Labour Day Lake Museum Main Loop

A favourite backroads ride

This incredible ride starts and finishes in Port Alberni. It's a tough, wild ride, with climbing, disappearing roads, wonderful remote camps, and unexpected connections. It climbs up over 1,000m to Labour Day Lake, in the shadows of Mt Moriarty. Then it finds a back route down to the Nanaimo River, and another sharp climb up and over into the Upper Nitinat River Valley. It heads back NW to Alberni Inlet via little travelled Museum Main. Because of the elevation, snows come early and will not melt until ~May (sometimes even June). 

Some highlights:

  • Tough climbing up to Labour Day Lake and over Nanaimo River Road

  • Wonderful remote camping along the shores of high altitude Labour Day Lake, and pebbled shores of Upper Nitinat River

  • Rough overgrown connectors that actually go through to where it was hoped they would 

  • Sweet riding along the Nanaimo & Upper Nitinat Rivers, and Rift Creek

There's a companion fav backroads ride, less rough and remote, that goes from west Cowichan Lake along more travelled backroads to Port Alberni: there's a little overlap along the final stretch of Bamfield Highway into Port Alberni.  Check out: Cowichan Lake Nitinat Port Alberni.

A caution here: the connection behind Labour Day Lake to Rocky Run Main (down to Nanaimo River) was difficult to make, almost overgrown when I rode this. It may have gotten worse.

SW of Labour Day Lake, at the 'end of the road', one can discern a quad track pushing further through. This can get you to Knight (aka Indian) Lake and the descent to the Nanaimo River. My first attempt here, snows had just melted and things were just too flooded and I assumed it was a dead end option, but I went back & tried again

Bikepacking near Labour Day Lake | SE of Port Alberni | Nanaimo River, Upper Nitinat River, Museum Main | cycle touring Vancouver Island

Days for Ride:  Suggest 3 days & 2 nights - day 2, particularly, will be long. An extra day would allow a more managed pace and some looking about. The overall ride track is only 166 kms, but there's rough going, and likely some pushing / hauling. Suggested plan: camp night 1 at tiny camp along SW shores of Labour Day Lake (see pic below). Night 2 along pebbled banks of Upper Nitinat River informal camp, off BR2 (see map).  


Difficulty:  Experienced. This is a candidate for the most challenging ride here, on a number of fronts. Other than the start and finish, it's all backroads. It includes significant steep climbing (up to Labour Day Lake and over Upper Nanaimo River Road). There are iffy, overgrown or flooded route segments (uncertain these will be possible for future rides). You may encounter logging in various ride sections. There could be gate / access challenges. In dry summer, some roads may get dusty should you meet a truck.  

That said, this is a brilliant backroads ride.

Labour Day Lake Rec camps | bikepacking SE from Port Alberni | cycle touring Vancouver Island

Camping at a tiny site on the SW shores of Labour Day Lake (N49° 07.259' W124° 27.586'). Basic but gorgeous. Finding the spot was hard, as there's no visible access trail down from the road above in behind. I locked my bike & clambered down until I crossed the rough hiking trail around the lake. There's a larger camp on the other side of the lake, but it is NOT well placed for heading off the next morning.

There are great side trip options.  Here's just a few.

  • There's another favourite ride following the classic backroads route from Cowichan Lake to Port Alberni - via Nitinat Main & Franklin River Road. The latter portion of this ride here, off Nitinat River FSR onto BR2 & Museum Main, starts from just NW of Cowichan Lake. You could choose to follow the much more travelled Nitinat Main to Nitinat Lake (and maybe Carmanah Walbran!) on your way to Bamfield Hwy. 

    • A clarification: Nitinat Main heads SW from the west end of Cowichan Lake, towards Nitinat Lake. Nitinat River FSR, however (despite the similar name), heads north up the Upper Nitinat River Valley from near the west end of Cowichan Lake. Both roads follow the Nitinat River in stretches.

  • Up the mountains near Labour Day Lake, there are other tough options. One can branch right (SW) onto Copp Main, which will take you up to beautiful, remote Henry, Kammat and Peak Lakes - all with tiny, excellent rough camping spots (Henry Lake my favourite). From Peak Lake it is possible (I believe, though I turned back on my first attempt, but was later told I was on the right track) to connect to the Upper Nitinat River. I've also heard it is possible to ride past Mt Arrowsmith to Arrowsmith Lake (which I've visited, but up from the coast).    

  • Once along the south side of Nanaimo River, just east of 4th Lake, there's a connection south along Green Main (then Shaw Main) to reach NW Cowichan Lake.  

  • Try the ride north off lower Museum Main up to Father & Son Lake.  A tough climb up to ~1,000m, then you need to leave your bike a km or so below the lake for a steep hike up in.  Nice camping and a trail around the lake.

Here's how I found the remote connection from Nitinat River FSR, along BR2 then smaller spurs, until it turns into Museum Main on the Alberni Inlet side. I followed these thigh-high plastic yellow markers, found every couple of hundred metres (most of the way at the start). By the time they disappear, you're on Museum Main and can just follow it down (20+kms) to the Inlet 

bikepacking Museum Main to Bamfield Highway | from Upper Nitinat River Valley | cycle touring Vancouver Island

Here's the elevation / distance view:

Check the left side elevation scale - this ride is up over 1,000m. As you see, things start climbing right away, east up from Port Alberni. A little drop after turning SE off the highway, and then the climb resumes up to Labour Day Lake. Then down, mostly along Rockyrun Creek, to the Nanaimo River, which we then follow (after crossing to the south) up for another climb over the height of land that then descends into the Upper Nitinat River Valley. The vertical marker shows the key turnoff on BR2, which has a few more turns onto smaller spurs, before it climbs and then turns into Museum Main after emerging from the forest canopy (see pics above & read comments on the telus cable markers, a key to making the connection). As you can also see, there are some nice long descents - the nicest riding is the final Museum Main descent to Bamfield Hwy (the other long descents are switchbacks, so you can't really build up too much steam)

Fav ride distance / elevation chart | Labour Day Lake, Museum Main, Port Alberni | cycle touring Vancouver Island
Fourth Nanaimo Lake | bikepacking Nanaimo River

The dam at Fourth Nanaimo Lake. There'a an older, rough Rec site near here: be very mindful that this is is a water source. West from here, your road will start to climb once again if you are heading up and over to the Upper Nitinat River Valley.

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

Head east from Port Alberni up Highway 4. Near the top, branch right/south at Cameron Main (the gate is occasionally closed). 3 kms downhill to a T junction, then left up Cameron River Main. ~6 kms of gradual climbing to the junction with Copp Main (right, if you want to go up to Henry, Kammat & Peak Lakes). In dry summer, there may be dust issues on lower stretches - bring a cloth dust mask or bandana. 2kms further along you'll reach a little bridge that gets you on the east side of the Cameron River. ~13kms more climbing to a Y junction - both options get you up to Labour Day Lake, but on different sides. Most folks go for the left/east option, but for this ride we want the right (SW) fork. See notes (and lat/long) above beside LDL campsite pic on getting to the lakeside camp.  

Continue SW up behind the lake for several more kms (there was still snow into June last year). At the end of the road, you’ll discern a track (chewed up, trees down, swampy). Follow for 1km or so to a small clearing that's the end of a road spur up above Knight (aka Indian) Lake. Kudos to (I believe) the quad folks for keeping this connector open. Follow east above the north shore (basic track) then loop around to connect (right) with a more travelled road heading S/SW. Follow for ~4.5kms, past trench across road for dismantled culvert. Road gets iffy, partially overgrown in spots, but continue (gradual descent) for 2 kms to T junction just past small bulldozed dirt barrier. Hang a right. After ~2kms, you’ll cross a small bridge over the Rockyrun Creek, where there’s a sharp left, then a final 2kms down to the logging main along the north shore of Nanaimo River (aka M Branch, it appears).


Directions continued after pic below ...

Camping at one of the Upper Nitinat River pullout campsites, off BR2. This one is my favourite and an honourable mention Fav Campground. On this visit, in early spring so still cool, someone had left a stack of nice dry firewood. The river here is fablous for swimming on hot summer days.

Nitnat River camping | bikepacking upper Nitinat River | bikepacking Museum Main

Directions, continued from above pic ....

To get to the south side of the river (I wanted to check out 4th Lake) and Nanaimo River Main (some maps call it Nanaimo Lakes Main), head back east for 4kms to a bridge. Then 6 kms west and you'll see the  junction south to Green Creek Main (don't turn) and 3 kms further is the turnoff south to 4th Lake Rec site (4th lake is a water source lake, complete with dam). Then 7kms west (excellent riding) gradually climbing to another bridge over Nanaimo River. Continue (climbing!) another 5+kms, and you'll crest over the top at a nice breezy clearing (800m+). Then a 5+km switchback descent ~west to the Nitinat River Valley & Nitinat River FSR. Branch left / south for ~15kms.This is a sweet descent on a mostly paved road (incredible, from ages past!) to the junction with BR2 (see map). If you wanted to head to Cowichan Lake or Nitinat Lake, you’d continue south another ~4 kms to Nitinat Main. 

The secret sauce for the Museum Main connection is that from this junction with BR2, you follow the occasional (~200 - 500m intervals, although this varies) yellow plastic Telus cable markers (see above pic). Branch from BR2 onto smaller BR2E as the road gets yet smaller, until after ~9kms you’ll leave land that’s been logged & get into forest and climb for ~4+kms (rough track) until you reach open, recently logged terrain again. The Telus markers disappear, but you'll see mileage markers for Museum Main (MM), which takes you all the way (24 kms) to Bamfield Highway. Some beautiful riding stretches, before a sweet final 10km descent. I hate Bamfield Main: it’s a big wide gravel road well used by both public and logging, but it’s hilly, bumpy & the dustiest road. You’ll have ~10kms of this before reaching pavement for the final 5kms to the south of Port Alberni. If you're looking for a place to camp near Port Alberni, try China Creek, ~9 kms south of town.

Route Maps:  Labour Day Lake Museum Main Loop

Below, find a map of the overall ride, then several zoom-in views.  

Fav ride route map | Port Alberni, Labour Day Lake, Museum Main |  bikepacking Vancouver Island
Map2: Connection to Rockyrun & Nanaimo River

Note the different roads up to the different sides of Labour Day Lake.  I suggest camping on the SW side to avoid having to descend then climb up again to ride towards Knight Lake

Fav ride route map  | zoom to Labour Day Lake & Nanaimo River |  bikepacking Vancouver Island
Map3: BR2 & Museum Main Connection  

At the bottom, you can see how close this track comes to the regular road heading SW to Nitinat Lake (and then Port Alberni).  See full ride description in 'Check these rides' section.

I've tried (unsuccessfully) to go further north up Nitinat River FSR to try and reach Peak Lake.  I want to try again as I've been told there is an overgrown track. 

Fav ride route map  |  zoom to Upper Nitinat River & Museum Main  |  bikepacking Vancouver Island
Fav bikepacking ride | Port Alberni, Labour Day Lake, Museum Main | cycle touring Vancouver Island

Off BR2 (here on BR2E), this connector heads up into the hills ahead through some rough stretches  before suddenly transforming into the well maintained Museum Main. Sweet riding.

Note the plastic telus marker on the left. This was the secret ingredient that helped me to find the through connection in the first place (after a few unsuccessful tries)