There's an amazing new trail that extends the Vancouver Island Trans Canada Trail (TCT - aka the Great Trail) south almost all the way to Victoria. You can now avoid having to ride the heavily trafficked 'Malahat' hill on the Big Island Highway.
The Trail traverses rugged terrain, much of it natural wildlife habitat, spanning rivers, open areas and sheltered woodlands. You'll find yourself atop hills, with some sweeping vistas (see pic below), particularly along the north portions.
Looking east over Finlayson Arm & far beyond to the mainland
The Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail is 13 unpaved kms. If you include a new trail section added at the north by the Malahat First Nation to connect to the Cowichan Valley Trail (CVT - local name for the TCT), then it's closer to ~22kms. So, now riders can take the CVT from Duncan, up to Cowichan Lake, then SE past Shawnigan Lake to finally connect onto the Sooke Hills Trail at the Capital Regional District boundary. The mileage seems short, but this is a tough trail in places.
Most of the track is level and wide enough to comfortably pass oncoming bikes. There's a southern section on an old, repurposed hardpack backroad. There are several short stretches on paved roads near the north. The route is clearly signed. There's parking at both ends, or you can easily connect onwards by bike.
In the south, the Sooke HIlls Trailhead is near Humpback Reservoir just SW of Goldstream Provincial Campground. To continue on to Victoria, you can follow signage for the Great Trail to Langford, and then connect onto Victoria's popular world class trail, the Galloping Goose. If you're heading to Sooke and the SW Coast, then try riding the paved Humpback Road connector west - it's hilly but a fine, forested, winding ride: outside of peak hours there's little traffic.
A wooded section near the south end. Note the solid, built-up foundation. Trail designers invariably chose winding, twisting routes rather than straight lines, keeping the riding interesting.
Most of the Cowichan Valley Trail to the north is relatively flat, accessible to all riders. But the new Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail is rated challenging, and is not for everyone. Coming from the south, there's a long steady upward climb near the start. From either direction, there are many short but very steep (up to 16 degree) hills. In places, particularly near the north, there is treacherous loose gravel topping, making climbing and descents a challenge. You should expect to push your bike up a few of the steeper parts. You'll pass through remote areas, so you may want to read up on how to react should you meet larger wildlife, particularly bears (here's a useful Parks Canada link).
This is not a Trail for beginners or road bikes. If you're on a loaded touring bike, you should be well seasoned before tackling this ride.
Steep little hill (north section). The topping of loose stone in places can be treacherous.
The chart below gives a distance vs elevation view for one starting from the south end of the Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail. The trailhead is about 100m up. As you head north, you'll climb up to close to 500m. If you continue north on the new 9km Malahat 1st Nation segment, you'll gradually descend to ~200m elevation. That said, the easier direction is to ride north to south.
In very Canadian fashion, the Trail is set up for orderly riding. In the top left (below) is a gate designed to accommodate bikes with loaded panniers (what a great idea!). Top right - a pretty solid looking washroom along the way - it's not going anywhere. Bottom left is a little hill up from the E&N railway. It's hard to see, but the sign directs cyclists to walk their bikes up the switchback. Finally, bottom right - rest assured you'll have good warning of most hills, blind corners or stretches of loose gravel.
A teaser here .... If you're cycle touring, you'll no doubt be roping in some riding on the Cowichan Valley Trail to the north. A short ride north of Shawnigan Lake and you'll reach the famous Kinsol Trestle. Check out the pic below.
Kinsol Trestle, along the Cowichan Valley Trail, north from the Sooke Foothills Wilderness Trail.
I rode the new trail south to north, loaded up with gear, on a hot summer day, and found it a tough go (not for everyone). But rewarding. The trail itself is well built, although I could do without some of the loose gravel. There's gorgeous terrain, and it was a joy not to have to contend with traffic on the big highway to make my way north. It was a weekday, about 2 weeks after the Trail opened, and I ran into a dozen or so other cyclists, including a hardy couple heading south with fully loaded touring bikes. I'm sure usage will pick up as word spreads - particularly on weekends.
The dream of being able to ride the Island from north to south on good trails is steadily inching closer, and this new trail closes a key gap. Well worth checking out.
Here's a good link (which I've borrowed from & paraphrased in a few spots here), to get more info on the Sooke Hills Wilderness Trail .
The inset map in the lower left corner shows the position of the larger map on the south Island.