Getting Dirty in the Ottawa Valley

This brand-new loop for 2023 has gravel, curves, hills, and history—plus great brews, eats, and accommodations.

For motorcyclists in Ontario and beyond, "Ride the Highlands" conjures up everything that makes riders smile. Fantastic roads, endless curves through stunning landscapes, welcoming communities, good food, comfortable accommodations, everything required for a memorable moto outing for a day or days. For 2023 expect one more term to be added to the Ride the Highlands resume: dirt. 

That's right, long time coming, but worth the wait—finally, a loop that will have the adventure bike crowd grinning.

You will find it on the famous Ride the Highlands map as the Pick-Axe Loop, a 370-kilometre meander off the beaten path through Ontario's Highlands and the Ottawa Valley. Estimating 70% gravel and 30% pavement mix, the Pick-Axe Loop comprises the area's many gravel roads, forest access and unmaintained roads, and a few sections that will test your off road ability. 

When the good folks at Ride the Highlands reached out to me with a proposition to give the new route a go, saying no was never an option. With the moto season winding down and sub-zero temperatures a possibility, we loaded the bikes and hit the pavement in search of Highland’s dirt.

While the approximate 370-kilometre loop can be a long day ride if you are in the area, for us coming from Toronto, it's a three-hour ride to the southwest corner of the Pick-Axe loop. This makes the whole trip roughly 1000 kilometres, a total of three days there and back. 

We turn left onto Glenfield Rd and almost instantly go from pavement to bouncing off rocks hidden by wet layer of leaves; here we go, let the fun begin.

Back on the pavement with low fuel lights glowing, we take the path of least resistance to Griffin, top up the tanks and then resume the fun along a long stretch of gravel and dirt, following parts of the Madawaska River on the way to Highway 60.

We drop our bags at Ash Grove Inn just south of Barrys Bay for night number one. Comfortable rooms and my 'end of day on the bike' favourite, an on-site restaurant serving some good eats.

In the morning, we linger over breakfast to allow the sun to melt the layer of ice off the bikes before resuming the adventure. We ensure we are fully energized with some more caffeine at Madawaska Coffee in Barry's Bay before turning north on the paved and super fun Paugh Lake Road.

As the pavement ends, the fun begins. A mini loop at the northwestern tip presents the most challenging section of the Pick-Axe Loop, aka White Mountain Chute Trail. Add the word mountain into a trail name, and you are probably in for a challenge. Mountain may be a bit much as a description, but a lengthy section of rock-covered uphill will test your skill level and your bike size choice.

The rest of the morning consists of gravel roads through the local farm country, eventually popping out in Wilno for an impressively large and equally delicious lunch at the famous Wilno Tavern.

The afternoon we spend wandering through the Ottawa Valley, along gravel and unmaintained roads, some made soft and challenging by recent grading. We stop in Killaloe to fill the gas tanks and sample what Killaloe is famous for; it is the home of the sweet and tasty treat, the beavertail.

We pull into Calabogie, tired and hungry. After dealing with the hunger part at the Redneck Bistro, we pick up some post-ride refreshments to go at the Calabogie Brewing Co. and pull up a chair outside our room for the night at the very cool Somewhere Inn Calabogie.

Day three, first thing first, breakfast at Oh-el-la Cafe, highly recommended and deservingly so. We gas up the bikes at the Bogie General Store and roll into the day along a combination of Ride the Highland's best-paved twisties and offshoots of equally fun gravel. 

It seems we saved the best for last as we close off the Pick-Axe Loop with a fantastic stretch of a forest access road that has us vowing to return.

Ride the Ottawa Valley's Pick-Axe Loop in 2023

Good things come to those who wait, and this Ride the Highlands venture into adventure, the Pick-Axe Loop, was definitely worth waiting for. The 2023 riding season can't come soon enough. See you soon on the dirty side of the Ottawa Valley and Ride the Highlands.

About Martin Lortz

Martin Lortz is a freelance photographer/writer specializing in the outdoor lifestyle. Whether he is covering adventure motorcycling, kayak fishing or family oriented outdoor pursuits, his passion for capturing the beauty of nature and the people that partake in it, is evident in his work. His photos and articles have appeared in magazines such as Ski Canada, Explore, Bike, Mountain Life, Couloir, Kayak Angler and Family Camping, as well as in calendars, catalogs and brochures.

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