North Island Highway

Fav ride for all

This ride starts at the north end of Campbell River and finishes ~235 kms later at the ferry terminal just outside Port Hardy. It's paved all the way, 2 lane, with speed limits of 90 or 100km most of the way. There's a shoulder the whole way, though it gets pinched in places, and in some areas it seems they don't always sweep the shoulders.  

This is a great chance if you want to stretch your legs out, get the yayas out of your wheels, pound down some km and enjoy some open spaces and wilderness camping.

It's also a tougher ride than just the distance might suggest: it gets remote, far from people and services, and this gives the ride a psychological edge. Although there's some fabulous tourist infrastructure on the north Island, it's real spread out, and focused largely on the the incredible outdoors. You may find that folks up here speak to strangers.

Although this ride focuses on cycling the North Island Highway, I should note that I regularly drive this highway with my bike (or bikes) on my rear rack. I commonly park in Port Alice, or Port McNeill, or Winter Harbour, or Port hardy .... and head off riding.

The view south, from south of Woss Lake. Big, grand, sweeping territory.

North Island Highway | south of Woss | cycle touring north Vancouver Island

Highlights of this ride include:

  • Open road riding, with relatively sparse traffic.  You should expect occasional trucks, but they'll just pass you by  

  • The feeling of being in a different place - a little further from the usual city world

  • Tremendous wilderness camping options (see more below)

  • Enough worthwhile side trip options that you could make this into a month long trip

  • Northern hospitality

Turnoff to Port Alice from North Island Highway | cycle touring north Vancouver Island

Turn off west to Port Alice. Interestingly, the highway to Port Alice is fully paved, though you can make a great riding loop by heading back on a backroads route further to the south (see fav ride).  Port Alice has a little cluster of great lakes and Rec camping options.

Days for Ride:  I've done this ride in 2 days, north to south, but suggest you take 3 days, more if you have the time to take some side trips. I'd suggest night 1 at Elk Creek Rec Camp, just north of the Sayward junction (70kms for day), Then, night 2 at Eagle's Nest Rest Area. Or, head for the Rec Camp at the SE shores of Nimpkish Lake, a magnet for wind surfers in season. If you start or finish in Campbell River, check out Elk Falls Provincial Campground, at the north end of town. 

 

Difficulty:  Medium. There are endless rolling hills. It's all paved so no offroad challenges. The elevation tops out above 420m so there's climbing, mostly gradual. You could find snow in the cold season as you climb. I've set this at medium difficulty due to the remoteness of major portions of the ride. 

Turnoff to Port McNeill from north Island Highway. Port McNeill is a major north Island centre, with a ferry terminal for trips to Malcolm & Cormorant Islands. There's a few campgrounds about.

Port McNeill turnoff from North Island Highway | cyle tourig north Vancouver Island

Given the size of the north Island, there are way too many fascinating side trips to run through here. Take a look at the North Island Area page for more a more detailed list of these, but here's a few that spring to mind:

And give some thought to actually taking the ferry north from Port Hardy. If you have the time, and a desire to cycle mainland BC, you can really get places (I've done both these, and heartily recommend):

  • take the ferry to Bella Coola, then ride the grand Chilcotin Highway (including 'the Hill'). 

  • take the ferry all the way up to Prince Rupert. From there, take another ferry north into Alaska, or ride east to connect with the Alaska Highway and wonders beyond.

At Port Hardy, in the off season, ferries (used to) leave brutally early in the morning. Check schedules. There are several nearby campgrounds that specialize in these schedules for guests.

Bear Cove ferry terminal, Port Hardy | cycle touring north Vancouver Island | fav ride North Island Highway

The 'Northern Experience', BC ferry docked for loading at Bear Cove, just south of Port Hardy. You can catch a ferry here up the magnificent Inside Passage to Prince Rupert. 

You can wild camp most anywhere off the north island Highway. If you have time, there are lots and lots of Rec Campsites off the highway, some quite close, some a good backroads ride to reach. 

 

There are also some traveller rest areas, with picnic tables and outhouses. Although these are not campgrounds, if you need to find a place for the night, you can usually find a spot for a tent around the perimeter of these: Dalrymple Trailhead, Hoomak Lake, Eve River, Eagle's Nest. 

For some thoughts and advice on camping options near the various northern communities, see this section from the page on the North Island Area

I've done long rides in the north Island without seeing any bears, but I've also seen a fair number of bears. Rarely from the Highway, though usually out on the backroads. This fellow was on a backroads route west of Coal Harbour.

Bear on backroads near Coal Harbour | Backroad cycle touring Vancouver Island | bikepacking

Here's the distance / elevation view.  

As you can see, the height of land, just over 420m, is about 100km north of Campbell River. There's some nice descents regardless of whether you are riding north or south. But coming south to Campbell River let's you finish with a nice slow gradual descent. As the distance here is over 200kms, the hills look steeper than they really are. There's rolling hills throughout, but none of them are painfully steep.

As you head north from Campbell River, particularly if it's at the start or end of the working day, you may notice a higher than common portion of vehicles are trucks. This reflects the resource basis of the north island economy, for which Campbell River is a centre. Stick to your shoulder, and rest assured that most of your ride will involve sparse traffic.

Fav ride distance / elevation chart | North Island Highway | cycle touring north Vancouver Island
North Island Highway pulloff | cycle touring north Vancouver Island

A pull-over along the North Island Highway near Nimpkish Lake. Some equipment at hand for possible maintenance. That's me parked ahead in the distance, with my ECR on the rear rack.

Here's the distance & direction guide. Unless you're planning a ride, you'll likely want to skip this section, or risk getting put to sleep. 

North end Campbell River to Roberts lake is ~30km, then another 34kms to the turnoff to Sayward (a little before Elk Creek Rec Camp). Next, it's 28kms to Eve River Rest Area, then 27kms more to the turnoff to Schoen Lake Provincial Campground. From there it's only 10kms to the turnoff to Woss (Woss village is only 1/4km from the highway). Then 6+kms to Eagle's Nest Rest Area and nearly 24kms further to the south end of Nimpkish Lake and turn off to the Rec Camp (1+kms, watch for faded signs). Then 27kms to the turnoff to Telegraph Cove, and a further 7 kms to the turnoff to Port McNeill. Then, nearly 42kms further to Port Hardy ferry terminal.

North island Highway route map | cycle touring north Vancouver Island

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

In case you want to get some northern backroads riding into your trip 

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 fav backroads ride.

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Port Hardy oceanside park. Looking out over the Queen Charlotte Strait to the mainland mountains behind.

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