Side Bay - Incredible NW Destination
A favourite backroads ride
I got curious when I noted a big empty area on the north Island map west of Port Alice and mighty Neroutsos Inlet - no communities around? Then recalling occasional reverent comment about camping at Side Bay.
Side Bay is one of the grand wilderness camping destinations on Vancouver Island. And there's a thumper of a hard core backroads ride in, west from Port Alice, up and over Teeta Hill. Add in some side destinations and you've got this great favourite ride.
MAY 2022 UPDATE: I was back out to Side Bay again (still glorious). I took a different route west from Neroutsos Inlet (Cayuse Main), and it is perhaps a little easier than Teeta Main (described below - though both options are still very tough). See short add on section at bottom of this page for more info and map.
My camp at Side Bay, looking west. The next pic shows the view looking east. I visited in late September. I had one camping neighbour, and we each took our own little bay.
Some highlights of this ride:
Camping at Side Bay.
Visiting, and maybe camping, at nearby Gooding Cove (pic further down the page), where you might have the bay all to yourself
Riding the southern shores of mighty Neroutsos Inlet. Then tackling the crazy steep (up to 19 degree incline) slopes up and down Teeta Hill.
I last visited in September, and there was one other couple camping. I have been told that word has spread and Side Bay can get busier in summer, particularly on long weekends (although I suspect this is relative to earlier days when the site was largely deserted). I saw evidence of quad tracks following the shoreline down to further bays. It would be a hard slog to push a loaded bike down the shoreline, but would be worth it to get a quieter spot if the near options were occupied.
Another view from my Side Bay campsite, this time looking east down 'my bay'. There were several more bays down the way I could reach along the beach. My map showed more bays and marine camping options further along, but likely only reachable by water.
Days for Ride: I drove up to Port Alice. After talking with locals and getting permission, I left my car in the parking lot of the local supermarket.
The direct ride in from Port Alice to Side Bay is about 85kms. I added side trips, to Mahatta River, O'Connell Lake (known for the trout fishing), and (brilliantly) Gooding Cove. So, I did the ride out over 2 days (recommend camping at Gooding Cove), camped at Side Bay another couple of days, then rode back in one long day. This may not seem like that tough a ride. But there's a mean 650m hill (Teeta Hill) up and over from the west shores of Neroutsos Inlet. It has stretches that are real steep, up to 19 degrees.
In other words, starting and finishing in Port Alice, it's possible to get out to Side Bay and back on a tough overnighter. I recommend 4 days and 3 nights, more if you have the time. Camping at Side Bay is definitely worth at least a couple of days.
Given how far north we are - Port Alice is ~250kms north of Campbell River - you also need to block off time just to get to the start (and back from the finish) of this ride. For getting in to Port Alice from the north Island Highway (and lots more), check out this companion favourite ride, the Alice Lake Loop.
O'Connell Lake, south off the route to Side Bay, famous for trout fishing. I let my GPS suggest the route there and ended up on the wrong (east) side of this bridge that has obviously seen better days (#!%). There was a basic camping clearing on my side, and I'm told there's a nice site on the west side, though the road in is subject to flooding.
Difficulty: Medium. I may have just been low energy, or carrying too much food, but Teeta Hill felt real tough (steep!) on this trip, there and back. And once you leave Port Alice, there's no services; though, in a pinch, you could always check out the logging depot/docks at Mahatta River. It's been my experience that real remote rides just feel a little tougher psychologically.
I was lucky that there was no logging on my route. That can change, and one should expect possible active logging. If it's hot and dry, expect dust when trucks pass: a dust mask is a good idea in hot, dry summer stretches.
At Side Bay, one needs to ford a small creek if you want to head east down the longer string of bays. Pushing a loaded bike down a sandy beach can be a challenge.
Bottom left in the collage above shows Port Alice, built up the hillside of SE Neroutsos Inlet, in a pic taken ~1km south. Top left shows the rainbow ending over Neucel Mill, now largely shut down, causing Port Alice great pain. Top right is from the marina at the south of Port Alice, looking across the inlet to Teeta Hill, which you climb up and over to head west. Finally, bottom right shows a log sort along the SW shores of the Inlet: this is also km zero of Teeta Main (see elevation chart below).
Port Alice has a population of ~800. You can stock up on supplies, grab some cold beer, find a basic hotel room, get some tourist info. I didn't see a good campground (though there's an an RV park for sale), but there's lots of camping at surrounding Rec Sites not too far away. Check out Link River.
The town grew up around the pulp mill, 6kms to the south (where the paved road also ends). This is another example of how the geography dictated settlement, as ocean going ships are able to travel Neroustos Inlet right into the heart of Vancouver Island to load up. Alas, like so many mills and communities, Neucel Specialty Cellulose, the current owner, is essentially shut down, and the town is faced with reinventing itself.
The village of Port Alice is located within the traditional territory of the Quatsino First Nation, centred today north at Coal Harbour.
Pics here from Mahatta River. There's a logging depot with permanent equipment repair shop (top, looking like something out of Mad Max) and docks to ferry workers to Port Alice and Coal Harbour. This is ~4kms south off the road to Side Bay. There's also a grassy seaside clearing just west of the docks where apparently folks go and camp.
There are some interesting side trip options.
Check out the Alice Lake Loop Fav backroads ride to get into Alice Lake, and back to the north Island Highway via a southern backroads route
My route out and back to Side Bay took Teeta Main and Teeta 500 up from Neroustos Inlet. My map (and camping neighbour at Side Bay) suggest it is also possible (but tougher!) to make the trip via Cayuse Main, which also branches west off the Inlet, but some kms south of Teeta Main. The west side connections to reach Side Bay, likely north of Klashino Inlet, would need research
If you look north from Mahatta River across Quatsino Sound, you'll be looking to the area around Koprino Rec Camp, part of the neighbouring 'Top of the Island' fav backroads ride. Just in case you're really interested in covering off the whole far NW
A guy with a rugged looking 4x4 (maybe too rigged up) in Port Alice was telling me that there are actually rough roads into the Brooks Peninsula, though they're not on my maps. Research would be needed, but if true, the Brooks Peninsula would be an incredible riding destination
Back to Side Bay again. There was a family of sea otters that swam by every day (see pic below). There were eagles circling. Walking the seaside, I saw tracks for deer and a bear along the sands. Looking to the rocks in behind, this also looks like a popular seagull hangout.
Here's the elevation / distance view, showing just my trip out to Side Bay:
Not too tough to pick the dominant feature out from this chart - Teeta Hill, up from the SW shores of Neroutsos Inlet as you head west. It gets real steep, including on the way back. In fact, once you're over 'the Hump' (as locals call it, rather dismissive of the Port Alberni Hump), the riding is mostly pretty easy going, a number of gradual hills but nothing more too challenging.
You'll see on the chart a number of short 'there & back' sidetrips I took on my way out - O'Connell Lake, Mahatta River and Gooding Cove. The direct route out is ~85kms.
Here's the distance & direction guide. Unless you're planning a ride, you'll want to skip this section, or risk getting put to sleep.
As noted above, the ride starts and finishes in Port Alice. Check out the companion Alice Lake Loop Fav backroads ride for getting into Port Alice. And for heading up the North Island Highway, check out this ride.
From Port Alice, head south along Neroutsos Inlet. After 6+kms you'll reach giant Neucel Mill, now on life support, where the paved road ends. 7+ more kms gets you to the south of the Inlet and a bridge over to the SW, where you'll ride north again for 8.5+kms to a log sort and cranes, which is also Km Zero for Teeta Main, which continues north. After 1.5kms, Teeta angles W/SW and starts to climb. After near 4kms further, you'll take a sharp left onto Teeta 500, and the climb gets steeper. Another 7+kms of mostly climbing gets you to the top of the hill, and you start to descend.
After ~7.5kms, you reach the junction with K Main. By this time, you'll be seeing signs to Mahatta River, and soon, to Side Bay as well - these continue for the rest of your way out. From the K Main junction it's almost 7kms further to the junction with R Main, then a further near 6kms to the junction with Cleagh Creek. Then 5kms SW to the junction with Mahatta Main.
From here, I headed south for ~6kms to the campsite at O'Connell Lake. My directions took me up the east shores to a bridge that (alas) had been decommissioned (see pic above). You'll see on your map you can also follow Klaskino Main to Old Mahatta Main, which will take you down the west shores of O'Connell Lake, where the better camping area is, although I am told the access is subject to flooding.
Back to the main route, a few hundred metres west along the divided road and you'll see an access track on the west side into the old Mahatta River Rec Site, which I checked out. It has been closed but there are several sites folks apparently still use, with old tables and clearings for tents, along with a basic outhouse. The trail down to the river for water is a bit tough to follow now. This could serve for camping if you really need a place late in the day.
Continued below map ....
Route Map: Port Alice to Side Bay, with a few side trips
Directions continued from above map ....
From the junction to O'Connell Lake, head west on divided (for a few kms) Mahatta road for ~2kms to another junction. You'll see the signs left to Side Bay and Gooding Cove. I took a short (8km there & back) side trip right, down to the Mahatta River equipment depot and docks (see pics above). I saw a grassy seaside stretch west of the docks and was told folks camp there (or at least nearby).
Assuming you just headed west towards Side Bay (vs side trip), it's 6.5kms west to another junction where you can branch right to Gooding Cove, or head south to Side Bay. I took the side trip out to Gooding Cove (20kms round trip). This was some of the finest riding on the trip, skirting the north shores of Le Mare Lake, and Gooding Cove itself is quite stunning (see pic below), a great option for camping, with a tiny creek for water coming down the hill just as you reach the bay.
Back to the junction south. You'll skirt the east shores of Le Mare Lake, and continue south for 9kms to a junction, where you'll angle west, then, shortly after, cross a bridge over Keith River. There's a good clearing here where you could camp if it's late. From this clearing it's 6km more to where you'll see the track down to the seaside at Side Bay.
When the track reaches Side Bay, there's a beach stretch to the west where my neighbours in a van camped. There's 3 or 4 choice bays strung out to the east, but you need to ford a small creek to reach these (I saw some quad tracks across). Pushing one's bike down the bays to get a more distant camp site is a tough slog, but very worthwhile if it's summer and there are other campers taking the near options.
Gooding Cove, another incredible option if you like your own gorgeous bay (though I'm sure it gets some folks in season). Check out the firewood someone left behind.
ADD-ON: MAY 2022 RETURN TO SIDE BAY:
I was back to Port Alice and Side Bay at the end of May/early June, 2022. I took a different route out, this time via Cayuse Main and Mahatta Main, via O'Connell Lake, which you can see in the map below.
Cayuse Main goes up to just over 500m, so is less high than the ~640m going over Teeta Hill (which I rode again on my way back to Port Alice). I suspect Cayuse Main is a little easier climb (though it is still nasty): a succession of shorter really steep stretches, some 18 degree incline and above. The lower height would also be an advantage in the shoulder seasons where one might still encounter higher elevation snows.
I can now share this different GPX track out via Cayuse Main.
When I reached Side Bay, there was one tent in the immediate bay where the road ends. I had to ford the creek to get along to the next bay, where there was another couple in a jeep. I pushed down to yet the next bay along; there was another jeep camp at the far end and I found a great spot in the middle of the bay, about 400 metres from them. They left the next morning and I had the bay to myself. Weather was foggy and drizzly in the morning but turned great by afternoon. Gorgeous.
When I left, I saw another camping group of guys had pulled in to the arrival bay. There were about 10 tents together, and I imagine it was not a quiet place. By later in June I could imagine things might get pretty crowded.
The map below shows my new route via Cayuse Main and Mahatta Main (in red). My previous route is in blue, and I once again followed it from O'Connell Lake out to Side Bay, as well as on my return ride via Teeta Hill.