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A secret island playground for off-road adventure bike riding lays off the west coast of British Columbia, and it’s loaded with 7,000 black bears.

Adventure motorcycle tour on northern vancouver island, a rider passes a cliff face and a remote lake.

I have a secret, one that only a few off-road adventure motorcycle riders and overland travelers know; Vancouver Island is a hidden playground of snow-capped mountains, alpine lakes, and secluded beaches, connected by thousands of miles of gravel and dirt roads.

Go ahead, ask the average off-road adventure bike riding BC resident about the riding opportunities on Vancouver Island, and you’ll receive a blank stare, or pointed towards the one highway (19) that runs north-south along the eastern side of the Island, from Victoria to Port Hardy in the north.

With comparatively few paved roads reaching the western side, the vast majority of Vancouver Island’s 700,000 people reside on its east; Victoria, Duncan, Parksville, Nanaimo, and Campbell River, are all easily accessible communities linked by highway 19. 

If you’re an off-road adventure bike rider like me, then you’re naturally inquisitive. I recall studying a map of Vancouver Island when I first arrived from England more than a decade ago and wondered about that single paved spine on its eastern side. Why is there only one highway? Why are all the towns on the east coast? What is over there on the west? My questions compelled me to explore it for myself, and before long, an adventure bike became my vehicle of choice.

The western side of Vancouver Island is sparsely populated and is home to more than 7,000 black bears, perfect terrain for off-road adventure bike riding
The western side of Vancouver Island is sparsely populated and is home to more than 7,000 black bears, perfect terrain for off-road adventure bike riding

The only way to access these small communities is by unpaved mountain roads

The western side of Vancouver Island has an entirely different feel. You’ll have to look very closely at a map to spot the towns and unincorporated fishing villages scattered along its coastline.

As an adventure rider, I don’t need very much from a destination; a functioning gas station, grocery store, and a campsite or a clean motel, that’s it, I have basic needs, yet some of these communities barely meet my meager standards.

No paved roads service many of these villages, their relative isolation allows their residents a different perspective, which in turn, provides you with a refreshing contrast and change of pace compared to the bustling metropolises of Vancouver and Victoria.

Guided off-road adventure bike rides, tours and rentals rentals in Vancouver Island and throughout British Columbia
Thousands of kilometers of coastline, much of it inaccessible by 4 wheels.

Off-road adventure bikes are the perfect tool to explore western Canada

Trust me. There is no better way to experience Western Canada’s remote communities and unending sub-tropical rain-forests than riding a bike. Much like a hiker, a biker is connected to the elements and their surroundings, intimately experiencing the area’s wildlife, weather and terrain as they travel. Yet, unlike hiking, it only takes six-days to explore a path through the twelve thousand square miles of Vancouver Island, on foot that’s more than fifty days! No thanks.

Big-bore adventure motorcycles, such as KTM’s 1090 Adventure R, BMW’s R1250GS and Honda’s Africa Twin, are ideally suited to tackling the tight forest trails, connected by vast distances of high-speed mountainous gravel riding that Vancouver Island offers.

During a typical six-day off-road circumnavigation of Vancouver Island, visiting all four corners of the rock, it’s entirely possible to traverse more than twelve hundred miles of off-road riding, connected by less than three hundred miles of paved mountain twisties and highway.

Guided off-road adventure bike rides, tours and rentals rentals in Vancouver Island and throughout British Columbia
The nearest village is down 200 kilometers of gravel roads and overgrown double track

Some unusual planning is needed to ride on Vancouver Island

Has it ever crossed your mind that you may need to call up some of the gas stations along your route before to ask if they have gas, before heading out on an off-road adventure bike ride? Of course not, who does that? But that’s what it takes to travel the remote parts of Vancouver Island. Some of these communities are so small they only receive gas supplies a few times each season, and once it’s gone, you’re out of luck.

In addition to the twenty-plus litres your adventure motorcycle holds, you should prepare for the unknown by carrying a backup fuel supply.

Even with the best preparation, we can still get caught out by entirely unpredictable gas station closures. I’ve had to walk door-to-door to trying to buy gasoline from homeowners to reach our next destination.

Sometimes it’s our fault. A mechanical breakdown means you’ll roll into a small village after the gas station has legitimately closed. Yeah, they aren’t open 24/7. Other times gas isn’t available because the owner has a doctor’s appointment, or they’ve run out of gas three weeks early, or the attendant isn’t there because he also works at the hotel. You’ll see a phone number posted on the gas station window prompting you to call for service. If you’re lucky, five minutes later, a gnarly old bearded guy will drive up to dispense gas, but sometimes the wait is far longer, and it’s quicker to flag down a resident with an access card to open the pump.

You know, as well as I do, that it’s an adventure ride and these challenges are part of what makes it fun, The breakdowns, the six punctures you had, the bog you became stuck in, or the time you had to siphon gas from one bike to another. Those are the events that form the bones of a great story to tell your friends back home.

Sights that are right out of a wildlife documentary

On one section of the Island, more than 100kms of twisty gravel roads wind their way through the mountains and terminate at a bridge spanning a major salmon spawning river. Here, hundreds of Chinook, Chum, and Coho salmon, nearing the end of their arduous migration from the Pacific ocean, are often spotted huddling in schools scattered around the relatively calm pools far below. You can see them hovering almost motionless in the water, biding their time before attempting another instinct-driven run at the rapids that block their return to the nursery streams further upstream.

The last time I was there, the salmon were fortunate. The bears weren’t waiting to catch them in mid-air as they leaped the rapids. With Vancouver Island being home to Canada’s densest population of black bears, estimated to be more than 7,000, it’s a common sight to see during September and October.

We stopped to let a large bull elk lead his small harem across a gravel trail on northern Vancouver Island, British Columbia

 

We stopped to let a large bull elk lead his small harem across a gravel trail on northern Vancouver Island, British Columbia

After our pause to take in the incredible wildlife documentary playing out below us, we headed over the bridge, reaching our destination for the night, a small logging village of fewer than 200 people, containing just one motel, and a combined grocery store and gas station.

The next morning we fueled up the motorcycles before riding a brief section of twisty asphalt terminating at an incredible 440 square mile peninsula on the west coast of Vancouver Island. This headland is one of our favorite areas to ride an adventure bike. It contains a handful of the most remarkably weathered and secluded beaches on Canada’s west coast, and being an unpopulated wilderness with no paved roads, is the home of hundreds of black bears, elk, cougar, bald eagles and deer. It’s a magical place full of wildlife, beach riding, steep climbs and switchback gravel roads.

Depending on the pace of the group, we’ll set up camp on a deserted beach overlooking the Pacific Ocean, or we’ll loop out of the peninsula, heading north to a fishing town and a relaxing stay at an ocean-side hotel.

A deserted rocky beach off the northern coast of Vancouver Island, accessible only by adventure motorcycles

 

The wild west coast of Vancouver Island really does feel like the edge of the World. Remote desolate beaches 99% of locals don’t even know exist!

Adventure motorcycle riding has inherent risk to consider

Off-road adventure bike riding is grin-inducing and hugely rewarding, but a reason you may not feel comfortable exploring the wilderness on your adventure motorcycle is safety. Your bike is capable of covering vast distances, taking you to remote destinations most 4x4s aren’t able to reach, but this exposes you to some risk.

Large adventure motorcycles can be tricky to handle when riding slowly, and you’ll inevitably drop it. An injury when you’re hundreds of miles away from the nearest bar of cell reception can become a huge problem.

Exploring in groups of experienced adventure riders or riding with a guide can mitigate much of this risk. Drop your bike, and you won’t have to pick it up on your own. Take a tumble and injure yourself, and you’ll have a partner able to ride out and get help. Or ride with an experienced adventure motorcycle guide who will help you avoid the less obvious hazards before they become a problem. A guide should also carry emergency equipment such as a comprehensive first-aid kit with the training to use it, and the ability to communicate with a support vehicle via satellite, in case of catastrophic mechanical issues

An inevitable misstep, and it's easy to lay your big adventure motorcycle down, lucky there are friends to help pick you back up.

 

An inevitable misstep, and it’s easy to lay your big adventure motorcycle down, lucky there are friends to help pick you back up.

Vancouver Island is one of Canada’s most exceptional locations for off-road adventure bike riding, and the best part is, outside of the Island, it’s mostly unknown. If you want an adventure full of great riding, surrounded by wildlife, and the chance to explore sparsely populated, remote areas of wilderness, then you’d struggle to find a better destination than this giant rock off the west coast of British Columbia.

I’d love to hear your favourite places to ride an adventure bike? You know, the kind of rides ideally suited to big bikes, with big miles, big trails and big fun?

Do you have any special preparation you have to take before setting out on an adventure ride that is unique to your part of the world?

16 Comments

  1. robert Schmaltz

    cool idea. now I know my next adventure ride will be there. best part I live right down the road in portland. aloha

  2. Chris

    I live on the rock.
    Do you have a gps treacle of the route you took?
    I’d love to retrace your steps next summer.

    • Neil Edwards

      As James said, ‘gravel travel’ is a great source to get started with, one that connects the Island’s obvious gravel arteries. However, I’ve found it to be fairly out-dated, especially with bridge and trail closures, and it skips past much of the fun alternate routes and completely misses vast areas of the Island’s northern beauty.

      • D Williams

        The route gets updated every year, you likely do not have the most up to date GPS information on the Island section of the TCAT.. The Bridge that was taken out on the White river some years back made for a complete route change in that same year, some people that did not have the up to date file complained when they could not get through.. This year there was 500 KM of route added, but the only the GPS file has been updated to reflect that the route write up will be edited to add the new info soon..

  3. Graham

    Right on our back door!

  4. Brad Burns

    Excellent article and definitely one of my “must do” rides. Our GSA’s are currently out in Vegas in storage awaiting a continuation of our two-year Know Idea Ride we started in October of 2018. We are going to hang around the California/Mexica area for the cold months before heading up this way. Thanks for letting us know about this hidden gem and I hope more Adventure Bike Riders are up for this type of ride!!! Safe Riding Everyone…..

  5. Jim Streicher

    Excellent push for a destination I’ve been eyeing for awhile. My daughter and I will be coming from Boise next summer. We’re stoked!

  6. James Kirby

    There goes the neighborhood. Just kidding welcome to the playground folks. Do your research as it’s real out here. See you where the HETT Trucks run.

  7. Yarko

    Great article! I recently bought an F650GS, and while I’m on the mainland, a tour of the island sounds right up my alley.

  8. Blue Marble Rider

    Great article, Neil. Fellow Englishman who has been doing the same for years. My only caveat would be that if you really want to see some of the more exquisite hideaways – gnarly single track included – then a smaller more dirt orientated bike is required – with the requisite extra gas too.

    • Neil Edwards

      I agree a smaller bike like your Husaberg does make the tighter trails easier to traverse, but our 6-day rides cover anywhere between 1,400 and 2,000 kilometres, so fatigue sets in faster on a small bike. Not sure if you’ve ever ridden one, but our big KTM 1090 Adventure Rs are very nimble in anything but the tightest of trails, and quite comfortable on the asphalt and long stretches of gravel when we also have to carry camping gear.

      Much like you and your Husaberg, if I’m heading out for a fun blast in the local dirt I’ll take a Husqvarna FE350, but when circumnavigating the Island, the big KTM wins.

  9. Terry Flamond

    Fantastic article and great inspiration. I rode half of the Island 2 seasons ago, it was incredible but unfortunately time constraints cut my tour short. I am planning a return trip in 2020 to continue my exploration and can’t wait to get back.
    BTW, those going should pack decent rain gear, I was sure happier I did!

  10. Ken Minnion

    Great sampling of our “secret garden”. I live in the middle of our Island” with an ocean & mountain view. Spectacular place to live & ride a Dual Sport. Good comment about having enough fuel, food should be treated the same. We always bring lunch with us to picnic at a lakeside. Looking forward to follow-up articles

    https://fishnbiker.smugmug.com/Motorcycle-Travel/Day-Rides-Vancouver-Island/

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