Port Renfrew Loop: Discovering the Backroads of Vancouver Island

I honestly didn’t think we would do another cycling trip so soon after returning from five months of cycling in Central America. But blisters from the previous weekend’s hiking trip prevented me from wearing my hiking boots for a while. So this is how we found ourselves cycling not so early on Saturday morning towards the ferry after finding (free) parking in Tsawwassen. When we arrived to the terminal we were told that the 10am ferry was full, even for foot passengers! After sticking around for a bit it turned out that we could actually board the ferry.

Riding to the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal

Riding to the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal

Plums on the side of the road

Plums on the side of the road

While the ferry was packed by enthusiastic tourists who were taking pictures of everything, we took the opportunity to catch up on some sleep. We arrived too soon to Swartz Bay ferry terminal and rode through back roads to the Mill Bay ferry. We cycled along the ocean, which was flat and most unbelievably blue. The weather was perfect, just as you would expect the west coast to be in mid July.

Riding across the restored Kinsol Trestle with Jan and Warrick

Riding across the restored Kinsol Trestle with Jan and Warrick

We made it to the overpriced small ferry and within half an hour we were on the other side of the inlet. Then we cycled to the impressive restored Kinsol Trestle (a wooden railway bridge) to meet our friends Jan and Warrick. Of course Google Maps got the distance wrong and it took us a bit longer than expected. It was fun to re-unite with Jan and Warrick and we cycled together along the rail-trail to their house. Gili and Warrick went for a swim in the Cowichan River but I was starved and in need of food. We had a pleasant dinner with Jan and Warrick and it was definitely a treat to stuff ourselves with delicious home made food and ice cream, and sleep in a bed on a cycling trip.

Swimming in Lizard Lake

Swimming in Lizard Lake

After breakfast we took the rail-trail to Cowichan Lake, a small town on the shore of the lake. We quickly discovered we didn’t bring enough snacks with us, so we found the local supermarket and got some food. Then came a long and hot hill with almost no shade and mostly views of clear cuts. When we finally found a patch of shade on the side of the road we both collapsed and slept for 40 minutes before eating lunch.

Beautiful and free beach camping near Port Renfrew

Beautiful and free beach camping near Port Renfrew

We stopped for a swim at Lizard Lake. The water was nice and warm to jump into. We think that the reason it’s called Lizard Lake is because after you swim you lie in the sun on the deck, just like a lizard. Since we had already cycled 90km with some long and hot uphills we decided to call it a day near Port Renfrew. We found a small path that led to the beach and a perfect camping spot. But as we were eating dinner I noticed how salty the food was, and then we discovered our mistake. It turned out that the river where we had gotten our water was mixed with sea water, due to the high tide… We both couldn’t finish our dinner and had to bury it in the forest.

Spectacular beach views on the coastal road from Port Renfrew to Jordan River

Spectacular beach views on the coastal road from Port Renfrew to Jordan River

Gili went on a search for non-salty water and as I was pitching the tent another guy showed up. He was planning to hike the West Coast Trail and also discovered our little hidden beach. We woke up to another beautiful sunny day and started it with a huge feast in the closest thimble berry bushes. That day took us on beautiful deserted back roads with excellent views of the never ending ocean and the Olympic Peninsula. We had to climb from Port Renfrew, but had a nice descent to the tiny town of Jordan River. It’s a point where the river and ocean meet, but it’s not named after the Israeli Jordan River. Apparently, it was a big place in the 19th century populated by loggers. Today it’s a surfers’ spot, but while we were eating our lunch there, the ocean was very flat with not a wave in sight.

Riding down to the ocean, near Jordan River

Riding down to the ocean, near Jordan River

Beautiful flowers on the side of the road

Beautiful flowers on the side of the road

Then came another nice uphill with purple flowers and the occasional berry on the side of the road. In Sooke we stocked up with some more food. Originally we had planned to do this trip in three days, but already on the second day we realized we bit more than we could chew on. That’s the beauty though of cycling trips, if you forgot something there is usually no problem to replace it. With flexible schedules like ours this summer, staying an extra night wasn’t a problem at all.

We connected to the Galloping Goose Trail, and from there it was all flat and familiar, we rode this trail a few years back. Since it gets dark so late we had a long day of riding over 110km and stopped only after 8pm. We cooked dinner and then pitched our tent on an open grassy spot on the side of the trail. We woke up very early to finish the ride along the Galloping Goose and in Victoria we connected with the Lochside Trail back to the ferry. Despite it being only 6am a lot of people were out and about. Although I am not a morning person, there is something magical about those early hours.

Early morning cycling along the Lochside Trail to Swartz Bay

Early morning cycling along the Lochside Trail to Swartz Bay

We almost managed to catch the 8am ferry, but alas, arrived just as it was leaving and waited a whole hour for the next one. I took the opportunity to sleep and continued it on the ferry once it arrived. As we were cycling back to our car in Tsawwassen, another cycling adventure was coming to its end. It was a perfect get-a-way combined with excellent weather, deserted roads, berries and unbelievable views. We live in a very unique corner of the world and there is always more to explore.

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9 Responses to Port Renfrew Loop: Discovering the Backroads of Vancouver Island

  1. Pingback: Flower Ridge: or Cloud Ridge in This Case

  2. Michelle says:

    We used to go camping at Lizard Lake and Fairy Lake when I was little – there were salamanders in the water then 🙂

  3. Kit says:

    As of 2015 you can still find salamanders in Lizard Lake.

    • Gili says:

      Great! That’s good to know. This trip is well worth a repeat, so we’ll have to take a closer look at Lizard Lake next time.

  4. Keith Hyde says:

    Looking at a similar solo trip in a few week at the end of August, but going CCW from Victoria and coming up via The Goose through Potholes and Weeks Lake, or coming up the Cowichan Trail, then working in the Gordon River Road section to Port Renfrew – hoping this makes a nice tailwind-ish return with the prevailing westerlies down 14 through Sooke.

    May I ask, what was that place near Port Renfrew you camped? – I wanna sleep there too! Love to sleep far from people, near the water. Looks perfect but I don’t want to get in trouble.

    Thanks!

    Thanks!

    • Gili says:

      Thanks, Keith! This is really an amazing trip, I’m sure you’ll have a blast. About that free camping spot on the beach – first of all, we can’t guarantee that you won’t get in trouble or that it’s still free and available… But most probably things will be fine. The approximate spot is marked on the map in the blog post – click on frame icon on the right top corner of the map to view it larger. Based on my memory, it is south of the turn to Island Rd and north of the water crossing (if you look at the map and the marked spot, this should be clear). There was either a small dirt road or a trail, leading to the beach over a short distance. It should be fairly easy to find.

  5. Gerry says:

    Hi Gili, I am coming from Ontario doing a solo cycling trip in October for 10 days your route looks like a perfect start to the trip. I have a cyclocross bike so expect that this will be adequate for the trails on your route? Also since I will be on the trip after thanksgiving in your experience do you know if I will have any issues with closed camping sites. Many thanks

    • Gili says:

      Hi Gerry – sorry for the delay in replying, we were off on a cycling trip for a few weeks. Yes, a cyclocross bike should be find for the trails we took, they were fairly smooth. You can also take the road if you prefer, but there are some nice trail sections, in particular crossing the Kinsol Trestle. I’m not 100% about campground in the off season. I checked the Cowichan River Provincial Park campground, it says: “A portion of the campground is open from October 1 – April 30, during which time a winter fee is in effect (no water or firewood)”. The Rec Sites near Port Renfrew I don’t think are manned, so they are likely not affected, and the free beach camping in Port Renfrew doesn’t have any services… Good luck and Enjoy!

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