Pedaling through a wilderness paradise on Quebec’s P’tit Train du Nord

By ROBERT SARNER, The Globe and Mail, May 3, 2012

I’ve experienced many unexpected sightings from the seat of my bicycle over the years. But this was the first time I’d come across a large deer in my path. My wife, Galya, and I were near Rivière-Rouge, Quebec about 15 kilometres into the second morning of our four-day bike trip in the Laurentians.

As we got closer, the deer gave us a furtive look before dashing into the adjoining forest. Hours later, near La Conception, we encountered three more deer. The next day, between Mont Tremblant and Saint Faustin-Lac Carré, we saw a beaver about 25 feet to our right, traversing a pond, its mouth filled with improbably large branches. 

While not exactly a wildlife safari, our two-wheeled odyssey along one of Canada’s finest bike trails contrasted sharply with the urban settings where we usually cycled. In the more remote areas, surrounded by dense wilderness and endless lakes and rivers, it was almost as if we were on a canoe trip, on wheels.

Ever since I spent a summer riding through Europe when I was 18, some of my most exhilarating moments traveling have been on a bike. Bikes can take you places you wouldn’t otherwise go. Moving forward under your own power, coupled with the privileged views, there’s more for the senses. Not only a treat for the eyes, you can really smell and hear what’s around you.

In recent years, Galya and I have often mixed cycling with travel, especially in and around cities (notably Rome, Jerusalem, Montreal, Quebec City and New York). We like exploring places and discovering things we wouldn’t see if we were in a car, tour bus or on foot, urban hazards notwithstanding.

Last summer, when we heard about the Laurentians bike trip along a former railway line, we knew we had to go.

Called the P’tit Train du Nord, the route was inspired by the railway of the same name. Inaugurated in 1909, the train spurred regional development, transporting lumber industry workers and tourists from Montreal to the Laurentians for decades. Like so many other railroads in North America in the second half of the 20th century, the P’tit Train du Nord was ultimately doomed by the expansion of highways and air travel. In 1981, it was closed to passengers and in 1989 to cargo.

In 1996, in a joint initiative, provincial and federal authorities converted the route into a continuous 200-km trail for cyclists (and cross-country skiers in the winter). Many of the former train stations along the way found became cafes, boutiques, exhibition spaces, tourist kiosks and rest areas.

Giving abandoned railway facilities a new life and fresh purpose has become a global phenomenon over the past 25 years. As with the Gare/Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the UK’s National Cycle Network, the High Line in NY and the Belt Line in Toronto, the reincarnation of the P’tit Train du Nord has become extremely popular. 

The folks at the Laurentian Tourism Board made things easy for us. After providing us a selection of small hotels and B&Bs situated along the route, and then hearing our preferences, they made all the reservations. If needed, they can also arrange for rented bikes and other services. (See box).

The biggest decision is the length of your stay and distance you want to ride. Are you a serious cyclist? How much sightseeing do you want to include? What’s your budget? You can easily tailor a trip to your taste and fitness level.

Before the trip, Galya, a less experienced cyclist than me, had a slight trepidation. The prospect of pedaling 200 km through a mountainous region gave her pause. She wondered if long, grueling, thigh-numbing climbs up steep, unforgiving hills awaited her. I reassured her we’d make it easier by doing it in four days. Serious cyclists could easily do it in two.

We left Toronto on a warm day in August for St. Jérome (50 km north of Montreal). The next morning, at the town’s old train station, we caught the 8 am shuttle to Mont Laurier, 2 1/2 hours north where the bike trip begins. We left our car in a parking lot in St. Jérome so it would be waiting there for us in four days.

Next to the drop-off point in Mont Laurier, there’s a large supermarket. We stocked up on water and food for a picnic lunch and off we went. To avoid encumbering our bikes with luggage, we used a service that picked up our shared bag each morning and brought it to our next destination each afternoon.

The first day was the hardest. The heat was intense and our muscles untested. We saw all manner of bicycles, from high-end to basic, and all manner of cyclists, with great diversity in age, riding prowess, attire, accessories, and amount of baggage.

The route was paved, clean, well maintained, and occasional large bumps were circled in fluorescent paint to give cyclists advance notice. Shelters and WCs dot the route, and each kilometre is marked by a sign so you easily tell how far you’ve pedaled -- and how far you still have to go.

After nearly 60 kms, we arrived in Nominingue, next to a large lake by the same name, where we spent our first night.  Our bag was waiting for us as we checked in at the Auberge Villa Bellerive, overlooking the lake. Galya was exhausted, me only a bit less so. Both of us were in desperate need of a shower. The accommodation was pretty basic but the (optional) dinner was excellent, a good thing as there are few other places to eat nearby.

The next morning, under an overcast sky, we set out for Mont Tremblant, 47 km south. About 30 minutes into the ride, a heavy rain forced us to take cover in one of the wooden structures along the route, together with two young women in red uniforms who were part of the bike patrol that provides help in case of a flat tire or an accident.

After waiting out the storm, we resumed our ride. The scenery was intoxicating. The trail curves around lakes, rivers and fields, and runs through several tourist towns and cottage areas. There’s no mystery why the P’tit Train du Nord is known as a “linear park” (the longest in Canada) as it’s one continuous ride through nature.  

We had heard a good spot for lunch would be the Kayak Café in the small town of Labelle. It has an outdoor terrace overlooking the Rouge River and the Iroquois Falls. Arriving just as a torrential rain came down, we watched the storm from inside where we enjoyed tasty soup, salads and wraps.  It would be the last rain of the trip. A good thing, because just after Labelle, the paved trail suddenly gives way to gravel and hard packed earth for the rest of the route.

 That evening, we stayed in the old village of Mont Tremblant next to Lake Mercier, about 15 km from the resort area. Beside the Hotel Mont Tremblant, there’s an excellent bike store if repairs or accessories are needed.

The next morning, under a dazzling blue sky, we embarked on our last full day of the trip. It included an extended section uphill, the most challenging of the journey. Despite winding its way through the Laurentian Mountains, the P’tit Train du Nord proved far less arduous than expected.

We refueled with a light lunch at Stazione, an unpretentious bistro just off the trail in Saint Faustin-Lac Carré. Sitting on an outdoor terrace, we had soup and paninis as we watched people cycle past us.

By late afternoon, after pedaling 50 km that day, we arrived in Val-David for our final night. We stayed at a small, charming inn called the Maison de Bavière, run by two former schoolteachers from Montreal, Yves and Agathe.

Given the beauty of the site, we decided to make a picnic dinner outside next to the Rivière du Nord and the waterfalls. We could just as easily have eaten in the several restaurants in Val David, a lovely small town that also hosts a few cafes.

On our final morning, Yves and Agathe, both wonderful hosts, served a delicious, hearty breakfast with local fare. We were then on our way southbound, sad to be on the last leg of the journey but glad much of it was downhill.

Four hours later, when we reached St. Jérome and passed a large sign reading “Kilometer 0,” we had mixed emotions – satisfaction in completing such a physical undertaking, and disappointment that a wonderful journey was over.

It was easy to understand why the P’tit Train du Nord is so popular, attracting a half-million people every year from late spring to early fall.

We approached our car with little enthusiasm. After four days in a near-blissful, pastoral setting, we frowned at the prospect of the long drive back home to Toronto.

Worth noting

Helpful info to make your trip easier and more enjoyable 

For information on the Pet’t Train du Nord, contact Tourisme Laurentides (Laurentian Tourist Board), Tel: 450-224-7007,  They can help you organize your trip, such as reserving accommodation, and arranging bike rentals and shuttle service of your bikes and baggage. 

For details on baggage handling and bike rentals and other services, contact Transport du Parc Linéaire, located at the departure/arrival point in Saint Jérome, next to the old train station. Tel: 1-888-686-1323,

 Kayak Café, in Labelle. Gourmet café/restaurant with comfortable outdoor terrace offering a beautiful view of the Rouge River and Iroquois Falls. Lunch and dinner. Extensive menu. (Also offers canoe and kayak excursions in summer). 8 Rue du Camping, Tel: 819-686-1111, www.kayak-café.com

 C’est La Vie Café, in Val David. Artistic café in old house recommended for breakfast or lunch (quiches, salads, sandwiches). Inviting outdoor terrace. 1347 La Sapinere St., Tel: 819-320-0273.

 La Stazione, in Saint Faustin-Lac Carré. Charming café/bistro, specializing in paninis, thin crust pizza and homemade ice cream. Nice outdoor terrace. 1830 Rue Principale, Tel: 819-421-4000,

 La Maison de Bavière, in Val David. Excellent, small inn overlooking Rivière du Nord waterfalls. Beautifully decorated with attentive, personable service by owners., Tel: 1-866-322-3528

 In winter, the Pet’t Train du Nord is open for cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.


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