Cowichan Lake Nitinat Port Alberni

A fav backroads ride

Here's a sweet route, connecting two incredible riding hubs, Cowichan Lake & Port Alberni, via the backroads. And it throws in a side trip to surprising Nitinat Lake (and perhaps even remote Carmanah Walbran).

The ride is long enough to be best for riders with some seasoning. There are some tough little hills coming up the east shores of Alberni Inlet to Port Alberni. That said, this is also a backroads route that is maintained and regularly used by the public. You may meet an occasional logging truck, but they will be keeping an eye open for other traffic. As such, this ride is a good choice for cycle tourists who want to try out some backroads riding. A caution: in hot, dry summer stretches, other vehicle traffic can kick up dust ( particularly Bamfield Highway along Alberni Inlet), so you may want to bring a cloth dust mask.

 

This ride has it all - lakes, all sorts of camping options, remote backroads, surprising side trips and majestic Alberni Inlet

Fav backroads ride | Youbou, Cowichan Lake | cycle touring Vancouver Island | Cowichan Lake to Port Alberni

Looking across Cowichan Lake to Youbou, from the south shore. Youbou is 15kms west of the town of Cowichan Lake, and is where the paved stretch of the north shore road ends. The older part of town is to the west, with new neighbourhoods being developed to the east. The north shore is the quickest route to the west end of the lake.

Some highlights

  • Riding up to and along Cowichan Lake, with wonderful swimming and camping options

  • A chance to ride into and camp at remote Nitinat Lake (see fav camping spots)

  • Excellent riding along well maintained backroads used regularly by the public

  • Amazing side trip options (e.g. Carmanah Walbran - need we say more!)

This ride starts at the big Island Highway just north of Duncan, where highway 18 branches inland to Cowichan Lake, and ends in Port Alberni. Alternatively (highly recommended), you can ride the amazing  Cowichan Valley Trail up to the lake. 

There's another backroads fav ride that also goes from the west shores of Cowichan Lake to Port Alberni - Labour Day Lake Museum Main Loop. However, the 2 rides do not overlap other than a final stretch along Bamfield Main into Port Alberni. The Loop ride is further to the north, and is a tougher, more remote ride - intended for more experienced backroads riders.

A kite surfer coming in to the beach at Nitinat Lake Rec Campground. You can rent equipment along the shores, and take kite or wind surfing lessons. 

Photo taken by my sister, Heather.

Kite skiing Lake Nitinat | Cowichan Nitinat Port Albeni fav backroads ride | cycle touring Vancouver Island

Days for Ride:   For the basic ride, I recommend at least 2 days -1 night, from Duncan to Port Alberni, overnighting at Nitinat Lake Rec Camp. This is a hard pace, so I recommend an extra day at Nitinat Lake, or camping your first night along Cowichan Lake. The ride is 171kms, including the 17km side trip into Nitinat Lake Rec Camp.

 

If you're starting from Nanaimo ferry, I'd suggest 1 day to ride to either Stoltz Pool campground along the Cowichan River, or one of many campsites around Cowichan Lake. Then you'd have a relaxed day into Nitinat Lake. From Port Alberni, it's ~90 kms back to Nanaimo, paved all the way (including "the hump" just east of Port Alberni). 

In the pics below - there's fine summer swimming (and tubing!) along the shores of Lake Cowichan and the Cowichan River. The top left photo shows the Cowichan River near Stutz Falls. Top right is from Bear Lake Park at Mesachie. Bottom left, the family beach at popular Gordon Bay Provincial Campground. And, bottom right, in the town of Cowichan Lake, behind the museum & Tourism Centre.

Swimming Cowichan Lake & Cowichan River |  cycle touring Vancouver Island

Difficulty:  

Intermediate. Some cautions: this ride is multi day and a good distance, particularly if you are doing the full loop from the Nanaimo ferry. The toughest hills are along Bamfield Main as you near Port Alberni, and the 400m 'Hump' just east of Port Alberni if you're heading back to Nanaimo. If it is hot and dry in summer, dust can be an issue (Bamfield Main is notorious for this), so a dust mask can be a good idea. You can expect to meet the occasional logging truck (unless it's a weekend or holiday), although given the public traffic, the trucks are careful to watch out for others.  

Elk along Cowichan Lake | cycle touring Vancouver Island

An elk along N Cowichan Lake, west of Youbou. There seems to be a herd that hangs out in this area, so elk sitings are quite common.  I've had them come into my campsite at night

There's some worthwhile side trip options:  ​   

  • Ride the Cowichan Valley Trail, another favourite ride, Vancouver Island's best stretch of the Trans Canada Trail. 

  • Continue south along  the east shores of long, narrow Nitinat Lake, from the Rec camp, 33kms south down to Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, one of Vancouver Island's last stands of old growth forest (check out the Honourable Mention Fav ride). This is a rough, remote stretch. It's like a cathedral. As the campground is small, you may need to wild camp nearby in season.  

  • Ride the south shore of Cowichan Lake (vs the north). It's a little longer, but from the south you can access paved Pacific Marine Highway heading south to Port Renfrew & the SW coast (see Fav ride for all). There's also a number of backroads tracks south into a grand hinterlands (Cowichan Kinsol SW Coast Backroads Loop).

  • Once you reach Port Alberni, there are a host of riding options in all directions, like west to Tofino, north to Comox Lake or SE up into the interior mountains

Check out this linked page for more local Cowichan Lake info

Turns out the rides around Cowichan Lake are very popular, so I thought I'd best link in a little more local info on the town of Cowichan Lake as well as nearby camping options I like. This page is linked off all the rides that pass along Cowichan Lake

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Here's the elevation / distance view:

Things look real steep in places but the chart below covers 170+kms. The left elevation axis goes up over 300m, so there's some hills you need to work at, particularly after you join Bamfield Hwy (km120) to ride north along Alberni Inlet for the last leg to Port Alberni. You can see Nitinat Lake Camp, with the short ride in. At the start along the left, you see the gradual climb up inland to Cowichan Lake.

Fav ride distance / elevation chart | Cowichan Lake, Nitinat Lake, Port Alberni | cycle touring Vancouver Island

Here's a distance & direction guide. Unless you're planning a ride, you'll likely want to skip this section, or risk getting put to sleep.

From the Island Highway a few kms north of Duncan, it is ~28kms on paved secondary Hwy18 up to Cowichan Lake (~200m elevation). Alternatively (strongly recommended!) ride the roughly parallel north segment of the Cowichan Valley Trail (aka Trans Canada Trail).  

 

From the highway junction east of Lake Cowichan town to the west end of the lake along the north shore is 35+kms. Then it's 20kms SW along Nitinat Main to the turnoff to north Nitinat Lake and the Rec campground (8.5 kms south). Once back to Nitinat Main, it's ~9kms looping NW to the junction with Flora Main.

A short side trip here. A site visitor, Peter Buco (thanks Peter!), shared directions from his ride (July 2018) via the junction with Flora Main, on his way from Bamfield to Cowichan:

  • Turn right at "Central Main Hookup" this should be your 3rd right after you pass the sign for Pacific Rim Park

  • Take a right at the T junction

  • Turn left at "Central South Main", you'll pass Rosseau Lake on your right side

  • After clear cut logged land both sides, bridge over water, turn right at "Flora Main"

  • After bridge over water, turn right at "Carmanah Main"

  • After bridge over water, turn left at "Cowichan Main", you can also continue straight to the Ditidhat First Nations village where I believe there's food and services

  • Cowichan Main will meet N Shore Rd & after ~20km you'll hit paved road in Youbou.

 

OK - back to our route:

Interestingly, you then get onto an old paved road (from an earlier era when there was major logging in this area): it's ~10kms to the NW end of Francis Lake. There's a cool camping site at this end, fabulous for summer swimming, but only reachable along a rough track that is more a creek than a road. From here, it's 3 kms, passing the big open space that used to be Franklin Camp, to the junction with Bamfield Hwy coming from the south (dusty in hot dry summer). From there it's a tough ride for about 31 kms to the China Creek Campground turn off (good place to camp), then 5 more kms to pass the logging company HQ & meet the junction (and pavement!) NW into Port Alberni, 6 kms further along. The ride track ends in north Port Alberni, 8kms further.   

Route Map:  Cowichan Lake to Nitinat Lake to Port Alberni

 In the red circles, see the junction with Bamfield Hwy, as well as Nitinat Lake Rec Camp. The purple/magenta track is the core ride. You can see (blue tracks) the side trip options discussed above.  

Fav ride Route map | Cowichan Nitinat Port Alberni | cycle touring Vancouver Island

This ride finishes in Port Alberni (though you may choose to start there). This shot was taken from Victoria Quay Park, along the west edge of town where the Pacific Rim Hwy west starts. That's Catalyst Mill in the background, an economic foundation of Port Alberni, still operating today. In the foreground, on the Somass River, is a Search & Rescue boat.

Somass River & Catalyst Mill in Port Alberni | cycle touring Vancouver Island

Caution - Safety First:

This website does not encourage anyone to undertake activities in the backwoods without considering fully issues of safety, access and readiness. There are no guarantees with any information provided in this website.  Please read  the FAQs, research further as appropriate, and use your judgement at all times