Alice Lake Loop
A favourite backroads ride
This is a core north Vancouver Island ride, one promoted by the local Tourism offices and communities (check this out). It loops west off the North Island Highway north of Port McNeill onto Highway 30, paved all the way to Port Alice. For those who prefer to stay on paved roads, they could get to Port Alice then retrace their steps. But the full "loop" returns to the highway from Port Alice by a more southern backroads route, with excellent riding (some short nasty climbs) and a string of scenic lakes and Rec camping options, big and small, along the way.
This pic is from the southern backroads segment of the loop. It's the mouth of the Benson River where it flows into south Benson Lake.
Rolling, winding, paved Highway 30 west to Port Alice, with very little traffic
Comfort, treats and northern charm at Port Alice, along the SE shores of majestic Neroutsos Inlet
Wonderful lakes and Rec camping options along the way. Port Alice turns out to be a backroads hub
Some easy to reach and interesting (though modest) tourist sites like the Eternal Fountain and Devil's Bath, a giant sinkhole
Most of the Alice Lake Loop is a formally promoted tourist route. This means you'll meet other travellers, and that on the backroads portion, logging trucks keep a keen eye out for other traffic. All good for cycle tourists
Beaver Lake Rec Site, a day use area at the junction of Highway 30 to Port Alice, and the North Island Highway (Hwy 19), about 20kms north of the Port McNeill turn-off. Excellent rec site, popular with locals in season for swimming and picnicking. In the off season, looks like an excellent camping candidate if you really need a place to stay
Days for Ride: The formal Alice Lake Loop is around 100kms. The route I took (on the map below) includes a few side trips and is ~158 kms . I did this as a 3 day, 2 night ride, camping in Marble River and Link Creek campgrounds. It is possible to do as an overnighter. Needless to say, the harder riding and rougher terrain are on the more remote southern dirt track portion of the ride.
Difficulty: Medium difficulty. There are a number of small sharp (double digit grade) hills, particularly on the southern dirt road portions. There are stretches of crushed stone on the road, though mostly fairly small stone. You should expect to encounter logging trucks, particularly on the southern stretch - though trucks will be keeping an eye out for public traffic. Things get pretty remote. This is the north Island, and there can be limited traffic and long stretches between services. On my last day, from the campground at Link River heading east, I did not see another vehicle until the afternoon, past Three Isle Lake (my ride was in April, and there will be more tourist traffic in season).
Highway 30 - great rolling, winding, limited traffic, paved road riding west to Port Alice
There are some interesting side trip options.
The route I took (see below) went south from Port Alice to a connector beside the mill that goes up and over to Lake Victoria
Spruce Bay Rec Camp, though small, is well regarded. I met a local who takes his family and trailer there every year. (I did not ride the 12kms in to have a look)
Both Hwy 30 to the north, and the southern backroads segment, intersect Alice Lake Main (south), then Port Hardy Main (north), part of an alternate route north off the north Island Highway. See more on local content page - 'Getting off the NE Highway' (or follow the thumbnail link below)
LATER UPDATE: finally made the ride from Port Alice west into the grand hinterland beyond Neroutsos Inlet - out to incredible Side Bay, now a new Fav campground. One of the Island's great wilderness destinations and well worth checking out.
Downtown Port Alice, along the main road, looking north up Neroutsos Inlet. The town, population 800, is pleasant, built up the hillside, with all the tourist amenities
In Port Alice, you can stock up on supplies, grab some cold beer, find a hotel room, get some tourist info. When I later rode out to Side Bay, I left my car in town at the grocery store parking lot. I didn't see a good campground (just an RV park), though there's lots of camping at surrounding Rec Sites not too far away.
The town grew up around the pulp mill, 6kms to the south (where the paved road ends). This is another Vancouver Island example of how geography dictated settlement, as ocean going ships are able to travel Neroutsos Inlet into the heart of the Island to load up cargo.
Alas, like so many mills and communities, Neucel Specialty Cellulose, the current owner, is no longer operating, and the town is struggling to reinvent itself.
I got a chuckle out of this sign from Marble River Rec Campground, where I camped. The Marble is apparently a salmon spawning river, so they see lots of bears. I saw my first roadside bear of the season on this trip, and bear shat in a few other places.
Marble River is a recommended campground, both the Rec Site right at the highway junction (just west of the bridge) as well as in the Western Forest Products formal campsite about 1/2km north off the highway. From the campsite, you can also hike trails into Marble River Provincial Campground, which stretches north right up to Holberg Inlet. Wilderness camping is allowed.
Link River Regional Campground (below) made such an impression on me that I've added it as a favourite campground. There's 22 sites, many of them fronting the Marble River as it flows into SW Alice Lake, or along the shores of the lake itself.
This shot from Link River Regional Campground, shows the excellent swimming area and fine views up Alice Lake.
Heading east from Link River along the southern backroads route back to the north Island Highway, one enters "karst country", a geological region largely formed by water action in soluble bedrocks such as limestone and marble. This has resulted in a number of disappearing rivers, reappearing rivers and sinkholes. Several of these, the Eternal Fountain and Devil's Bath, have been developed as tourism features, with viewing stations and some trails. Both are just off the main road and worth the short diversion to check them out. In a pinch you could camp.
The big mill, Neucel (see at lower right in pic), ~6kms south of Port Alice, has essentially closed down, forcing the village to confront the same economic challenges that have hit so many small forestry towns. They are looking to retirement & adventure tourism, but there's only so much of that to go around.
The southern backroads loop back to the Island Highway has excellent riding and an abundance of scenic lakes, many with small Rec campgrounds or wild camping options. You'll pass by Kathleen Lake, Benson Lake, Trout Lake, Iron Lake, Maynard Lake, Three Isle Lake, Angler Lake and Keogh Lake (whew!). As noted above, I went through my entire morning (in cool April) without seeing a single other vehicle.
Rec Camp at SW shores of Kathleen Lake. A fishing destination. 2 tables, but room for a few more tents. Pebbled beach for swimming or boat launching.
Check this out for more local info on 'Getting off the NE Highway'
Excellent side trip options, & an overlapping route link in Kathleen Lake area
Here's the elevation / distance view.
The left side elevation scale only goes up to 300m, with a max height reached of over 250m, so nothing on this trip gets too high, but you'll do some sharp climbing.
At the start and finish you can see a short sharp climb / descent from Port McNeill's seaside centre town. It's fairly flat up the North Island Highway then west to Marble River, after which there's a sharp climb (13 degree grade). Around km65 you'll see where I took the switchback backroads track east from Neroutsos Inlet up and over to Victoria Lake, which is NOT part of the standard Alice Lake Loop (see the sharp spike down to the shores just before km70). Then, heading back NE on the backroads on the south leg of this loop, you can see more sharp little hills. From before Keogh Lake, there's a sweet steady descent to the highway.
Was able to give my new Surly ECR bikepacker a good loaded backroads workout on this ride. What a treat to ride, lots of fun! The big tires seem to have very little cost in terms of any extra effort, and just suck up the rough roads.
Here's the distance & direction guide. Things get pretty detailed, so if you're not looking into doing the ride, you'll want to give this a pass.
You can see Alice Lake to the left (east of Port Alice), which gives the loop its name. Distances here are not precise, as I haven't filtered out a few shorter side trips. Note that the "formal" (Vancouver Island Tourism) loop goes out to Port Alice then backtracks NE a ways to a connector to Link River Campground. You can see this connector in magenta/pink on the map below. My own route, however, which I recommend if you enjoy backroads, is to continue south from Port Alice (see below).
From Port McNeil, it's ~ 2kms to the highway. Then 20 kms north to Beaver Lake and the junction west on Highway 30. Then ~15kms to the Marble River bridge and the turn north to the Rec Site and (0.7km further) the WFP Rec Campsite. Then, ~16kms SW to Port Alice, good road all the way, passing the connector to Link River Campground.
Following the more southern route option in blue on the map, it's about 6kms to the mill and the turnoff (just past the golf clubhouse, easy to miss) onto the steep, rough, switchback connector (Victoria Lake FSR) 3+ kms over to Victoria Lake. If you go down to the lakeside boat launch, it's a very steep 1km descent. Note - I had initially planned to go south down Victoria Lake to loop around and come back up the east shores. However, my map showed a condemned bridge and a savvy local told me the bridge had been decommissioned and passage was not possible. So I went north on West Main (great riding) - 8kms to the junction with SE10 Main, then a further 1/2 km east to the turnoff to Link River Regional Campground (1/2kms+ access track). Once at Link River Campground, my route merged with the standard Alice Lake Loop.
From the Link River Camp turnoff, it's 4.5kms to the turn-off north to rough, basic Pinch Creek Rec Camp and the Eternal Fountain tourist feature. Past this junction, the road becomes Alice Lake Main, heading SE paralleling the Benson River. 5 further kms along, you'll reach the Devil's Bath tourist feature. Then ~5.5kms to the turnoff into Kathleen Lake Rec Camp (sweet riding). Then 7kms mostly south, past Benson Lake, and you'll reach a signed junction with Keogh Main, which you'll take to the NE.
Keogh Main takes you all the way back to the North Island Highway after 33+kms, mostly north. On the way, you'll pass Trout Lake turnoff after 1/2 km (nice little spot), 6kms further to Maynard Lake Rec Camp, 6.5kms further to Three Isles Lake Rec Camp, and another 8kms to Keogh Lake. There's a popular Rec Camp on Keogh Lake (Clint Beek), but it's on the SE shores, only reached by Cluxwe Main, that you access east past the lake, then follow a further 6kms into the campsite.
Once you reach the junction of Keogh Main and the Island Highway, it's 4kms south back to the Port McNeill turn-off.