Tip to Tip on the Backroads

A favourite backroads ride

Here's a trip to challenge insanely ambitious backroaders and bikepackers - a banner ride on this website. 

A month or two past when I was finishing off my ride out to Zeballos and Fair Harbour in the north, I realized that if I strung various backroads routes together from the website, I could almost make it from the southern tip to the northern tip of Vancouver Island, from Sooke to Cape Scott, on backroads.

This was intriguing, so I took a closer look. Turned out the only gaps were up around Woss and north from Atluck Lake to the southern segment of the Alice Lake Loop ride. The Woss gap I could close as I'd done a past ride from Woss Lake to Zeballos Main, basically parallelling the highway to the west on Nimpkish Road. I could see backroads north from Atluck Lake, and talked to some friends, then went up for a ride to confirm a connection to Benson Main. Not only did I find one, but it was a sweet ride, with a rough, remote segment.

I wrote up a 'local content page' showing this north Island off-highway route, calling it Getting off the NE Highway. (Also linked by thumbnail below). I've also linked this off-highway route off other north Island ride pages - North Island Highway, Alice Lake Loop and Top of the Island. And, in the update box below, I've added a new page on riding the backroads south from Courtenay (inland from the Island's east coast), all the way to Horne Lake and Port Alberni. 

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

  • go at a time the gate is not a problem

APRIL 2019 UPDATE: I was back in Woss on my way south to Gold River on the backroads.  The local gas station told me the direct connector from Woss south to the north end of Vernon Lake was washed out, and may be decommissioned.  Not sure if this will get fixed. This means one must ride the highway for 20+kms (yikes!!). If you're going south from Woss, take the off exit west going to Mt Cain and Schoen Lake Provincial Park (you want to take the exit, but then head west along the north shores of Klaklakama Lake to the north end of Vernon Lake - don't angle south to Mt Cain or Schoen Lake).  So - the tip to tip off-highway route now has a little stretch on the north Highway.  Alas. I haven't had the time to see if there is any alternate route to the east or west off the highway. There are backroads, but I don't think they connect.

Atluck Lake Rec Camp | bikepacking north Vancouver Island | cycle touring north Vancouver Island

Almost dusk, along the NW shores of Atluck Lake, past the fine Rec Camp at the SE corner. There's ~6kms of fine riding tight against the shores, with a couple more little lakeside pullouts where one could potentially camp.

So, I put this 'tip to tip' route together, taking sections (whole or partial) from assorted backroads rides, and linking them into one track. It's not a 'pure' backroads ride as there are a few places where you'll be on pavement, such as when you connect through towns like Lake Cowichan, Port Alberni or Courtenay.

To give some contrast with the more common riding route up the Island Highway, I've shown both this 'tip to tip' route, as well as highway route, on the route map, as well as several elevation charts. Not surprisingly, the backroads route is several hundred kms further than just following the main roads, and the backroads routes get you into a lot more climbing, not to mention rough, poorly maintained sections.

Victoria Quay Park at the SW corner of Port Alberni. You'll very likely pass by here if you ride the backroads north to Courtenay.

Victoria Quay Park, Port Alberni | cycle touring connections | bikepacking Vancouver Island

A proposed 'Tip to Tip' route like this could stir some debate, so let me add several caveats:

  • This is not necessarily the most direct or easiest route. I can think of some areas where both major and minor backroads options are possible, and I'm positive there are lots more. 

  • A few parts here could be subject to roads getting overgrown (e.g. north Atluck Main was pretty basic), or could have access restricted by logging companies

  • My mileage should be considered close but not precise. When I save my GPS tracks they often include little side trips as I poke around. I haven't taken the time to clean all these out.

  • One section I have not personally ridden is Vernon Lake north to Woss. When I did my ride past Vernon Lake, I decided to head north back to the Island Highway via nearby Klaklakama Lakes, which I had never visited (I had camped a few times at Woss Lake). However, I've seen the route signs and talked to people who have recently done this Woss leg.

Muchalat Lake Rec Campground | bikepacking Vancouver Island | cycle touring Vancouver Island backroads

From the fine Rec Camp at Muchalat Lake. If you check the route below, the ride down to here along the White River from Sayward is a bit of a backtrack to the south. It then angles back to the north again to get us up to Woss.

Days for ride:  

Taking the big/main paved highway north to Port Hardy from Victoria is ~500kms (525, as I started from Swartz Bay ferry terminal). Doing the proposed backroads route is more than 250kms additional riding. And the backroads riding is tougher, with occasional extreme gradients.

So - the days for the ride depends on your approach, fitness and bike. I'm sure some hard pushers could do the ride in a week or less. For me, liking to camp and poke about, I'd need a handful of extra days. Here's a suggested 'relaxed' itinerary:

  • day 1 - Victoria to Cowichan Lake

  • day 2 - Cowichan Lake to Nitinat Lake

  • day 3 - Nitinat Lake to Port Alberni

  • day 4 - Port Alberni to Courtenay (long day - you could camp earlier at Willemar Lake, off south Comox Lake, or other nearby informal options). In case the gate at NE Comox Lake should be a problem, there's an alternate backroads route to Port Alberni south from Courtenay.

  • day 5 - Courtenay to Campbell River (or out into lakes to the west of Campbell River)

  • day 6 - Campbell River to Sayward

  • day 7 - Sayward to Muchalat Lake Rec Camp (north of Gold River)

  • day 8 - Muchalat Lake to Woss Lake Rec Camp (just south of Woss). APRIL 2019 update: see note at top as connector to Woss from south may not be passable, necessitating a little highway travel (sigh).

  • day 9 - Woss Lake to Atluck Lake Rec Camp

  • day 10 - Atluck Lake to Coal Harbour (long day - but lots of informal camping options along the way)

  • day 11 - Coal Harbour to Cape Scott (camp at Rec Camp a few kms before Park, which does not allow bikes on the hiking trails)

You could, of course, tackle the route in sections over time.

Difficulty:  

Tackling the whole tip to tip ride is advanced difficulty - only for experienced riders with past riding out in the backroads. There's lots and lots of hills, some very basic road stretches, and things get really remote in a number of places.

 

I've found that the longer distances do matter, even if it's only a head game, particularly when in tandem with remote riding.

 

 

In the above map, the purple/magenta track is the off highway backroads route. For comparison, the blue track follows the main highway, from Swartz Bay to Bear Cove ferry terminal in Port Hardy. 

The south trailhead is at Humpback Reservoir (near Goldstream Provincial Campground), the south end of the Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail (see blog post). You can reach here from Victoria's Galloping Goose trail network along the 'Great Trail', though the route is mostly on designated roads (mostly with excellent shoulders). I considered starting off by heading north through the major hinterlands north of the SW coast (see Cowichan Kinsol SW Coast fav backroads ride) , west of Sooke, but settled on the Sooke Hills Trailhead because the trail network (part of the Trans Canada Trail network) north to Cowichan Lake (some new segments have recently opened) is absolutely super. 

In the north, I finished at the Cape Scott trailhead. You could also finish at Port Hardy. There's a Rec Campground a few kms before reaching Cape Scott trailhead, which is recommended as the Park does not allow bikes on the trails.

 

 
Elevation / Distance Chart: Main (paved) Island Highway
Fav ride Distance / elevation chart | cycle touring Vancouver Island Highway | north to south

To provide a comparison basis, I've shown first (above) the distance / elevation chart for the paved main Island Highway. First a caution - because the distance is so long, over 500kms, the hills look real steep. But that is not the case. The highway hills all rise pretty gradually over stretched out distances. 

That doesn't mean you won't face some climbing. At around km 50, coming up from Victoria, one has to climb the 350m 'Mahalat' hill. This is one of my least favourite climbs anywhere as I find the highway almost becomes a tunnel that traps the vehicle fumes (another reason to take the offroad option below). After the Malahat, you can see that the elevation never rises above 150m until you get all the way north of Campbell River. This lower, mid-Island stretch is some easy-going riding, for the most part. North of Campbell River, the climbing gets a little more serious, though the inclines are still fairly civilized. The height reaches over 400m between Sayward and Woss junctions. From there, it's mostly easy-going once again, to Port Hardy. 

Fav ride Elevation / distance chart | Vancouver Island north to south | bikepacking Vancouver Island backroads
Elevation / Distance Chart: Backroads Tip to Tip

This lower distance / elevation chart is for our 'tip to tip' backroads ride.

You'll see we've got an extra ~250kms of riding across the bottom axis for this chart. So, again, the hills look steeper than they really are. That said, there really are some mean hills, with some stretches having extreme gradients. Note that the left axis here stretches up above 600m, vs 500m above. Note also that the top chart seems to place most of the route between 50 and 100m elevation. On this backroads elevation chart, it's between 100 and 200m.

The Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail may be a nicely groomed section of the Trans Canada Trail, but, as you can see above, you'll start your south to north ride with a sharp climbing segment. At around km150, you'll reach Bamfield Hwy along the east shores of Alberni Inlet. Expect some tough hills. There's a long but not so steep climb up between Port Alberni and Comox Lake. Just after km 250, you'll ride the west then north shores of Comox Lake - this is another tough stretch.

The highest point is climbing along the White River SW from Sayward to Muchalat Lake. There's another hill worth noting north of Atluck Lake. Riding west from Coal Harbour to Holberg north of grand Holberg Inlet, there's a good climb up Clesklagh Main. 

 

My ECR along the SW shores of Comox Lake, on my way up from Port Alberni (see ride here). I'd been out in the backroads for a week, & was almost home. The ride around the west then north shores of the Lake stays under 300m, but is a succession of nasty, high gradient little hills, so be prepared. 

Bikepacking Comox Lake | bikepacking Port Alberni to Courtenay

There's just too much to try and recap directions for this mother of a ride. Instead, let me list (with links, in south to north sequence), the various rides that I've pulled segments from to build this Tip to Tip epic route. All the segments are backroads riding.

  • Cowichan Lake, Kinsol Trestle, Port Renfrew Loop: You can join this ride at the starting point at Humpback Reservoir (it comes up from Sooke), and ride the trails north to SW of Duncan, and up to Cowichan Lake's east end.   

  • Cowichan Valley Trail: Vancouver Island's best stretch of the Trans Canada Trail, which now extends south to Victoria area - a hugely popular ride. This will take you from SW Duncan up the south leg of the CVT to the east end of Cowichan Lake, loosely following the Cowichan River much of the way.

  • Cowichan Lake Nitinat Port Alberni: Classic backroads ride will take you down the north shores of Cowichan Lake and through the backroads (past Nitinat Lake) to the east shores of mighty Alberni Inlet, then branch north to get you to Port Alberni.

  • Port Alberni north to Courtenay: From NW Port Alberni, head NW past the east shores of Great Central Lake, Elsie Lake then north to the west shores of Comox Lake, which will loop east around the north shores and take you into Courtenay. I'm suggesting you exclude the western leg into Strathcona Park past Oshinow Lake. Rather, just head north from Port Alberni past Stamp River Falls and up the old Valley Link Hwy, and then Toma Main (aka CL or Comox Lake Main). 

    • There've been occasional access issues for riders heading north to south (south to north is OK) caused by a closed gate at NE Comox Lake. One can get around this via the tough Tsable Lake ride. Or check out a new page, Courtenay south on the Backroads - an alternate (rough) backroads route through the hinterlands inland from the Island's east coast, south to Port Alberni via Horne Lake.

  • Courtenay NW Lakes: Head NW from town along Duncan Bay Main (DBM). Follow the ride track across the Oyster River as one heads to Lower Quinsam Lake. However, don't take the west branch off DBM onto Quinsam (aka Gilson) Main (as you get near the lake). Keep on DBM heading north, and after 8 more kms, you'll reach an intersection and take the left onto Elk Main (initially angling south, but heading west after).

  • Strathcona Park (& west to Gold River): Above, we got onto Elk Main, west of Campbell River, heading west. Follow Elk Main as it crosses Hwy 28 just west of Echo Lake, then out to Strathcona Dam (where there's a fine campground). If you look at the map for this ride, you'll see a short route north (sweet riding) from Strathcona Dam up to Fry Lake, and the grand cluster of lakes to the NW of Campbell River.

  • Lower North Criss-Cross: Once you reach the west end of Fry Lake, you'll be able to connect onto the Lower North Criss-Cross route, heading north past Gray Lake to Brewster Lake where a bridge west at the south of the lake branches NW to Sayward, then south all the way to Muchalat Lake near Gold River, then back further north to Woss. On the ride map, you'll see that from north Vernon Lake, I returned to the North Island Highway via Klaklakama Lakes (I wanted to check out the campgrounds). However, you'll also see a blue route (take this!) a little further to the NW that goes to the north end of Woss Lake. This route is signed on the ground, so you should have no trouble following it.

  • Getting off the NE Highway: This is an add-on section (intersecting with the Alice Lake Loop, North Island Hwy, Top of the World and Zeballos Fair Harbour rides) to help make this set of Tip to Tip links work. It's also got some sweet riding, particularly north from Atluck Lake. There's the key bundled stretches:

    • From north Woss Lake, head north on Nimpkish Main (roughly along the west shores of Nimpkish River) ​to Zeballos Main.

    • West onto Zeballos Main for 6+kms until you turn right onto Atluck Main

    • Follow Atluck Main to the lake (and fine Camp), then along north shores until looping north past the lake. Things get a little rough, basic, steep and potentially confusing. You'll eventually branch onto J Main (back onto a better road), then B Main (for Benson Main, I believe), until you reach the junction with Keogh Main. You're now on the southern Leg of the Alice Lake Loop ride. 

    • Stick with the Alice Lake Loop ride N/NW along Benson Main (which turns into Alice Lake Main) past Benson and Kathleen Lakes. 

    • Just SE of Alice Lake, Alice Lake Main branches right over a bridge over the Benson River and up the east shores of the long narrow lake. Don't miss this turn, as it may seem the route just continues east. You can now keep on this road all the way north to the east end of grand Rupert Inlet: it turns into Port Hardy Main after you cross the Port Alice Highway. 

    • Once you reach the east end of Rupert Inlet, just keep on Port Hardy Main and it will angle west, north of the inlet. Around 6+kms after the inlet, just past tiny Joe Lake on your left, you'll reach a Y junction. Either option will get you to the paved road from Port Hardy to Coal Harbour, but the left option, NOT Port Hardy Main, will get you almost right down to Coal Harbour (this might be Coal Harbour Main), so take the left until you reach Coal Harbour Road (with a sign welcoming you to town).

  • Top of the Island: On the route map, you'll see Coal Harbour, and the backroads route just north of stunning Holberg Inlet. You can follow this to just NE of Holberg at the far east end of the Inlet. Turn left, then, down to Holberg. Go through the village, and follow signs west to Cape Scott and Winter Harbour. There's a Y junction with one road heading south to Winter Harbour, and the other continuing west to Cape Scott. Just follow the road and the signs and you'll get to Cape Scott Trailhead. I suggest camping at the riverside Rec Camp a few kms before the park, as bikes are not allowed on park trails.

 

Check these pages out for more local info on getting off the highways for some backroads riding (perhaps part of your epic 'Tip to Tip ride) 

This page details several riding options to continue north, while getting off the North Island Highway, up on the NE Island. The main section is 140kms from north Woss Lake to Coal Harbour, west off the main highway. There's another route from Zeballos junction north to Rupert Inlet. These off-highway stretches help to knit together a continuous backroads route for the Tip to Tip backroads ride.

Courtenay south on the Backroads

This page details the route for the backroads ride south from Courtenay all the way to Port Alberni, via Horne Lake. This winding track cuts through the huge, rarely visited hinterlands inland from the Island's popular east coast. There's rough stretches, good climbing and grand vistas. This is a great alternative to the often busy coastal highway, or the more common backroads route south via Comox Lake.

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Let me finish this (long!) page off with a couple of photo collages, the first from the south Island, and below, from the northern tip.

South Vancouver Island photos | bikepacking south Vancouver Island backroads | cycle touring

From the south end of the Island (above). Top left is a seaside section of the Galloping Goose Trail from Victoria, nearing Sooke here. Top right is from Pacheedaht First Nations campground along the seaside just outside Port Renfrew. Bottom right is a section from the new Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail. Finally, bottom left, early in the morning, is from another section of the Galloping Goose Trail, this time coming down from Sooke Potholes Regional Campground Park (recommended).

North Vancouver Island photos | bikepacking north Vancouver Island backroads | cycle touring

The above group of pics is from the far north of the Island. Top left looks over to the BC ferry terminal at Bear Cove, outside of Port Hardy. Top right is a local resident outside Coal Harbour. Bottom right is the Cape Scott trailhead near San Josef Bay - I'd planned to ride into the close by campground on San Josef Bay, but (sigh) bikes are not allowed on the trails. Finally, bottom left is from Grant Bay, a fav campground just west of remote Winter Harbour.

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