Vancouver Island Sunshine Coast Loop
Fav ride for all
Here's a classic multi-day ride, one of the most popular cycle tours in SW BC. It covers long coastal stretches of both Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast, throws in some ferry rides to kick back, and passes by some of the very best campgrounds (though busy in season). This is a ride you can start & finish in Nanaimo or Horseshoe Bay or Comox.....
Ride up Vancouver Island's fabulous east coast to Comox for a ferry to Powell River. Then west to Saltery Bay for another ferry through majestic Jervis Inlet to Earl's Cove. Then, south down the hilly, scenic Sunshine Coast to Langdale (see map below).
Or ride the opposite way. In season, you'll likely meet other cycle tourists. It's paved roads all the way, with countless side trip options to poke about, do some summertime swimmming, or grab a coffee (or beer). You'll pass through lots of friendly communities, so you may want to check out this thumbnail link below - Local Maps & Off-Hwy Routes.
This is a ride on roadway shoulders - a stretch on the big Vancouver Island highway between Nanaimo and Parksville (big wide shoulder), and then the rest of the loop on scenic secondary highways, sometimes with narrow shoulders. Countless cycle tourists have enjoyed this ride, so don't let me scare anyone off, but you should be comfortable riding alongside traffic.
This is a "banner ride" for cyclists touring Vancouver Island & the Sunshine Coast.
This riding loop involves 4 ferry rides. This pic is from the top deck just outside Comox, on the early (6:30am) first ferry over to Powell River. We're looking east over to the mainland, into a rising sun suggesting another great summer riding day ahead.
Hard to pick just a few highlights, but here goes:
Endless scenic seaside riding stretches: mostly leisurely rolling hills along Vancouver Island, with a succession of sharp hills along the Sunshine Coast
Top notch camping options, many of them seaside, with swimming, other cycle tourists, nearby villages and full comforts
Scenic ferry rides to catch a break, meet other cyclists (likely), grab some food or just watch the incredible scenery. If you're lucky, maybe you'll see whales or dolphins. For more info on bikes & BC ferries, check out this FAQ. You'll have 4 ferry rides:
Comox (Vancouver Island) to Powell River (N Sunshine Coast)
Saltery Bay to Earl's Cove (Sunshine Coast)
Langdale (S Sunshine Coast) to Horseshoe Bay (W Vancouver)
Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo (Vancouver Island)
Seaside 'promenades': almost every town or little village is along the coast, and most have seaside trails or a boardwalk, if you have the time to take a look
Rathtrevor Provincial Park - a favourite camping spot I just keep going back to. Just south of Parksville, about 30kms north of Nanaimo on the east shores of Van Isle. There's a walk-in tenting area that is popular with cycle tourists. Love walking the seaside trails. Popular in season, so consider reservations
Days for Ride:
I suggest 3 or 4 days - more if you choose to take on some of the countless side trip options, or just chill out somewhere for an extra day. All of your ferry connections have multiple sailings per day, but you do need to be mindful of connection schedules, as well as time spent on ferry crossings. The loop can be done as a tough overnighter, but this takes a hard push and you'd miss the pleasures and ambience of this seaside tour. I've included a few suggested itineraries below.
The overall loop, including the ferry sections, is 363kms. Riding stretches total ~230kms: 115kms up Vancouver Island, 31kms west to Saltery Bay, then a final 84km ride south to Langdale Ferry Terminal.
A viewing area about 2 kms along the seaside road SE from Powell River Ferry Terminal on the way to Saltery Bay. It's a fabulous 30+km stretch of riding, with limited traffic. If it's getting later in the day, plan to camp at Saltery Bay Provincial Park just before the terminal (see pic further down page).
Medium. The ride is long and multi-day, which makes for a tough challenge if you are new to cycle touring. It's pavement all the way. The Sunshine Coast has sharp little hills to give a good workout (definitely the toughest segment).
From Nanaimo north to Parksville, you'll be riding the 4 lane Island Highway - but there's big shoulders, so just try to zone out traffic. North from Parksville, most riders will follow the old 2 lane Coastal Highway (Hwy19A - see FAQ re 'which highway?').
There are stretches of the seaside Island Highway, as well as the Sunshine Coast Highway (particularly the northern parts), where the shoulders get pretty narrow and even disappear in a few spots. However, drivers have a pretty good line of site ahead to cyclists, and are cautious of cyclists, so this is generally not an issue. From Sechelt to Langdale, traffic can sometimes get pretty busy at the start or end of working day, or as folks head for the weekend ferries.
The pics above are from Vancouver Island as you ride from Nanaimo up to Courtenay/Comox. The top left shows the big inland highway south of Courtenay. Most riders will choose to ride the older coastal highway for this stretch (for more info, see FAQ). Top right shows a 'saloon' along the old highway at Union Bay, just across from the seaside, complete with sultry mannequins (!!) on the upper porch. Bottom right shows a stretch just off the highway north of Qualicum Beach. Finally, bottom left shows a curio & antique shop called 'Things & Stuff' along the highway in south Bowser (a tiny village). I like browsing this place - it seems to have endless little rooms filled with quirky stuff inside, and a parking lot full of overflow.
Check out the swimmers at the lower right. This pic from Saltery Bay Provincial Campground, just west of the ferry terminal. Near here, there's a 3 metre bronze mermaid on the ocean floor that attracts scuba divers.
There're endless side trip options - here's just a few.
A big option would be to include the south Island from Swartz Bay (Victoria ferry terminal) to Nanaimo, adding ~135kms. To get to Swartz Bay from Vancouver, one goes via Tsawwassen Terminal in S Vancouver. Needless to say, there's a whole other world of riding options in the South Gulf Islands, SW Coast and Cowichan Lake areas. I recommend staying off the big highway as one gets closer to Victoria: there's just too much traffic, with lots of trucks (a building boom looks to be underway). The south of the Malahat is only 2 lanes, so things are pretty pinched. Thankfully, there are options: see the Sooke Hills Trail north to the Cowichan Valley Trail, or take the Brentwood Bay ferry over to Mill Bay.
When you pass through Nanaimo, consider a relaxed day or two to check out another favourite ride, Nanaimo Harbour Island Tours
Short side trips to some sweet camping options like Little Qualicum River Falls or Englishman River Falls Provincial Parks just west of Parksville, or Kitty Coleman & Miracle Beach parks north of Courtenay. ~10kms north north of Powell River along a good dirt track are popular Inland Lake & Haywire Bay Campgrounds.
If you like rough backroads, check out this page - Courtenay south on the Backroads. It can take you from Horne Lake (north of Parksville) all the way north to Courtenay on backroads up from the popular east coast. This is a longer route, through a rarely visited hinterlands.
From Powell River, there are 2 great side trip options. You can head north up the Malaspina Peninsula to Lund and Okeover Arm. Or, head east towards Saltery Bay, but then branch north into a grand hinterlands of lakes, backroads & forest camping.
If you're into some tough backroads climbing, head east from the Sunshine Coast Highway up into the Coastal Mountains to check out Lyon Lake or Richardson Lake.
A couple of more side trip options I want to call out in a little more detail. Both are reached by excellent 4km trails (ride or hike) and can be tackled in a half day visits. You can find more info on both in blog posts here.
At the top left you see Skookumchuck Narrows, one of the world's great tidal rapids, as the Narrows pinch the waters trying to flow in and out of landlocked Sechelt Inlet to the south. The Provincial Park is just east of Earl's Cove Ferry terminal. Bottom left shows a marina at Egmont, the tiny outdoor tourism village alongside the park.
Top right shows the amazing trail into Smuggler Cove Provincial Park, just north of Halfmoon Bay along the Sunshine Coast. Bottom right shows one of the many tiny pocket coves that serviced smugglers in days-gone-by. There's a basic little campground (a favourite).
2 of the popular cycle touring campsites, both with walk-in tenting areas. At the top is Porpoise Bay near Sechelt, where one can see the early morning wake-up committee wandering through the tents. Below is Rathtrevor Park, outside Parksville along the Vancouver Island coast.
For those who like local maps & off-highway paved routes .....
Here're the elevation / distance views.
This first chart shows the Vancouver Island portion of the ride, Nanaimo (Departure Bay Terminal) to Comox (Little River Terminal). Don't be daunted by what look like big steep hills. The bottom (distance) axis covers over a hundred kms, while the left (elevation) axis only reaches above 140m. So the big hill at the left as one comes out of Nanaimo only gets up to about 130m over an 8km stretch - not steep at all. A few other hills register, but all of them under 100m. There's a notable little climb up and down just before the Comox ferry. Think of this route as mostly modest rolling hills.
Below is the route from Powell River terminal to Langdale terminal. It includes the ferry segment between Saltery Bay & Earls Cove (~20+km, starting at ~km32).
The first thing to call out here is that the left side elevation scale on this chart goes up to 250m, almost double that on the Island chart above. So the climbs really are higher (though still stretched out), and, as you can see, there's lots of them. They make for a good workout along the Sunshine Coast, particularly the north segment. You can also see that there are sweet bombing descents down into both Saltery Bay and Langdale terminals - a real treat.
Here's several sample itineraries. Make sure you check your ferry schedules. With a bike, you'll almost always get on ferries, even if things are a backed-up (see more in FAQs). Unless you're planning a ride, you'll want to skip this section, or risk getting put to sleep.
4 days, 3 nights:
Day 1: Nanaimo to Parksville, camping in Rathtrevor Provincial Park (see pics above). An easy 31+km day to start & enjoy a great campsite (reservations needed in season). An option is to ride up island to Fillongley Provincial Park on Denman Island, for a night tenting at the seaside
Day2: Ride north to Courtenay/Comox (my home town). Ferry across to Powell River. Lovely ride west to Saltery Bay Provincial Camp.There's nice summer swimming here. An alternative is to ferry across to Earls Cove, then ride up into Klein Lake Rec Campground (~6kms). It's a sharp final dirt road climb in, but you'll usually find a camping spot unless it's a summer weekend.
Day3: If necessary, catch the ~7:30am ferry from Saltery Bay to Earls Cove. Ride south to Sechelt & Porpoise Bay Provincial Campground. There's a walk-in area which can almost always take another tent cyclist. Several less common alternatives would be to stop ~15kms before Sechelt, near Halfmoon Bay, and head off-highway to Smuggler Cove (2020 ALERT: SMUGGLER COVE NO LONGER ALLOWS CAMPING!), or Homesite Creek Rec Camp (a sharp uphill climb off the highway).
Day 4: up and off to catch the Langdale ferry back to Vancouver & Nanaimo. You'll have time, so have a look around Sechelt and Gibsons if you like.
Continued below pic ....
From the Qualicum First Nation Campground, outside Qualicum Bay. It's mostly an RV community style campground, but can almost always fit another cycle tenter, and have all the basics, capped with a gorgeous seaside location.
Another possible itinerary ....
If you're in a real hurry, and want to do this as an overnighter, ferry connections, high level fitness, and a light load on the bike are key. This time I'm assuming you're starting in Horseshoe Bay, West Vancouver, and include options going in either direction. Ferry times change regularly, and need to be confirmed.
Catch the 7:30 ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Langdale, then push real hard for 4 tough hours to make a ~12:30 connection in Earls Cove (I've missed this connection by minutes). After resting on the ferry to Saltery Bay, ride to Powell River for the 3:15 ferry to Comox. Camp at Kin Beach near the Comox ferry terminal, then ride down island to catch the 230pm Nanaimo ferry back to Vancouver the next day.
Going the other way is easier. Take the 6:30 ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo, then push the ride up to Comox for the 3:15 ferry to Powell River (the key connection). Then, ride to Saltery Bay and stay in the Provincial Park. Get up early and ride several kms to the Saltery Bay terminal for the 7:30am ferry. Ride south down the Sunshine Coast, targeting the 2:30 or 4:30 ferry back to Vancouver.
More shots from the Sunshine Coast (above). Top right: a popular TV show in Canada several decades ago was 'the Beachcombers', where the home base for the cast of characters was Molly's Reach in Gibson's Landing. Top right - looking east down majestic Jervis Inlet from the terminal at Saltery Bay. Bottom right - some appropriate local technology at the Rec campsite at Windsor Lake along the Powell Forest Canoe Circuit, north of Saltery Bay. Finally, bottom left - some cycle touring friends I kept bumping into one ride down the Sunshine Coast, this shot from Madeira Bay marina.
Nanaimo's Departure Bay Harbour, with a ferry departing for Horseshoe Bay, West Vancouver, and a sea plane landing.
Let me recap some mileage. The overall loop is ~363kms, including ferry travel. The ride portion is 230 kms.
Up Vancouver Island is ~115kms: 31 kms to Parksville, where you get off the big Highway onto the old coastal highway. Qualicum Beach is ~23 kms further, then ~30kms to Buckley Bay & the ferry to Denman Island, a further 19kms to the south edge of Courtenay, and a final 11+kms through Courtenay and Comox to the Little River ferry terminal.
From the Powell River ferry terminal (Westview) east to to Saltery Bay terminal is 31 kms.
From Earls Cove terminal south to Langdale terminal is about 85kms: 21+kms to Pender Harbour/Madiera Bay, then ~18km to Halfmoon Bay, a further 14km to Sechelt, then ~17kms to reach Gibsons, and a last stretch of 9kms to the Langdale terminal.
Ride Map: Vancouver Island Sunshine Coast Loop
Add-on Section 1: the Klein Lake Cut
Klein Lake Rec Campground is the best camping option near Earl's Cove (great swimming!), though the last stretch of the backroad in gets steep and rough - so if you don't like dirt tracks or steep stretches, this will not be for you.
There's a fine stretch of the Suncoaster Trail behind the lake (for backroads/bikepacking bikes only) that gives great views, wild camping options, and a switchback descent down to Ruby Lake along the highway - saving yourself the need to backtrack almost to Earl's Cove. If you have time, combine your trip with a visit to Skookumchuck Narrows (see blog post).
Klein Lake is SE of Earl's Cove. From the ferry, head south on the highway for 1km then turn east on Egmont Road. After ~2kms, take the dirt track heading off to the right at a Y junction, with a sign for Klein Lake. Then 3+kms of dirt road, past North Lake, and several steep stretches, to Klein Lake. At the NE corner, you can follow lakeside roads left or right to find campsites. To get onto the Suncoaster Trail, take the east (left) shore road. After ~1.5 kms you'll reach another Y junction, and see the trailhead signboard for the Suncoaster Trail to the right. Follow this for ~1km (partly rideable) and you'll come out from the trees to a grand view over Ruby Lake, Sakinaw Lake & the Coast beyond. I've wild camped around here (bring water). The trail continues, but as a steep switchback descent. Soon enough, you'll be back to the highway alongside the SE end of Ruby Lake.
The top right pic below shows the view out over Ruby Lake as one comes out from the tree canopy along the Suncoaster Trail. I liked the 2 viewing benches at the top left, as they are both made from old long boards. Bottom left shows a trail 'watcher' hunkering down near this same spot. Bottom right shows the switchback trail down to Ruby Lake.
Add-on Section 2: Horseshoe Bay - West Vancouver's BC Ferry Terminal
To tackle the Van Isle - Sunshine Coast Loop, you'll pass through Horseshoe Bay as you route to or from Langdale & Nanimo, and perhaps have some time to kill between ferry connections.
For riders from greater Vancouver, many other rides on the site here can also be done on weekends (or longer), starting from Horseshoe Bay.
It's ~20kms from Vancouver to Horseshoe Bay, less if you are starting from West Vancouver. You can either ride the more direct upper Highway 1, with big shoulders and tons of traffic, or the "low road", aka Marine Drive (recommended). The population of Horseshoe Bay village is about 1,000. It's a transit town, with BC ferries and all the travellers/tourists powering the economy, but, increasingly, it's also a bedroom suburb for folks working in Vancouver.
The real attraction for cycle tourists with time on their hands between connections will be the treats: there's coffee shops, pubs, restaurants, all sorts of stores, a hotel, tour group offices and much more. Sure it's real touristy, but who can argue with ice ream or coffee or a cold brew when youy need to kill a few hours? Everything within easy walking distance of the terminal. If it's summertime, there are nice seaside park options to chill out. There are great scenic views looking north up Howe Sound.
Looking out into Horseshoe Bay harbour and up Howe Sound from one of the seaside parks. Note the BC ferry docked at the lower right.