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Photo by Mark Taylor

Exploring Vancouver Island's Varied & Unique Trail Network: A Trail Riding Vacation

Posted on Jul 23, 2021 by The Free Radicals (aka Will Cadham and Mark Taylor)

Vancouver Island and the surrounding area, are part of what archaeologists refer to as the kelp highway and likely played an essential role in the human settlement of North America. The discovery and subsequent carbon dating of several campsites in the region suggest the first human inhabitants of the continent likely crossed the Beringia land bridge from Asia and travelled south down the Pacific coast, by sea via the kelp highway, as opposed to arriving from the east of the Rockies as was long believed. Scientists are divided on whether this migration happened before or after the last glacial maximum ~19,000 years ago, but regardless of the timeline, leading hypotheses agree British Columbia’s Pacific coast is one of the longest inhabited regions in North America.

For millennia, before the disruption of European settlers in 1790, Vancouver Island was home to thriving complex cultures who lived in lock-step with the environment, not just using the resources for subsistence, but respecting and protecting the sources of this rich bounty. Most Indigenous peoples on the island identify with three language groups; Nuu-chah-culth, the Kwak’wala-speaking Kwakwaka’wakw and the Coastal Salish who speak several variations of the Salishan language. Indigenous knowledge is gradually gaining the long-overdue respect and recognition it deserves from non-Indigenous populations, thanks largely to the heightened awareness that the survival of the human race hinges upon more sustainable practices. An environmentally conscious way of life has permeated the fabric of island society more so than other regions of the province and is immediately evident when visiting.

This rich natural history and conservation forward mindset makes Vancouver Island one of the most interesting places to visit in the province. Our second Ride Island itinerary is for those who enjoy their pedalling as well as their descending, as we aim to provide folks with a more well-rounded experience of the Island’s trail offerings. This immersive riding experience provides a prime opportunity to take in the natural beauty of the region and cherish the stunning landscapes.


The Cowichan Valley is home to some incredibly diverse trail offerings. Our last itinerary explored the aggressive trail options on Prevost and Mt. Tzouhalem, while this time we’ll pay closer attention to the more “cross-country” or “all-mountain” trails on Mt. Tzouhalem and Maple Mountain. But first, coffee.

The Duncan Garage Cafe & Bakery is a regular stop of ours whether we’re fuelling up for a day of riding, grabbing a post ride coffee, or simply just driving through Duncan. The food is delicious homemade vegetarian and has plenty of options to suit all dietary restrictions and will leave you feeling better on your ride than a McMuffin or BigMac ever will. The coffee is local, hot and caffeinated. We usually stock up on breakfast and lunch here, as rest assured, you always end up doing an extra lap or two at Tzou, it’s too damn fun not to!

Mt. Tzouhalem’s relatively mellow grade makes it a prime destination for those who prefer their trails with a bit more undulation. For those who desire a more scenic approach than the main forest service road, we would suggest parking in the new lot off Nevilane Drive which allows you to take a more scenic route to the top via A Grand Traverse.

Since it’s impossible to go to Tzouhalem and not ride Double D, we will assume you ride that as your first lap. After that, we’d suggest checking out Rocky Mountain Ridge which combines technical rock roll sections with some equally technical punchy climbs into Danalyzer back down to the main parking lot before finishing with a lap of Show Time to M-One to Bumble Bee back to your vehicle.

Maple Mountain, a stone's throw away from Tzouhalem, is another exceptional trail network in the Cowichan Valley, having played co-host to the infamous BC Bike Race in both 2018 and 2019. Having never ridden Maple prior to this trip, we were impressed with the well built climbing trail Xylem which crossed through a few different ecosystems on its way to the top. This constant change of scenery, along with some intermittent technical features, helped keep the climb interesting. From here we would recommend Upper and Lower Maple Syrup then a slight climb back up to ride Phloem into Solar Coaster to finish.


After the 45-minute drive from Duncan to Nanaimo, you’re likely ready for your third coffee of the morning before hitting the trails. Regard, just north of the Departure Bay ferry terminal, has been our favourite coffee shop on the island since we first discovered it in 2016. The owner and roaster Andrew is often keen to chat beans, brewing techniques and all other things coffee and Regard offers beans for all coffee drinkers out there; from a rich, bold espresso to a wild and funky floral natural.

Doumont is currently the main sanctioned trail network in Nanaimo. That said, there are more solid trail offerings than a mere mortal can explore in a day and the Nanaimo Mountain Bike Club is working hard to continually update and improve the riding experience in Doumont.

Our top three Doumont pedal trails are Stairway to Hayden into Hayden, for a technical warmup climb into a low-angle, rooty descent. Monkeys In The Mist, which has recently received a face lift for some dark blue technical descents and finally Styx for a blue xc trail with rolling climbs followed by some pristine singletrack through electric green salal.

When travelling, we try to find food options that we don’t have in Whistler/Squamish. In Nanaimo we like Jalapeños Mexican Food for some classic, no-frills Mexican fare or Saigon Kitchen for a Vietnamese kick.

Gabriola Island

Gabriola Island is a short 20 minute ferry from downtown Nanaimo, and is a fun way to break up your riding trip with a mellower sight-seeing day by bike. The small, 58 square kilometre island is home to just over 4000 permanent residents, with the population ballooning to nearly 6000 in the summer as people flock to the area from Vancouver and Nanaimo to live a more laid back lifestyle.

The island has an interesting modern history that places deep-seated hippie culture against that of industrial development from the logging and quarry industry. More stories, old photos and interesting artwork can be found at the Gabriola Museum, a short ride from the ferry.

We spent the morning sipping coffee and perusing the museum, before setting off on a mellow cruise around the island. There are some trails in the centre of the island that offer an aimless pedal around as you get lost amongst the ferns. Be sure to pack some beers in your bag as both Cliffside and Winter Waterfall provide some lookouts with stunning vistas and an opportune place to take five.

After lapping the island several times, we gorged ourselves on pizza from Woodfire before catching one of the evening ferries back to Nanaimo.


Cumberland is fun on a long travel “enduro” bike, but the network really shines on a short travel whippet. It is a sign when most of the locals are absolutely shredding on 120mm trail bikes.

Don’t let their calm, cool and collected demeanour fool you, Jeremy from the Riding Fool and Martin from Island Mountain Rides will rip your legs off if you ask them to. We had an absolute riot chasing these two around the rat’s nest of the lower mountain trails in Cumberland. Over beers on the Riding Fool’s back patio, Dougal from UROC shared some of the organization’s plans for future trail development and his personal ethos of trail building and network planning. It’s an exciting time for UROC and Cumberland and we can’t wait to come back and check out their network again soon!

Our top three Cumberland trails for those looking for a xc/trail experience are: Missing link to Found Link, Rugburn to Scat to Brat and Two Flats to Bonestorm. These provide a great variety of riding from some fast singletrack to wide open blue flow and some big steep rock rolls!

Mount Washington

Unlike the ankle deep braking bumps of the Whistler Bike Park that will rattle your trail bike to bits, the Mt. Washington Bike Park is very trail bike friendly!

Mike Manara, Director of Sports & Guest Services at Mt. Washington has been actively working with the mountain staff and trail crew to expand their product offerings in an effort to support what the Island community is asking for. They take great pride in the growth of their kids rental fleet, which is now 50 bikes deep, signalling that more families are exploring the bike park. This was really evident last summer when we were there on Family Friday, where between 5:30p.m. and 7:30p.m. Kids passes were $5, Seniors $10 and Adults $15.

Our top three trail bike friendly laps in the bike park are: Call it In to Lower Helter Skelter, Highway 19 and Time Warp. These laps have a good mix of high-speed blue tech, some wide open berms and jumps in a range of sizes.

Manara revealed some of the trail crew plans to build out the mountain's trail network beyond the bike park. Currently it’s limited to Finger Trail, a very mellow xc loop of mixed double and single track that provide stunning views of Strathcona Provincial Park and two sub-alpine lakes. They have also published the GPS coordinates of a trail named Far West Enduro which appears to descend from the top of the resort to the farthest point on the Finger Trail. All good things for those who want to add some variety to their bike park experience.

Campbell River

Campbell River is unlike all the other riding destinations in this itinerary in the sense that it won’t just hand you a good time, you will need to work a bit harder to navigate and discover the fun trails they have to offer, but the effort is worth it for this unique experience.

There are kilometres of beautiful singletrack everywhere and it’s highly likely that you’ll have it all to yourself. In three days of riding, we only saw two other groups, which gave the rides a much more adventurous feel than anywhere else on the island. Shorter elevation profiles also mean you will need to work a little harder throughout the ride, to maintain momentum on the climbs and descents. If you’re looking for machine built blue flow, you won’t find it here.

There are two main trail networks in Campbell River; Radar Hill and the Snowden Demonstration Forest. Snowden, being the more extensive of the two is worth prioritizing for a day when your body is rested and your legs feel good, plus it’s a bit of a drive outside of town, so best to make the most of it while you’re out there.

Our top three trails in Snowden are: Pretzel Logic, Demon Seed and Vlad the Impaler to Cinnamon Girl to Three Pigs. Pretzel is coming off a fresh rebuild in 2019 that saw the steep eroded descent get a much needed re-route and tons of fresh dirt. Demon Seed has some fun technical climbing, scenic vistas on a few rock bluffs and short rock rolls before finishing with fast singletrack turns through salal that reminded us of riding in Oakridge, Oregon. Last but not least, Vlad to Cinnamon to Three Pigs combines tech rock with three of the best loamy turns on Vancouver Island with some high speed singletrack. These trails can all be ridden in one ride fairly easily and should guarantee a good time in the woods.

Radar Hill is a small network in close proximity to town that’s great for a quick morning or afternoon lap. Many of the trails originated as trials moto trails, so expect punchy climbs and steep descents. The network is tightly compact, so you’re never too far from the car and can sample a significant proportion of the trails in one ride.

Our favourite three trails on Radar Hill are Your Sister, A view to a Hill into AF Line and Punk Rock to Phone to Southside Deli to Rock me. Be sure to look before you leap on both the AF Line and Rock me features, as some are larger than you might expect!

Campbell River has some great options for food and drinks after a day of riding. We visited Beach Fire Brewing for an after ride pint or two. If pizza is your thing, head over to Session Taproom & Kitchen for some of their delicious pies.

This concludes our Ride Island Itinerary for those looking to explore some of the best singletrack British Columbia has to offer. If you’ve ridden some of these places and enjoyed your time, please consider donating to one of the local trail associations on the island who are working tirelessly to maintain and update their existing trails, while simultaneously expanding their trail networks with rad new offerings.