After 6 months with my new Brodie Argus touring bike and only a couple trips out of the city it was time to take it on a real test: Bike up the sunshine coast, cross over to the island at Powell River, and ride down to Nanaimo and back home. My first solo multi-day bike trip!
I chose to do the Sunshine Coast loop over a loop of the southern end of Vancouver Island mainly because as it’s my first real attempt at bike touring I’d rather stay a bit closer to civilization. I picked out three camping targets at Smuggler Cove provincial park, Powell River and Parksville but didn’t make reservations anywhere.
- 2014 Brodie Argus. All components stock except Brooks saddle and Evo Fyxation platform pedals.
- Drake 0° sleeping bag (MEC)
- Tarn 2 tent (MEC)
- MEC Reactor sleeping pad
- Primus Classic Trail LPG camp stove and fuel
- Camping cook set
- MEC roll-top panniers
- Rain jacket, rain pants and waterproof mitts
- Running shoes for riding, sandals for camp
- Bike bag attached to my top tube containing wallet, phone, keys
- Long underwear
- Basketball shorts
- T-shirts (x2 synthetic for riding, x2 cotton for camp)
- Socks (x3 athletic, x1 wool) and underwear
- Adventure Medical Ultralight .7 first aid kit
- Dorky bike jacket
Day 1: Vancouver to Smuggler Cove
I left on the Friday before the long weekend hoping to beat the traffic since there’s essentially only one road up the Sunshine Coast. I’ve done the ride out to Horseshoe bay several times, once with a loaded bike, but left myself plenty of time to catch the ferry at 11:30 just in case. Leaving Vancouver was a breeze thanks to the bike routes through downtown, though I definitely got some looks from commuters thanks to my loaded bike.
I spontaneously decided to take the Upper Levels Highway to the ferry instead of Marine Drive, and immediately regretted it as I tried to make my way up Taylor Way, my first time doing it with a loaded bike. A good challenge to start the trip, and probably only the 3rd toughest climb of the day. Once on the highway the riding was pretty smooth and there’s a wide shoulder the whole way. I was passed by a couple road cyclists and a couple tourists who I ended up chatting with at the ferry terminal. I felt better about them passing me once I found out they were staying in hostels on their trip so weren’t carrying food and camping gear. Vancouver to Horseshoe Bay: 1h 25m
I’d heard many bad things about the hill leading out of Gibsons, but I couldn’t find anything to say whether there’s a smarter way up to the highway than going through town. As I passed the turnoff to North Rd I decided to keep going — that hill looked bad enough, might as well go through town. School Rd is indeed as steep as advertised, so I took Gibsons Way up the hill. This turned out to be challenging, which was better than School Rd’s likely impossible.
The highway toward Sechelt is fairly uneventful. The ferry traffic was passed by the time I made it to the highway and there were few other cars on the road, and those that were were fairly respectful. I booked it up to Sechelt and stopped at the information centre to get some advice on where to camp. The women there were very friendly and helpful! The said my idea of camping at Smuggler Cove was good, but that I should make sure to take extra water. I was a little sceptical since I carry water purification tablets, but took their advice and bought an extra bottle of water anyways.
I stayed on the main highway from Sechelt to Halfmoon bay, which turned out to be a mistake. There is a large hill, almost 150 m in elevation, which is apparently avoidable if you take the turnoff on Redroofs Rd.
Smugglers Cove is a great place to camp. A little off the highway, but well worth it to get some nature. There’s about a 20 minute walk from the main road to the campsite, some of which is bikeable but I decided not to risk it. Sechelt to Smugglers Cove: 1h 15m bike + 20m walk
It’s well worth taking the time to walk around the cove, the views are great and it feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere. There was only one other person camping there, a fellow cyclist. There’s really no drinkable water at all (a beaver has dammed the river so the water is gross) so bring in lots.
Day 2: Smuggler Cove to Powell River
I was a little worried about how long it would take to get to the next ferry at Earl’s Cove so I woke up early, had a quick breakfast of scrambled eggs and tea, and broke camp around 7:30am. The highway stayed hilly for the next little while and I was happy to stop at a roadside coffee shop outside Madeira Park for a coffee and some cookies around 9:30.
The rest of the highway was easy going until some pretty tough hills the last 5km or so. For the only time this trip I pulled over on a hill to let traffic get around me safely. I ended up getting to the ferry around 10:45, way earlier than I expected. I probably had time to detour to Skookumchuck, and I regret not going. All trip I kept thinking things would take more time than they did.
Smuggler Cove to Earls Cove: 2 hours riding, plus breaks
I met a friendly fellow on the ferry to Saltery Bay who was racing up to Powell River to see his family. Very friendly, but also quite a bit faster than me on his bike. I was lucky because we warned me about the big hill going up from Saltery Bay — probably the biggest hill of the trip. Well warned I took it nice and slow and felt pretty good at the top. Our best guess was that it was nearly 200m in elevation gain over less than 2 km.
After the hill my new friend took off ahead of me, but I made good time on my own. I stopped at a deserted fish hatchery which looked like a great spot to stealth camp during the off-season, with a river, grass fields and picnic tables set back from the road. Less welcoming was the guy camped beside an RV at the side of the highway with a sign that said “Danger Cove”, sitting on a couch facing a firepit. I didn’t stop.
Saltery Bay to Powell River: 2 hours riding, plus breaks
I camped at Willingdon Beach Campground, which was pretty nice considering it’s also an RV park. They apparently had more secluded tent sites up a hill, but I was done with hills for the day so I took a more central campsite which was fine. Hannah, who had been at my campsite the previous night, was here also so we went and grabbed dinner in town at the Coastal Cookery. Tasty food, great local beer and a phenomenal view, highly recommended.
Day 3: Powell River to Vancouver
I was planning on camping in Parksville Sunday night but I figured if things went well I might push through back to Vancouver. I caught the ferry to Comox at 8:20am and was on the road on the island by 10. It took a while to get out of Courtney and onto the highway, but once on the old island highway it was a dream. The road was straight and flat more miles, and I made the 50 km to Qualicum Bay in about 2.5 hours. By the time I got to Qualicum Beach I was feeling great and decided to push on to Nanaimo.
The road along this stretch of the island was wonderfully flat and empty, but without many other cyclists. I only met one other tourist who was just starting a long trip down the pacific coast down to San Diego. We had a nice chat and he appreciated drafting me for a while.
By Parksville I’d made up my mind to keep going, and of course at that point the road got much harder. The old highway merged with the freeway, and the big hills suddenly reappeared. The next couple hours were probably the toughest of the trip, with a couple big 100m climbs and lots of traffic. The shoulder was decent though so it’s not a particularly scary ride.
I took a nice long break at a rest stop outside Nanoose Bay around 3pm and got ready for the push into Nanaimo. There’s a bike trail along a rail line through Nanaimo that would have been good to take but since I’m bad at planning I didn’t find it until the last km or so. As it was, I followed arterials through Nanaimo to the ferry and it kind of sucked.
The last push towards home was amazing. I was exhausted, but I’d done the ride from Horseshoe Bay along Marine Drive enough times to know what I was in for. I hit the Lions Gate bridge just before sunset, passed through downtown looking like a weirdo with all my camping gear among all the people heading out for Saturday night, and crossed the Burrard Bridge just as the sun was going down. I had the foresight to pick up a six pack before getting home since I knew once I hit the couch I wouldn’t be getting up again, and I was home a bit after 9:30. What a great trip.