Off-Road Riding In Toronto's Backyard - Video

Lucas Cooney
by Lucas Cooney

I’ve lived in Toronto for nearly 20 years and have been riding off-road throughout Ontario with great regularity for the past five years. How is it I had no idea there were hundreds of miles of motorcycle and ATV trails only an hour from my house?

Fortunately, I finally became acquainted with the Ganaraska Forest and its surprisingly vast network of trails when Honda Canada invited to ride its new CRF250L dual-sport motorcycle in the fall.

When I say it’s an hour from my house, it’s no exaggeration. I live smack dab in the middle of Toronto and I hopped on Hwy. 401 East and arrived at the Ganaraska Forest Centre in all of 60 minutes. If I happened to live on the eastern edge of the Greater Toronto Area (Oshawa or Whitby), we’re talking about a 15-minute drive. It’s incredible that in a city of this size (Greater Toronto Area is home to 5.6 million people) off-road trails are so close and so good. But that’s one of the bonuses of living in a place like Ontario that is so open to powersports in general.

The Canadian press launch of the Honda CRF250L brought us to the Ganaraska Forest - just mintues east of Toronto.

Arriving at the Ganaraska Foresst Centre, it was like an oasis from the urban sprawl. Linda Givelas, the manager of the Ganaraska Forest Centre, told us the forest sits on 11,000 acres, of which about 6,000 acres are dedicated to off-road motorcycle and ATV use. It’s also inexpensive to ride these trails – a day pass costs $25 and an annual membership runs $125.

We used the Ganaraska Forest Centre as base camp for our two-day adventure.

In addition to showing off the CRF250L, Honda Canada was using the event to bring motorcyclists and ATV riders together so media types from both motorcycle and ATV publications were in attendance. A fleet of CRF250Ls was available, along with a selection of Honda ATVs.

“It’s rare that we have an opportunity to have everybody together in one place and have some of the two-wheel guys play on the four-wheels,” says Nick Smirniw, senior product planner of Honda Canada , Motorcycle Power and Equipment Division. “Some of the four-wheel guys hadn’t ever had an opportunity to get on a motorcycle before.”

The amazing team at Trail Tours was kind enough to show this four-wheel fanatic how to ride a motorcycle. Not wanting to scratch up the new CRF250L, I did my initial training on an older CRF230L.

By “some guys,” Nick Smirniw means me. You see, I am normally the editor of’s sister sites,,, and, to name a few. Before this trip, I’d never ridden a motorcycle in my life. In fact, since most of my off-road riding was on Utility ATVs and Side-by-Sides, I’d almost never used a manual transmission. I’ve had a long and storied history of stalling manual cars and Sport ATVs, so I was more than a little nervous.

Trail Tours instructor Alan Lakas takes me through a braking drill.

As luck would have it, both two-wheel and four-wheel riders were given some training by the amazing team at Trail Tours. Trail Tours calls the Ganaraska Forest home and uses Honda products exclusively to train new motorcyclists and ATV riders. These guys have been in business for about 20 years and have trained nearly 40,000 people to ride off-road! Trail Tours provides everything a first-timer needs: motorcycle or ATV, gear, lunch, and instruction.

“We are the busiest off-road training facility in the world, as far as we know, and it’s because we have Toronto so close by,” says Steve Weykamp, president of Trail Tours. “If you look worldwide, there are not many places that do this. But if they do do it, it’s usually small scale and they won’t have the trail systems we have. We have a lot of bikes and a lot of ATVs to work with, so there are the capabilities of hosting big volumes of people here.”

I practice riding over a trail obstacle under Lakas' watchful eye.

I attached myself to the proverbial hip of Alan Lakas, an instructor and guide for Trail Tours. He’s been training people for years and wasn’t nearly as worried as I was about my lack of two-wheel experience.

“Probably half our riders have some street experience and others have no experience,” says Lakas. “Those street guys are typically a little harder to teach than someone who’s brand new because they have a lot of habits from the street that are hard to break in the dirt.”

Clearly street riding habits would be no problem for me, but Lakas says the main issues are street riders tend to ease off the gas instead of staying on the throttle when the bike starts wandering. As well, street riders don’t use the rear break as much as they should in the dirt. According to Lakas, the front brake is not as forgiving and its overuse causes many street riders to fall.

Before too long I was ready to join the rest of the group on a trail ride.

My biggest concern was starting the bike without stalling and I was stunned at how easily Lakas helped me overcome that obstacle. He preached the importance of finding my “friction point,” a term I’d never heard when my dad tried to teach me to drive stick when I was a teenager. As soon as he explained the process and showed me how it works, it was like something clicked in my mind. In fact, I didn’t stall all day, even when he had me starting the bike on a sweat-inducing uphill section.

Lakas brought me from spot to spot around the Trail Tours facility and had me practicing an assortment of skills. It started to feel a lot like riding my mountain bike – just less tiring. Before long, I was able to join the other riders on a tour of the area trails.

Beautiful fall colors were on full display, but I was focussed on not dumping the new CRF250L.

The Ganaraska Forest boasts a great collection of trails. Everything from wide open fire roads to tight single track was at our disposal. We only explored a small sampling of the available trails, but it was more than enough to make me want to go back and try again. As Weykamp explains it, that’s pretty much the point.

“Our goal here is just to provide people with a really good, positive time so that they can go away with experience under their belt,” says Weykamp. “Ideally, we provide them with that experience so that they go out and buy a new motorcycle or ATV. That’s why we’re doing this.”

I enjoyed the CRF250L, but I wasn't nearly ready to push it to its limits. It would seem a great bike for a new rider that wanted to ride on the road and in the trails.

Regardless if you are going to the Ganaraska Forest to ride with your friends or to learn with the folks at Trail Tours, it’s well worth the short drive. While it's close enough to home for me that I wouldn't have to worry about accommodations, finding hotels, motels, and restaurants close by won't be an issue. Peterborough, Oshawa, Clarington, Port Hope, and Coburg are all just a short drive away and have all the amenities you could ever need. All you need to do to get started is show up.

As much as I enjoyed riding a motorcycle, I'm not ready to give up my ATVs just yet. Maybe there's room for both in the garage?

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Lucas Cooney
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