Courtenay South on the Backroads
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In October 2017, I added the epic 'Tip to Tip' backroads ride from Sooke in the far south to Cape Scott at the NW tip of Vancouver Island. A key segment is the backroads route from Courtenay to Port Alberni, via SW Comox Lake. Recently, a logging company gate has been blocking public access (APRIL 2020 - the gate is open on weekends). There's a tough, high altitude workaround via Tsable Lake high in the Beaufort Range. I set out to find a route south from Courtenay, through the backroads up from the east coast, reaching to Horne Lake, from where there are a handful of backroads options SW to Port Alberni (see fav backroads ride).
This page details a backroads route south from Courtenay to Horne Lake (and on to Port Alberni). For one section, starting just south from Courtenay, I've included two route options, as one gets into some higher elevation (~700m), and will be under snows during the colder months.
This backroads ride south from Courtenay is longer, higher, wilder and tougher than the direct highway route south, but it seems some riders just prefer the ornery options. It has some grand views and fine riding.
Looking east down from upper Idle Main, south of the Trent River. This grand hinterlands, up from the Island's east coast, south of Courtenay, is rarely visited. Idle Main is also part of the route up to high elevation Poum Lake, an Honourable Mention Fav backroads ride.
This is very much a backroads option, with rough, steep, partially overgrown stretches, some pushing (some exposed rock & loose stones), and a couple of creeks to ford (ankle deep, June through September). You'll climb up to 700m on the higher elevation option south from Courtenay. You may meet logging. The route gets complex: though I provide (painfully) detailed directions below, you may want to email me to get the GPX track. There are a number of jump off options, if you want to head down to the coast (for example, to check out Denman Island).
This is also a fun, challenging riding route, through areas rarely visited, with occasional openings into grand views, where wild camping options abound - a great alternative to the more straight forward (and heavily travelled) coastal highway.
I had fun finding this route. Most of this backroads hinterland is oriented towards the coast where logs are hauled. A number of rivers and creeks split the area up, and sometimes make north south riding a challenge. This pic shows yet another one of the dead ends I encountered as I tried to find connections.
You can see the general route for this backroads connector south in the map below. I've chosen the lower elevation route as the main route (in purple) as it is easier (not so much steep climbing) and will be snow free longer. That said, this 'easier route' includes a ford of Trent River (usually just ankle deep in season, but you may want to bring sandals) and has several rugged stretches you'll likely need to push your bike through. The higher elevation option in red has a good bridge over the Trent River, but includes a rough connector between upper Idle Main and Buckley Bay Main that is steep, a little overgrown in spots, and strewn with loose stones (you may want to do this upper connector from south to north).
You'll spend some riding time on 4 major logging networks: Trent River, Buckley Bay (BB), Hastings and Cook Horne Bowser FSR. You'll also put in some kms along Van West Main, Idle Main, Tsable Main, Rosewall Road and more.
South from Courtenay, the main rivers/creeks, which define route options, are:
the Trent, where there's 2 crossing options to choose from below, a bridge over the higher elevation inland route, and a shallow ford to wade through (aside from the spring melt; you may want to bring some sandals along).
Tsable River - thankfully there's an inland bridge south of Buckley Bay Main
Rosewall Creek (really a river) - there used to be an interior bridge, but that's been decommissioned, and the creek is too deep to ford outside dry summer (you can contact me for more details). Thankfully, there's a bridge along an old road beside the new, big highway (see pic below map)
Wilfred Creek - you'll climb up inland along Hastings Main, then descend to cross a bridge over the Wilfred
As you can see, which-ever backroads route you choose will not exactly follow a straight line south.
The pic below was sent in by Peter B, an avid backroad rider. In August 2018 he managed to ford Rosewell Creek at the old decommissioned bridge, a good piece inland from the Island Highway. He was heading south and managed to make the connection to Cook Horne Bowser FSR (nicely done!). The pic below was along the final track down to the creek on the north side. I had gone down this route in spring 2017, but the creek then was too high and fierce, so I turrned back. Good to hear this can be crossed later in the summer, but, be warned, it's a rough & tough stretch. Peter also had an unsettling encounter, as several cougars seemed to follow him for a while (this is VERY rare).
Below is the distance elevation chart (main route, with lower elevation option south from Courtenay). Overall the route is 90+kms. You can see there's lots of tough upping and downing, as one heads down to the coast or into river valleys, then back up again. There's no street markers or such for stretches of this route, so the distance markers on the chart are helpful when referring to the complicated directions further down the page.
The 'lower option' south from Courtenay is between the 2 red dots on the elevation chart. I've added a 2nd mini-elevation chart for the higher elevation route option a little further down (go straight there now), only showing that portion that is in red on the map above.
If you want to head down to Buckley Bay for a ferry to Denman Island, just continue straight (east) on BB Main past the turnoff down to the Tsable River at km 32.
Around km 55, we get right down to alongside the big highway to cross over Rosewall Bridge - the old bridge further inland has been decommissioned (see pic further below).
As noted above, the elevation along Cook Horne Bowser FSR gets high enough (over 450m) that the route will be snowed in during winter months. My usual rule of thumb is that snow may be a blocking factor once one gets near 200m.
If you plan to head onwards from Horne Lake SW to Port Alberni via the backroads, check out the Horne Lake Port Alberni Wheel Fav backroads ride.
Below is the elevation and marker guide for the 'high elevation option' south from Courtenay. You can see it is only ~15kms, and certainly gets into some climbing - up to ~700m (;eft axis elevation scale goes up to 800m). This segment is an alternate to the 'lower option' between the 2 red dots on main elevation chart above.
Here's the route directions, starting from the north at the Starbucks in downtown Courtenay. Apologies for the complexity - if you have a GPS, ask me for the GPX file, or check out this page if you'd like more info on GPS devices & file sharing.
It's ~5kms south on Cumberland Rd out to the Comox Valley Parkway, then another 1.5kms to the turnoff east onto paved Minto Road. Keep on Minto (east then south) for ~3.5kms (wonderful riding) until you reach Royston Rd where you'll turn right. After ~1km you'll see a rough gated track to the left (N49° 37.794' W124° 58.796') heading south. Keep on this track for 3 kms (do not take signed trail west to Cumberland) to the overpass over the big inland highway: it starts as a basic trail, then turns into a better track (I was told this was part of the old CP railway path), then becomes a better backroad. You'll cross the big highway on CPFP overpass and find yourself on Trent Main, and you'll slowly climb for ~2kms until you see a rough unmaintained track off to the left. This is the start of the main/lower route option south from Courtenay on the map above:
1. Main/lower route option south from Courtenay
Look for an old sign for Branch TM 3E (for Trent Main). It's~700m of rough, winding descent to the Trent River. You'll see the road continues on the other side. You can choose where you think it best to push your bike across (suggest carrying sandals). My fording in late May was about ankle deep.
On the other side of the Trent is one of the roughest stretches as you climb up a steep loose track. After a bit, you'll get onto a better track angling east, and ~1.6kms from the crossing you'll reach a junction where you'll go right/up onto Van West Main (branches called VW .... ). If you wanted to avoid fording the Trent (and don't want to take the high elevation route option), you can get onto Van West Main from a junction off the coastal highway a km or 2 north of Union Bay - look for a tiny diagonal old track with small sign on the NW corner telephone pole (only visible coming from the north).
After 3kms, you'll reach a turn left onto a smaller less maintained track gradually climbing up. This is a key turn for this route (N49° 35.812' W124° 59.672'). About 150m before the turn, there's a sign on the right indicating the road will narrow ahead. You'll cross a barely perceptible wooden creek bridge and the junction left is immediately after. See pic below.
After 1/2km there's another Y junction: keep right/south, even though this is the less travelled option with some encroaching undergrowth. Stick with this another 1km and things will start to look real mean - seems they decommissioned the track, but a trail has been pushed through. After ~50m of this rough stuff, you'll emerge from the forest cover into a wide logged over area, with a much better track right in front of you. This is BB103-14 (Buckley Bay network). Follow BB103-14 SE for 1/2km then keep right on BB103 a further 1.5kms until you reach the junction with bigger Buckley Bay Main, where you'll turn left/east towards the coast (note there was active logging when I visited, but it was Sunday, so things were quiet).
This is the end of the main/lower route option south from Courtenay.
Continued after pic following ....
The key junction left/south off Van West (as one is heading south). You can see you'll take the smaller track. Note the barely perceptible wooden bridge over the creek in the lower left.
Route directions, continued from above pic ....
2. Alternate/higher route option south from Courtenay
We're starting here from the junction with Trent Main where the main/lower route branches down TM3E to ford the Trent River. We won't take this, but will continue straight/west up Trent Main a further ~3.5kms to the junction left/SW onto South Trent Main. Just under 1km will get us to the bridge over the Trent River. We'll continue up on South Trent for under a km until the junction with Idle Main, where we'll go left/south. A further under 1km will get us to the junction with IDM200, where we'll branch left/south. We'll cross a couple of creeks and after almost a km, we'll reach what looks sort of like an end of road, but with a rougher track right/up the hillside (see pic below): take this right up for just under 1km and the track will curl to the left/south into a clearing.
You'll see a rougher, partially overgrown track to the SE (into forest cover when I rode this) - take this which climbs up (steep & rocky, I had to push stretches; see pic below) under 1km. There's another old track here V'ing up to the right/west, but keep straight to SE for a further 1.3kms and you'll get to some concrete blocks (with a trail around - see pic above), and on the other side is well maintained Buckley Bay Main (yahoo!). If you wanted to keep climbing, you could branch right up to Poum Lake (see honourable mention Fav ride). But we're heading right/SE down Buckley Bay Main. Buckle up, as things are steep in stretches.
It's just under 5km down BB Main to the junction with BB103 where we rejoin the main/lower route south from Courtenay already described above.
In spring/early summer 2018, there was a fair amount of lgging around this area (see pic below; in the way of cyclical logging, they'll have moved on in some months). Buckley Bay Main is a well maintained logging road, and I had to pull over for a few trucks. If it has been hot & dry, bring a dust mask or bandana.
Some pics from along the alternate/higher option south from Courtenay. Top left shows the track, behind concrete blocks, off Buckley Bay Main: this is where the 2km rough connector up from Idle Main ends. Top right is a view from upper IDM200 (Idle Main) looking east over the Georgia Strait. Bottom right shows some recent logging off Buckley Bay Main (met a couple of friendly drivers). Bottom left is a segment of the rough connector between upper Idle Main and Buckley Bay Main.
All right - so our 2 route options south from Courtenay have rejoined at the junction of Buckley Bay Main and BB103....
Grand riding descending down BB Main for 7+kms to the turnoff right (signed) then 1/2 km down to the bridge over the Tsable River. After ~150m you'll reach a junction: take the right to climb up Tsable Main. After under 2kms, you'll reach a junction onto Tsable 21 Holiday Main Connector to the south. Follow this ~1.2kms to junction with smaller, less maintained 21-14 Holiday Connect, heading up to the left. NOTE: following this rough connector will get you through, but the road gets real bad and steep, and one has to ford Cowie Creek (see above pic) complete with decommissioned bridge.
(From the signs, I suspect that if I had stayed on the better Holiday Connector (angling right at the junction) it would have got me through to Hastings Road, which I'll be connecting back to. Had an email from Roger, a site visitor (thx Roger), who said this worked for him (but I have not yet ridden this and have earned that people are sometimes talking different directions).
The 21-14 Holiday Connect track gets rougher, climbs & descends (some pushing), and after 2.5kms reaches a junction, with a decommissioned bridge SE just ahead (see pic above). It's some work to haul a bike through (4 trenches & many big logs), but the creek itself is small and I was able to walk across on stones. The road gets better and switchbacks up a good climb, and after 3kms you'll reach a 3 way junction with the Holiday Connector (again) coming from the west, and Hastings Main heading SE. You'll see signs indicating Hastings is the route for truck traffic, so I took it. After ~5.5kms you'll reach the bridge over Wilfred Creek. Then NE for another ~5.5kms, including a great descent, to a junction with Rosewall Road where you'll branch right/south just east of the powerline clearing.
Stick on Rosewall between the big highway and the powerline for under 5kms where you'll cross Rosewall creek over an old bridge right alongside the big highway. Your track will angle inland and after under 1km you'll morph into a rough track heading SE below the powerline. After a km you'll descend (rough!) to McNaughton Creek, which I was able to cross on stones. Then, after under a km, your track will angle left/NE and become McNaughton Main, shortly crossing a bridge over Cook Creek, then under the big highway and after a further ~1/2km, you'll reach Cook Road.
Cook Road heads inland across the big highway (or left to the nearby coastal highway) and turns into Cook Horne Bowser FSR which winds its way all the way to the west end of Horne Lake. For details in this last stretch, see this section in the Fav backroads ride for Horne Lake to Port Alberni.
A grand view NW off Buckley Bay Main, looking SW. Not surprisingly, our route here gets into a huge interior hinterlands - rarely visited by outsiders. And, as expected, the forestry industry has been active. There's still endless terrain to be explored.