If you're looking for an excellent multi-day North Island ride, the Alice Lake Loop is a good place to start (not to be confused with Alice Lake near Squamish on the BC mainland). You can do a short version all on excellent paved roads, or do the return stretch of the "loop" on rougher, more remote northern backroads.
The local communities and tourism offices of Port McNeill and Port Alice are promoting this trip, so you can expect company, at least in season, and any logging operations along the backroads will be keeping an eye out for members of the public. All this with the "out there" vibe and hospitality of this magical 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, with a speed limit of 100kph. On the way, there are charms to check out, like Lake Nimpkish (above).
Port McNeill, population 2,700, is the gateway to the Broughton Archipelago, surrounded by grand 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 and more to check out.
I'm sure 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 destination for most is the remote mill community of Port Alice. From the Port McNeill highway turn-off, it's 20kms north to the Highway 30 branching west to Port Alice. If you wanted, you could ride west then return along this route, camping at Marble River Recreation Campground or staying in Port Alice.
Turn off onto Highway 30 & Port Alice. There's also an info kiosk nearby with details on the Alice Lake Loop
Highway 30 to Port Alice is excellent all the way, complete with some rolling hills and scenic views. Brilliant riding.
There's a couple of excellent campsites along the route. North of the northern end of Alice Lake, before you loop SW to Port Alice, you'll cross the lively Marble River. There's a fine picnic area along the highway by the bridge, and the 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 near 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. If you like hiking, fishing and wilderness camping, you're right next door to Marble River Provincial Park.
Ever wonder where to go if you're worried about bears? This sign, from Marble River Rec Camp, does not give a very encouraging answer.
The Alice Lake swimming area at Link River Campground. Other sites front this great shoreline.
Then, past Port Alice along the backroads route back to the highway, is Link River Regional Campground (above). This is a great place, with campsites along the final stretches of the Marble River where it empties into SW Alice Lake, and other sites strung alongside the lake shores. There's a great swimming area with docks and roped off area, a playground and 3 covered BBQ areas. A popular destination so get there early for one of the 22 sites.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. 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 inbuilt up on a hill overlooking stunning Neroustos Inlet. There's all the usual amenities, along with amazing outdoors possibilities. And it's the gateway to some of the wildest more remote areas of Vancouver Island, including the magical Brooks Peninsula.
Spring blooms along the attractive main street in Port Alice.
Port Alice grew up 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), there are immense long 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
Port Alice mill has seen better days. This is where one heads SE up and over the height of land to Victoria Lake
The "official" Alice Lake Loop backtracks a ways from Port Alice to catch a connector backroad to Link River Regional Campground, before following Alice Lake and Keogh Mains (backroads) back to the North island Highway. Once off the 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 perhaps more rugged route that continued south past town before branching SE right by the mill (just past the golf course clubhouse). This goes down to the east shores of Victoria Lake before heading north to Link River where it rejoins the main route. On the east shores of Victoria Lake is popular Spruce Bay Rec Campground. Interestingly, there's lots of year round homes along the shores.
Heading back east towards the highway, 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 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 tiny Rec campsites (although Clint Beek Camp on Keogh Lake is large and popular for north Islanders). 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 advanced and pulled over to let them past.
Tiny, scenic Rec Campground at the SE corner of Kathleen Lake, a fishing destination
I have a near new 29+" bike packing bike, and this ride helped me really give it a backroads test. I am having so much fun on this bike, just a treat to ride.
From where Keogh Main intersects with the North island Highway, it's only 4kms to the Port McNeill turnoff. I soon had a coffee in one hand and ice cream in the other, looking out over the Broughton Straight. What a tremendous North Island trip!