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Dec 6, 2005

Bike Touring - Gaspe Peninsula

Gaspésie is a classic vacation destination in Québec. Landscape of sea and mountains, everyone knows that, but what better way to experience it than riding a bike? And believe me, every parts of your body will get a good feel of these landscapes, especially the mountains!

Route, maps...
The majority of cyclists ride around the peninsula clockwise, i.e. eastbound on the coast of the St-Lawrence river and back west on the baie des Chaleurs. The reason: the wind. The sea breeze is nice but when it's moving at 50km/h, better to have it at your back! Apparently, the dominant westerly winds are stronger on the St-Lawrence side than on the bay side. There must be a reason for all the windmills between Matane and Cap-Chat. I say "apparently" because if the wind on the St-Lawrence side are strong, it isn't exactly weak on the bay side either.

You also have to determine how you'll close the loop. The complete Gaspésie loop wraps up with the 132 in the Matapédia valley for a trip of about 1300km. A shorter loop of 650km, goes through the quieter Cascapédia valley on highway 299. I chose the short route in order to finish on a road less traveled and keep time for hiking in Forillon, Percé rock/Bonaventure island and Gaspésie parks.

The route is quite simple, just follow highway 132. A detailed map is not a necessity. The regional tourist guide, a small booklet, contains useful information on camping, lodging, restaurants as well as activities and attractions. The guide has a small map with icons illustrating the services offered in every town and village. The guide and a bigger map with distances is available in most tourist information centers or at the Tourisme-Gaspésie website. The online map doesn't show distances.

When to go?
Unless you have reservations, avoid mid-July to mid-august. Everybody's on vacation and roads are packed with distracted RV drivers. Between June 24th and July 1st, you could face full campgrounds as these dates are Québec and Canada days and lots of people link the two holidays together for a one-week vacation. Before that, the avian fauna would be plentiful, which is nice, but this includes the not-so-nice mosquitoes and black flies. Everything quiets down after mid-august. Bloodsucking insects are gone and so are most tourists.

Saint-Lawrence coast 
From Ste-Anne-des-Monts to Tourelle, the traffic on highway 132 is fairly heavy so it's best to ride on 1st avenue along the shore. From Tourelle, the 132 is a cycling paradise. The expression "between sea and mountain" takes all its meaning. The road is literally hanging between the two. An Australian hitchhiker told me it's the kind of road you see in car commercials. It could be bike commercials too. The shoulder is as wide or wider than a car lane, terrain is flat but far from boring. A small villages shows up every 8-10km.

The fun, or rather what cyclists fear in Gaspésie, begins at Manche d'Épée (Sword Handle). The road goes vertical. From there to Anse-au-Griffon, it's a constant roller-coaster with very few breaks. Go up at 10% for a kilometer, and even before you're finished climbing, a sign says you'll go down at 10% for a kilometer. Then you're all sweaty from the climb so you freeze on the descent, hit a village, repeat. The longest climb is at Ste-Madeleine. 3 km climb, two at 13%. There isn't always a shoulder in the hilly parts but the road usually have tree lanes, two for climbing and one going down so there's enough room for everyone.


Forillon
The northwest entrance of Forillon park is located on top of a hill shortly after Rivière-au-Renard. It is highly recommended for cyclists to stop for information about campsites in the park and surrounding area. In the park, a number of campsites are distributed on a first-come first-served basis but it's done at the service center, much further from the entrance. This means that on a busy day, cyclists don't have much a chance. In my and other's experience, it's possible to ask for a reservation at the Anse-au-Griffon  welcome center (northwest entrance). On my 2003 trip, I was given the very last campsite in the whole park. After all the hills, it's nice to relax for the last kilometers, knowing you'll have a place to stay (I had bonked and was eating honey by the spoon on the side of the road).

The park is small but very diverse. Well worth a few days rest, or exploration. The last remnants on the  Appalachian separate the north and south sectors. For cyclists, this means another $?&?!/"$ hill to climb. To explore the northern part, camp at Cap-des-Rosiers campground. You can also stay at Cap Bon-Ami campground but it's located in a dead-end and you have to climb a short but steep hill (15%) to get in and out of there. In the south sector, Petit-Gaspé campground is the sole option. The road to Cap Gaspé is a really nice ride in late afternoon.

If you're sick of the tent, at the bottom of the hill of the south part, turn right towards Cap-aux-Os and you'll find a hostel. Neighbor to this hostel is a grocery store.

Gaspé
The road towards Gaspé is easy. No shoulder but little traffic, no big hills either. The road crosses the park a few times at Fort Péninsule historical site and Penouille where there's a nice beach. The worse 10km of the whole tour is between the Dartmouth river bridge and Gaspé. Narrow road and heavy traffic. Gaspé is a good size town and sort of regional capital. Every services are found, including a bike shop next to the gas station across the York river.

From Gaspé, you can continue on the 132 along the bay of Gaspé. There are a few nice beaches on the way. You can also take a short cut on the 198, which has wide shoulders, except on the initial climb where it's 4 lane boulevard. For those resting in Gaspé, a popular local ride is west on road 198 towards Murdochville along the York river, crossing in Wakeham and back the other way. About 20-25km.

Past Gaspé, shoulders are absent but the road has few curves so drivers can see you from a good distance.  There are many viewpoints on the sea. You might see whales and seals. The shoulder reappears around Prével.


Percé
With the shoulder come the cheesy ads for the Indian Head campground. They reminded me of the "South of the Border" ads we see on the way to Florida. Very annoying. I mean... there's something wrong when
a campground says it has Color TV. Anyway, the night was falling so I camped there. The campground is
owned by an American (which explains a few things) who spent his summer around Percé and finally made it
his home. Dan Rose loves the region. He offers a booklet with information on where to eat and what to do in the Percé area. The town is a bit of a tourist trap so his guide is very handy. The campground is extremely well maintained with ultra clean and huge showers. Each campsite has a tap and a small wall to block the wind. The only negative are the lights that stay on too late at night.

The next day, I followed one of Dan's suggestion and had breakfast at Café-Couleurs in Barachois (1004, highway 132). The place isn't far from the campground and only opens at 9am (2003) so take your time. The employees are artists and the interior is filled with artwork. The waffles with wild berries are awesome. No self-respecting cyclist would miss such a feast.

At Coin-du-Banc, you'll come across rivière du Portage, or Emerald river as called by the locals. It looks nothing spectacular from the highway but you can take a gravel road for a few hundred meters and hike along the shore or ride for about 3km and hike down some stairs and steep trails and see why it is called emerald.


After a good climb, the rock comes into view. It's amazing how a big rock with a hole attracts people. Percé is a tiny village with loads of tourists in the summer. The village itself is a bit of a tourist trap but the area is well worth a rest day. Take the panniers off  the bike and explore the steep surrounding roads. There are many great viewpoints. A trip to Bonaventure island is an absolute must. The island is part of the Sépaq park system so don't forget money for the entrance fee.

Baie des Chaleurs
I've stopped counting how many times I've been told the bay was flatter than the St-Lawrence coast. Well,
"flatter" only means the 1km hills at 8-10% are a spaced farther apart, but they still exist! Plus you're most likely to have a headwind... because you wanted a tailwind on the St-Lawrence coast, right? Fortunately, highway 132 on the bay side is part of the route verte (green way) and there are shoulders almost the whole time. Villages are bigger are in greater number on the bay. Not as many sites for the stealth camping aficionados. East of Bonaventure, the route verte takes a turn inland. Not sure why since there's a nice shoulder on the 132, and the road is right on the sea. I stayed on the 132. I camped in a large campground in Bonaventure which felt like a parking lot. The beach was great though.

Route 299
The first 6 kilometers to St-Jules were awful. Bad pavement and high traffic, given the small size of the village. The map shows a few alternative roads, including one on the west side of the Cascapedia river. After St-Jules, the 299 is paradise. The pavement isn't very smooth but even. No cracks or potholes. Trafic is extremely low. The road follows the Cascapedia for a long faux-plat of about 60km. Then it goes up through the Chic-Chocs and down towards Gaspésie park when it joins Ste-Anne river. Highway 299 is a wild camper's paradise. That's what I had planned but where the road and river go on their on way, I stumbled on a small restaurant, campground and the remaining of a motel that just burned earlier. So instead of wild camping, I chose the hot shower followed by a club sandwich and beer with the tenants.

Gaspésie park
For cyclists wanting to stay in the park for a few days, the mont Albert campground is the place to camp.
It has two sectors: "La Rivière", which is at walking distance from the services (interpretation center, convenience store, café) and "Mont Albert", 2km up the road. Both sectors can be the beginning of the mount Albert loop, probably the best hiking trail in Quebec. At the interpretation center, you can take a shuttle to the trailhead of mount Jacques-Cartier, highest "peak" in southeastern Canada. It's also the best place to see cariboos. Mount Olivine trailhead is south on highway 299. For lac aux Américains and mount Xalibu, you have to ride on gravel roads (#16 and #160). The 160 is pretty steep. For a short ride on pavement, you can take road #14. Pavement is very smooth but has huge random potholes. Watch out!

The road in the park is very smooth. A few ups and downs, some nice viewpoints, a good climb into Cap-Seize, then downhill all the way to the St-Lawrence river. Woohoo!


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