Pacific Marine Circle

All cycling trips should begin or end with a ferry trip, ideally both. This is one of those, if you can ignore the part where you reach the ferry. Luckily for us, public transport helped us on that front. On Tuesday June 11th, we caught an early ride through Canada Line to Richmond and loaded our gear on the bus to catch the 9 o’clock sailing to Tsawwassen. The plan was to cycle the lower part of Vancouver Island, visiting Cowichan River, Port Renfrew and Sooke.

Ferry to Swartz Bay
Ferry to Swartz Bay

A group of friends were doing an overnight cycling trip to Salt Spring Island and we decided to join them on first day. Originally we planned to end the trip with them but then the weather on the west coast acted up a week earlier.

To get to Salt Spring Island, one needs to buy a combo ticket from Tsawwassen to Fulford Harbour so there is no added cost (or so it seems). The 9 o’clock ferry catches the 11 o’clock from Swartz Bay to Fulford.

The group’s plan after the ferry was to hike to a view point for lunch so we biked a few kms on Reginald Hill Rd (the first one right after the ferry landing), parked our gear into the bush and walked another 1-2kms to the top. It was quite hot and dry all around.

After refilling our water bottles back at the harbour, the next stop was a little lake on the way to Ruckle Provincial Park, quite a gem with all walk-in camp sites near the rocky shore. Within viewing distance, you have Pender Island and the passing ferries. The park is actually next to a semi-active heritage farm which you can visit via a nice trail in between. The park land was donated by the Ruckle family who owned the farm. Apparently the last member of the family passed away recently in 2018 and the farm is now managed by BC Parks. You can find more about it at http://friendsruckleparkheritage.ca

Can’t wait to unload
Lunch at Reginald Hill
Campsites at Ruckle Provincial Park
Campsites at Ruckle Provincial Park
Sea life in a tidal pool

The next morning we were anxious to get to main island to reach our next stop so we pushed ahead of the group and did not stay for their planned visit to the cheese factory and the second lake dip in Cusheon Lake. We did stop at Embe Bakery to sample their Blueberry Strudel though. While waiting for the ferry to Crofton, we stopped at another nice cafe near Vesuvius, named not surprisingly, Vesuvius Cafe, and read some local news. Apparently the ferry has been replaced recently and locals were fuming about the smaller new vessel.

From Crofton to Duncan we followed the main roads and the weather got hotter by the minute. Water bottles ran dry and we also needed to find a grocery store before heading into more rural areas. My brain was starting to melt when we crossed Trans-Canada Hwy into the parking lot of a Tim Hortons. After filling up my bottle with hot water from the washroom, I was ready to pedal further where I thought countless small stores are waiting for our business, so I was furious when Bengül suggested we should checkout the Walmart across the street. I’m very glad I listened to her because there was absolutely no stores between there and Lake Cowichan. We also found a Bulk Barn store hiding nearby and picked up some Italian butterfly pasta with rainbow colours.

The heat on busy Cowichan Lake Road reached 40°C as we finally turned into the much quieter Riverbottom Rd running next to the river. After stopping briefly at a small beach to wet our feet, we reached our goal for the day: Stoltz Pool Park. The river was a bit away from the camp site but we managed to dip in cool water before making dinner.

After a steep hill next morning we stopped to view the river from above at Marie Canyon. The dirt road joined the Trans-Canada Trail at one of the trestles called “66 mile”. This stretch is easily one of the best parts of this trip. We stopped at Skutz Falls to filter some water and to explore, then reached Lake Cowichan around noon for lunch at Bear Lake under a nice shady tree. The Pacific Marine Road began here, going south towards Port Renfrew. The road started as chip-sealed and wide. Logging trucks and support vehicles whizzed by and the weather got chilly as we gradually climbed up with a bit of headwind and occasional strong side winds. This continued about 30kms until we reached a rest area named Harris Spruce with a giant spruce protected by a wooden fence. After that, the road got much narrower and seemed to be passing though a canyon. This was also the highest section of the road. We made it to Lizard Lake around 5pm and pitched our tent on one of the four available sites. This was a recreation site and there were no facilities except two toilets. A solo cyclist from Sydney, BC had already camped next to us. He was going in the opposite direction. The lake was small and actually had amphibious lizards in it. A few day-trippers stopped by and one more couple occupied another site and the air got quiet chilly with overcast skies. In the middle of the night we woke up to a chorus of frogs and hoots of an owl. This location felt like the remotest on this entire trip.

Marie Canyon lookout
Marie Canyon lookout
Trans-Canada Trail
Trans-Canada Trail
Skutz Falls
Skutz Falls
Trans-Canada Trail
Can’t get enough of Trans-Canada Trail
Harris Spruce
Harris Spruce
Lizard Lake
Lizard Lake

The rest of the road to Port Renfrew was mostly downhill. The next feasible campsite Fairy Lake was a bit larger and more developed. We stopped at the Pachidah Village to take a look at the West Coast Trailhead. It seems to have developed a bit since we last visited here eighteen years ago, but the fog and threatening weather was still there.

We continued into Port Renfrew for a quick coffee and phone charge at Tomi’s Cafe and ran into another solo cyclist going the other way who warned us about the upcoming hill. From Port Renfrew to China Beach the road dipped in and out of the river mouths following the contours of the coast and we were able to see as far as the Olympic Peninsula. This part of the island seemed less logged but still the clear-cut patches were quite numerous and disturbing to see.

When we reached China Beach, the info sheet at the entrance showed all sites as booked except three and when we actually checked them, there was only one left! The “beach” was a rugged shore one km away down a steep slope, but we went twice.

The last one on China Beach
The “beach”. Actually, there are long sandy stretches as well.
      China Beach
Hike to the “beach”.
Hikers waiting for the shuttle boat at Port Renfrew.
Hikers waiting for the shuttle boat at Port Renfrew.
      Port Renfrew

June 15th was a Saturday so we decided to head out early and finish the loop. We stopped at Sooke to buy apples, cherry tomatoes and a cantaloupe for lunch. The highlight of this part of the island is definitely the Galloping Goose Trail, which starts around Sooke and takes you up to Saanich on a mostly gravel path. After that, you can join into Lochside going north, which is also nice but mostly paved with lots of crossings through developed areas. With a bit of tailwind, it took us over 7hrs riding the remaining 110km to catch the 5 o’clock ferry back to Tsawwassen. There were a lot of cyclists on board, yet apparently we were the only ones gambled on taking the transit back so we hopped on the bus waiting for us.

View from Galloping Goose Trail near Sooke
View from Galloping Goose Trail near Sooke
Galloping Goose Trail is mostly gravel.
Galloping Goose Trail is mostly gravel.

Overall, this is a great four-day cycling loop to sample Vancouver Island. If you don’t want to visit Salt Spring Island, a better option is to take the Mill Bay ferry across the Saanich Inlet and then join the Cowichan River Trail around Shawnigan Lake.

More pictures at https://flic.kr/s/aHsmEj8ieM

Map of the loop

Elevation profile of the loop

Distance: 312 km

Days: 5 days

Flat-tires: 0

Avg Speed: 14 km/hr