Getting off the NE Island Highway

Local content page

In October 2017, I added the epic 'Tip to Tip' backroads ride, after realizing I'd bundled together various backroads rides that virtually stretched from Sooke in the far South to Cape Scott at the NW tip of Vancouver Island. 

To make the Tip to Tip route track continuous, I had a few gaps between rides up in the north Island, where the Highway is more central to transportation. I'm adding this local content page to show these backroads route options that make the complete, continuous off-highway route possible. There's a bunch of rides up in or though this area, that might consider these off-highway route options. 


This isn't just a route-building exercise - there's some fine remote riding and camping to be had as well.

Woss Lake Rec Camp | north Vancouver Island off highway | bikepacking | cycle touring Vancouver Island

Looking down Woss Lake from the fine Rec Camp at the north end, about 7kms west off the Highway. This is the start of the main 'off-highway' route on this page, west off the North island Highway. It is reached coming up the backroads (the old highway) from Muchalat Lake near Gold River to the south.

The main off-highway section starts at the north end of Woss Lake, about 7kms west off the North Island Highway (see pic above). It heads (roughly) NW for ~140kms, finishing at Coal Harbour (see pic below). There's a number of spots where you could return to the Island Highway if you want: Zeballos Main, Keogh Main (south segment of Alice Lake Loop), Port Alice Highway (north part of Alice Lake Loop), or Rupert Main. 

Although this connector ends at Coal Harbour, you may be on your way to Port Hardy. You can either link back to the North Highway via Rupert Main (~8kms), or just take paved Coal Harbour road from Coal Harbour.

You'll find this page linked into the Alice Lake Loop Fav backroads ride page; in fact, it follows a part of the southern leg of the loop. It's also linked off the North Island Highway ride page, the Tip to Tip ride, and the 'Top of the Island' ride. 

I've also included a stretch off the highway to the NE side that can take you off-highway from Zeballos Main junction to Bonanza Lake, up to Telegraph Cove, then NW past Port McNeill along Rupert Main to Rupert Inlet.

Turns out the end of the rainbow is over Coal Harbour. I camped in this field beside the main marina and docks. There was a steady stream of boats and sea-planes and sea otters coming and going.

Camping beside Coal Harbour marina | north Vancouver Island cycle touring north Vancouver Island | bikepacking

In the route map below, you can see our off-highway backroads track in purple/magenta, stretching from north Woss Lake to Coal Harbour.   Note how it links up with the Alice Lake Loop Fav ride east of Victoria Lake, as well as the 'Top of the Island' ride up by Rupert Inlet and Coal Harbour.

The paved North Island Highway is shown in light green.


You'll also see another off-highway backroads stretch (orange) on the north/east side of the highway. This breaks north of the highway at the Zeballos road junction and loops north to mostly (though not at the very start) follow Old Steele Main, then, once you reach Bonanza Lake, Kokish Main, north to fabulous Telegraph Cove (see Bonanza Lake 'and more rides...', as well as Malcolm Island Alert Bay Telegraph Cove Fav ride). From west of Telegraph Cove you can get onto Kilpala Main and follow it all the way west across the Highway to north Nimpkish Lake, then north onto Cabin Hook-up which hooks back across the highway again to link up with Rupert Main beside Port McNeill. From the log sort just west of Port McNeill, Rupert Main parallels the highway NW for almost 20kms until it crosses the highway to head west to Rupert Inlet. In other words, this route via Bonanza lake, Telegraph Cove, Kilpala Main, Cabin Hook-up, Port McNeill & Rupert Main, is another option to get you off-highway all the way from Zeballos Main junction to Rupert Inlet, with some fine camping options (Bonanza Lake, Ida Lake, North Nimpkish Lake) along the way. 

One other stretch worth noting is Adam River Main, which starts NW of Sayward junction, and parallels the highway to the north side (visible through trees for stretches) for ~17kms to the crossing of the Adam River.  Beyond, South Main follows the south side of the Eve River (which also follows the highway) a further stretch. I once took Adam Main west from Sayward, but unfortunately it was at a time of heavy hauling (bad luck), so I got off onto the less dusty highway shoulder. 

Route map, backroads off the NE highway | bikepacking | cycle touring north Vancouver Island

Here's the key sections from this off-highway northern route from Woss Lake to Coal Harbour:

  • 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 turning 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, with a few unsigned junctions (you may want to contact me for GPX track or read more on GPS devices and file sharing). 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 (this take you off the Alice Lake Loop). 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).

Atluck Lake Rec camping | backroads bikepacking | cycle touring Vancouver Island

There's a fine, popular Rec Camp at the NE corner of Atluck Lake. If you ride down the NE shores (fabulous riding tight against the shores), you'll see several other pullouts down to the shores where you can camp - this pic from Hennigar Park. Looks like a fine little spot, complete with scenic views and a beach.

Below is the distance / elevation chart for the backroads route from north Woss Lake up to Coal Harbour.  As you can see, there's some steady upping and downing, with a pretty good climb north from Atluck Lake.


The ride along the north shores of Atluck Lake, then climbing north, where Atluck Main gets pretty rough and basic (and up to nearly 450m), was my favourite part of this stretch. 

Off-highway distance / elevation chart | bikepacking NE Vancouver Island | cycle touring north Vancouver Island

Kilpala Main crosses the Nimpkish River where it flows out of the north end of long Nimpkish Lake. At the far end of the bridge is an informal pullout camp along the shores. Given Nimpkish Lake's reputation as a windsurfing destination, one would need to keep an eye on the weather if you camp along the lake.

Nimpkish Lake & Nimpkish River Rec Camp | backroads bikepacking | cycle touring north Vancouver Island