A Cyclists Rail-Trail to the Backroads

Bicycle Touring 

1,199 words

A Cyclists Rail-Trail to the Backroads

Cyclists who cut their eyeteeth on overnight and weekend bicycle camping
trips will tell you that there is a new world of freedom that comes with
weeklong or extended tours.

The dramatic difference is the extra time provided to control the pace and
vary the trail. To seize those pleasant opportunities for new sights, sounds,
and friendships that arise without warning. Unexpected opportunities for
adventure, are the cycle-tourers aphrodisiac. 

This three-day plus adventure will take you from Victoria to, and around,
Cowichan Lake, with options for Carmanah, Ports Alberni, or Renfrew, or...well
the possibilities are endless. 

To heighten expectations and avoid disappointment it's advisable to do some
research in advance. Richard Blier's two excellent books: Island Adventures,
and More Island Adventures, Volume 2 and; Vancouver Island Trail Information
Society's, Hiking Trails I and II. These are all available from Orca Book
Publishers. An excellent companion on any tour is Peterson's Field Guide to
Western Birds.

Helpful maps include: BC Ministry of Forests Recreation Maps for Duncan and
Port Alberni Forest Districts; Guide to Forest Land of Southern Vancouver
Island (more popularly known as The Green Map); MacMillan Bloedel TFL44
Recreation and Logging Road Guide (East Map); and The Community Map of the
Municipality of North Cowichan. The back panels of these maps provide
important other information.

For this first 35-km section try a crack-of-dawn start from anywhere in
Victoria, and head up the quiet streets and roads to Brentwood for the
ferry to Mill Bay. On quiet roads like these, I make it practice to wave to
everyone and say hello to those within earshot. The responses are amazing.

When you reach the #1 hwy at Mill Bay there is a 1km ride on the highway
before a right turn onto Kilmalu Rd., left on Telegraph Rd. for about 10kms
to Cowichan Bay Road, and onto Hwy1 again for ˝km, across the Koksilah River,
to Miller Rd.  

Cycle-tourers, like any other army, travel on their stomachs so keep an eye
out for the Fruit and Vegetable Market here on the highway. This is a good
place for a pause.

West of the highway on Miller Road, you will find the abandoned Canadian
National Railway Line running parallel on the left. It can be entered off
either Old Koksilah, or Glenora Roads. 

Enjoy the next 14 kilometres of railbed riding on a flat packed gravel surface
with the rails and ties long gone, no hills, no traffic. This stretch of trail
is so little disturbed and quiet that it is a natural for bird, and other
wildlife, viewing. 

At the end of this distance look off to the right for the sign for Sahtlam
Lodge or the lodge itself on the other side of the river. You will have
reserved ahead, so by the time you pack your bike and gear down the short
switchback path and toot the horn you will find at the cable car, hosts Dave
and Val will be ready to transport you across. 

Sahtlam Lodge is a very romantic place. In addition to the rooms, there are
cabins, tent bedrooms (one up in a tree, by the river). The dining room has
an exotic bill-of-fare with an extensive wine list. 

There are campsites down the railbed at Skutz Falls on the Cowichan River.
This once was a Ministry of Forest Recreation Site. It is now part of the BC
Park System.

The rail-trail ends in Lake Cowichan Village at South Shore Rd. go left out
of town to Mesachie Lake and The Ministry of Forests Cowichan Lake Research
Station. If you would like a tour, phone ahead to Manager Don Carson at

Established in 1929, the cookhouse and bunkhouse are designated heritage
buildings, and there is everything from 500-year-old trees to the high-tech
development of seedlings for tomorrow. 

Your adventure option (1) begins just west of Mesachie Lake at the turnoff for
the Harris Creek and Hillcrest Main Lines. These active logging rods will take
you south to hook up to the road west to Port Renfrew.

Cycling west there is a unique opportunity to gather rational, logical
insights into the BC forest industry. At Honeymoon Bay, near their mill,
Western Forest Industries maintains a wildflower reserve that in late spring
is magical in its beauty. On the left are sections of self-regenerated third
growth forest. For the past ten Kilometres your ride has been through the
Cowichan Valley Demonstration Forest that continues all the way around the lake. 

It is at this point that adventure option (2) begins with the Gordon River Main
Line which will take you south through Gordon River past Grant's Grove, a
stand of old growth Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar, and on to Port Renfrew.
There is a second access to this road just east of Caycuse townsite using the
Caycuse-Gordon River Hookup.

Adventure options 1-4 are all in mammoth 150-ton truck territory, on active
logging roads, and require a higher level of conditioning, and alertness.
Coming and going give them a big friendly wave. Should you have an emergency
they are your radio and first aid kit equipped lifeline. 

On these tours attach a bell or other noisemaker to your bike, carry a whistle,
and remember the cycle-tourers rule: the right-of-way goes to logging trucks,
black bears and cougars. In that order.

Caycuse Camp is thought to have been the oldest logging camp in BC. Fletcher
Challenge consolidated their operations under Timber West at Gordon River, and
Caycuse is now de-activated and dismantled. The company handed over the
heritage blacksmith shop to the IWA and its priceless artifacts have been
preserved in the museum in Duncan. 

Adventure option (3) starts at the end of the lake by taking the Nitinat and
Rosander Mains to Carmanah Provincial Park. Nitinat Fish Hatchery and the park
make this adventure well worthwhile. The Nitinat Forestry campsite at the head
of Nitinat Lake is very popular with the windsurfers. The Didtidaht First
Nation Visitor Center has a coffee shop and is a good source of information

Adventure option (4) begins at the Nitinat Fish Hatchery. Take the Franklin
South Main, and head northwards to Port Alberni. Along the way are access
points to Alberni Inlet and some excellent camping.

The road around Cowichan Lake has a half-dozen free campsites provided by the
ministry and the forest companies. Feel free to use them and show your
appreciation by practicing a pristine presence, leaving no sign that you
passed through. Along the south shore are Caycuse and Nixon. Each has
waterfront sites.

One of the best is Heather Campsite, at the head of the lake. It has a kitchen
shelter, nice beach, and is a good spot to stop. Another 14 kilometres to
Maple Grove Forest Service Campsite, and just beyond, west of the village of
Youbou, Pine Point. Shaded sites, a nice beach, and it's only a kilometre to

The route back to Mill Bay and home with your memories, is your choice. The
Cowichan Valley Highway is wide and smooth. If it gets too busy for you, cut
off onto Old Cowichan Lake Rd. My choice, when available, is always railbed
and I'll retrace my path from Lake Cowichan Village.

Terry Connellan is a veteran long distance cycle tourer who
occasionally shares his adventures with Islander readers. With more than
90,000 kilometers of bicycle touring behind him, he has just completed his
18th summer of seeing the world from the back of a bike.

Back to Bicycle Touring index

Back to Home page