It’s been a while since I went on an extended bike tour. Most of my trips last summer were a single night, and the one longer trip I had planned was cancelled because of wildfire smoke. So when my friend Gabby proposed the idea of a trip over the 4th of July holiday weekend to Canada, I jumped at it.
Our rough plan (emphasis on rough, as we’ll get back to that) was to do a 3 or 4 day loop around Vancouver Island, starting on Wednesday and returning on Saturday or Sunday. Our planning parameters for the trip:
Fairly mellow in terms of both mileage and elevation gain
Include the Kinsol Trestle
Take advantage of the awesome trail network in British Columbia
Turns out, you can’t really google routes using those search terms. We found a few loops on RidewithGPS that looked promising, got some intel from friends who had ridden up here before, and came up with a draft plan for our trip. We knew there were multiple camping options and plenty of food and water supply opportunities throughout the ride, so we didn’t plan any of those in advance.
Here’s the route we ended up doing, which ended up being 124ish miles and around 4500 feet of climbing. I 100% recommend this route - the roads, trails and ferries were absolutely lovely and I would totally ride it again.
I would NOT recommend any of the places we slept at. I’ll explain more later and provide some alternative camping ideas, but they were all a little bit off in one way or another.
Day 0: Seattle to Port Angeles
No bikes were ridden on this day. Our original plan was to take the Bainbridge ferry from Seattle, drive to Port Angeles and catch the Blackball Ferry to Victoria. But traffic the day before July 4th sucks, so we got a later start than we wanted and didn’t get to Port Angeles until almost 9pm. Thanks to a friendly Warm Showers host just off the Olympic Discovery Trail, we had a cute cabin to sleep in before our 8am ferry to Canada. (Feel free to message me for the Warm Showers details.)
Day 1: Victoria to Salt Springs
We took the early ferry from Port Angeles to Victoria, BC. This was my first time on this ferry and it’s really easy with a bike! Roll it on to the front of the boat, tie it up to the rack and voila, you’re done! Lots of other folks had the same idea - we met families on bike, other bike tourers, and casual riders going for a day ride in Canada.
Once in Victoria, our first stop was Broad Street Cycles. We needed to figure out a more solid plan for our tour. I met these guys a few years ago at Single Speed Cyclocross Worlds, hosted in Victoria and remember how friendly and welcoming they were. Turns out they remember me too! We bought a map, got a recommendation for breakfast and by noon were on our way…to breakfast.
After fueling up, we finally started pedaling, riding out of town on the Lochside Regional Trail. This flat, rail trail led us out of Victoria through beautiful, rolling wetlands, across bridges and into farmland where we shared the trail with horses and tractors.
We followed the trail all the way through Saanich and Sidney to the ferry terminal in Swartz Bay, where we just barely caught the ferry to Salt Spring Island. (p.s. Thank you to the kind soul who slowed down his own ride to guide us to the correct route, even turning around to make sure we made the right turn. Friendly Canadian encounter #1 of the trip.)
We were warned on the ferry to Salt Spring that the island was hilly and that proved to be true. But honestly, I didn’t find it to be overwhelmingly so. It felt a bit like Vashon or Bainbridge - a few big hills, but mostly rolling, rural farmland. Riding on Salt Spring was lovely - all the cars that passed us gave us plenty of space.
We enjoyed a short break at Cider Works before making our way to Ganges (the largest village on Salt Spring), where we found dinner and attempted to scout a place to camp. We were given some advice from some locals about a beach that is “great to camp on”, so feeling adventurous, we decided to camp there. Since this particular camping spot may or may not have been 100% legal, we spent the evening at the community theater production’s Shakespeare in the Park and eventually made our way towards the beach.
On our way to the beach, we realized we needed to fill up water bottles so we stopped at a pub. One thing led to another and soon it was way past dark. And we still didn’t have a place to sleep. All sorts of wise decision making happening at this point, but hey, at least there were 3 of us together.
We soldiered on with our plan to camp on the beach, riding another few kilometers from the pub to the spot we were told about. You can see on RidewithGPS the spur to Long Harbour. When we arrived, it was dark and I thought it looked promising. The spot seemed to be in the woods and looked safe enough to camp. My buddies had different ideas and wanted to leave, but it was nearly midnight and we made the decision to camp at the street end park. Not on the beach because the tide was up, and probably not a legal place to camp. When the sun rose, we realized there were houses about 100 yards from our campsite. Oops.
Day 1 Mileage: 43ish miles, 69 km
Day 2: Salt Spring Island to Chemanis to Duncan
After not a great night of sleep, we woke up and tore down our tents as quickly as possible. Heaven forbid the neighbors come down for the Friday morning walk and discover three bike tourists camping on their street end! (In all seriousness though, this experience gave me a lot more empathy to our unhoused neighbors who don’t have a safe place to sleep. I felt a lot of anxiety not knowing if somebody was going to come down in the middle of the night and harass us for setting up camp where we weren’t supposed to.)
After a quick breakfast of coffee and oatmeal we set off for the ferry back to mainland Vancouver Island, via the Vesuvius Ferry. Our plan for today was to ride to Chemanis, check out the Mural Capital of Canada, then backtrack a bit and setup camp at Bright Angel Regional Park. We all agreed that we wanted to sleep in an authorized campground.
We got off the ferry in Crofton and from there it was a nice 12 km ride into Chemanis. This part of the ride reminded me a lot of the Olympic Peninsula, albeit with much nicer drivers. The entire weekend I only had one close pass from a driver - the rest of the time every car gave us a wide berth and slowed way down when passing, definitely a welcome change from riding in the states.
Chemanis is a super cute historic town with a ton of murals. It definitely earned the name “The Mural Capital of Canada.” I failed and didn’t take any photos of the mural though. Next time.
In Chemanis, we met a local photographer and cyclist who told us about The BC Bike Race, who’s opening ceremonies were happening just down the road from our route. We detoured from our plan to go to Bright Angel park to see the opening ceremonies where a group from the Cowichan Tribe welcomed the race with a ceremonial dance, which was really cool to see.
At this point, we were still about 2 hours of riding from our intended campsite and were getting hangry. Again, prioritizing fun over a beautiful campsite, we pulled out the magical space device (google) and found a closer campsite. Our first attempt was a bust when we were told that no tents were allowed, but got lucky at the Riverside Cabins.
Cabins are a generous term for this property - it was more of a trailer park than a cabin, but it met our needs for the night: Water, bathrooms, a place for our tents. We had some interesting conversations with neighbors and were woken up by the sweet sounds of children playing on motorized hot wheels and drunken yelling (what’s the sarcasm emoji?) There was a lovely river flowing through camp that provided a great spot for a morning meditation and cool off.
By far the best part of Day 2 was Richards Trail - a backroad between Crofton and Maple Bay. If you go to this part of the world, you need to ride this road.
Day 2 Mileage: 32ish miles
Day 3: Duncan to Victoria
One of the themes throughout the trip was overly friendly Canadians insisting they knew what was best for us. A prime example of this was the beginning of Day 3 starting with our aggressively friendly campsite neighbors insisting that we take a “shortcut” over a railroad trestle to get to town. It was clear that none of these people had ever taken a bike on this route, as there were huge, tire-sucking gaps between the railroad ties (with a 30 foot drop underneath) and the route was definitely not rideable. Perhaps when walking it was a shortcut, but it likely added a solid 30 minutes to our start out of town.
We made the best of the situation and raised our spirits (and cell-phone batteries) with a visit to Tim Horton’s before starting our riding for the day. The plan was to find the Great Trail, ride it to the Kinsol Trestle, bop over to the Mill Bay Ferry and then head into Victoria where we’d hang out for the evening. As with the rest of our trip, it didn’t quite go to plan and everything takes just a bit longer than you expect.
We had a bit of a climb out of Duncan to find the Great Trail, which isn’t fully connected yet. Once we did find it, the riding was excellent. Varying grades of gravel - from chunky rocks to smooth asphalt grade gravel, but overall it was really lovely to ride. I’m really excited to go up and explore it more. So many wildflowers in bloom next to the trail too! Truly a lovely riding experience!
The Kinsol Trestle is a must see of this area as well. It looked like there were some trail heads close to the trestle, so you could take a more direct route, but what’s the fun in that?
After the trestle, we took the least hilly route back to Victoria possible. As we understood it, we could have taken the Trans-Canada trail the entire way, however, the trail has some steep sections that we weren’t mentally or physically ready to tackle. Instead, we opted for the Mill Bay ferry into Saanich, and then took the Lochside Trail back into Victoria.
We finished up our tour with a stay in a hostel downtown Victoria and caught the Black Ball back to Port Angeles early Sunday morning.
Day 3 Mileage: 41ish
Overall, the bike riding was excellent and I would recommend our route 100%. I would not recommend any of our sleeping choices, but there are plenty of other camping/hotel options and with a bit more foresight, all of the issues we ran into could easily be avoided.