Cowichan Kinsol SW Coast Backroads Loop

A favourite backroads ride

There's a huge block of incredible hinterland south of Cowichan Lake down to the SW Coast of Vancouver Island. There's great backroads, lakes & adventures to be had here, with some route planning challenges due to the constraints placed by the Capital Regional Water District (CRD: Victoria & region). This ~4 day ride starts & finishes in Duncan along the amazing Cowichan Valley Trail. 

Given how extensive this area is, there's some extended content and links below:

 

This ride here, although it has some stretches along the paved seaside West Coast Road, and the Cowichan Valley Trail, is very much a rough, backroads ride, with major stretches through remote terrain.

Some highlights:

  • Riding parts of the Cowichan Valley Trail (local name for the Trans Canada Trail), including over the stunning Kinsol Trestle (see pic below) 

  • Amazing remote backroads riding, including an off-the-map "Bugaboo Main Connector" that lets one jump west from south Gordon Main over to the Walbran Valley network of backroads.

  • Camping at Jordan River (SW Coast) among slightly insane year round surfers, or on the great beach at Pacheedaht Campground, outside Port Renfrew (pic above), or Gordon Bay Provincial Camp on Cowichan Lake (fabulous summer swimming).

cycling Kinsol Trestle | Cycling Cowichan Valley Trail | cycle touring south Vancouver Island

Kinsol Trestle, now rebuilt after having been destroyed by fire, is one of the tallest, most spectacular, timber rail trestle structures in the world (187 metres in length and standing 44 metres above the salmon bearing Koksilah River below)

Days for Ride:  As you'll see in the map below, you've got lots of route options. The loop I recommend is ~260kms. I suggest this as 5 days and 4 nights. You could shave 2 days off with longer hours, but you'd miss some fine camping.  

I'd suggest camping night one (after a relaxing day) at a pullout wild camp along the Koksilah River. Night 2 at Jordan River Regional Campground where East Forby Main comes down to the beautiful SW Coast: they can fill up in season, and do not take reservations. I'm keen on this site as it attracts surfers, even in the middle of winter, so there's usually interesting folks about.  Night 3 can be at Pacheedaht 1st Nations Campground, just NW of Port Renfrew. As they allow walk-in beach tenting, you'll almost always be assured of getting a spot (get water from their north campground office). Finally, a night somewhere along Lake Cowichan once you get back north. I particularly enjoy this in summer when the swimming is a great way to cap a hot day's ride. 

Difficulty:   Advanced. There's lots of long, hard climbs. This gets very remote along a number of stretches, with East Forby Main blocked off to vehicle traffic, and the Bugaboo connector steep, rough and rarely travelled. Bear Creek Main up from Cowichan Lake (and alternate track) is very steep and strewn with loose stone (pushing needed in places).

 

You will likely meet logging somewhere along this route. Dust could be an issue on larger mains like Old Renfrew or Caycuse in hot, dry summer, so bring a dust mask. Elevation gets high enough (just under 600m), that you might meet snow through May. I had to change my planned route due to a new gate and fence put in place by CRD.  An essential connection onto East Forby Main had been decommissioned, but has been made manageable by a quad workaround (see pic below).

 

There are several easier parts, which I kept in the route as they are great riding stretches. From Jordan River to Port Renfrew, with some fine views of the SW coast, is paved, though it does get hilly. You'll start and finish on the well-groomed and often forested Cowichan Valley Trail - a real treat.

Quad track workaround, S off Butler Main (aka East Main). This enables access to the north end of E Forby Main, the route south from here. Forby is an incredible backroads riding stretch to the south, as there are no vehicles at all.

North access to East Forby Main | Bear Creek Reservoir to Jordan River | cycle touring south Vancouver Island | bikepacking

There are great side trip or alternate route options.  

  • Below you'll see directions & elevation charts for a number of alternate tracks. One is to keep following the Cowichan Valley Trail south beyond Kinsol Trestle - down the west shores of Shawnigan Lake then continuing along new Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail. Then loop to Sooke and follow the Galloping Goose Trail all the way up the Sooke River to Sooke Potholes Regional Campground.

  • From Walbran Main, you can take South Road - Walbran west to Nitinat Lake (a favourite campground) and, if you like, south to incredible Carmanah Walbran. Then you can continue on to Port Alberni

  • As noted above, if this area interests you, but you're iffy about the backroads focus, consider the Cowichan Kinsol Port Renfrew Loop. This is still a multi day ride , but the entire route is on paved roads or the well groomed Cowichan Valley Trail.

  • Once you connect with the south shores of Cowichan Lake, you have the chance to head west to complete the loop all the way around the Lake, with camping options along the way 

Bear Creek Reservoir Camp | bikepacking south of Cowichan Lake | cycle touring south Vancouver Island

This  early morning photo looks east along Bear Creek Reservoir

There's a good number of formal campgrounds, from provincial parks (Gordon Bay, French Beach, Stoltz Pool) regional campgrounds (Jordan River, Lakeview Park), private sites like Pacheedaht First Nations, and nearby Rec campgrounds. Alongside the West Coast Road from Sooke to Port Renfrew, if you don't mind push/haul-in trails, there are aso a bunch of remote hiker camp sites along the Juan de Fuca Trail right by the seaside. And in the inland hinterlands, there are countless wild camping options. 

Following are thumbnail links to a few local content pages for cycling the south Island.

 

Check out these linked pages for more local info

The link here is to the Blog page, where you'll find a post on this fabulous new Trail opened in early summer 2017. The new Trail connects to the south end of the Cowichan Valley Trail (including another new trail segment managed by the local Malahat First Nation), SW of Shawnigan Lake, and takes cyclists south around the 'Malahat' to reach Goldstream Provincial Park near Victoria. Caution - the degree of difficulty is significantly higher than the Cowichan Valley Trail

Turns out the rides around Cowichan Lake are very popular, so I thought I'd 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

​This page gives details on the Lochside Regional Cycling Trail (& other trail connections like the Galloping Goose) to get cyclists from Victoria to Swartz Bay ferry terminal. There's a 2nd section on the Mill Bay to Brentwood Bay ferry connector that allows riders coming down the Island to take a short cut over to the Saanich Peninsula (and the Lochside Trail) 

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Here's the distance / elevation chart.

Things looks steeper than they are due to the long distance (260kms) along the bottom axis, but there is lots of good climbing on this route. 

 

Notable climbs near and above 500m include heading up into the hinterlands from Kinsol Trestle along Old Port Renfrew Road, some of the coastal hills approaching Port Renfrew, the climb up and over the steep Bugaboo Connector, and the climb up to the junction of McClure & Caycuse Mains. The flip side is that you'll get some sweet descents, notably down East Forby to the coast, the final descent into Port Renfrew, heading down to Cowichan Lake, and your final (gradual) ride on the Cowichan Valley Trail back into Duncan. 

Fav ride Distance / elevation chart | bikepacking Cowichan Lake & SW coast | cycle touring south Vancouver Island

Before I dive into the route map / directions, let me list (with links) the alternate route possibilities that are also described (with elevation pics) in the adds-on at the bottom of this page:

  1. Gordon River Main from Port Renfrew to Cowichan Lake

  2. Bear Creek track south from Cowichan River

  3. Old Port Renfrew Road to San Juan River then Fleet & Lens Mains to the Pacific Marine Hwy, north to Cowichan Lake

  4. Butler Main south from Bear Creek Reservoir to the coast

  5. Cowichan Valley Trail south to Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail & around to Sooke River

Jordan River Regional Campground | surfing SW Coast | cycle touring south Vancouver Island

Here's  some of the crazy surfers at Jordan River Regional Campground. This was December. Even at dawn, there were a few hardheads already out to catch the perfect wave.

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

Exit Duncan town SW along Indian Rd. ~7kms to intersect Waters Road & the Trans Canada Trail (known locally as Cowichan Valley Trail). Alternatively, you can branch right on Vaux Road a little earlier and connect to the Trail a little further west at Glenora Trails Head Park.  Then ~12 kms of wonderful riding SW to Kinsol trestle.

 

From the trestle, ride ~1km to get on Renfrew Road (aka Old Port Renfrew Road, which is called Kapoor Main on some signs). Pavement ends after 2kms, then you'll pass through Koksilah Provincial Park (a number of informal camping options). It's 19kms W/SW from the start of Renfrew Rd to the junction with W Jordan Main, which does a broad loop to the south. 19kms of excellent riding on West Jordan to the junction left/east onto Butler Main (called East Main on some maps). After ~1km look for the quad workaround on right, to the south (a little before you'll see the gated/decommissioned track), which after a ~1/4km rough descent gets you onto E Forby Main, which takes you the final ~19kms west & south to connect with the paved West Coast Road about 2 kms east of Jordan River.  A vehicle block has been put in place about 6.5kms up from the highway along Forby (quads still go around), so you've got a sweet stretch (mostly slow descent) which is blocked to vehicles at both ends, taking you past Diversion Reservoir (with a dam at the Jordan River outflow), Elliot Lake & the Jordan River. There's a coffee shop west down the road from the Jordan River campsite. 

 

It's a fairly hilly, paved 43kms ride NW to Port Renfrew, roughly paralleling the coast, with a nice final descent into the village. At a few bridges over creeks, there are pullouts off the road if you need a place to camp.

Continued after pic below .....

Early morning looking up Long Lake from tiny Rec Camp. Some locals called this Long Lake, off the Koksilah River,  though not my Backroads map (I think I'll believe the locals). This is along the Bear Creek alternate track south from the Cowichan River

Long Lake Rec Camp | backroads south of Cowichan Lake | bikepacking south Vancouver Island

Directions continued from above pic ....

I suggest camping at Pacheedaht 1st Nations Campground just NW of Port Renfrew. From the campground, follow Deering Road NW from the junction about mid-way between the south & north ends of the beachside camp. After 1.5kms, turn left/west onto Gordon River Road (if you go right at the T junction, you'll be on the paved Pacific Marine Road). After 5kms, the pavement ends and you cross a bridge over Gordon River. After ~2kms, you'll see the Trailhead for Avatar Grove. A further 5+kms and you'll cross a bridge over Bugaboo Creek, and ~1/2km after, you'll reach the junction left/west onto Bugaboo Main.

Here's a little secret sauce I loved. Some fellow (thanks!) went out and marked the track up and over and down to Walbran Main by painting stones blue after every spur junction along the way. You always stay on the route that looks the most travelled, but the blue painted stones along the way confirm you're on track.  5+kms of steep climbing (some rough stretches) takes you up and over a height of land and down to a big clearing with some fire pits. From here, my GPS showed I'd reached WA900, a branch off Walbran Main to the west. After a km of descent you'll see on your right what looks like an old, partially overgrown helipad clearing. Then a further descent of 3kms, some along a narrow track with undergrowth pressing tight (so make sure bears hear you coming), gets you to the junction with Walbran Main, where you head right/north. Yahooo.

After 4kms north on Walbran, you'll come to a Y junction and continue north on McClure Main. Then 3.5kms or so to reach the NW end of McClure Lake, with a pullout loop with Rec Camp sites along the lakeside. Keep north on McClure for 13kms (including a good climb) until another Y junction and you'll continue N/NW on Caycuse Main for 11kms to the junction with South Shore Road, off Cowichan Lake near Nixon Creek. Turn right/east.

After close to 7kms, you'll pass Caycuse Rec Camp, and a further ~11kms will get you to a junction behind Gordon Bay Provincial Campground where the road becomes paved (yaay - if it's hot, dry summer, this stretch can be dusty). After 3kms, you'll reach Honeymoon Bay, 4 more kms to Mesachie, then a final 5+kms to the town of Cowichan Lake. 

At the NE end of town where Highway 18 heads east, you see the north Trailhead for the Cowichan Valley Trail. There's another trailhead in town for the part of the CVT that follows the Cowichan River south - this is perhaps the more interesting leg, but is longer, and does not go directly into Duncan. Assuming you ride the north leg, it's 27kms of fine, hard pack, mostly forested, to get back to Duncan, the latter stretches a sweet gradual descent. In Duncan, there are a number of road connection options from the Trail. 

 
Fav ride route map | bikepacking Cowichan Lake SW Island | cycle touring south Vancouver Island

I told my parents I'd get them onto the website. This photo is from several years back just east of Port Renfrew along the West Coast Road. We took the Pacific Marine Highway up to Cowichan Lake. They loved the trip - it particularly brought back memories for my father, who had fished the area in his younger years.

Mom & dad along West Coast Road | Sooke to Port Renfrew | south Vancouver Island
 
 
Add-on Section: some Alternate Tracks

Following are some detail sections (descriptions & elevation charts) for 5 alternate route possibilities. These are all shown in the route map:

  1. Gordon River Main from Port Renfrew to Cowichan Lake

  2. Bear Creek track south from Cowichan River

  3. Old Port Renfrew Road to San Juan River then Fleet & Lens Mains to the Pacific Marine Hwy, north to Cowichan Lake

  4. Butler Main south from Bear Creek Reservoir to the coast

  5. Cowichan Valley Trail south to Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail & around to Sooke River

 

1.  Gordon River Main from Port Renfrew to Cowichan Lake:

The main route above took the far west Walbran/McClure/Caycuse route north from Port Renfrew to Cowichan Lake. Just to the east on the route map above, you can see a blue track for Gordon River Main. See the distance/elevation chart below. This is the shortest route north at just under 50kms, and the elevation tops out under 400m, neither as steep nor as high as the default Walbran option. It also connects with Cowichan Lake just behind Gordon Bay Campground, so one does not need to ride the south shores for 22kms along the dirt track from the westward junction with Caycuse Main.

Of course, in addition to this Gordon River Main option, one could take the paved Pacific Marine Road. 
 

Distance/elevation chart, Gordon River Main | Port Renfrew to Cowichan Lake | bikepacking south Vancouver Island
 

2.  Bear Creek track south from Cowichan River:

This option gets you south onto Old Port Renfrew Main via a rougher route off the Cowichan River (check out route map).  You no longer branch south towards Kinsol Trestle once you reach the Cowichan Valley Trail SW of Duncan. Rather, continue west along the Trail along the Cowichan River for 13+kms to the bridge where you can turn SW onto Skutz Falls FSR. After under a km, the regularly-used road branches but you keep heading south/up the steep, rough track. It seems they tried to block this with dirt hills, but the quads have pushed through. It gets steep, with loose stone, and I had to push my bike for stretches, climbing over 500m, after which things level out. For that reason, this option may be best for heading north back to Cowichan, vs the southbound route I took.  Anyway - it's a tough, switchbacking workout for ~3.5kms, where you'll hit another set of dirt hills to block passage, with workaround. Surprisingly, I met a fellow here in his 4x4, who said he was able to drive in along Holt Main, which starts to the south at the Glenora Trail Head (and may be a saner option). 

1/2km south and one reaches a T Junction: turn left/east. The roads here are a little confusing with multiple names, including like "M-line, F-line ....". After 6+kms south, you reach another T junction: turn left onto Stoltz Main. A little more than a km along, you'll see a track down to the narrow little lake on the right, complete with nice little Rec Camp, where I camped (some locals said this was Long Lake, but I am not certain). A few hundred metres SW of this camp is another junction: keep right (my basemap calls this Crescent Main, but the signs did not). Keep riding south through a number of junctions for ~15kms and you'll reach the junction with Old Port Renfrew Road and W Jordan Main that is part of the main route (above).

Distance/elevation chart for Bear Creek Track | Cowichan River to Old Port Renfrew Main | bikepacking south Vancouver Island
 

3.  Old Port Renfrew Road to San Juan River, Fleet Main & north to Cowichan Lake

This is a remote option, complete with grand sweeping vistas and tough climbs, that I liked and debated roping in as part of the default route. (I saw 3 bears on this one stretch). But there were a couple of parts along Old Port Refrew Road and Fleet Main where there was heavy active logging, I was forced to wait a few hours, and this made an impression. This active logging will have moved on, so this route is worth taking a look at. 

Continued below pic ...

Active logging Old Port Renfrew Road | bikepacking south of Cowichan Lake

Active logging along Old Port Renfrew Road. They were downing trees right across the road, so things were impassable until the feller/buncher could pick-up, de-limb and stack the trees. Thankfully, as usual, they packed things in by early afternoon, leaving the road passable. 

Continued from above pic.

You see below that even getting to the start of this option involves a climb in from Kinsol Trestle to the junction with W Jordan Main, at 500m elevation (check out route map). Only, this time, you'll keep heading west on Old Port Renfrew Main. The distinguishing characteristic of this option is the grand descent down to the valley and bridge over the San Juan River, followed by long steady climbing up to over 550m. From there, it's mostly downhill north to Cowichan Lake, with the last 8 or so kms on the paved Pacific Marine Road coming up from Port Renfrew. If it's hot and dry in the summer, you can expect dust along busier Lens Main.

Distance / elevation chart Old Port Renfrew Road | Lens & Fleet Mains to Cowichan Lake | bikepacking south of Cowichan Lake
 

4.  Butler Main south from Bear Creek Reservoir to the coast:

This is another option to get to the SW coast from Butler Main (check out route map). It connects south further to the east than E Forby Main in the default route. It is a good option if you want to get to the paved West Coast Road right near Sooke (but not as interesting as East Forby). 

I had thought to try and ride east right to the Sooke River up near Leechton, but gave up this plan when I saw that West Leech Main, which looked on my map like a candidate route, was largely overgrown at the junction with Butler Main. 

The elevation chart below starts at the junction south to East Forby Main. There's a gradual climb of ~100m over a dozen kms as you continue east on Butler Main, before you get to bomb SW down a steep descent to the coast. Note the junction with Boneyard Main at approx km25: if you really want to try to get up the west side of Sooke River, this is a candidate. 

As you approach the coastal road, you'll meet a gate (open) and go through part of the T'Sou-ke First Nation to reach Young Lake then Otter Point Roads. Otter Point is a long crescent which you can take either west or east to connect with the West Coast Road. Taking the east option, you'll reach the seaside just a couple of kms west of the Sooke River and the Galloping Goose.

Distance /elevation chart for Butler Main | alternate route to West Coast Road near Sooke | bikepacking south Vancouver Island
 

5.  Cowichan Valley Trail south to Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail & around to the Sooke River:

This route option lets you follow the Trans Canada Trail as far south as possible from Kinsol trestle, and then loop west to connect with the Galloping Goose Trail to ride through Sooke and up into Sooke Potholes Park to the Regional Campground (check out route map). This isn't really backroads riding, and you'll have to ride parts on the paved Sooke & West Coast roads. That said, it's mostly fabulous trail riding, and the great new Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail (13kms) is a tough, steep challenge in places on a loaded bike. And the ride up the Goose into Sooke Potholes Park is beautiful - well worth the diversion, with a fine campground to top things off.

As you see below, the ride on the CVT (Cowichan Valley Trail, part of the Trans Canada Trail network) continues south from Kinsol trestle along Shawnigan Lake, and then starts to climb on a new Trail section maintained by the Malahat 1st Nation. As the Trail enters the Capital Regional District, it becomes the Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail: not only does it climb up above 450m, but there's also a bunch of sharp, steep little hills. Be prepared to push your bike.  

The Trail ends at Humpback Reservoir, and you take Humpback Road to connect through to Sooke Road (a highway) for ~10kms to a junction where you can branch south to connect with the Galloping Goose Trail. You can follow the Goose all the way up to Sooke Potholes Campground (~7kms north off the coastal road), run by the T'Sou-ke 1st Nation. There's a small cyclist area in the site, complete with covered eating shelter.

Distance / elevation charts south from Cowichan Valley Trail | Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail | cycle touring south Vancouver Island

Section of the Galloping Goose Trail, along the seaside as you near Sooke from the east. Gorgeous trail riding

Galloping Goose Trail to Sooke | cycle touring south 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