Town of Cowichan Lake
& Nearby Camping Options
Cowichan Lake is a south Island riding hub, with a stack of favourite rides, including the Cowichan Valley Trail, and rides down to the SW Coast. This page pulls together more info on the town of Lake Cowichan, and a few of my favourite camping options close to the more accessible east end of the lake.
Given that most cyclists will actually start or finish their Cowichan ride in Duncan, let me start with a pic from downtown Duncan.
Duncan calls itself the "City of Totems': there are 80 totem poles around town. The Cowichan First Nation calls itself the largest single First Nation band in BC. Duncan proper has a population of 5,000, but it is the centre for the wider Cowichan Valley, with a population of 80,000
The town of Cowichan Lake has a population of ~3,000, with a similar number in the surrounding area. It's at the east corner of Cowichan Lake, at the mouth of the Cowichan River which continues east into the Strait of Georgia 30+kms away. Historically, forestry has been the economic engine, and it continues to play a key role, with tourism of increasing importance.
The main access to Cowichan Lake is via a paved highway from Duncan to the east. There is also a paved route south to Port Renfrew along the SW Island coast. For cyclists, one can also ride the Cowichan Valley Trail up to the lake, or ride backroads (some remotre and rough, some used by the public) in all directions, including west to Port Alberni.
In summer time, Cowichan Lake is a swimming and boating paradise, and "tubing" on the Cowichan River is a favourite pastime.
"Tubing" on the Cowichan River on a July weekend. This pic was taken from the main bridge in downtown Cowichan Lake. You'll find the tubers in various popular spots all down the river, including some fairly daring stretches
A few more pics from Cowichan Lake. The top left is from the lakeside park in front of the downtown museum & Tourist Info Centre. You can swim or picnic or just hang out. You can see at the mid-left the dam that regulates water flowing into the river. Top right is the 'Western Terminus' of the Cowichan Valley Trail (local name for the Trans Canada Trail): this is the best stretch of cycle touring trail on all of Vancouver Island. The lower left shows old St. Louis de Montfort Catholic Church. And the bottom right shows one of a number of town parks, this one beside the downtown library.
The map below shows the 30km long (running east - west) Lake Cowichan. It gives a good idea of the lake area, although the north shore forestry (Rec) campgrounds of Pine Point & Maple Grove (both recommended) are closer to the village of Youbou than they appear.
The lake itself is at an elevation of ~180m, and the roads near the east end are relatively tame, with some rolling hills. On the more populated south shore, the road is paved east to Gordon Bay Provincial Campground (the best serviced camping option around). On the north shore, it is paved to Youbou village. If it gets hot and dry in the summer, the western dirt roads can get dusty, so bring a dust mask.
If you're on a longer ride travelling through, the north road is the most direct route to the west end of the lake, and connections onwards to Nitinat and Port Aberni. Along the south road are backroad routes south to the hinterlands, as well as (from Mesachie) the paved Pacific Marine Road to Port Renfrew and the gorgeous SW Coast.
A main purpose of this Cowichan Lake page is to share some thoughts on camping options near the east end of the lake (where most people visit). Hands down, my favourite campground is Gordon Bay Provincial Park, ~12 kms SW of town. It's got all the usual big, private camping sites, trees, showers and nice maintenance, but the kicker here is the fine swimming beach. Nothing like reaching here at the end of a hard ride, setting up camp, then heading for a dip. The downsides are it can be buggy on occasion, it's fairly costly ($35/night in season), and it fills up on weekends in the summer (so consider reservations).
The swimming beach at Gordon Bay Campground. There's a log boom around the main area to keep things contained. The sandy lakeside drops off fairly quickly, so you need to keep an eye on small kids. It seems small kayaks & inflatable devices are now the norm for a day at the lake.
On the above map of the lake (and pic below), you'll see Lakeview Park Campsite just west of Cowichan Lake town. This is another worthwhile lakefront campground, run by the town, good-sized with over 70 sites, showers (!), your closest option to town. It's open year round and takes reservations in season. Swimming & boating are the big draw in summer. All the basics.
Lakeview Park Campsite. This pic was taken in winter, with almost no one around. But you get an idea of the lakefront location, the facilities (showers!) and the basic standards of the place.
If you're riding the Cowichan Valley Trail, and make the paved sidetrip to camp out at Gordon Bay, there's some nice waterfront stops along the way, in Mesachie & Honeymoon Bay. You may want to stop for a swim or lunch break. Note you will not find stores in these picturesque south shore villages.
Bear Lake Park in Mesachie. As you enter the village from the east, turn right down to the lake just before the park with the baseball diamond - and wonderfully named 'Mesachie Sky Dome'.
There are also a good number of Rec Campsites along the western shores of Cowichan Lake. All of these are decent basic campsites, lakefront, maintained, with fees collected in season. I have found some of them (e.g. Heather) prone to loud partying on summer weekends. A few kms west off the above map of the lake, is Kissinger Lake Rec Camp, recommended.
My favourites are Maple Grove and Pine Point on the north shores west of Youbou (where the paved road ends). They are popular family spots in the summer. They are roughly 4kms and 6kms west of Youbou, where you will find a store and, in the summer, a restaurant. There's also an elk herd that likes to hang around the NW end of the lake, and if you're lucky you might meet up with some.
The north shore village of Youbou, snapped from across the lake.
Finally, let me bring Stoltz Pool Provincial Park Campground to attention. This is off Riverbottom Road along the north shores of the Cowichan River. It's a bit of an up & down side trip off the Cowichan Valley Trail, and a few kms west - signed - off the highway. I've always liked the natural setting, the trails, and the river at this campground, particularly in the off-seasons. There are 4 or 5 walk-in sites, ideal for cyclist tourists. During summer, one can swim in spots along the river.
Stoltz Pool Provincial Park, a favourite camping spot of mine: nothing special, but it feels like wilderness, there's good trails about, and it's good riding to reach. There's 4 or 5 walk-in sites, ideal for cycle tourists