Spirit, Soul & Vibe
Ready to discover some of the best mountain bike riding British Columbia, Canada has to offer? It's Island time...
Even in the larger communities, those living on Vancouver Island are generally a little more subdued than their mainland counterparts. Everybody seems to have a little more perspective on what’s really important, rather than constantly buzzing about looking for the next best thing. Like many of British Columbia’s towns, many of those located on the Island were originally focused on the resource industry – forestry in particular. The legacy of logging on Vancouver Island is everywhere: giant steam powered relics, logging cables, and old-growth stumps are scattered across the forest floor amidst the luscious ferns and loam. Although first-generation trees are few and far between, Vancouver Island’s canopy is as inspiring as it is beautiful. Though John Muir was referring to the Giant Sequoia as “nature’s masterpiece,” his words ring true in the forests of Vancouver Island.
As mentioned, everything moves just a little bit slower on Vancouver Island. Except the trail builders… they’re animals. There are trails in every community, a few of which have so many trails that we are left wondering who could have possibly built all of them. The overgrown skid roads and corduroy logging paths of generations past have made access to this incredible terrain a little more straightforward, but the trails are ultimately a result of the builders and their passion for new terrain, more options, and continued progression of local riding communities.
Part of the reason why Vancouver Islanders are such great riders may be that they can ride just about 365 days per year. With the exception of a few communities and higher elevation trails, most networks are rideable all year, especially those at the south end of the Island. The temperate climate makes Vancouver Island a great place to ride all day in the summer and a slip sliding good time during the winter.
On The Way
Each of our Vancouver Island expeditions has been different, but the outcome has always been the same: too many trails, not enough time, and when do we get to come back? Trips, towns, and offshoots can be connected in a countless number of ways, all of them laden with good times.
The Strait of Georgia can be crossed via ferry in a number of locations, though the most direct routes are from just north of Vancouver or Port Angeles, Washington. Whether arriving via Nanaimo or Victoria, those who enjoy a good beverage should check out Canadian Craft Tours. Vancouver Island has developed a broad winery, distillery, and brewery tradition, and carb loading is an important part of being a high performing cyclist. Those who prefer not to indulge will enjoy the excursion almost as much, as many of the tours pass through historic parts of each community. Beer nerds and winos beware: your tour guide not only knows the history and geography of the area, but a whole bunch about bitterness values and fruit notes, so just enjoy the tour and save the savvy for your tight-jeaned hipster friends. Two of our favorite microbreweries are White Sails Brewing in Nanaimo and Category 12 Brewing in Victoria.
Where To Ride
The first must-ride area on Vancouver Island is the Cowichan Valley. The number of mutant riders who either grew up here or spent a pile of time here is downright silly: Stevie Smith, Remi Gauvin, Mark Wallace, Andrew Mitchel, Dean Tennant, and Riley McIntosh all call this area home. It was this list of names that implored us to head to the town of Duncan for the first time in order to sample some of the goods that helped shape several incredibly talented riders.
Mount Tzouhalem is less than 1,800 feet tall, but has a pile of great trails. We usually climb the roads to maximize descending for the upper trails, but we would recommend La Grande Traverse instead of slogging right from the bottom. This climb begins a short distance from the parking area and provides an opportunity to ease into the ride, rather than punching it from the outset. Our favorite all-mountain loop once we’re up top begins with Field of Dreams. We always get a kick out of this trail because the line choices and B-lines make this an often hilarious ride with a crew. We aren’t talking six foot wide DH track, we’re talking attention to detail. Subtle decisions are constant and make the difference between preserving momentum and either: a) poor line choice b) putting a foot down or c) all of the above. We get even more joy from heckling others’ line choices, shooting for passes, and goading each other into tomfoolery.
After a short, technical climb we usually regroup at the lookout before continuing with our shenanigans on the way down. From there, Finality is a great option. Like Field of Dreams, it begins with a short climb that gives way to a natural descent that has a few technical sections to keep things interesting. During the winter months the moss is almost neon and is only interrupted by the dark brown ribbon of trail.
The last trail we’ll mention is Double D, which is generally our go-to flow trail in Tzouhalem. We feel that too much of a good thing can be a problem, and finding a balance between flow and sanitization is tricky when it comes to trail building. We’re fans of Double D because it hasn’t gone too far and the overall feel of the trail is natural. Berms are large enough in most places that corners can be hit at warp speed, yet there are still a few sections that require precision, and it is rough enough that a dually is a better bet than a hardtail. Blasting through the ferns and jibbing bonus features is a great way to burn the last bit of energy or daylight with riding buddies. This is how all flow trails should be.
Maple Mountain is a short distance north of Duncan near the small community of Crofton. In 2013, the Cowichan Trail Stewardship Society partnered with Riley McIntosh to restore an old-school line on Maple and to begin the process of building legal mountain bike trails, which up to this point were largely absent in the area. Today Maple Mountain features only a handful of trails, but they (one in particular) might be some of the best trails in the area, if not Vancouver Island.
Maple Syrup is the restoration we referred to above, and in our opinion it is a definite top five trail for all-mountain riders. It is eye-wateringly fast in places, technical in others, a few climbs to regain elevation, and has a few impressive (and necessary) bridges. Intermediate riders can definitely ride the entire trail while advanced riders will have an absolute ball. At full pin, expect around a half hour of trail shredding goodness. At a casual pace or with a large group, expect an hour if not longer. With the more recent addition of a machine-built climb, riders can slowly meander their way back up for a second lap if energy levels permit. We really can’t say enough about Maple Syrup and we are anxiously awaiting the CTSS and Riley’s next collaboration.
Gravity junkies definitely need to check out Mount Prevost whilst visiting the Cowichan Valley. This shuttle-friendly area is where many of Canada’s top gravity athletes cut their teeth and is also producing a never-ending steam of impressive groms. The reason for this is pretty simple: just about all of the trails are worthy of a World Cup downhill race. Watch just about any of Mark Wallace, Dean Tennant, or Remi Gauvin’s recent videos and there will no doubt be a section featuring Prevost. The roughly 15 combined descents are worthy of being referred to as “tracks” instead of “trails.” The tracks are faster, wider, and encourage riders to go absurdly quick through technical (and sometimes consequential) terrain. Although we’ve only ridden this area on our enduro bikes, there are more than a few spots where we would have appreciated a downhill bike.
Prevost's Puttin’ on the Ritz is an absolutely wild ride. There are a few features and technical sections that will have even the best riders second guessing themselves and taking a little more time to piece the trail together well. The first time we rode this trail the advice we received from a local Pro was, “The bike knows where to go, don’t ruin it for the bike,” which we interpreted as, “Eyes up and hang on...” It mostly worked. Memphis is another great option and has been used a number of times for grassroots downhill races and has to be our favorite trail to lap. There are a ton of features and enough room to be creative with line choice, but without as many consequential sections. With each lap we find ourselves hitting sections a little smoother, unlocking more line choice and natural gaps. Prevost is more enjoyable for advanced riders looking for a high-speed, technical challenge. This is one of the best DH spots on the Island, and perhaps the entire Province.
Where To Stay
Anytime we stay in the Cowichan Valley, we try our best to stay near the water. It doesn’t really get much closer than the Maple Bay Marina, where there are a few floating homes available for rent. What is the only thing better than riding from home to the trailhead at Tzouhalem? Diving off the front porch for a post-ride dip. For something a little more budget friendly, check out Riverside RV & Camping in Duncan. They are located on the Cowichan River, close to trails and within walking distance to Duncan’s downtown area. The Cowichan Valley is a tourist friendly area, so there are plenty of accommodation options beyond our favorites.
Where To Eat
For something a little different and an experience, rather than just a meal, check out Bird’s Eye Cove Farm. During the summer months they host pizza nights, roasts, and all kinds of family events. They’re located close to the Tzouhalem network, so it makes a perfect combination for riders in the area. On the way from Nanaimo? The Sawmill Taphouse is a great option. The pork tacos (again with the Mexican) and fish cakes are both great. Don’t fret when arriving from the south, Bridgemans Bistro is located in the Mill Bay Marina and is a great spot for a meal and a walk to check out all of the fancy yachts that mountain bikers definitely can’t afford.
On The Way
Because they’re relatively close, we’ve decided to combine Cumberland and Campbell River within a single section. At around thirty minutes on the highway, riders ride both zones during the same trip. If arriving from the south, tack on an extra few minutes to be a tourist and drive old Highway 19A. It’s a little bit slower than Highway 19, but it passes through some great areas that would otherwise be missed. Stop for a coffee and stock up on roasted-in-house beans at Cha Cha Java in Parksville and again at Lefty’s in Qualicum Beach, just before the caffeine begins to wane. Those still vibrating can forgo the second round of coffee and choose from a great menu instead.
Hornby Island, also known as "The Rock," is a quick jaunt away from Qualicum and Cumberland. The 50+ miles of mossy trails that spread across this small patch of land like a spider web are well worth a visit as well. Watch as Darren Berrecloth enjoys some of the best the island off the island has to offer:
While is isn’t necessarily “on the way,” we have also really enjoyed taking the time to cross to Quadra Island and to paddle the Discovery Islands during our time near Campbell River. We have spent a significant number of evenings hanging out fireside, joking with the crew from Spirit Of The West Adventures about who got a little too wild on the day’s ride and where to head next. Not only are the guides great behind a paddle, they shred on bikes and might even be willing to show you the goods on Quadra Island itself. Spending the time paddling quietly through the Octopus Islands Marine Provincial Park, checking out the oyster farms, and wildlife watching is a great way to offset the trail riding mayhem that will surely resume once the paddles get traded back.
Where To Ride
Once a coal mining town, Cumberland has put itself back on the map as a niche community for outdoor enthusiasts. The century old architecture seems a little bit out of place compared to the surrounding communities, but only adds to the appeal of this unique hamlet. The Cumberland Forest can be ridden right from the main drag and has enough trails that many die-hard mountain bikers are permanently relocating to the area.
The United Riders Of Cumberland (great name, better people) have worked hard to maintain, preserve, and build new trails, and every time we’re in town we seem to find a new favorite trail. Our current all-mountain flavor of the week is Thirsty Beaver to Teapot, Crafty Butcher, and ending with Black Hole. This combination doesn’t have any single feature or section that has been committed to memory, rather the whole loop seems to melt into one rolling descent with a great mixture of every type of riding that one could want.
Our favorite gravity-fed descent is Blockhead to Numbskulls and DCDH. It’s nearly 20 minutes of Cumberland’s best descending, but nothing so committing that it can’t be sent on the first lap. The high speed cutblock sections of DCDH have corners with just enough support to be railed and there are small gaps both natural and man-made that turn this trail up to 11. Back in the trees riders are forced to drop a little bit of speed as more roots appear, but there is plenty of width and line choice for intermediate to elite descenders. Our favorite section on DCDH is a four corner forest chicane that propels riders into a well-built lefthand berm – just try not to smile while bouncing from one corner to the next with a group of friends!
Following a big day in Cumberland, give the lungs a break and head to Mount Washington Alpine Resort. It offers lift-accessed trails, views in every direction, and a fraction of the crowd compared to other resorts.
In Campbell River, stop for a coffee at the Java Shack located immediately across from the Quadra Island ferry before heading to the trails. A solid plan is a necessity in Campbell River. Not because the trails aren’t adequately marked or access convoluted, but so many can be squeezed into a single ride that it’s worth having a ride planned before heading out. If getting lost on purpose is on the agenda, no need to worry as most trails can be ridden in both directions (although there will be suffering). The Snowden Demonstration Forest is one of many great local spots and is our favorite. This area has more than 60 miles of great trails, few signs of civilization, is close to town, and has trails in every flavor. Definitely an all-mountain paradise. We prefer to ascend (and then descend) Dean Martin and Deliverance from town rather than driving, but the parking lot at Lost Lake is a short drive for those who prefer to get right to the best trails. Every time we’re just about bonked we like to finish by descending Sanitarium back to Delivarance and eventually home or the parking lot. Sanitarium is a technical cross country trail in either direction, but we’ve always preferred riding towards Deliverance, rather than away from it. Depending on skills and fitness, flowing this natural trail by hopping rocky ledges, manualing through roots, and finding bonus features is a great way to wrap up a ride in Snowden.
We have to admit that we’re pretty much lost every time we ride in Cumberland or Campbell River. There are so many trails crammed into each spot that we would rather put a few dollars in a locals’ pocket than spend half of the day deciphering trail maps. Whenever we ride Vancouver Island, we try to connect with Martin at Island Mountain Rides. He knows all of the trails like the back of his hand, rides hard, constantly has something new or unique to show us, and maximizes shredding each time.
Where To Stay
In Cumberland, the Riding Fool Hostel is a no brainer. It’s right on Cumberland’s main street, about thirty feet from the local bike shop, within walking distance to town amenities, and a minute long pedal to the Cumberland Forest. Get there, park the car, shred. It’s that easy. When we choose to base ourselves in Campbell River, Elk Falls Provincial Park is our favorite spot for many of the same reasons as above. This is a great spot for more than just riding. Elk Falls is worth checking out, as are the hiking trails that meander through the park. Anglers will also love this spot as salmon, trout, and steelhead are all on the menu depending on time of the year. Those who prefer to stay indoors while in Campbell River should check out this directory for more ideas.
Where To Eat
We’re big fans of supporting local businesses, which gets even easier when they’re located steps from where we usually stay. Notably absent in Cumberland are large franchises, something that we feel makes the town even cooler. Cumberland Coffee Roasters is right downtown and is the perfect spot to grab a coffee, smoothie, or beans for the road. For après, the Waverley Hotel has great pub grub, ambiance, local music, and too many taps to count. Even though we keep suggesting taco joints (we swear we eat other food too), we would be negligent to leave Biblio Taco without mention. The chicken and chorizo burrito is a combination we hadn’t previously tried, but wish we had sooner. A directory of Campbell River eateries can be found here.
Vancouver Island has all of the amenities of the mainland, with a little less attitude and a little more sea breeze. Trails are generally less technical than the Vancouver Coast, but that just means letting go of the brakes happens more often, not that they’re sterile. It seems that there is a trailhead every few miles, bike shops on every street corner, and bike racks on every vehicle. It is an ideal destination for all-mountain riders with solid skills and fitness who are looking to cover ground on their bikes, rather than spending time in a vehicle (dare we say Endurists? Enduroists? Mountain bikers?). We highlighted three areas, but let it be known that there are more than enough trails to overwhelm even experienced travelers, and even the locals get lost. Finally, if you're looking to plan a self-propelled mountain riding trip from one town to the next, Vancouver Island is the best bet in British Columbia.
- An Overview of Vancouver Island Rides
- Explore Vancouver Island
- Camping and Riding on BC's Gulf Islands
- The Vital MTB Guide to Northern BC
- The Vital MTB Guide to BC's Cariboo Chilcotin Coast
Rad Rides, Eats & More is a Vital MTB series meant to provide you with intimate local knowledge of excellent mountain bike destinations. Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks as Vital's BC local contributor, Joel Harwood, dives deep into the woods and explores the many mountains of six British Columbia regions in partnership with Mountain Biking BC and Super, Natural British Columbia.
All photos by Dave Silver