Bike Local Travel

Bike Touring the Pacific Marine Loop

The Pacific Marine Loop is one of a number of designated scenic/tourist routes here in British Columbia; it starts in Victoria, heads west through Sooke to Port Renfrew, then goes inland to Lake Cowichan before coming back to Victoria via Duncan and either the Malahat highway or Brentwood-Mill Bay ferry.

What’s it like as a bike touring route? Pretty good, with some important caveats! First, there is basically no shoulder on BC Highway 14 anywhere west of Sooke. Traffic isn’t usually that heavy and most drivers are courteous, but if you’re only comfortable when there’s a shoulder, this might not be the route for you. Services west of Sooke are minimal until you get to Port Renfrew or Lake Cowichan. There are no grocery stores outside of those three towns, and places to get water can be few and far apart, as well. Finally, there is no cell service from just west of Sooke until you’re back in Cowichan Lake.

So: carry three or four days of food leaving Sooke or Cowichan River. Carry a water filter, water treatment pills, or some other method of ensuring your drinking water is safe. Navigation isn’t difficult – often there’s just the one paved road – but an offline map app or actual GPS unit is useful, or even a good old-fashioned paper map!

Our Trip

We left Victoria for Sooke Potholes campsite (previously) with a day’s worth of food. I’ve written up Potholes before, it’s a really nice campsite and one great feature is that the folks managing it have an unofficial “no turn away” policy for anyone showing up self-propelled. Even if all four tent pads in the group hiker-biker site are full they’re OK with you putting your tent elsewhere in that group site. It makes things easier, especially when you start your trip, like we did, on a long weekend and campsites are often full.

The second morning we headed into Sooke proper via Sooke River Road and Hwy 14, delayed by a flat tire on my girlfriend’s bike. We stocked up on food at one of the supermarkets in Sooke and ate lunch at the very tasty, very friendly Route 14 Diner right in the centre of the town.

Because we’d been delayed leaving Sooke we stopped for the night at French Beach Provincial Campground after about a 33km day, instead of our planned original destination of China Beach Provincial Campground. French Beach turned out to be an inspired choice, as it’s got much better beach access than China Beach and there’s an additional ugly hill in and out of Jordan River before you get to China Beach that we did when fresh the next morning!

Partway between Sooke and French Beach is the district of Shirley; there’s no town but the amazing little coffee shop there called Shirley Delicious which is well worth stopping at. You’ll need the refreshment after the long, steep climb into the town from either direction!

Cyclist In The Mist

Jordan River used to be a little waterfront hamlet but these days there’s basically no residents left; they’re being bought out because of the flood risk from a dam up the River Jordan if/when we get a big earthquake in this part of the world. There’s a cafe there still – the Cold Shoulder Cafe – but it might well be closed in the near future, I’m not sure! There is still a CRD campsite right on the beach, as an alternative to the two provincial campsites a few kilometres away either side.

There’s a serious lack of landmarks or much of anything else between China Beach Campground and the village of Port Renfrew. There’s a number of steep descents and climbs where the road goes down into river valleys; you can get access to fresh water (treat it first!) at a few places, including the Loss Creek bridge. You’re inland away from the ocean for this whole stretch, but some of the views out across the Pacific are really spectacular!

The hill into Port Renfrew is the longest by far of any of the climbs or descents we’d had so far; we wound up pulling over partway down just to give our hands and our brakes a rest! Rather than go into the town proper we turned right and crossed the long single-lane bridge over the San Juan River, went through the Pacheedaht First Nation (there are several camping options here, and loads of other lodging options in Port Renfrew itself) and headed upriver and inland a few more kilometres to the Fairy Lake Recreation site, a nice quiet ex-Forest Service campground. Great swimming here, but be mindful that services in these campgrounds are minimal. You’ll need to pack your garbage out with you, and treat the water you get yourself from the lake – no garbage disposal or potable water is provided.

San Juan River Bridge, Port Renfrew

French Beach to Fairy Lake is a solid 55km day of riding, and we had more than enough food to not have to worry on that front, so the next day we headed just 10km up the road to Lizard Lake Recreation Site. This was the prize of the trip, with really nice walk-in sites next to the day use area, separate (and much closer to the lake itself) than the regular drive-in campsite. If you’re riding inland, go just past the campsite’s marked driveway to find the day use parking area; the walk-in sites are just in from the day use parking and metres from the lake.

Our fifth day on the road we set off fairly early to tackle the hills between the coast and Cowichan Lake. We’d heard mixed reviews of the climb, but I’m happy to report that while it’s a long solid climb, none of the grades are all that steep and we walked fewer hills in the day’s riding that we had on the day three slog from French Beach! Google Maps puts the summit at 472 metres (~1550ft) which is respectable but still a hill, not a mountain! There’s not a lot of shade on the climb or the descent, but especially on the Cowichan Lake side you can often get down to a stream from the side of the road if you need to top water bottles up.

Switchback Pano

Once you get to the village of Mesachie Lake it’s just 5km or so of level riding to get to the town of Lake Cowichan (the lake is called Cowichan Lake; the town itself is Lake Cowichan. Clear like mud, right?). We stayed with friends here, but there are a number of camping options nearby, including Lake View Campground operated by the town itself. There’s a couple of places in the centre of Lake Cowichan for food and ice cream, and we felt we’d earned those sundaes when we rolled into town!

From Lake Cowichan you’ve got a number of route choices to get to Duncan and beyond. We tried out the Cowichan Valley Trail from Lake Cowichan as far as Glenora, but with our loaded touring bikes the often-rough surface of the trail made for slow and uncomfortable riding. We left the trail at the beautifully equipped Glenora Trail Head Park and made our way by various side roads down to Mill Bay to get the ferry across to Brentwood Bay. It’s unfortunate that the Cowichan Valley Regional District has left the Cowichan Valley Trail as rough and unfinished as it is, as it could be a spectacular route if it were usable by a wider variety of bikes.

We had intended to camp one last night at Bamberton Provincial Campground near the Mill Bay ferry landing, but decided to get an early evening ferry and have my brother pick us up on the Brentwood side with a bikerack-equipped car. Bamberton is a really nice campground, though, and we’ll stay there again!

I have more photographs from the trip over on my Flickr account in my Pacific Marine Bike Trip, Summer 2017 album.

A Map!

Quick embedded Google Map. Pretty accurate for our route, including our diversion off the Cowichan Valley Trail at the Glenora trailhead. Should give anyone who wants to do this route themselves a good idea of the distances and such!

In Closing…

Be mindful of lack of services, lack of cell reception, and lack of potable water anywhere west of Sooke. The route is incredibly straightforward, you’re not going to get lost anywhere, but carry four or five days worth of food leaving Sooke (or leaving Lake Cowichan, if you’re doing this loop the other way) and a reliable safe method of treating water. We just used water treatment tablets, one per water bottle, but sometimes the 30 minute wait to make sure the tablet had done it’s thing felt like a long and thirsty time!

There is a general store of some sort in Port Renfrew, but we didn’t need to divert to it to restock so I can’t speak to how well supplied it is.

Now that we’ve done it, would we do it again? Probably not this exact route, but we do want to get back to the two Forestry campsites behind Renfrew, Fairy Lake and Lizard Lake. We’ll probably go in via Lake Cowichan and come out the same way if we go by bike again, though. The climb is steep but easier than the long grind and traffic of the Sooke-Port Renfrew portion. That said, the views along the Sooke-Renfrew portion are totally spectacular out over the Pacific Ocean/Strait of Jaun de Fuca and going by bike is a great way to soak up that vista!

Local Travel

Bike Overnights: Sooke Potholes

The CRD-owned, T’Souke (Sooke) First Nation-operated Sooke Potholes Campground is our new favourite bike camping site, especially because we’re lucky enough to live right next to the Galloping Goose Trail and can ride all the way out to Potholes without any navigation or traffic concerns at all!

Getting There

Switch Bridge Junction to Sooke Potholes Campground. Click for larger.

Potholes Campground is gloriously easy to get to – just get on the Galloping Goose or Lochside Trail and head west! No navigation concerns, no vehicle traffic except at road crossings. Kid and nervous cyclist friendly to a fault, barring the distance.

The map above has the trip starting from the Switch Bridge Junction where the Goose and Lochside Trails meet, right by Uptown Mall. Here’s a link to the actual Google Maps setup.

Note that Google Maps will try to route you through central Langford and onto Sooke Road (Hwy 14) by default. I do not recommend following these routing suggestions, unless you want to detour into Langford to get groceries, alcohol, or other last-minute shopping. Stay on the Goose trail the whole way for maximum ride comfort!

Speaking of shopping, Langford’s Westshore Town Centre mall is immediately off the Goose where the trail crosses Kelly Road/Veteran’s Memorial Parkway intersection; there’s groceries, a liquor store, coffee, bank machines, and a pharmacy all there if you realize you’ve forgotten something en route or need a refreshment break. There’s other options further out in Metchosin and Sooke, but Westshore Town Centre Mall is the last shopping centre directly off the trail.

The Goose is entirely gravel past Langford but generally in excellent shape, easy to ride on.

Camping There

The Campground proper is directly off the Galloping Goose Trail; there’s a short side trail (signposted) that drops directly into the top part of the campground from the trail.

Sooke Potholes Campground (Spring Salmon Place Campground) campground map. The trail entry and group site are at image centre at the yellow dot. Map courtesy CRD.

Hiker and biker campers are welcome to use any of the regular campsites, but there is also the car-free group spot set up specifically for them! There’s a big picnic shelter, a shared fire ring, four large tent pads, and even a bike rack to lock your ride to! There’s a water tap, drop toilets, and garbage/recycling/compost bins just up the slope from the group site.

Hiker/biker group camp site at Sooke Potholes. Click to go to my Flickr collection of photos from there!

Note that unlike most other provincial or federal (National Park) campgrounds, the staff don’t come around to make sure camp fees are collected; if you come in the back way off the Galloping Goose you need to walk down to the gatehouse at some point and let them know you’re around and pay your fee. Fee is cash only — hope you remembered to hit that ATM in Langford!

Things To Do

The remains of Leechtown (a briefly-inhabited gold mining ghost town) are just up the Goose from the campground, on the other side of the river. I have to confess that I haven’t been over to Leechtown myself, not yet, but apparently there’s a few traces of roads and foundations to explore.

The Goose itself ends a few kilometres north of the campground at a very large gate blocking access to the CRD’s Sooke Water District lands. Some of us keep hoping the Goose will one day be extended all the way through the Water District lands to connect to Cowichan District trails up by Shawnigan Lake, but that isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

The swimming in the Sooke River is great, either right at the campground or downstream a bit at the official Potholes swimming area. There’s also a variety of hiking trails aside from the Goose itself, if you want to get your dayhike on.

Note that there is no cell reception at Potholes Campground itself, and very limited reception further south until you get a lot closer to Sooke Road. Whether this is a feature or a bug depends on you!

More of my photos from Potholes over at this Flickr album.

Bike Travel

Portland the Long Way – Photos!

Haven’t updated since getting back from the trip; short version is that four days into the adventure, just outside Cle Elum, Washington, my brother broke his bike frame right at the rear axle mount and we aborted the trip, taking the Greyhound bus back to Seattle for a couple of days there before coming home via Vancouver a week early.

It was still a great bike tour while it lasted, and the Iron Horse State Park/John Wayne Pioneer Trail section up and over Snoqualmie Pass through the Cascades is an amazing trail, well worth the effort it takes to get a fully loaded touring bike up and over the gravel trail!

The full set of photos so far can be found over on my Flickr account in the Long Way To Portland album.

Here’s a few selections!

Bike Parking, MV Chelan

Camp Panorama, Tolt-McDonald Campground

Alice Creek Campsite Pano

Snoqualmie Tunnel, West End

This Is The End...


Portland The Long Way

Quick late night post to say I’m off on another bike adventure! Not as epic as last year’s European trip but more adventurous than going out to Salt Spring Island yet again!

My brother and I leave Saturday the 25th of July for Portland, OR, taking a long route, up and over the Cascade Mountains via Snoquomish Pass, to Yakima, then down to the Columbia River and back to Portland via the Columbia Gorge. We’ll end the trip with an Amtrak train ride back to Vancouver, BC to get home.

Posts from the road as I have wifi or pay the extra for a day of data usage on the phone, but here’s some maps:

First Half – Victoria to Yakima – overnights on Whidbey Island, Tolt-McDonald Park near Carnation WA, Lake Easton State Park, Ellensburg, and Yakima.

Second Half – Yakima to Portland – overnights in Yakima, Brooks Memorial SP, then several days of wandering down the Columbia Gorge with lots of camping choices.

We’ll end in Portland sometime around the 5th of August, spend a couple of days there drinking beer, eating donuts, and poking around, before taking Amtrak’s Cascades run back up to Vancouver, BC to meet our respective girlfriends and end the whole trip there.