests to the open meadows and rocky trails below Mount Sproatt, sitting at 1,834-metres altitude – amazing!
Descending Lord of the Squirrels
“Well, this is it guys – we made it,” said Roberto, getting his kneepads on. Like a mirage, the Lord of the Squirrels trail sign matched our Trailforks map perfectly. The excitement was brewing, as we would soon engage the final seven kilometres of trail with approximately 900 metres of descent, and, of course, Filipe sped up as usual.
I was just happy to survive the climb – with my butt out of the seat along the way, I was trying to find a bit of power to keep my feet pedaling. From Creekside, it took four hours and 30 minutes to get to this point, and while we knew it could be done much faster, we were all stoked to have accomplished this amazing climb. “We can stop here and there at some spots along the way down,” added Roberto. We all agreed, and the descent began.
We left any anxiety behind at the top of the hill and suddenly understood that stopping along the way wouldn’t happen. The descent was a rollercoaster, throwing us left and right down big, steep rock slabs. My bike just naturally found its way and I quickly noticed that there are no dangerous features, as everything was well built. There were no trees, stumps or badly placed rocks. There are no big blind drops that could surprise you in a bad way. The trail layout makes you feel instantly connected
to it and you slowly gain a trusting relationship with it.
Each corner gave us a taste of what was coming up next. From the open alpine areas with rock rolls to jumping back into the cedar forest, the trail just kept giving, challenging the strength left in our legs with small climb sections while sucking any remaining power left out of our hands and forearms. As our handlebars tried to take control from our hands, we decided we needed to take a brief rest. Everyone was smiling, so we knew it was all worth the effort.
“I wanted to stop because I don’t want it to finish,” shared Tiago, often the one who takes the lead in our group. “Should we do it again tomorrow?” quipped Filipe. We all laughed, knowing that this moment was special for all of us and would never occur the same way again. This feeling of riding one of the best trails in the world for the first time was so rewarding – this is mountain biking! “Next stop is at the bottom,” added Filipe, as he jumped on his saddle once again to continue our journey of brutal pleasure.
Lord of the Squirrels delivered a fabulous outdoor adventure. It scrambled our emotions and got the best out of us. Finishing the ride near Into the Mystic a couple hours later and completing the loop was an unforgettable experience and something that we will never forget.
Trail Tips and Tricks
Water: There is no need to carry three litres of water to re-hydrate. Take a water bottle to refill at several locations along the trail route.
Wildlife: This is bear territory, and we saw two bears just above Creekside. Follow WORCA’s advice and for more information, visit www.bearsmart.com.
Start early: It is best to start early so that you have enough time and light to descend to the end of the trail safely. Even if you’re a skilled, fit rider, do not begin this ride late in the day. Bear in mind that after completing Lord of the Squirrels you still have to ride back down to Creekside on some gnarly trails.
Route: Begin at Creekside and head up fire road Westside Powerlines, then onto Lower Sproatt. You can then push your bike up Leftovers or follow the blue singletrack Danimal Middle to Industrial Waste and onto Rainbow-Sproatt Flank. You’ll then come to Into the Mystic, which takes you up to Lord of the Squirrels. For more information, visit www.trailforks.com.
Cellphone signal: Most of the trail has a constant cellphone signal, though there are some zero-signal points along the way.
Trail statistics: From start to finish, we covered a total distance of 32 kilometres. The highest point of the trail was 1,810 metres and lowest point was 825 metres.
WORCA’s trail network: Visit www.worca.com.
Lord of the Squirrels is truly a masterpiece, delivering stellar riding and amazing scenery foran alpine-cycling adventure of a lifetime.
Summer in Canada mixed with altitude meant we found a coupleof sections still filled with snow.
The crew at the start of Into the Mystic... let the pain and pleasure begin.
Filipe riding the first sections of alpine on Lord of the Squirrels.
Roberto on the descent of the final section of On the Rocks at approximately 1,760 meters altitude
Nice touch ... a chain to help riders get to the bottom of a river section.
The trail builders at WORCA created an amazing work of art that brought smiles to our faces ... thanks.