Cycle Touring the Gulf Islands
Area Rides & Campgrounds
Seems that every time I head out for another Island ride, I end up enjoying it so much I need to add on a new "Fav Ride' (and maybe a new Fav Campground, too).
The 'Gulf Islands' traditionally refers to the Islands in the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver Island and the BC mainland. The larger of these islands have villages, are serviced by BC ferries carrying vehicles, and are very popular with tourists (for good reason).
Some people make a distinction between the Southern Islands, generally from Nanaimo south, and the Northern Islands - the rest, including all the way north to Malcolm & Cormorant Islands off Port McNeill. Although some do not consider Malcolm & Cormorant to be part of the Gulf Islands, they are roped in here (and a good thing - what a great place to visit!). For some, the Northern Gulf Islands also could also include Texada, off Powell River, and Quadra & Cortes, off Campbell River.
As a general rule, one does not head off to the Gulf Islands for rougher backroads touring, though some bigger islands such as Texada or Quadra do have extensive backroads networks.
Mostly, one heads to the islands for a little more comfortable ride, complete with decent roads, fine tourist infrastructure, incredible (mostly seaside) scenery, and that added 'special sauce', the distinct vibe one gets from the islands. Over the years, the Gulf Islands have attracted artisans and others interested in a little slower pace or alternate lifestyle. On the ferry to Malcolm Island, other travellers were greeting me (a stranger!). On Cortes Island, passing motorists almost all waved to me ....
Ruckle Provincial Park, Saltspring Island, a Fav Campground). Most campsites are walk-in, ideal for cyclists. This is (I think) the most popular cycle tourist campsite in the region. Watch seals, otters, BC ferries and (rarely) killer whales swim past. In summer, check out the bustling market at nearby Ganges. In stormy weather, don't choose one of the exposed seaside sites.
Below is a summary map, with buttons for Gulf Isles Fav rides and campgrounds. Take a close look and you'll see that the ride buttons are blue with blue shading, and the campground buttons are green with green shading. The map ropes together a lot of content:
Under the map, the rides and the campgrounds are listed alphabetically, with links to the pages or summaries for each. This gives you a geographic overview of the Gulf Island options you'll find within this website, and links to follow if you wish.
Links for buttons in above map - click to jump to pages with more detailed information.
Gulf Islands Area Rides (blue buttons):
Denman & Hornby Islands. Fav ride for all. Ferry from Buckley Bay.
Galiano & Mayne Islands. Fav ride for all. Ferries from Swartz Bay or Tsawwassen.
Malcolm Island Alert Bay & Telegraph Cove. Fav ride for all. Ferry from Port McNeill.
Nanaimo Harbour Island Tours. Fav ride for all. Newcastle & Gabriola Islands. Foot ferry from Nanaimo Harbour.
Quadra & Cortes Islands. Fav ride for all. Ferry from Campbell River.
Ruckle Park (Saltspring Island). Fav ride for all. Ferries from Crofto, Swartz Bay or Tsawwassen.
Texada Island North. Fav ride for all. Ferry from Powell River.
Texada Island Rough. Backroads ride. Ferry from Powell River.
Texada's Hidden NE Bays. Backroads ride. Ferry from Powell River.
Gulf Islands Area Campgrounds (green buttons):
- Bere Point Regional Campground. Fav campground. Malcolm Island. Ferry from Port McNeill.
- Fillongley Provincial Campground. Honourable mention camp. Denman Island. Ferry from Buckley Bay
- Montague Harbour Provincial Marine Campground. Fav campground. Galiano Island. Ferries from Swartz Bay or Tsawwassen.
- Newcastle Island Provincial Marine Campground. Honourable mention camp. Newcastle Island. Foot ferry from Nanaimo harbour.
- Ruckle Park Provincial Campground. Fav campground. Saltspring Island. Ferries from Crofton, Swartz Bay or Tsawwassen.
- Shingle Beach Rec Camp. Honourable mention camp. Texada Island. Ferry from Powell River.
- Smelt Bay Provincial Campground. Honourable mention camp. Cortes Island. Ferry from Campbell River.
- Texada's Hidden NE Bays. Honourable mention camps (4). Texada Island. Ferry from Powell River.
BC Ferries is a player in most any Gulf Islands cycle touring plans. This pic is from Sturdies Bay terminal on Galiano Island. There's a little food stall just up and off the ramp (Indonesian, no less!). This is just off the appropriately named 'Active Pass', with lots of BC ferries traffic coming and going. In the south, you can Island hop for days on end
Most BC ferry links to the Gulf Islands are from an assortment of towns along the eastern shores of Vancouver Island (see map above). The larger Southern Gulf Islands such as Saltspring can also be reached directly by ferries from Tsawwassen terminal in south Vancouver, as well as from Swartz Bay terminal north of Victoria. Texada Island is reached from Powell River along the northern Sunshine Coast.
Here's something I've (by and large) copied over from the FAQ related to BC Ferries:
Yes (you can take bikes on BC ferries), and you should try the ferries as they open up great possibilities. Here's a BC Ferries page on cyclists.
Cyclists are generally treated similar to foot passengers. In smaller terminals, you'll board together. In larger terminals like Nanaimo, you'll board below, usually before vehicles start loading. You'll leave your bike leaning somewhere at the front. At busy times, car traffic backs up, and folks have to wait hours, but cyclists almost always simply get on the next ferry.
I generally don't lock my bike when I head up from the parking area into the boat lounges - where will it go? I take my valuables, but leave my panniers and bags. This can feel like a calculated risk but over countless trips, I've never lost anything while leaving my bike and gear. That said - follow your own instincts on this one.
The cost for a bicycle is only a few dollars per trip - a good deal as vehicles are expensive. If you take your bike on ferries regularly, I'd suggest buying a BC Ferries Experience Card. You preload these, and can save a few dollars each trip.
BC Ferries has a bad rep with some, but I enjoy them. It makes for good downtime, maybe a chance to meet other cycle tourists, and there are food and treats to be had. Perhaps you might even see some dolphins or whales.
The Gulf Island rides are shown on the map above, with links following, including info on where to catch the ferries. But let me recap the main islands I've covered off, from north to south. All of these options are reached via car ferries, except Newcastle Island, reached by a foot ferry from Nanaimo Harbour. You'll note that most Gulf Island cycle tours can be done roping in a couple of Islands.
There's more islands to visit, but you may find riding and camping options limited. See also the many Fav campgrounds from the Gulf Islands.
Malcolm and Cormorant Islands, the most northerly islands, with main communities Sointula and Alert Bay, respectively. Smaller islands, so not really for tough rides. But wonderful tourist destinations, with lots of character, and First Nations character (particularly in Alert Bay on Cormorant Island).
Quadra & Cortes Islands, east off Campbell River. Larger islands, with some backroads up northern Quadra and some challenging hills, particularly on more distant Cortes. Almost all drivers on Cortes waved when I last visited in winter 2017.
Texada Island - this island is done solo (not paired with other islands), from Powell River. My own favourite amongst the Gulf Islands. It's a big island, with so much choice, and a combination of relaxing roads and camping, along with rugged backroads and forestry camping. The population is small, and visitors limited (3 ferry rides from Vancouver!).
Denman & Hornby Islands, south from Courtenay. Very popular for tourists in season - it can be tough to find camping if you don't reserve in advance. Lots of artisans and an alternate lifestyle vibe. Tribune Bay on Hornby is often called BC's 'Hawaii'.
Newcastle and Gabriola Islands - both reached via short ferry rides from Nanaimo Harbour. Gabriola is the larger, with a vibrant arts community among the permanent residents. Newcastle is a provincial park, reached only by foot ferry (takes loaded bikes!), with no roads (but great trails!) or permanent residents.
Southern Gulf Islands - Saltspring, Galiano, Mayne, Saturna & Pender. Fine riding on larger Saltspring (tough little hills) and Galiano. Excellent camping, though I am unsure if there are options on Pender, which I have not visited. Off the beaten path vibe, but with good tourist comforts at hand.
The incredible beach at Fillongley Provincial Park Campground, east Denman Island. You may want to plan your trip to include the partner Island of Hornby, reached by ferry via Gravelly Bay terminal on SE Denman Island. Note that camping options fill right up in the summer season.
Most Gulf Island cycle tours are limited in the distances one must ride, and accessible to all cycle tourists and bikes. They have tourist infrastructure, wonderful seaside ambience, and, in places, some off-the-wall character.
There is one tough backroads ride here, though: the Texada Island Rough ride (see pic below from Anderson Bay).
On some islands, the character is slowly changing as more people live there and commute to work, such as to Campbell River (from east Quadra) or Victoria (the south Gulf Isles). Retirees, or second home owners, are also now a major presence, often pushing property prices up, and making it hard for workers or young families to afford property (just like many cities off the islands). In other words, on most islands, the population is changing to become a mix of earlier inhabitants alongside more recent (and often more affluent) arrivals.
Most islands have local community associations that set guidelines for things such as property sales. For the most part, such groups keep the populations down, by rules such as limits on subdividing property, or zoning for farmland, etc. So, the islands retain their slower paced character.
When I think of the Gulf Islands, I think of a whimsical vibe - some people who choose to live there really have their own alternate styles, be they artisans, hippies (in an earlier era) or just those wanting to get away from the hustle and bustle. Here's a couple of pics to finish, that may help explain this impression.