Top of the Island - West from Port Hardy

A favourite backroads ride

This ride starts from Port Hardy, at the NE corner of Vancouver Island, jump-off point for ferries north through BC's stunning Inside Passage. It loops west on backroads to the historical village of Coal Harbour, long ago a whaling centre, then beyond to Holberg, a forestry centre, at the inland tip of mighty Holberg Inlet. Then SW to Winter Harbour, a remote end of the road village that was a fishing centre in days of old. 

From this main track, there are some excellent side trips (click here to go down page to thumbnail links): out to wild Cape Scott Provincial Park and Cape Palmerston to the south; west from Winter Harbour to Grant Bay (a new favourite campground); east along the south of Holberg Inlet to remote Koprino Rec Campsite. I've added these side trips as short sections at the bottom. Apologies for the long page here: there's lots to cover.

This is Vancouver Island's remote north, where everything is a little rougher and tougher, and further from services. The roads are maintained more for truck traffic and pick-ups - more loose dirt and stone, more mud. The stores in Holberg and Winter Harbour are tiny, open only for parts of the day. There are more bugs in the spring. People say there are more bears and wolves. And the NW coast is a wild wonder.

Grant Bay Campground | bikepacking near Winter Harbour | cycle touring NW Vancouver Island

My beachside campsite at Grant Bay, a new favourite camp. The final stretch of the tough route in is a 1/2 km trail. I had the bay all to myself. Incredible beach walking.

Some highlights:

  • Getting far away from paved roads, traffic and throngs of people

  • Camping in a remote bay along the incredible coast, such as Grant Bay or Cape Palmerston

  • Incredible remote riding stretches, such as north of Holberg Inlet, or alongside Koprino River

  • I had a succession of bear encounters west of Coal Harbour (one a bit unnerving), along the roadside over a one hour stretch. Over the rest of my 10 day trip, I only saw 3-4 more bears.​

  • Camping along the shores near the marina in Coal Harbour, watching the boats, seaplane, otters and birds do their thing

  • Enjoying northern character and hospitality 

A couple of local denizens from a very popular stretch west of Coal Harbour, near the north shores of Holberg Inlet

Bears along Coal Harbour Main | bikepacking NW Vancouver Island | cycle touring north Vancouver Island

Days for Ride:  There's lots of choices here, depending on how many side trips you take on, or whether you stay a couple of days at some of the great camping options. To get a sense of the charm of this region, you need get out to a remote seaside bay somewhere to camp.

 

You could choose to leave out Coal Harbour, and just follow the more direct main road W/SW to Winter Harbour and back. If you choose to go through Coal Harbour and follow the more southern route west (north of Holberg Inlet), I'd suggest you need ~3-4 days (at least!) for the trip out to Winter Harbour and back.

 

Difficulty:  Advanced - assuming you take on one or more side trips, which get more remote. Without any side trips, the difficulty drops to intermediate. This is a remote area, where main backroads are maintained, but are rugged dirt tracks. The elevation never gets much above 300m (unless you try the northern swing), so there's no killer climbs. But there are sharp, nasty hills in places, and you should be on alert for logging trucks, particularly on the side trips, where the roads are are narrower. Bring a dust mask (or bandana) if it is hot and dry in the summer. Most campsites are fairly informal. Outside of summer, it's likely you'll be the only one around when you camp. You'll likely see some bears.  

A view east at Winter Harbour, from the docks of the marina and lodge. There's also a small store next store. In summer, Winter Harbour attracts many for the fishing and boating.

Winter Harbour marina | bikepacking NW Vancouver Island

There are some excellent side trip options.  

  • If you like hiking, Cape Scott and the North Coast Trail are world class wilderness trails. You'd need to leave your bike behind, perhaps in the commercial campground just outside the park.

  • Most of the remote camping coves (recommended) also involve some final trail stretches, or really rough access tracks to get in: Cape Palmerston, Raft Cove, Grant Bay, Hecht Beach. 

  • East of Koprino Rec Camp on Spencer Bay is old Quatsino, as well as today's Quatsino First Nation reserve. I had been told these were not reachable by road, only by boat from Coal Harbour. But later I was told there is a quad track into Quatsino. This would be a fine addition to the trip out to Koprino Rec Camp.

  • I camped at Georgie Lake, north off the Holberg Road. There's a road network heading NW from here that would be worth exploring (I tried unsuccessfully to connect up to the north from west of Nahwitti Lake).

Port Hardy | cycle touring north Vancouver Island

Port Hardy waterfront, with Queen C harlotte Strait & the mountains of the mainland in the background. This is the big town up north, & my starting point for this great ride. Just south of town is Bear Cove ferry terminal, where you can catch a BC ferry north to Bella Bella and Prince Rupert. I've done great big riding loops back to Vancouver via both these destinations - recommended!

Here's the elevation / distance view for the main loop out to Winter Harbour (see further down for more details on the side trips):

The backbone (Port Hardy to Winter Harbour loop) of this North Isle ride is 209kms. If you look below to the maps, you'll see that the ride heads west along a southern track through Coal Harbour, but returns to Port Hardy along the main Holberg Road further north. In the chart below, the 76km bracketed section shows the stretch out to Winter Harbour that then backtracks along the same road.

 

This is not a tough climbing ride. Elevation only goes up above 300m, but, as you see, you are always climbing up and down, in places to the seaside. 

Fav ride distance / elevation chart | bikepacking NW Vancouver Island

Coal Harbour, the end of the rainbow. That's the docks by the main marina. I camped on the field beside the shores. Lots of boats and a number of seaplanes coming and going. Some sea otters and lots of birds to watch.

Coal Harbour, north Holberg Inlet | bikepacking NW Vancouver Island | cycle touring

Here's the distance & direction guide to go with the 3 route maps below. This was a longer ride, with lots of pieces, so I've split things out. The first map covers the overall ride (magenta/purple route). Then are 2 more maps, zooming in to the east and then the west, respectively. 

 

Below the maps, I've added mini-sections for the side trips (red tracks on the maps). You can scroll down, or click on a link below if you want to go straight to a side trip:

I started and finished this ride (and left my car) in Quatse River Regional Campground, which is 4-5 kms south from Port Hardy town (and ~7kms from the BC Ferry Terminal at Bear Cove). There are several options you could consider to shorten the route:

  • My route heads south on the North Island Hwy, then branches off west on backroads to Coal Harbour via the east shores of Rupert Inlet. However, you could save ~30kms by taking the more direct, paved Coal Harbour Road that goes SW directly from Port Hardy to Coal Harbour.

  • Bypass the southern track through Coal Harbour entirely & just take the main (dirt) Holberg Road when you head west and come back. This would save you ~40kms.

From Quatse River Regional Campground, I headed south on the North Island Hwy (paved!) for 19km, turning right/west onto Rupert Main (just before Beaver Lake & the turn-off to Port Alice). 8km to the east shores of Rupert Inlet. Then N/NW on Port Hardy Main for ~7kms to a junction. Take the left/SW branch and 7kms will take you to a junction with paved Coal Harbour Road from Port Hardy. Turn left into town and after 1.5kms you'll reach the marina.  There's no store in Coal Harbour. I camped at a seaside field beside the marina, managed from an adjacent home. Nice.

(distance / direction guide continued after pic below)

Dock looking east from end of Holberg spit. I came here for the 'best cell phone coverage'. Across the inlet is the major log dump for the area. Ocean-going ships are able to penetrate deep into the heart of north Vancouver Island by sailing up Quatsino Sound then Holberg Inlet.

Directions continued from above pic.

Head back to the junction with Coal Harbour Road just outside town, and this time turn west. This is called Holberg Main by the locals and Wanokana Main on my Backroads maps. There are mileage signs all the way to Holberg Road. After ~15km you'll reach a V: your route continues NW, to the SW it's a couple of hundred metres down to a log sort & work yard along the shores of Holberg Inlet. If it's a weekend, this is a good place for a break. Taking the NW branch, you're now on Hushamu FSR (called 'P Main' on some maps). Follow this for 6+kms to another V junction, where Hushamu branches north. You want to take the left NW branch on smaller Clesklagh Main (signed). Continue for near 10km, and the road becomes NE Main, and the mileage signs start to reference the junction ahead with Holberg Rd, a further 6km west. Beautiful riding in stretches. The junction with Holberg Road is near a bridge over Goodspeed River. Turn left on Holberg Road, and you'll reach the village after a winding ~6.5kms.

Holberg has a store (also sells gas) open latter afternoon, and a pub open at noon (!). From Holberg, you can follow the signs to Winter Harbour, 31 kms to the south. You'll start by heading west. After under 6 kms there's a V junction where you'll take the south track (continuing west gets you to Cape Scott). After another 9kms you'll reach the junction with South Main east out to Koprino Rec Camp. Then 11km gets you to the junction with West Main out (W/SW) to Grant Bay Campground. Then 2.5 kms down to the seaside where you'll see Kwaksistah Regional Campground (recommended, but bring water). Finally, another km or so (several nasty little hills) into Winter Harbour village. There are several camping options right in Winter Harbour - Outpost at Winter Harbour and Winter Harbour Marina (real basic site (more for RVs), but with laundry, showers, seaside views and friendly hosts).

 

Getting back to Port Hardy by the regular Holberg Road (the north part of our loop) is pretty easy as the road is real clear (the big kahuna in this neck of the woods). From our earlier junction with NE Main from Coal Harbour, you'll be heading NE this time. After 11+km, you reach Nahwitti Lake and the turnoff into the (recommended) Rec Camp.  Then another 20+km east, past Kain Lake, will get you to the turnoff north on Georgie Lake FSR to the Rec Camp, 5 kms north, at the SE corner of the lake (a favourite campsite).  A fine place to camp. From this turnoff, it's ~7kms (with a welcome descent) to the North Island Hwy just south of Port Hardy. Turn right/south if you want to return to Quatse River Campground, a couple of kms down the road.

Map 1: Top of the Island Overall Ride

The magenta/purple track is the basic route. The reddish tracks are 'there & back side trips'

Fav ride route map (1 of 3) | bikepacking NW Vancouver Island | backroad cycle touring
Map 2: Top of the Island Ride - Zoom to the East

The magenta/purple track is the basic route. The reddish tracks are 'there & back side trips'

Ride route map, zoom east | bikepacking NW Vancouver Island | backroad cycle touring
Map 3: Top of the Island Ride - Zoom to the West

The magenta/purple track is the basic route. The reddish tracks are 'there & back side trips'

Ride route map, zoom to west | bikepacking NW Vancouver Island | backroad cycle touring

Check this out for more local info on 'Getting off the NE Highway' 

Links to this Top of the Island ride, as the routes overlap around Coal Harbour

This page details several riding options to continue north, while getting off the big 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 also help to knit together a continuous backroads route for the Tip to Tip ride.

Please reload

 
Sidetrip 1: West to Cape Scott & Cape Palmerston

This is the reddish track west from Holberg

The tough, wild hiking trails of Cape Scott Provincial Park are world class, attracting people from around the world.  As outlined above, under 6kms west of Holberg one reaches a V junction. It's well signed. Take the north / right option and it's approx 16 kms to the west border of Cape Scott Provincial Park, and the parking lot / trailhead. I had actually hoped to ride / push my bike for a few kms SW along San Josef Bay Trail to a wilderness campsite, but discovered that bikes are not allowed on the trails (sigh). 

However, San Josef Rec Campsite is only about a km away on the road into the park, on the south side. Some sites seems not well maintained, or have been hit with fallen trees, but there are a few nice sites. Alternatively, there is also a private (Heritage San Josef) campsite even closer to the park, where I expect you could leave your bike for a fee if you want to hike the trails. 

About 8kms before you reach the Cape Scott trailhead, just before a bridge over the San Josef River, you pass a signed junction with basic Ronning Main to the south, to Raft Cove and Cape Palmerston. From the junction, it's under 14km S/SW to the end of Ronning where there's a parking stretch before a washed out bridge. I locked my bike to a tree here, and hauled gear, as the trail over & around the washed out bridge is rough and narrow. Once over the now sharply angled bridge, you'll be back on the road (now a trail) for a further several hundred metres or so. You'll see a sign for Cape Palmerston Rec, and another 100m along, there's a trail in towards the seaside. I loved Cape Palmerston - nice tent pads, and wild seashore. Outhouse. I had the place to myself. Definitely recommended.

I didn't try the longer hike into Raft Cove (an hour or so, I was told) as I hadn't packed to be able to hike my gear. The signed trailhead for Raft Cove is just under 3kms before one reaches the end of the road into Cape Palmerston.

Cape Palmerston Rec Campground | bikepacking NW Vancouver Island | backroad cycle touring

The shores of Cape Palmerston. I'm told it's actually possible to walk the seaside south to Raft Cove. My campsite was on a pad just up into the trees. There are also some camping spots right down on the upper shores. Fabulous place.

 
Sidetrip 2: Grant Bay Beach Campground

See reddish track west of Winter Harbour 

Grant Bay, a favourite campground, is only 20kms or so from Winter Harbour, looping north, west then south.  But, it's a tough little ride, with some steep, loose stone hills on the last stages of the track in, and a final 1/2km trail (easy for pushing the bike) to the shores.

 

From Winter Harbour, backtrack 5kms north to the junction with West Main, where you'll see signs for Grant Bay. Turn west/left for another 5kms to the V junction where you'll continue on the left/southern branch (still West Main; the main road continues on the right, now called Topknot Main). Continue south for ~8+ kms (some fine, tough riding) until you'll reach the parking area / trailhead. The trail is ~1/2km into the sandy-shored bay. When you reach the bay, you can push your bike along the shores to whatever camping spot you choose. 

It's a good idea to pack in water. I got mine from a smaller stream ~1km before the trailhead, but this might be too low in a dry stretch, so you might want to keep an open eye further back along the road in.

If you check the red track on the map, you'll see I also rode further west. I had been told to check out Hecht Beach, and it sounded like a trail I could get my bike down, but this turned out not to be the case. As I wasn't quite sure what to expect at the end of the trail, and it was getting late, I decided against trying to haul my gear into Hecht Bay. That said, this would be a good destination to visit if you have a little time (and start a little earlier). And it's real remote riding along Hecht Main. From the junction down into Grant Bay, one takes the north / right branch along Topknot Main a further ~6kms to the junction with Hecht Main where you'll turn south/left for approx 5 more kms. The road gets pretty basic (seemed there was fresh bear shat everywhere, though I saw no bears) and is fine riding. My track ends at the trailhead (steep!) down to Hecht Beach, which is signed. 

Camping at Grant Bay - early morning. Fabulous place (and a favourite campground).

Grant Bay Beach Campground | bikebacking near Winter Harbour | cycle touring NW Vancouver Island
 
Sidetrip 3: Koprino Rec Campground - Spencer Bay

See reddish track south of Holberg Inlet

This turned out to be a fine ride with a fine camping destination, with grand views south over Spencer Bay and mighty Quatsino Sound. Several other travellers told me they had heard the campground was unattractive, with some old logging equipment and ruins mixed in. There is a seaside log dump about 1/2km north, and a modest concrete dock has tumbled into the waters. It does seems to have seen better days, with some sites overgrown, but I was there in late May, so it may just have been too early in the season. That said, the area is well-treed, seaside, has great views and there are 4-5 sites that are well kept and attractive. Add the fact that Koprino has a real 'end of the road' vibe, and it becomes a worthwhile ride in.

The junction east onto South Main is ~15kms south of Holberg along Winter Harbour Road (almost half-way to Winter Harbour). You'll see signs for the Koprino Camp. Follow for almost 8kms, including a final descent (then nasty climb!) to the south shores of Holberg Inlet,  and you'll reach (just above the waters) the junction with Koprino Main to the east / right, which you'll take. If you were to continue strait at this junction, you'd soon be at the major log dump for this area. So you should anticipate meeting logging trucks near this log dump. You may want to time your ride for a weekend. If it's hot & dry, bring a dust mask.  Then, it's ~30kms further along Koprino Main out to the Rec Camp (signed in a few places). The final ride south is a fine gradual descent along the west banks of the Koprino River. Make sure you do not take the turn east onto Hathaway Main, ~10kms before the camp.

About 5kms before the camp, you'll see a waterfall on the right / west. This is a good place to water up, as the lower Koprino River is tidal. 

Koprino Rec Camp | Spencer Bay, Quatsino Sound, Holberg Inlet | bikepacking NW Vancouver Island

My campsite at Koprino Rec Camp. To the left one could look out and watch ships heading to Coal Harbour and Holberg pass by.

 
Sidetrip 4: North to Shushartie & Georgie Lake

See reddish tracks north from Nahwitti Lake & just NW of Port Hardy

7kms west along Holberg Road, accessed from the North Island Hwy just south of Port Hardy, will get you to the turnoff to Georgie Lake FSR on the right. Follow this north for 5kms to the Rec campground (a favourite) on the SE shores of the lake. It's nothing really special, but it has some nice sites and scenic views down the lake to the west, and on several visits now it has been a comfortable, relaxing place to camp, in an area with few formal options. 

Of interest to this section, is that there's a road network heading west along the south of Georgie Lake & then NW up to Shushartie Lake and the NW coastal boundary of Cape Scott Provincial Park and the west trailhead of the North Coast Trail. I have not tried to ride up this way, but I heard it was possible to connect to the end of this network in behind Lake of the Mountains. So - I tried heading north on Pugh Main from west of Nahwitti Lake, to make the northern connection and then loop SE to Georgie Lake.  

 

I did not succeed, but you can see this track on the map. I made it ~20kms north, and could see what I think must have been Ursie or Witter Main just across a valley about a km distant. But my road, which became an overgrown trail, had completely disappeared in a logged out area. If I had brought my bushwhacking gear and harness strap for hauling the bike, I might have tried to make my way through the rough terrain. That said, I was told by another local when I got back to Port Hardy that the roads NW from Georgie Lake also get rough, and may present more issues.

This north foray was a tough go. The elevation got up over 450m. I had to push the bike a lot, often through undergrowth. Interestingly, at one far north point following a power line track, I could see in the distance the giant turbines of the big NW wind farm. 

If anyone is interested to tackle the bushwhacking connection, here's the basic directions. Follow Pugh Main north from just west of Nahwitti for 4.5kms. Then branch NE and the road (still Pugh) gets smaller, for almost 8kms to a junction with a clearing NW above Lake of the Mountains, just before a bridge. Pugh continues around the north of the lake, but branch north / left onto the road that heads up towards the powerline you'll see ahead. These roads are not on my maps. Head NW for 1.5kms (some tough climbing) to a junction. Branch up a mean hill to the right, away from the power line track. After this initial hill, you'll descend on a basic, partially overgrown road for ~2kms to an old broken bridge. Continue. I was able to make it another 1km+ before I was stymied. But you'll see a north road network ahead up the right side of Ursie Creek. I think this must connect in to the Georgie Lake NW network.

If anyone makes this connection through to Georgie Lake, I'd love to hear about it.

Pugh Main, getting up behind Lake of the Mountains. There was some wonderful riding before the roads got too overgrown.

Pugh Main | behind Lake of the Mountains | bikepacking NW Vancouver Island

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