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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?