Words by Chris Istace, Canadian Travel Writer
Combine dense lush forest, a valley surrounded by beautiful mountains and the mildest weather in Canada, and you will get Cowichan. This backdrop provides the setting of one of the only regions in BC and in Canada that boasts year-round mountain bike riding.
With a warm climate and year-round riding amongst the many mountains of Cowichan, it is no wonder that it has become the go-to mountain bike playground for many on Vancouver Island. Boasting over 170 trails covering 180 km spanning five mountains as well as the 134 km long famous Cowichan Trail, your options are limitless.
Everyone can look forward to visiting the region and finding a trail or area that best suits their taste and riding style. With the dedication of the CVRD Parks department, Municipality of North Cowichan and Cowichan Trail Stewardship Society, riders will find world-class trails that are the result of a region and its people passionate about the sport.
The riding space has developed so well and the options are so world-class that the BC Bike Race has now featured Cowichan as Day 1 of its international multi-day stage race. Mt Tzouhalem and Maple Mountain have made their mark on the world stage in mountain biking as a destination both for tourists and racers alike.
Cowichan Valley Trail
Cowichan Valley Trail
Our first highlight is the 134 km Cowichan Valley Trail that navigates through the region, allowing those that like putting some distance on their wheels a great option. The Cowichan Trail is part of the national trail system known as the Great Trail. Riders on this trail are experiencing one of the largest trail systems in the world.
Winding through Shawnigan Lake to Lake Cowichan and then back to Duncan, riders will experience many historic wooden trestles along the way including the famous Kinsol Trestle. From Duncan, riders head to the Oceanside section of the route to Crofton, Chemainus and ending in Ladysmith. Use the trail to explore the valley or as a way to connect the many mountain trail rides in the region.
2018 and 2019 were big years for the Cowichan Trail as 2 major projects were completed. The first was connecting the greater Victoria area via the Malahat down into Cowichan. A bike packing or touring enthusiast could very easily now ride right from downtown Victoria, over the Malahat through Shawnigan and right into downtown Duncan.
The second project was the completion of the Cowichan Trail from Chemainus through to Stocking Creek Regional Park and finishing on the cycling pathway leading into Ladysmith. A wonderful section of trail running alongside the ocean offers opportunities to visit the murals of Chemainus, the waterfall at Stocking Creek and end with a coffee or treat in Ladysmith.
The southern location in our round-up of Cowichan riding destinations is Cobble Hill. Here riders can experience 26 km over 28 trails that are geared towards beginner and intermediate riders. Black Diamond riders aren’t left out as the Wolf Trail provides a fun challenge.
The unique feature found on Cobble Hill is the Cleasby Bike Park make it unique to the region. The bike park allows young new riders a fun safe environment to practice their bike skills. The mountain also offers washroom facilities and a bike wash station.
With its close proximity to the city of Duncan and nearby Maple Bay and Cowichan Bay, the forest of Mt Tzouhalem is the oldest and most developed riding area in the region. For over 25 years locals have been building trails and riding this diverse mountain. Many recent improvements have been completed with more to come under the management of the Municipality and efforts of the Cowichan Trail Stewardship Society.
Mt “Zoo,” as the locals like to call it, is a mountain bike heaven known for trails that range from techy singletrack, flowy fast downhill trails, jumps and technical features to carefully sculpted climbing traverse trails. The mountain also offers magnificent summit views overlooking Cowichan Bay from its craggy cliffs looking south across the valley and Gulf Island. The Cross is also a very popular riding objective when taking in the trails. Note: Bikes must be not ridden and only pushed to the eco-sensitive boundary put in place by the Nature Conservancy of Canada.
The Kaspa Road parking lot features washroom facilities and a bike wash as well as a bike repair station at the parking lot and on top of the mountain at Field of Dreams trailhead. New trail kiosks and wayfinding signage have started to be installed in 2019. Mt Tzouhalem has 59 sanctioned trails amounting to over 41 km of trail available for every riding style to explore.
My personal favourite route on the mountain is to ride up via A Grand Traverse to reach mid-mountain and then connecting through to Field of Dreams for a loop that brings me to the start of Double D for some fast, flowy fun. A quick pedal back up the mountain to Bumble Bee gives me a fast descent to the start of AGT where I started.
The bike trails on Maple Mountain are the result of passionate riders working with the local municipality to build a world-class riding destination. Story Trails, Xylem Climbing Trail and Maple Syrup have become the go-to place to ride to test your skills and stamina with a near 18 km full loop from top to bottom, challenging the most skilled of riders.
Boardwalks, bridges, mossy bluffs, totems, techy rocky terrain, flowing creeks and well-maintained trails await your visit. Ample parking with extremely easy highway access and washroom facilities are a few of the extras found on site. There are currently 29 trail segments spanning over 36 km with endless route options depending on skill, fitness and time available.
Over the past three years, endless upgrades have been completed on Maple Mountain. At the Osborne Bay Rd trailhead now offers an expanded parking lot, washroom, bike repair station and large informative trail kiosk and map. The entire mountain has had the navigational way-finding signage project completed to help riders find their way on the mountain.
Most recently, an exciting new flow trail has been built to meet the demand for an alternative loop on the mountain. A blue skill level downhill trail was needed to give riders an option from riding down the climb trail or riding the black diamond Maple Syrup. “Phloem” is over 2 km in length featuring a stunning route selection, expertly crafted cedar bridges and even some old growth trees along the way. Expect to see a trail grand opening to the public fall of 2019.
Learn a bit more about Maple Mountains history and the Cowichan Trail Stewardship Society’s efforts supported by North Cowichan that have put riding in Cowichan on the world stage.
FrontLines: Maple Mountain and the Cowichan Trail Stewards as well as the recent article in Town profile: Tapping into the flow in North Cowichan
When it comes to pushing the limits on a downhill mountain bike the riders from Vancouver Island to across Canada and beyond, all have heard of Mt Prevost. Riders aspire to experience this Freeride Mountain and the typical way to the top is via shuttle rides. With the growth of Enduro style riding, many are testing their stamina pedalling up the mountain. This is a good option as the forestry road gate is typically closed during fire risk of the hot summer months.
The downhill trails at the top offer several options from blue to double black professional level-only trails. Big jumps, wood ramps, gaps, drops and wood stunts are the order of the day. Many professional videos have been filmed here and it is often a destination of past world champions. It has become known as Steve’s Mountain in memory of the late great Canadian World Cup DH champion from Vancouver Island, Steve Smith.
This mountain is on public municipal forest reserve but the trails are unsanctioned. Therefore, ride with common sense and beware of the risk. There are 24 trails over 30 km with popular trails being Cleavage, 187, Mr T and Memphis.
Find Your Way Around Cowichan Bike Trails
For finding your way around the trails in Cowichan it is recommended to visit the Trailforks website or download the app for your mobile device for real-time navigation. Trailforks is a mountain bike trail database & management system for riders, builders & trail associations. Users can contribute data and then local trail associations have the control to approve and curate the data. This ensures the best, latest and accurate data.
Local Bike Services
Whether you need to rent a bike to experience the trails during your stay or need advice, parts or service for your own bike you can be sure to find professional shops in the region.
Additional images courtesy of Mark Law, local passionate MTB rider and photographer, he can be found at www.eighttenphotography.com