Lower North Criss-Cross
A favourite backroads ride
This varied and remote backroads ride fills in some big gaps on the map of Vancouver Island. I think of the 'Lower North' as north of Campbell River, but south of Nimpkish Lake. There's some small communities along the perimeter - Sayward, Gold River, Woss - but this is a ride through an uninhabited expanse of rugged terrain. There's mountains, lakes, surging rivers and coastline.
As for the ride name .... If you check out the route map (way) below, and think of the winding North Island Highway as a centre axis, this ride really does criss-cross:
from Campbell River it heads NW out through the lakes district (see NW Lakes ride), then hooks back to the highway north at Sayward crossing
then SW to (almost) Gold River, before making a hard turn north to hit the highway again just south of Woss
east out to Naka Creek & Eve River along the coast, before angling back to the highway again
This is truly a backroads ride, with rough and remote travel, though you'll finish up riding the final stretches back to Campbell River down the paved North Isle Hwy.
Some tough climbs, notably up along the White River SW of Sayward (near Victoria Peak, 3rd highest on Vancouver Isle), and the up and down ride to Naka Creek, in the shadows of Mt Palmerston
Wildlife viewing. I got lucky and saw elk along Memekay, Airstrip & White River Mains. I saw a couple of bears - who behaved and ran off into the bushes. Deer and eagles. Even a rarely photographed river otter (see below)
You'll pass by a number of other favourite rides that you could branch off on or bundle together, including Gold River Tahsis, Strathcona Park, North Island Highway, NE from Roberts Lake or Campbell River NW Lakes.
Days for Ride: This ride can be done as a long ~400+kms trip, or be broken into shorter segments. You can also link up with other rides & keep on truckin'. (see highlights, above).
I suggest a 5 - 7 day ride, largely defined by camping options. Here's a suggested itinerary. You can combine some days, such as 1 & 2, or just wild camp along the way if you need to make time:
Campbell River to Brewster Lake. There's lots of camping options: I suggest Brewster Lake Rec Camp. About 45kms on well travelled public (dirt) roads
Brewster Lake to Elk Creek Rec Camp, at Sayward Junction. 50kms.
Sayward Junction to Muchalat Lake Rec Camp (16km north of Gold River). This would be a hard day, 75 to 80 kms, climbing to near 600m.
Muchalat Lake Rec Camp north to Lower Klaklakama Lake Rec Camp (~65kms, including side trip to Vernon Lake, where you may want to stay as it's real nice). Or maybe to Woss Lake Rec Camp (~75kms - a nice Rec Camp).
Klaklakama Lake to North Isle Hwy to Naka Creek Rec Camp. ~50kms. This is another shorter day, but I really enjoyed camping at Naka Creek.
Naka Creek to Sayward Junction, 65kms. The latter portion is back on paved highway, so you'll make time. If you want to push some, there's a real nice Rec site at the SE end of Roberts Lake (a further ~35kms).
Sayward to Campbell River. All paved. 65kms.
My seaside campsite at Naka Creek Rec Camp. Check out my covered family room. This remote campground seemed to be wearing out a little, but had some great spots for a tent, a gorgeous coastline overlooking the Johnstone Strait, and memorable rides in and out.
Intermediate. This ride gets pretty remote up Naka Main or WR700, off White River Main. There are tough climbs up and over both of the stretches just noted. And it's long (you may choose to break it up).
This is one ride where if you plan to tackle it during a hot, dry stretch of summer, you'll face dust issues if you meet trucks, which are much less common on weekends.
If it's around winter you may have trouble. I initially attempted this ride at the end of May 2016, and got turned back trying to ride SW on White River Main due to heavy snows. It had been an unusually heavy snow winter.
Top left above from Kelsey Bay, the port/marina adjacent to Sayward, which is ~10kms east off the North Highway. There's a fine little restaurant (bountiful portions!). Bottom left shows the NE end of Gold River, as one comes in along Hwy 28 from Strathcona Park. This ride doesn't actually go into Gold River, branching NW from Muchalat Lake Rec Camp, 16kms north of town. Top right shows Discovery LNG along the coast just north of Campbell River. You'll see the complex as you head south at the end of your ride. Finally, the bottom right is along Sayward road, near the highway: a little local artistic whimsy.
Here's some interesting history. Today's North Island Highway (Hwy19) was only extended north of Sayward in the early 1950s. Prior to that, the only way to drive all the way north to Woss, Port Alice, Port Hardy and beyond, was to take Nimpkish Main logging road north from Gold River. Even today, one can still see old signs from these earlier days. The road up to Port Hardy was only fully paved in 1979.
Originally, the BC ferry terminal to head north up the Inside Passage to Prince Rupert was at Kelsey Bay. That changed in 1979, when it switched to Port Hardy.
The top left pic below is from Maquillard clearing near Klaklakama Lakes. The giant spar is used to load & unload logs from railway cars and trucks, part of the Nimpkish Line operations. I was told this is the last railway logging operations in BC (most phased out 50+ years past). Tragically, 3 workers were killed near here in early 2017. Lower left shows heli-logging off White River Main. Lower right shows logs stacked for loading off Memekay Main. Top right shows one of the old signs along Nimpkish Main, from back in the days when this was the only 'highway' up to the north Island.
Here's a little more info on sidetrip options. (there's so many!)
As you head west from Campbell River to Brewster Lake, you have the choice to take short sidetrips to lots of great lakes and Rec Camps. You could head south from Fry Lake (south of Brewster) to Strathcona Dam Rec Camp continuing into the wonderful long lakes of incredible Strathcona Provincial Park
You start & finish in Campbell River. Try a little Island time to warm up or thaw out. It's just a short hop over to Quadra Island and beyond to Cortes Island.
When you near Muchalat Lake, finishing a hard ride south from Sayward, don't branch west to Muchalat Lake. Rather, first, head down to Gold River to kick back then tackle the Fav backroads ride out to Tahsis and Tlupana Inlet.
When you connect to the North Island Highway near Woss after riding north from Gold River, keep heading north. Check out the North Island Highway ride, and then branch off onto a number of other rides, including Malcolm & Comorant Islands, the Alice Lake Loop (or right out to Side Bay), as well as the Top of the Island.
The Eve River is a tributary of the Adam River nearby to the east. Between Sayward and the mouth of the Adam is a remote hinterland and stretch of coastline. If you like remote, rough seaside spots to camp, check out the blog post (search tag 'Adam River') with the spot I called Windy Port Seaside Camp.
I had missed a turn to a bridge over the White River about 15kms before (don't do the same!). Stewart Bridge (here) had been removed, and they wanted to ensure vehicles wouldn't be able to get around. I was too lazy to backtrack (mistake), so had to lower my bike & gear by rope, climb down a tree, then push ~1/4 km down the river to get back on the road on the right side of the river.
Here's the elevation / distance view. This is a longer, complex ride, so I hope folks will bear with all the details. I thought of splitting this into multiple charts, but concluded that would also be cruel.
As distances are long, most climbs looks steeper than they really are. That said, the 2 toughest climbs stand out, as they should. Around km140, one reaches the height of land after climbing alongside the White River and (branch) WR700 that gets one over the top to join the Gold River road network. At around km 270 is the height of land on the way into Naka Creek along the coast. As you can gather, it's lots easier to do this climb from the west, rather than climbing up from the coast.
Beyond these notable climbs, you'll see lots of ups and downs, including as you ride the North Island Highway back to Campbell River. You'll certainly notice these as you ride, though most are gradual. In fact, you'll likely notice many of the nice descents instead: down to the Sayward Valley, down to the Gold River Valley, down to Naka Creek along the coast, down to just north of Campbell River.
Here's the distance & direction guide. As this is a beast of a long ride, things get detailed and sticky, and I've thrown in a few pics to give viewers a break. Suggest you give this a pass unless you're seriously looking at doing the ride. See route map below for reference.
To get from Campbell River NW into the lakes, one usually goes along Loveland Bay Road, or along Menzies Main, off the highway a distance to the north. Either works, but for this ride I took Loveland Bay Road, which is complicated at the start.
From the north end of Campbell River town, start off heading west on Hwy 28 towards Gold River. After just 1+km, you'll see an 'informal' track and bridge across the Campbell River (before you reach Elk Falls Campground). Take this up the hill, continuing for ~1km, then turn left on dirt track. You'll pass under power lines after 1+kms. Keep going a further 2kms, past a big greenhouse farming complex, then turn left and left (sort of extended junction) onto Snowden Road to SW. After 1.5km, turn right onto Loveland Bay Road - you should see signs for Loveland Bay Provincial Park just past this turn. Keep going for 11kms to the turnoff into the Provincial campsite.
You'll go left here onto Lower Campbell Lake Road (not the acute left into the campsite). Continue for 18kms, past lots of rec campsites, along the north shores of Campbell Lake until the last 2-3kms where you'll be along the north shores of Fry Lake. You'll be at the NW corner of Fry Lake. If you turned left, you could loop south to Strathcona Dam. Go straight (north), and your road becomes Gray Lake Road. Continue north for nearly 6 kms, to a junction with a bridge to the left/west onto Menzies Bay Main, which will shortly morph into Memekay Main. If you want to camp at Brewster Lake Rec Camp (there's lots of options about), head north along the east shores of Brewster Lake for 1km until you see the sign for the access road.
From the bridge over south Brewster Lake, follow Memekay Main north to cross the Salmon River (which you'll roughly parallel up to Sayward) after ~11kms. Continue after the bridge on Memekay for close to 15kms, when you'll reach an intersection with Thunder / Big Tree Mains. Signs and names get a little confusing here (you'll usually be able to tell the main route as it shows signs of more traffic), but turn right (NE) for under 2kms where you'll angle right at a junction with Big Tree Main. Loop a further 2+kms to a junction with Big Tree. Turn left (west) onto Airstrip Main and after under a km you'll cross a bridge over the Memekay River,and then reach Memekay Horse Camp (a nice forestry campsite maintained by local horse riding club) after another km.
Keep heading NW another 11kms. Airstrip becomes Salmon River Main. Carry on NW a further 6kms and you'll reach the back side of Elk Creek Rec Camp, about 1/2km after a bridge over the White River, and just before another bridge over Elk Creek. Just before this Elk Creek bridge, there's a path down (north/right side) a little hill into the campground. Alternatively, you can turn right just after the bridge over the White River to get to the big North Highway, south of the main entrance to the Rec Camp off the highway. If you are so inclined, you'll see Sayward junction heading to the village 10kms east. There's a store, gas station and restaurant just near the junction. A little further along is Sayward Valley Resort (aka Fisherboy) campground. It's mostly an RV place, but I've camped here a few times when I've come down from the north and felt the need for a few comforts (shower, laundry, power, nearby restaurant), and the helpful owners have let me park my vehicle a few times while I've been off exploring on my bike.
Then, from Elk Creek campground, backtrack to the east side of the bridge over the White River, and you'll see White River Main heading SW. Take it. After under 18kms, you'll see the road branch right down to the river. I made a mistake and kept heading straight, to s decommissioned bridge (read more beside photo above). White River Main does continue, but on the west side, and you need to cross the bridge to stay on it. It's ~14kms south to the junction with Stewart Main on the left/east. From this junction you can see the decommissioned (torn out) bridge. After almost 9kms further, you'll reach a junction left that you must take over another bridge back to the east side of the river (again).
Keep south on White River Main another nearly 6kms. The road gets smaller and starts to climb away from the river. You'll reach a junction left onto WR700. Take this, and enjoy some steep climbing. There was a little informal sign indicating Gold River. After nearly 3 kms, now descending to the SE, I noted a sign for West Main, part of the Gold River backroads network (yeah!). Another 2.5 kms, past the turnoff to Victoria Peak, will take you to the turnoff east down to Twaddle Lake Rec Camp (small, basic & nice - and gotta love that name). 6 more kms south of the lake, and you'll reach the junction of East & West Mains, both following the Gold River. Seems either main will work, though I stuck with East Main (perhaps a little longer). From the junction, it was almost 13kms more south to a Y junction where you keep right (descending). After a km, crossing the Gold River on the way, you'll reach another junction with Nimpkish Main where you'll turn right (left would take you to Gold River). There are signs to help. After 7+kms NW you'll reach Muchalat Lake Rec Camp.
Heading off NW from Muchalat Lake Rec Camp along Nimpkish Main, one finds things are signed almost all the way north to the Island Highway. After 19 kms of wonderful riding, you'll reach a junction with Sebalhall Main. If you want to visit Vernon Lake, take this to the left/west. If not, continue straight along Nimpkish. I took the sidetrip. After 3kms on Sebalhall, there's a Y junction with Vernon Lake FSR, which you'll take to the right. You'll head west then follow the east shores of Vernon Lake north for 9kms total to reach the Rec Campground (recommended!) at the NE of the lake. Leaving the camp, continue north on Vernon Lake FSR for 2 kms to a junction with Nimpkish Main.
Left will take you to Woss. APRIL 2020 UPDATE: the link to Woss Lake was washed out and locals wondered if the connection was being decommissioned. A site visitor (THX!) emailed me in 2020 that most of the time (heavy rains and high waters aside), it was possible to push a bike through the blockage. So - the route north to Woss Lake may still be possible.
Back to the north end of Vernon Lake and our standard route. We go right/east. After 3+kms, you'll reach the junction we would have arrived at had we not taken the sidetrip to Vernon Lake. Continue east another 2+kms, past Maquillard rail clearing, to a bridge where you will branch left/north onto Nimpkish Main South. After 9+kms, you'll see on your right Klaklakama Lake and the Upper Rec Camp. Continue north a further 4+ kms to the north end of the lake and a junction with Schoen Road (not the road into the Schoen Lake Provincial Park). I headed right/east here for 1+kms to Lower Klaklakama Lake Rec Camp, where I camped (it was fine, nothing special). If you don't head to the campsite, and continue north, after 2+kms, you'll reach a junction with the road into Schoen Lake Provincial Park to the west, Turn left/east, following the signs to the highway, and you'll very shortly reach the North Island Highway. Yeah!
On the highway now, we want to head SE towards Campbell River, but because the highway does some looping about, we start off going north for a stretch. After nearly 15kms you'll see the turnoff left/north onto Tsitika River Main, which you'll take. Head ~north around 6kms until a junction (Tatlos). Keep on Tsitika Main to the left for a further 1+kms until a junction right/north onto Naka Main. Some maps call this South Main, but it is signed in most places as Naka Main, and you'll be roughly parallelling the Naka Creek much of the way to the coast. This is the fun part, as you'll keep on Naka Main north for 18+kms, including a sweet long descent down to the coast. You'll reach a T junction near the bottom, and keep right for another 1/2km, then left into the campsite area.
When you leave, you'll backtrack a few hundred metres then head east roughly parallelling the coast. My Backroads Mapbook calls this coastal road Naka Main as well. You'll follow as it goes up and inland a bit, and loops about, before ending 14 very tough kms to the east at the junction with Eve Main along the mouth of the Adam River. If you go left here, you'll get to the big, ugly log sort, along with a utilitarian Rec Camping area (not the nicest) and parking for folks heading out to the timber camps and fish farms.
Our route branches right/SE along Eve Main, along the lower Adam River. After 3+kms you'll reach a Y junction. If you take the smaller, rougher east side close to the river, in just under a km you'll reach the access track into Junction Pool Rec Camp, where Eve River & Adam River join (and become bigger Adam River). Most of the Rec Camp seems to no longer be maintained: but it is riverside, and there's a few nice sites. Assuming we don't go to Junction Pool, we'll keep right on the bigger, more maintained road, SE for a further 13+kms, where we'll see the sign and access track into Montague Creek Rec Camp, where the creek joins the Eve River. Basic, but a nice little (1-2 sites) Rec camp, a good option if you need a place to camp. From there it's a further ~2.5kms south along Eve Main back to the highway.
Once onto the highway, it's under 18 kms east to Keta Lake Rest Area (tables, toilets, lake), then 9kms to Sayward Junction (a nice descent into the Sayward Valley). Then 33.5kms to the cafe/resort along the west shores of Roberts Lake. And a final 31 kms south back to the north end of Campbell River.