Cycle Touring & Camping the Central Island
Area Rides & Campground
This is a bit of a different area page. I want to highlight the incredible riding, campgrounds and attractions along or near Vancouver Island's central east coast, mostly along the Old Island Highway, from Nanaimo north to Courtenay/Comox.
This is not a backroads area, as the main routes are by and large paved, and pass through a succession of friendly local towns and villages.
There's some overlap here with the Courtenay area, the Gulf Islands (Denman, Hornby, Newcastle, etc.) and a linking together with the Sunshine Coast by one of the most popular rides on this site, the Vancouver Island Sunshine Coast Loop.
Over the years, I've kept heading back to this area time and again for the stunning seaside riding, local ambience and comfortable travel infrastructure. If you are just starting out cycle touring, or looking to kick back for a while in comfort, you'll find some great ideas here.
Departure Bay, where many riders will start and/or finish their Vancouver Island ride. See the ferry heading out back to West Vancouver, as well as the seaplane landing. This pic was taken from the trails on Newcastle Island (no roads & no permanent residents) where there's a fine Provincial campground.
Below is an overview map, with buttons for the Central Island Fav rides and campgrounds. I'm focusing mostly on the camping options along or near the east coast of Vancouver Island. You'll be able to find more info on the Fav rides in other Area pages for Courtenay, Port Alberni, the Sunshine Coast or the Gulf Isles.
Here's some thoughts on the campsites in this area. Some are already part of my Favs or Honourable mentions. Others didn't quite make it onto the lists but are still spots I enjoy and recommend. You'll note they are mostly provincial parks. Caution: in season, particularly on weekends, they'll fill up. Consider making reservations.
I've organized things roughly from south (around Nanaimo) to north (around Courtenay).
Nanaimo Harbour Camping options. See the Fav ride, as well as the Honourable mention for Newcastle Island Provincial Marine Camp. Descanso Bay Provincial Park on nearby Gabriola Island is a fine camping option, but my favourite, reachable on a little foot ferry from Nanaimo Harbour, is Newcastle Island (no roads and no residents), particularly offseason, when things are a little less busy.
Rathtrevor Provincial Park Campground: An honourable mention favourite. A tried and true fav option for me that I keep returning to. Gorgeous seaside, with great hiking trails. Very popular. See photo collage down the page.
Little Qualicum River Falls & Englishman River Falls Provincial Park campgrounds: These 2 excellent parks are both about 20kms west off the island highway following Hwy4 up in the direction of Port Alberni (with branches west at both Parksville and Qualicum). Both parks have trail networks centred around local falls that can be quite impressive when there have been rains. They are comfortable, well treed, with private sites and a sense of being close to nature. Worth the side trip off the coastal highway.
Fillongley Provincial Park Campground: On the east coast of Denman Island, a short ferry hop across from Buckley Bay, ~25kms south of Courtenay. An honourable mention favourite. The site has only 10 sites, spread around a not so special parking area. However, it's right along the seaside and there's great beach walking.
Here's some camping options as you near Courtenay and the Comox ferry connection over to Powell River - or the continuing ride north Island to Campbell River and beyond.
If you're taking the ferry to/from Powell River, and need a place to camp nearby, I recommend Kin Beach Campground - a provincial park, but small and managed locally. Like most community campgrounds, this is fairly basic - a road close behind, limited trails, and a little cramped. But it's along the beautiful seaside, and close to the terminal. No surprise, they fill up in season (open year round), but if you call in advance, they'll usually try to fit in another cyclist. Only 10 minutes (flat) ride from Little River Ferry Terminal.
I also like Kitty Coleman Campground, 12+kms or so north along the seaside (see pic above), which can fit much the same description as that above for Kin Beach, except it's a little wilder and out of the way. And if you're going north a ways, you may as well consider Miracle Beach Provincial Park Campground, ~25kms north. This is one of the big, treed, full service provincial campgrounds, a short walk off a wonderful stretch of seaside.
Alternatively, to the SW of Courtenay, in behind the satellite village of Cumberland, check out Cumberland Lake Park Campground, a popular private campsite with nice swimming beaches. If you're into mountain biking, Cumberland is Vancouver Island's major hub, with trails and backroads all about.
Finally, if you want to be near the centre of Courtenay town, you can check out Puntledge RV Campground - a nice enough, reliable place to set up (big field & facilities; run by Comox First Nation), but the attraction is the nearby town.
As many cycle tourists reach Vancouver Island on the ferry from the mainland to Nanaimo, here's some info for when you arrive.
See the map above of Nanaimo's central waterfront area. Many have only seen Nanaimo as they pass through along the busy highway. But check out the waterfront and you'll find a vibrant, attractively developed, popular stretch, complete with views to die for, parks, restaurants and shops to entice you. Bustling marinas with boats, ferries and seaplanes coming and going. All a few blocks from the downtown core.
Coming off the Departure Bay ferry from Vancouver, if you're heading south, you can ride the wide sidewalks of Stewart Avenue for over 1 km, then 2+ kms on the excellent multi-use Harbourfront Walkway. If you want to start (or finish) your Island cycling adventure with something easy going, check out the favourite ride to the campgrounds on Newcastle and Gabriola Islands, both reached on ferries from Nanaimo Harbour.
Departure Bay ferry terminal would be another km+ to the east/right on the map above. In the lower mid-right, you'll see where one catches the foot ferry to Newcastle Island near Swy-a-Lana Lagoon in Maffeo-Sutton Park. At the far left bottom corner, you'll see the docks for the car ferry to Gabriola Island.
North from Nanaimo, one usually zones out the traffic and rides the big 4 lane Island Highway (though there are side road routes north to Lantzville, then from Nanoose Bay into Parksville). Big, wide shoulders and occasional fine seaside views. At Parksville, the big highway branches inland some, and the Old Island Highway (Hwy19A) follows closer to the coast, passing through the local towns (see FAQ on new vs old highway routes).
I almost always take the old highway for the excellent riding and scenery, along with full service campgrounds, shops and occasional restaurants, and a relaxed ambience. Sometimes a side trip to Denman & Hornby for some smaller "Island time" (see blog post).
From Courtenay and next door Comox, one can catch the Little River ferry over to Powell River and the Sunshine Coast, check out some of the nearby camping options, or keep heading north to Campbell River on the old highway.
Although Rathtrevor Provincial Campground (see pic collage above), at the south end of Parksville, can get very popular in season, it has long been a favourite campsite of mine. It's such a comfortable spot, with grand seaside trails and views (see top left). Bottom left & right is the walk-in tenting area (which fills up in peak season). Top right shows the long seaside walkway in downtown Parksville just north of the park, several blocks east off the old highway.
Vancouver Island Sunshine Coast Loop:
As noted above, the Vancouver Island Sunshine Coast Loop tour is a tried and true favourite ride for cycle tourists, including many international visitors. And small wonder, with the beautiful seaside stretches, hospitable communities, and lots of great riding and campgrounds. The Vancouver Island leg passes through this Central Vancouver Island area. All told, the ride is ~230kms, on good paved roads – mostly secondary highways with basic shoulders. About 110kms is on Vancouver Island, all on decent road with no major hills.
Thrown in the mix are 4 scenic ferry trips. It's best done over 3 or 4 days, so you get a chance to see the area and enjoy the camping. In season, you're almost guaranteed to meet other cycle tourists.
There's so much to see and do along the Central Island, that I couldn't resist throwing in one more photo collage above. Top left shows some carved poles from the Qualicum First Nation Campground, a good seaside option (though mostly RVs) at Qualicum Beach. Top right shows sea lions hanging out on a log boom along Fanny Bay (Denman Island in the background). Bottom right is the Highwayman saloon across from the shores at Union Bay. In the upper windows are lingerie clad mannequins (!!); trying to give that old saloon vibe, I guess. Bottom left is a favourite antique shop in south Bowser along the inland highway: endless rooms of whimsical stuff to be found.
Dusk - looking across Nanaimo Harbour to the downtown, from Newcastle Island Provincial Marine campground. It's likely most of your neighbours will be of the nautical sort, sleeping on boats moored in Newcastle marina, which you can see here.
Check this page out for local info on getting off onto the backroads south of Courtenay - all the way to Horne Lake & Port Alberni
Let me finish up with a pic from Courtenay at the north end of this Central Island stretch of great riding. There's lots of fine trail riding in and around the town. And the neighbouring village of Cumberland is renowned as the epicentre of mountain bike trails & riding on Vancouver Island.