Possibly one of the most immersive ways to experience and discover the west coast of British Columbia is by bikepacking. This 557km cycling route takes you deep through the heart of Vancouver Island, across the Salish Sea and traverses the Sunshine Coast. Undulating gravel roads, pavement, groomed trail, single track and ferry rides is what you will experience when Bikepacking Vancouver Island Sunshine Coast loop.
The Lay of the Land – Bikepacking Vancouver Island Sunshine Coast
I am a huge fan of loop routes that allow you to be riding towards new terrain each day and not knowing what to expect around the next corner. This multi day bikepacking route takes you across 4 regions of the west coast of British Columbia. They include; The Sunshine Coast , Comox Valley, Alberni Valley and Cowichan Valley upon both Nuu-chah-nulth and Coast Salish territories.
The beauty of loops also is that you can start anywhere along the way. Wether you live in Vancouver on the mainland, on the Sunshine Coast or maybe somewhere on Vancouver Island you can just start at the closest point near you. For my route I began in Chemainus in the Cowichan Valley hoping right onto the Great Trail to start my ride.
As mentioned above the total distance the route covers is 557km but this does include the 4 ferry sailings. Total bikepacking distance over the ride will be in the ballpark of 418kms. This distance can be greatly modified as there are endless alternate bikepacking route options for the Sunshine Coast out there. You can also modify the route for more or less pavement, more gravel roads, more single track or less climbing. (Bikepacking.com is an awesome resource)
For the purpose of this blog post my route went counter-clockwise starting in the Cowichan Valley. The BC Ferries route schedules you will need to consider are;
– Departure Bay (Nanaimo, Vancouver Island) to Horseshoe Bay (Vancouver)
– Horseshoe Bay (Vancouver) to Langdale (Sunshine Coast)
– Earls Cove to Saltery Bay (Sunshine Coast) *payment only require on Saltery Bay side
– Powell River (Sunshine Coast) to Comox (Vancouver Island)
Bike and Gear for Bikepacking Vancouver Island Sunshine Coast
First off I owe a lot of credit for what bike to use, how to setup my bags and what to pack to my friend Vik who I did this trip with. (check-out his awesome tip to tip Vancouver Island bikepacking trip) Secondly, my experience with lightweight backpacking and endless hikes was a huge advantage. It allowed me access to both the gear and experience for packing up my bike so I didn’t have this learning curve to overcome.
I used my 2020 Chromag Rootdown hardtail mountain bike for this trip as we had some plans to tackle rough single track and washed out logging roads. If you avoid the climb above Sechelt and stick to the Sunshine Coaster you will be 100% fine with a gravel bike or rigid MTB.
I stuck with a light gear kit and for food we planned to do the “credit card” meal plan by stopping in each town. Thus I left my backpacking stove at home. I easily mounted everything I needed to my bike and wore a small 12 litre Dakine mountain bike backpack. I did this so I could carry my phone and wallet as well as a few small items when on the fery rides or when leaving my bike locked up to go into grocery stores. For camping locations there are endless bed & breakfasts, local rec sites and provincial campgrounds. We chose to random camp to cover as much ground as possible in each day.
Day 1 – Chemainus to Langdale
This section starts out hoping directly onto the Cowichan Valley (Great) Trail that passes through Chemainus and connect directly to Ladysmith. Next you follow the very busy Island Highway ducking off towards Cedar to enjoy the quieter less busy side roads. This connects back to Nanaimo where once again you find yourself on the Great Trail and navigate to Departure Bay ferry terminal. Here you ride the ferry across to Horseshoe Bay and connect onto the Langdale Ferry. A short easy section to start the trip with our night ending in Langdale.
Day 2 – Langdale to Comox
Our morning was greeted with a steep pedal up the highway from the Langdale ferry terminal to Gibsons where we had breakfast. After eating we headed towards Sechelt but took the alternate route via Lower Road which is far more scenic and less traffic. It goes to Roberts Creek and then back up to the highway and into Sechelt. A quick stock up in Sechelt for more trail food and then we headed towards up out of town leaving the highway for the West Sechelt trail system.
This would take us along single track, access roads and then eventually grinding up the massive climb of the Halfmoon Carlson logging main. The grind was worth it as you reach the old growth and now large second growth forests of Spipyus Provincial Park. You are also awarded great views of the Sunshine Coast and across to Vancouver Island. From here we made our way down to the Sunshine Coaster trail and then onto the highway to roll into Earls Cove to catch the ferry to Saltery Bay.
The ferry ride was a great break in riding and stunning views from the ferry as we crossed the water. From Saltery Bay to Powell River is a 31km ride along the highway for those that want a fast route or choose from the links below to create some gravel grind or single track options. ** In our case one of our bikes had a serious mechanical so we managed to hitch a ride on this section to make the last ferry out of Powell River to Comox.
As I had touched on, the Sunshine Coast is a mountain bike trail mecca with hundreds of trails you can create your own route. You can try the Sunshine Coaster trail or you may want to checkout the region on Trailforks > Southern Sunshine Coast and Northern Sunshine Coast . The team at Bikepacking.com have also put together some great routes for this portion such as Bikepacking Lower Sunshine Coast and this new great one by my friend Natalie, Powell River Sampler.
Day 3 – Comox to Port Alberni
The day in Comox starts out with a nice ride from the Little River Ferry terminal to downtown Comox. Here is where I need to give a quick shout out to Comox Bike Company for their great short notice help to fix Vik’s bike and get us on our trip with very little delay. We enjoyed breakfast and coffee downtown while his bike got repaired.
Bike all fixed and full bellies we pedalled from Comox through Courtenay and onto Lake Trail road that leads the start of the climb from the valley to Comox Lake. This is where the roller coaster of climbs and descents of the Comox Logging road begins. This long section of trail takes you around the North and west side of the lake. Throughout your ride you are flanked by the towering ridges and big rivers flowing into the lake.
The Comox Main eventually works its way down into the Alberni valley. Here you connect onto the Log Train trail. This portion drops you into Port Alberni via a historic rail bed originally developed in the early 1900’s as part of the Bainbridge Mill rail-logging operation. The trail stretches for 25 kilometers along the foot of the Beaufort Range.
Food, drink, pit stop or whatever you need is available in the city of Port Alberni. A major hub of fishing and the logging industry offers countless restuarants and facilities. You can look for local rec sites and campgrounds here or continue on out of town as we did to find a quiet random campsite along the northern logging roads
Day 4 – Port Alberni to Lake Cowichan
The final leg of the bikepacking Vancouver Island Sunshine Coast loop starts with a climb out of the Alberni Inlet and makes its way south to Bamfield. (terminus of the famous West Coast Trail) This is a very busy and active logging road so ride safely and stay alert. Very large logging trucks move fast here and kick up loads of dust making breathing and visibility tough at times.
Near the end of the Alberni Inlet you turn off Bamfield road onto Carmanah Main as you drop into the Nitinat region. This is where the Alberni Valley meets the Cowichan Valley with your last major turn onto North Shore Road leading to Lake Cowichan. At the far west end of the lake is a possible camping spot at Kissinger Rec site as well as the many spots on the north side of the river.
Eventually you arrive in lake Cowichan which is the summer getaway for boaters and weekend campers. It can be very busy so take care on the roads in the area. In town you can stop at any of the restaurants or grocery stores to restock and reenergize yourself.
Lake Cowichan presents you with two options, you can take the north side of the river and add a few miles to ride across the 66 Mile trestle enjoying the BC Parks section of the Great Trail. Or you can stick to the north side of the river on the CVRD section of the Great Trail and zip the 25km fast into Duncan and then following the Great Trail route back to Nanaimo (Chemainus for me) to complete the loop. Trails BC has a nice overview on both options here ~ Cowichan/Great Trail
Lake Cowichan can make for a great day 5 stop, the only reason I put in such a big day is that I was so close to home.
Disclaimer ~ Bikepacking Vancouver island Sunshine Coast Loop
I have put this information up to try and help others plan their own bikepacking trip. The information is what I had at the time and anything I share here is used at your own risk. This route involves varied terrain, skill levels with much of it remote and some areas with no cell reception. It is important to know that some areas are private forest lease land and some are busy highways. There is wildlife including bears along much of the route and weather conditions can change rapidly. Be prepared to stay overnight in a spot with extra food. Be aware of leave no trace principles and also do your utmost to respect the region you are in. Check seasonal access closures, ferry schedules and other related travel advisories before setting out.
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