Oshinow Loop (Port Alberni north to Courtenay)

A favourite backroads ride

I call this the Oshinow Loop as the ride heads NW from Port Alberni to the SE corner of remote Oshinow Lake in Strathcona Park, then loops back east along a more northern (& very rough) track. This is one of my absolute favourites, partly as one never knows what to expect, partly as there are endless variations, and partly as it took me a few kicks at the can before I succeeded in actually finding my way through. There's many variations of this route, but I generally do it as part of a backroads ride from Port Alberni to Courtenay via Comox Lake. Looping west into Strathcona Park is not the most direct route to Courtenay: check out the option below for more on the most direct route north.

 

Some highlights:

  • Rough and VERY unpredictable (potentially impassable) backroads riding, particularly the part of the loop NE of Oshinow Lake

  • Great camping at countless forestry, informal and wild camping options

  • Stunning riding along the Ash River into the SE corner of Strathcona Park to Oshinow Lake

  • Sweet descent to south Comox Lake

NW of Elsie Lake you'll join up with the main route coming from Oshinow Lake to the west. By this time the road is called Toma Main (or CL/Comox Lake Main). Keep following the signs to south Comox Lake and then Courtenay.

The main route here, which does the loop west past Oshinow Lake, is not the most direct route, which is to head north up Beaver Creek Road from the NW corner of Port Alberni. There's more detailed directions down below, including a heads up on a bear den to be wary of. 

Had a go at this ride again in May 2018, riding south to north. Here's a pic along the SW shores of Comox Lake on a brilliant riding day. A succession of tough hills here, but also some gorgeous views to compensate.

JULY 2018 UPDATE: The middle map below calls out an alternate (and more direct) route option that starts heading NW from Port Alberni up Beaver Creek Road, to the start of the old Valley Link Highway off Sommers Road. It's actually possible to ride the fine Log Train Trail 22kms from town up to the start of the  Valley Link. Read a little more, and get some links on the Log Train Trail here

MAY 2018 UPDATE: I rode the backroads Port Alberni to Courtenay route again. The logging company gate at the NE corner of Comox Lake is back with a day guard. I came up from the south, so he was surprised, & waved me through. He said the gate will be in place until some time in August. He spoke of problems with folks taking wood for firewood (??? - think it might be cycle tourists?).

So - options to avoid this barrier while keeping to the backroads: 

  • Tsable Comox Lakes Loop is an alternate route south of Lake Comox from Cumberland, though you must be ready for tough climbing  (1,000m), decommissioned tracks, and it's snowed in over half the year.

  • I've added a new local content page, Courtenay South on the Backroads, detailing how to ride the backroads south from Courtenay, through the hinterlands inland from the Island's east coast, all the way to Horne Lake. Then check out this Fav ride for the back route from Horne Lake to Port Alberni

  • ride south to north or go at a time the gate is not a problem

Final stretch of road into SW Oshinow Lake.  We're into Strathcona Provincial Park here, so no logging and, on my trips, virtually deserted.  Wonderful riding.

Road to Oshinow Lake | Strathcona Provincial Park | Fav bikepacking ride | cycle touring Vancouver Island

Days for Ride:  Recommend 3 days, 2 nights from Port Alberni to Courtenay, though it can be done as an overnighter, particularly if you travel light and ride long.  If your ride is starting & finishing at Nanaimo ferry, add one day to get to Port Alberni, and one day from Courtenay back to Nanaimo. Overall, the basic ride is only ~135kms (depending on possible side trips). Suggested overnight stops: night 1 - between Lowry & Oshinow Lakes (a number of options, such as along Elsie Lake or Ash River, or at Lowry Lake Rec Camp); night 2 - between between Toy & Pear Lakes, both of which have camping options.  

 

Difficulty:  Advanced.  90+% dirt road or abandoned track. Road NE from Oshinow Lake may have multiple blockages, floods or overgrowth. Some confusing areas where route may not always be apparent if you do not have directions (e.g. NE of Elsie Lake). You may meet logging, and possible gates at NE Comox Lake. Elevation up over 500m, so can be snowed in during colder seasons. There's a succession of modest but nasty hills around shores of Comox Lake.

Backrtoad NE of Elsie Lake | bikepacking Port Alberni to Courtenay

CX207 connector  - (CX indicating Comox Lake network) from NE of Elsie Lake, east to Toma Main (south of Comox Lake).

Lots of worthwhile side trip options.  Here's just a few:  ​

  • You could also have a great, tough riding loop just starting & finishing in Port Alberni, not heading up to Courtenay, by heading back south (vs north) when you reach Toma Main from the north part of the Oshinow Loop. And on your way back south, take this Valley Link and Beaver Creek Road route (see above bullet).

  • As you reach the clearing junction (see bottom photo) NE of Elsie Lake, I'm told there's an option to reach Willemar lakes (and then S Comox Lake) by heading north (vs east to CL Main). I tried to find this route by riding up the west shores of Nimnim Lake, but my road died out. If anyone knows this route, I'd welcome a shout.

  • You can also reach Willemar Lake from the SW shores of Comox Lake to the north via an easy, flat, 3km, well-signed connector. There are ~4 informal camping options at the NE corner of Willemar, and another site at the SW corner.  

  • If you are starting from Courtenay to the north, you could ride SW through Cumberland, then up to Tsable Lake in the Beaufort Range before descending along a rough switchback to the south end of Comox Lake, where you connect to Toma Main (see Fav ride)

  • If you want to do a big loop starting & finishing in Courtenay, consider riding to Port Alberni via one of the backroads options SW of Horne Lake, before looping north along this ride. 

Lots of trees down on the north stretch of the loop for my last trip. Made for slow going. This is just west of June Lake (great place to camp, though very basic)

Blocked backroad NE from Oshinow Lake | near June Lake in Strathcona Park | bikepacking Port Alberni to Courtenay

I consider this ride as advanced degree of difficulty, partly due to the remoteness involved, but mostly because the north segment of the loop back from Oshinow Lake can be very tough and unpredictable. It seems the road has been abandoned until one gets to the Strathcona Park boundary, where logging is once more allowed. Getting in to Oshinow Lake from the SE (~70 kms from Port Alberni), the road is fine, in fact, brilliant riding as you get near Strathcona Park.  NE from Oshinow it immediately gets nasty - steep, strewn with large stones, big trees down, overgrown in spots, flooded in others. Several years past things were greatly improved, and most of the track was rideable, though challenging. I think one of the quad clubs went in and opened it up. Last year though, things were getting bad again, and if things continue with no maintenance, it'll get touch and go in places. Note there are a couple of really neat, tiny, no facility camping options at Toy & June Lakes (if you like such spots, which I do). Expect to see wildlife - at the very least, deer.  

It's possible you'll meet logging at the start or finish of this trip - everywhere except in Strathcona Park. On my last trip, the areas to the south of Elsie Lake, and south of Comox Lake had active logging. If you do this in summer, and it's been dry, be sure to bring a dust mask for the bigger mains. As you reach the area NE of Elsie Lake, by now riding on a logging main, it can get confusing unless one knows the route, as there's a maze of roads about.  I've put some detailed instructions below, but you may want to get the *.gpx file.  

SW Comox Lake | Bikepacking Port Alberni to Courtenay | cycle touring Vancouver Island

Looking NW from the SW corner of Comox Lake. There's a succession of mean little hills coming around Comox Lake, so you really earn your passage.

Here's the elevation / distance view.  

Things look real steep but the chart below covers 135kms. The bracketed section in the middle starting at 70kms shows the north connector of the Oshinow Loop, from Oshinow Lake to the junction with Toma Main (only 22 kms). The first spike at 30+kms is NW of McLaughlin Lake before descending down to the south shores of Elsie Lake. The height of land, above 500m, is east of Toy Lake - outside of summer, you may see snow in this area. You see the drop to the 'old log sort' before a short climb up and down again as you approach Toma Main. The ride from Toma Main to S Comox Lake is a sweet 10km gradual descent. From ~km103 to km127, the ride follows the west & north shores of Comox Lake and you can see the nasty little hills. Then down to seaside Courtenay.

Distance elevation chart for favourite backroads bike tour, bikepacking, from Port Alberni to Courtenay via Oshinow Loop, Vancouver Island
 
Route to Toma Main | NW of Elsie Lake | bikepacking Port Alberni to Courtenay

What I call 'the old log sort', near the NE end of Oshinow loop heading east to Toma Main. The track in from Oshinow Lake & Strathcona can be seen at the left. To make the connection out to Toma Main, one needs to take the sharp back left turn (NW) up the sloping main to the right (where my bike is pointed). Then, taking the 2nd right will get you on the track to Toma Main.

Here's the distance & direction guide. Sorry for all the detail. Unless you're looking into this ride, or have a fondness for detail, you should skip this section.

Head west from Port Alberni on Pacific Rim Hwy 4 for ~10kms to the east end of Sproat Lake. Branch NW on Central Lake Rd to Great Central Lake (paved road ends after ~7+km), then onto Ash River Main continuing NW. From Great Central Lake to the turnoff west to Scout Lake is 7+kms. To Scout Beach, a further 10kms + 1km final access track. Then north past Lowry & McLaughlin Lakes to rejoin Ash River Main is ~10kms, with some climbing. Another climb, then descent, reaching Elsie Lake 4kms further along, and the Ash River at the SW corner of the lake after an additional 3+kms. Then under 8kms (great riding) to the park boundary, and a final 5kms to SW Oshinow Lake & the first of two small rec camps (I prefer the slightly larger 2nd camp, with views down the lake).  

From here we hook to climb NE and the road gets bad. It's just under 3kms to Toy Lake (see Fav Camp), and a further 3.5kms to June Lake (I prefer the east end camp). From Toy Lake to east of June Lake is the roughest & most unpredictable stretch. Then ~4kms to the park boundary, and 7+km to what I'm calling the old log sort. See pic above. To connect through, follow the track up/back to the NW (where my bike is pointing above) for less than a km, taking the 2nd right. Then under 4kms of rolling, winding road connects you to Toma Main.   

Heading north to Comox Lake along Toma Main, it's 8+kms to the junction at the South of the lake. Then 2kms west before branching north (or you can branch south to Willemar Lake and a bunch of Rec camping options). The ride along the west then north shores of Comox Lake is a tough one - the hills aren't big, but they're steep and keep coming. It's ~21km to the dam at the NE end of Comox Lake. On occasion there has been a manned gate a few kms before the dam, there to keep traffic from Courtenay out when there is logging (with an exception for weekends or local cottagers). From the dam it's smooth sailing on paved roads, ~5kms to the inland big highway, and a further couple of kms into Courtenay proper.  

For the most direct route north from Port Alberni, which does not loop west past Oshinow Lake, I have added more directions below the 2nd map following.

Oshinow Loop - Route Maps

Below, find a map of the overall ride along with several zoom in section views

Map1: Overall Ride

The purple/magenta track is the core ride. You can see (blue tracks) the side trip options discussed above. As you see it is possible to return to Port Alberni after riding the north loop out to Toma Main NE of Elsie Lake

Oshinow Loop route map (1 of 3) | bikepacking Port Alberni to Courtenay | cycle touring Vancouver Island
Fav ride route map (2 pf 3) | start near Port Alberni & Great Central Lake | bikepacking Port Alberni to Courtenay

Map2: N from Port Alberni

This map zooms in on the starting section. A few key things. Note the turn off north to Great Central Lake, as well as the alternate route north along Beaver Creek Road, past Stamp River Provincial Park. See the junction where you'll choose to go left/west to Scout Beach & Lowry Lake or continue north on Ash River Main (these 2 tracks rejoin just before descending to SW Elsie Lake). 

 

As noted above, here's an alternate route if you're looking for the quickest, most direct (and easiest) route north from Port Alberni to Comox Lake and Courtenay. You can see this route in blue on the map above. Head north up Beaver Creek Road from the NW corner of Port Alberni. You'll pass Stamp River Falls Provincial Camp (honourable mention favourite), branch right onto Somers Road to the end where you'll see a dirt road to the north on your left, which is the old Valley Link Highway. Continue NW past a triangle where a connector from Ash Main (part of the main route) comes up from the SW.  Got a note from Jeff of Errington (thx Jeff!), a site visitor who was doing the ride north from Port Alberni to Comox Lake. He warned of a bear den along the way. The description below starts from near the "triangle" noted just above here:

....wanted to give you a heads up on a bear den we stumbled in to... (GPS: N49° 27.381' W125° 04.014'). Upon coming across the big sign that indicates Comox Main is closed, no access .... (along with some graffiti disputing it), we took a left off Comox Main as indicated by the route we had been given. This road is eventually deactivated with 2 large trenches dug through it. We hauled our bikes around the trenches and this is when we were greeted with a loud deep growl, less than 10 feet away. We slowly backed away called out it expecting it to run away - but no luck. We did our best to skirt around it in the thick brush before riding off. I would not recommend going this way at all... 

In the past I have ridden the more eastern (right) option that Jeff notes above to get onto Comox Main. My last trip, I rode the western option and also had to haul my gear around the trenches - without, thankfully, finding myself 10 feet from a growling bear!

Map3: Oshinow Loop to Comox Lake

Once you reach S Elsie Lake, you're into the best parts of the ride. At the Strathcona Park Boundary, the road gets  leaner & even more fun.  At the NE branch from Oshinow Lake rec Camp, the track turns mean, until the N Strathcona boundary. Note the marker I've called 'old log sort', and see pic above. At this big open clearing, you need to branch up and back (NW) for a stretch to connect with Toma Main

Fav ride route map (3 of 3) | zoom to Elsie Lake & Comox Lake | bikepacking Port Alberni to Courtenay | cycle touring Vancouver Island

Let me finish off with a couple of pics - from the south and north ends of this grand ride.

Victoria Quay Park, Port Alberni | start of Pacific Rim Highway | cycle touring Vancouver Island

Victoria Quay Park at the NW corner of Port Alberta, start of the highway west to Tofino, or Sproat Lake, for this ride. Just west from here is the start of Beaver Creek Road if you are taking the more direct route north.

This pic was taken on the bridge across the mouth of the Puntledge River as it flows out of NE Comox Lake, looking east up the river to the dam. This is the end of the backroads portion on this ride (and no more hills): from here on in, you've just got a handful more gradually descending kms (all paved!) into Courtenay. May 2018, riding north from Port Alberni

Bridge over Puntledge River | NE Comox Lake | cycle touring Vancouver Island

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