Courtenay NW Lakes

A favourite backroads ride

When I moved to Courtenay, I discovered a great backroads riding hinterland NW of town, complete with climbs, remote lakes and basic camping.

 

This backroads ride starts in Courtenay, heads out to Duncan Bay Main (DBM), west of the big Island Highway, rides NW, then branches off to one's choice of lakes. I've crammed in more local lakes than one would tackle on a regular ride, some requiring 'there and back' side trips, just to bring them to people's attention. The ride finishes with a monster climb up behind Mt Washington ski area, then a final 20km tear bombing down paved Strathcona Parkway.  

Fall salmon season. From the bridge over the Puntledge River at the north edge of Courtenay town - the start and finish of this fine ride

Salmon fishing | Puntledge River bridge, north Courtenay | cycle touring Vancouver Island

Some highlights:

  • Tough backroad climb up to Mt Washington ski area, including fording a swift creek where the old bridge has been decommissioned. Followed by an incredible 20km descent back to town on paved Strathcona Parkway

  • Remote wild camping on tiny Little Lost Lake, with not a soul about (other than an energetic beaver)

  • Challenging riding on rough access connectors into Regan and Blue Grouse Lakes

UPDATE, JUNE 2018: I returned to the Upper Oyster River/Piggott Creek area and pushed through a new rough backroads route up to Mt Washington. This followed what some maps call Rossiter Main. This route is rougher (a tough quad might make it) and more overgrown (which could in future choke the route off) than the Piggot Main route detailed below (also up to the top of Mt Washington). However, there was no decommissioned creek to ford. I've added a map and a couple of pics at the bottom here on this alternate route option.

Regan Lake Campsite | bikepacking NW Courtenay Lakes | fav cycle tour

Packed up and ready to start home from a sweet camping spot overlooking Regan Lake. It's a tough ride to get in here (things can get a little flooded after heavy rains). There are 2 small spots camping spots, room for maybe a couple of tents each, about a km of rough track apart. This one, my favourite, is to the south of the access track

Days for Ride:  Suggested as a night or two out from Courtenay. But the ride ropes together some local lakes I want to bring to attention. This entails some there and back side trips on the route below:

  • 33kms out to Quinsam Lake then back

  • 13 kms out to Little Lost Lake & Lost Lake, then back

  • couple of kms on final stretch into Blue Grouse Lake & back

  • ~3kms for final access track into Regan Lake & back.

If you decide to check out everything, the ride is a tough 150kms, including 20kms bombing wildly down a thousand metres along paved Strathcona Parkway from Mount Washington ski area.  

 

For the full route I'd suggest camping at Little Lost or Regan Lake (both a good effort to get into). If you have 2 nights, camp at Quinsam Lake & Regan Lake. If it's winter (~October through May), you'll be unable to head up to Mt Washington due to snows. 

 

Difficulty:  Experienced. The lakes here are remote, with very basic camping options & access tracks. But it's the backroad connector up to Mt Washington that makes for this top difficulty rating. It's a tough climb (pushing may be needed in spots), with parts partly overgrown, and a blockage due to a decommissioned bridge. Bring footwear that you can get wet. I've heard (and will check out someday) there is an alternate tough backroad option that also reaches Mt Washington, I suspect via Rossiter Main. It is possible you may meet logging trucks on the lower parts of this this route (e.g. Duncan Bay or Piggott Mains), and in hot, dry summer it could get dusty.

Part way through hauling my bike & gear across this stream where the bridge has been decommissioned. It's fairly common for logging companies to pull out bridges in the interest of public safety (& liability) when the economics to support repairing a decaying structure are no longer there

Portaging decommissioned bridge | bikepacking Surly ECR

There are side trip options.  

  • The side trip to Quinsam Lake takes you near the Cranberry Lane junction with the big Island Highway, which you can take north or south or east to the coast. Note that although there's a bridge on Piggott Main over the highway, you will not be able to access the highway there.  

  • There's a ride I've heard about that I want to try from Quinsam Lake. If one continues a few kms past the pullout camping along SW Quinsam Lake, there's a main heading west south of the Quinsam River. My map shows this connecting up to Argonaut Main (road into Upper Quinsam & Wokas Lakes).  

  • Finally - you can take Duncan Bay Main north from Courtenay all the way to Campbell River (see directions below - don't turn west onto Gilson Main to Quinsam Lake). You'll reach a crossing with Elk Main, which you can take east into south Campbell River town, or west out towards Strathcona Park and a host of touring options. Or just stay on Duncan Bay Main.

Wolf Lake camp | bikepacking Wolf Lake | bikepacking Courtenay NW lakes

Informal camp along SE shores of Wolf Lake, just ~15 kms north of Courtenay. Several pullouts along Duncan Bay Main near the north of the lake have a reputation for weekend partiers, but this was a harder to reach area, early in the season (April)

There's a number of sites to check out at both the SE and NW ends of Wolf Lake just south off Duncan Bay Main. Several nice camping options are at the SE end, though the access track has a gate that is sometimes closed (with quad track around). The NW end has several lakeside pullouts, but they have a reputation for partiers, no doubt a result of the easy access from Courtenay.  

In terms of the Lost Lake & Little Lost Lake, if you are coming at them from Piggot Main to the NW, you'll reach Little Lost Lake first. I checked out both lakes, and camped at Little Lost lake (wonderful - see pic below).  Rough track in.

Dusk at my wild camp along Little Lost Lake. There were a couple of energetic beavers who woke me early by slapping their tails as they busied about. Rough little access track to reach here from Piggott Main & the Oyster River

WIld camping at Little Lost Lake | Piggott Main & Oyster River | bikepacking lakes NW of Courtenay

Here's the elevation / distance view:

This is one ride where the elevation almost looks understated - note that the left side elevation scale goes well over 1,000m. Mt Washington certainly stands out. 

 

There's an initial modest climb up from Courtenay, then the ride has some rolling hills as it heads NW to Quinsam Lake. Just after km70, you'll see that the climb up Piggott Main on the south side of the Oyster River, begins. 

Fav ride distance / elevation chart | bikepacking lakes NW of Courtenay | cycle touring Vancouver Island

Here's the distance & direction guide. This gets complex. Unless you're planning a ride, you'll want to skip this section, or risk getting put to sleep. There's 2 maps below, the lower one more detailed around the lakes.

This ride starts & finishes in Courtenay. Note the starting & finishing segments from Courtenay on the map are a little different to give riding variety. It's 5km to the junction of Piercy & Condensory Roads. Stay on Piercy a further 3.6kms, then left on Forbidden Plateau Rd for 1 km, then right on Duncan Bay Main (DBM) which crosses the highway after ~1km. Continue NW on DBM (pavement soon ends) for 4.5 kms to the intersection with the Parkway, carry on for a further ~ 4kms to the south end of Wolf Lake, which you'll skirt above the north shores for ~5kms. 2.5 kms past Wolf Lake is a fork with Rossiter: continue on DBM to the right (left would take you up towards Regan Lake).  

 

A further 4+ kms to a Y junction, where you'l take the left and be on Black Creek Main, which you'll follow 8+kms to lower Piggott Main, the key main up the south of the Oyster River. Turn right if you are going to Quinsam Lake; if not, turn left to climb. To Quinsam Lake: after 1+km, Piggott reaches SE beside the highway, keep left and follow looping DBM ~2kms over a bridge over the Oyster River (not the Hwy bridge). Stay on looping DBM another 6kms then turn left at the junction onto Quinsam Main (aka Gilson Main). It's 7+kms to the camping pullouts along the SW shores (with a final ~1/2km small track down to the lakeside). There are ~4 lakeside camping pullouts you can choose from.

Head back to the junction of Black Creek & Piggot and turn right heading up. It's 4+kms to the turnoff left to Little Lost & Lost Lakes, ~7kms in, real rough in a few spots; then you backtrack (worth the visit). Another km SW up Piggott Main takes you to the turnoff for Blue Grouse Lake. It's 4kms, looping & climbing, to the lake. Then backtrack a km, and branch right for ~1.5kms (climbing), go right at T junction for 1/2km, then turn left into final 1.5km rough (marshy, if there's been heavy rain) track to Regan Lake. Backtrack this last stretch, then head left / west on increasingly rough track for ~4kms to come out onto Piggott Main about 1/2 kms south of the junction with Rossiter Main. 

Ok - now the final stretch. From the junction of Rossiter & Piggott, continue climbing south up Piggott Main - steep, rough and a little overgrown. After 5kms, you'll reach the decommissioned bridge (see pic above) you'll need to ford. Then 5.5+kms up to Mt Washington. The first building you'll meet is the biathlon club. Then, you're on paved road, 33 kms from the end, including a crazy 1,000m paved descent down Strathcona Parkway. Enjoy.

Route Maps:  Courtenay NW Lakes

Below, find a map of the overall ride, then a zoom into the Oyster River /  lakes area.

Fav ride Route map (1 of 2) | bikepacking Courtenay NW Lakes | cycle touring Vancouver Island
Fav ride route map (2 of 2) | bikepacking Courtenay NW lakes | cycle touring Vancouver Island
bikepacking Wolf Lake | bikepacking Courtenay NW lakes

Lots of tough backroads up in the lakes NW of Courtenay. This track is off Wolf Lake

 

JUNE 2018 UPDATE: Aternate Rossiter Main Back Route up Mt Washington

The pic below, looking up into the morning sun, shows the start of the rough track up from along Piggott Creek: this branches up off Rossiter Main and may also be called Rossiter Main, but you can be sure you have the right turn up to the SE because it is just before the road slopes down and hangs right to cross the bridge over Piggott Creek.

 

This road goes 6.5 kms up to the top of Mt Washington (took me 2+ hours), climbing well over 500m. It is steep (18 degrees in stretches), has lots of loose stone, and is plagued by close in undergrowth, which may in future choke the route off. I had to do a good bit of pushing/hauling. A couple of downed trees and little slides had been cleared in the past, likely by some hard core quadders (a good sign). That said, the route was discernable the whole way, and improved near the top. Although I saw no bears on this segment, there was lots of bear shit along the track, some of it unnervingly fresh.

The start of the Rossiter track climb up to Mt Washington. Steep, looking into the morning sun. Very rocky in stretches and with lots of close-in undergrowth. 

See the map below, zooming in on the area climbing up rough tracks to the top of Mt Washington ski area, coming via the backroads from the north. The purple / magenta track is this new route along what may be Rossiter Main. To the east (right), you'll see the main route up Piggott Main - still the better maintained route (believe it or not), in spite of the decommissioned bridge. If you look left/west of our route, you'll see another blue track heading up/south on the west side of Piggott Creek. I followed this up after crossing Piggott Creek, hoping to be able to cross back to Mt Washington near the top, but the rough track hit a deadend (there looks to be another route I may go back to try in the future). Note that the 2 tracks look pretty close to each other, but the reality is that there's a deep, sharp valley for Piggott Creek in between. 

From the turn off up from along the Oyster River to the west of Regan Lake, one has to follow Rossiter Main 5.5 kms to the turnoff SE up what may also be called Rossiter Main (some map confusion on this). It's just before your road loops down to the west to cross a bridge over Piggott Creek. There'sa a number of old unmaintained tracks branching off along the way but just stick to the straight-ahead and most used looking route for ~5kms when you'll reach a clearing. Ahead will be an old log bridge over the no longer impressive Piggott Creek. Don't take this: take the left climbing up on your now improved road, which will after a km reach Piggott Main, the route described in the main section above. 

Once again, reaching the top of Mt Washington, I had a real treat ahead.

 

Time to bomb down smoothly paved, well-shouldered Strathcona Parkway (pic below), from 1,100m up. My trusty ECR, loaded up, with pretty phat tires, still managed to blow past 75 kph. Yahooo!

Time for a treat: the last stretch home to Courtenay. 1,100m bombing down smoothly paved, wide shouldered Strathcona Parkway. 

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