Cycle Touring Cowichan Lake & SW Vancouver Island
Area Rides & Campgrounds
This is really 2 areas of South Vancouver Island that I've combined into one, as they are connected by a web of routes through the grand hinterland in between Cowichan Lake & the SW Coast.
Cowichan Lake is a hub for countless fantastic rides. From near Duncan on the Island Highway (about halfway between Nanaimo and Victoria), it's about 30kms, gradually climbing west up several hundred metres, to reach the town of Cowichan Lake and the east end of the lake. To get there you can either ride secondary Hwy 28, or (and this is totally brilliant!) several segments of the Cowichan Valley Trail (CVT), as the Trans Canada Trail is locally known.
The lake is big: 75kms+ to ride around, paved only near the east end on both the south & north shores. There are all sorts of camping options: provincial campgrounds, a town campground, several private campgrounds and at least a half dozen Rec campsites. And there are lots of great backroads heading off north, west or south.
Ride the SW Coast, from Sooke (west of Victoria) west along the West Coast Road as far as Port Renfrew. There's drop dead gorgeous scenery, some great trails, top camping options, and lots of backroads (and one paved route) heading north towards Cowichan Lake.
Note - I do not like to, or recommend that anyone else, ride the big island highway on the south island as one gets close to Victoria: it is just too busy, with lots of truck traffic (there's a building boom). There is a shoulder, but the south of the Malahat is only 2 lanes.
The wonderful campground outside Port Renfrew - Pacheedaht 1st Nations Campground. It stretches for several kms along the seaside beach, and, even in busy season, can always accommodate another walk-in tenter. Facilities are rather basic in places, but there's a vibe to the place, popular in summer.
Small Long Lake (though there is some dispute whether this is really Long Lake). There's a tiny Rec Camp here (nice enough that I changed my plans to camp a night) as one follows the Koksilah River south via Bear Creek
Below is a summary map, with buttons for Cowichan Lake & SW Isle Fav rides and campgrounds. Look close and you'll see that the ride buttons are blue with blue shading, and the campground buttons are green with green shading. The map ropes together a lot of content:
Under the map, the rides and the campgrounds are listed alphabetically, with links to the pages or summaries for each. This gives you a geographic overview of southern options you'll find within this website, and links to follow if you wish.
Links for buttons in above map - click to jump to pages with more detailed information.
Cowichan Lake & SW Isle Area Rides (blue buttons):
Bamfield Highway. Honourable Mention rides - backroads. SW Coast, south from Cowichan Lake.
Carmanah Walbran. Honourable Mention rides - backroads. SW from Cowichan Lake.
Cowichan Kinsol SW Coast. Fav ride for all. SW Coast, south from Cowichan Lake.
Cowichan Lake Nitinat Port Alberni. Backroads ride. West from Cowichan Lake.
Cowichan Kinsol SW Coast Backroads. Backroads ride. SW Coast, south from Cowichan Lake.
Cowichan Valley Trail. Fav ride for all. E/SE from Cowichan Lake.
Galiano & Mayne Islands. Fav ride for all. South Gulf Islands.
Labour Day Lake Museum Main Port Alberni. Backroads ride. NW from Cowichan Lake
Nanaimo Cowichan Lakes Loop. Honourable Mention rides - backroads. North of Cowichan Lake
Routes & trails to South Ferries. Page on ferry access. Victoria & south Gulf Isles
Ruckle Park (Saltspring Island). Fav ride for all. South Gulf Isles - Saltspring.
Cowichan Lake & SW Isle Area Campgrounds (green buttons):
- Jordan River Regional Camp. Fav campground. SW Coast.
- Montague Harbour Provincial Marine Camp. Fav Campground. South Gulf Isles.
- Nitinat Lake Rec Camp. Fav campground. SW from Cowichan Lake.
- Nitinat River Informal Camps. Honourable mention camp. NW from Cowichan Lake.
- Ruckle Park Provincial Camp. Fav campground. South Gulf Isles - Saltspring.
- Sooke Potholes Regional Campground. Honourable mention camp. Sooke.
- Stoltz Pool Provincial Campground. Honourable mention camp. East of Cowichan Lake.
Along the SW coast, east of Port Renfrew. Some gorgeous views.
Duncan, along the Hwy up the east side of the Island, is the major centre. Although it has a formal population of only ~5,000, it's the centre for the overall Cowichan Valley, with a population of over 80,000. It's also famous for ~80 totem poles throughout the town.
Early in the 1900s, Lake Cowichan was a logging hub (see more on the town and nearby camping via the linked page below). The area has gone through challenges as mills close and forests dwindle. Today, the village of Lake Cowichan has a population of ~3,000. Youbou (north shore) - under 1,000. Port Renfrew along the SW coast - several hundred. Logging remains the main economic driver, but tourism and recreation (including cottages & retirement homes) are playing a growing role. Along the SW coast, towns such as Sooke increasingly serve as bedroom communities for nearby Victoria.
Pics in the collage above are from the town of Cowichan Lake: top left from the lakeside park in front of the downtown museum & Tourist Centre. Top right - the 'Western Terminus' of the Cowichan Valley Trail. Lower left shows old St. Louis de Montfort Catholic Church. Bottom right shows a town park beside the downtown library.
One of the more close-in sections of the Cowichan Valley Trail, nearing Shawnigan Lake. I thought I was doing some tough riding, then this unicyclist comes along doing it all with one wheel and no hands!
Winding along the north stretches of the new Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail. There are some fabulous views. It's not a long trail (13 kms only), but it's tough, with many steep little hills if you're carrying a load on your bike. It now connects directly to the Cowichan Valley Trail SW of Shawnigan Lake.
In the summer, the Cowichan area is a swimmers' (and tubers') paradise. From the collage below: Top left - along the Cowichan River; top right - Bear Lake Park in Mesachie; bottom left - family beach at popular Gordon Bay Provincial campground; and, bottom right - more tubing along the Cowichan River, this time with the pic taken from the bridge right in town.
If you come this way in the hot summer, be sure to leave yourself time for some swimming. Or rent tubes in town.
Check out these linked pages for more local info
The clip below is from Jordan River Regional Campground along the SW Coast (a favourite campground). I've been by there a few times now, including several times in winter. There's always a little colony of surfers, often out for big waves at first light. Basic campsite, but great place to camp and meet some interesting folks.
This was an experiment with video on my website. Not sure yet whether I'll plan to add more, but it's good to see the platform makes it possible.
Crazy winter surfers at Jordan River
A final pic. How time flies. My niece & nephew riding with me to camp west of Youbou, along the north shore of Cowichan Lake. This was a memorable trip as we were awoken in the night by a herd of big elk.
I'm heavily loaded as I've got more than my own gear (we also had car support). These 2 are now a lot bigger & out in the working world (yikes!).