Alice Lake Loop - North Island Magic
If you're looking for an excellent multi-day North Island ride, the Alice Lake Loop out past Port Alice is a great candidate. You can do a short version on excellent paved roads all the way, or do the return stretch of the "loop" on rougher, more remote northern backroads. I tackled the longer route, over 3 days and two nights.
The North Island is promoting the "Alice Lake Loop Tour" as a tourism experience, so you can expect company, at least in season. All this plus the great outdoors, with the vibe and hospitality of a last frontier of Vancouver Island.
From the southern shores of Lake Nimpkish, getting near to Port McNeill
The drive north from Campbell River to Port McNeill, where I left my vehicle ($5/day parking near BC ferry terminal!) is around 3 hours - fine paved highway all the way. On the way, there are endless charms to check out, like Lake Nimpkish (above).
Port McNeill, population 2,700, is the gateway to the Broughton Archipelago, surrounded by rugged mountains, rainforest and the islands of the archipelago, part of the larger Great Bear Rainforest. If you have some time, there's vibrant First Nations culture, hiking, kayaking, whale watching, fishing, bird watching, and much more to check out.
No doubt everyone has been awaiting a picture of the world's largest burl, just north of Port McNeill, now ignominiously covered in fibreglass. 22+ tons is indeed one mother of a burl.
It's called the Alice Lake Loop, and indeed follows Alice Lake for stretches, but the far point west for most is the mill community of Port Alice. From Port McNeill, it's just 20+kms north to Highway 30, branching west to Port Alice (see map below). Then 35kms SW to Port Alice, on excellent paved road complete with rolling hills (some pretty sharp), little traffic, and lots of winding curves to keep the riding interesting. If you wanted, you could ride this highway portion west, then return the same way, camping at Marble River Recreation Campground or staying in Port Alice.
Highway 30 to Port Alice. Fine, rolling, winding remote paved road riding.
There's a couple of excellent campsites along the route. North of Alice Lake, you'll cross the vigorous Marble River. There's a fine picnic area along the highway by the bridge, then an access road north continues about another 1/2km into Marble River Recreation Campground, run by Western Forest Products. The lower part of the campground, with some sites along the banks of the river, is where you'll camp. This is a salmon spawning river, popular with bears in season, so you may have company. And if you like hiking, fishing and wilderness camping, you're right next door to Marble River Provincial Park, which stretches NW up to Holberg Inlet.
Then, past Port Alice along the backroads route, is Link River Regional Campground (below). This is a great place, with campsites along the last stretches of Marble River before it empties into SW Alice Lake, and other sites strung alongside the lake shore. There's an excellent swimming area with docks, a playground, and 3 covered BBQ areas. A popular destination so get there early for one of the 22 sites.
Alice Lake swimming area at Link River Campground
But I'm getting ahead of myself. The main destination of this loop is the village of Port Alice, population around 800, on the east shores of Neroustos Inlet. The scenic town climbs up a hillside overlooking the majestic inlet. There's all the usual tourist amenities, along with endless outdoors possibilities. It's the gateway west to some of the wildest remote areas of Vancouver Island, including the magical Brooks Peninsula.
Spring blooms along the attractive seaside main street in Port Alice
Port Alice grew to support a pulp mill, first built in 1918 some 6kms to the south, where the paved highway also ends. As with other areas on Vancouver Island (think Port Alberni), the mill took advantage of immense fjord-like ocean inlets, in this case Neroustos Inlet, that let ocean-going ships load their cargoes right in the heart of the Island. As with many other BC mills, Neucel Specialty Cellulose (current owner) is struggling to stay open, and the town is struggling to reinvent itself.
Rumble Beach Marina, with seaside park in behind, near the south end of town
The "official" Alice Lake Loop Tour backtracks a ways from Port Alice to catch a backroads connector (well signed) east to Link River Regional Campground. Once off the paved highway, 4 wheel drive is advisable though not essential. See the route map below. The connector is the stretch in magenta/purple from NE of Port Alice. I took a rather longer and more rugged route that continued south past town before branching SE up a switchback by the mill (just past the golf course clubhouse). This goes up and over to the east shores of Victoria Lake, before heading north to Link River Campground where it rejoins the main route. On the east shores of Victoria Lake is popular Spruce Bay Rec Campground. Interestingly, there are lots of year round homes along the shores of Victoria Lake. From Link River Campground east to the main North Island Highway along Alice Lake then Keogh dirt mains is about 70kms.
Heading back east, one gets into "karst country'. Sinkholes and rivers that disappear then reappear somewhere else are common, so one should be cautious out in the bush, particularly near rivers. East of Alice Lake in the little map above you can see several such sites that have been set up for tourist viewing: the Eternal Fountain & the Devil's Bath, one of Canada's largest flooded sinkholes. Not far off the route and well worth a visit.
Devil's Bath - an enormous sinkhole, 359m in circumference. You have to peer through the foliage to make out the rock walls and water (I didn't want to get too close).
Then, some great backroads riding along rivers and past a succession of fabulous lakes: Kathleen, Maynard, Three Islands, Keogh and more, all with (mostly) tiny Rec campsites. The dirt road is steep in places, particularly closer to Alice Lake, but well maintained. I encountered several logging trucks as I got close to the highway, but heard them well in advance and pulled over to let them pass. As this is a route promoted for tourists, local trucks keep a watchful eye out for other road users.
Tiny, scenic Rec Campground at the SE corner of Kathleen Lake, a fishing destination
I have a near new 29+" bikepacking bike, and this ride helped me really give it a fully loaded backroads test. I am having so much fun on this bike, a treat to ride. The wider, cushier tires don't seem to slow me down much at all, and leave me less frazzled by rough stretches.
My new wheels, Surly ECR. Great early impressions
From where Keogh Main intersects with the North island Highway, it's only 4kms to the Port McNeill turnoff. I soon had coffee in one hand and ice cream in the other, looking out over the grand Broughton Straight. What a tremendous North Island trip!