Cowichan/Southern Vancouver Island, BC; not just another logging town, but your next mountain biking destination
West of Vancouver is Vancouver Island. Islanders enjoy being separated by Georgia Straight from the rest of the continent with the water passable only by BC Ferries. This has guaranteed that even the densest population Island centres of the South Island are not heavily populated. It also has resulted in a sense of strong community; the majority of people who live on the Island are passionate about it. The mountain bike community is no different.
We visited the Cowichan area on this trip. This area has Duncan as its hub and contains many smaller communities such as Maple Bay, Cowichan Bay, Cobble Hill, Chemainus, Ladysmith and extends all the way to the west coast to Nitinat Lake and the West Coast trail. Even ten years ago, the Cowichan had a decidedly industrial flavour and was more well known for malls and gas stations along the Island Highway. It’s now not just a bedroom community for the entire South Island and Victoria area; the relatively good weather, low rainfall (rainfall stats for the Cowichan area put it among the lowest rainfall totals of BC); its also a destination in its own right – attracting locavores, wine-addicts (over 10 vinyards in the area), retirees, people who crave good weather and lots of tourists.
Sharon Bader, Robin Kenyon of the CTSS and former pro downhiller Brant Lyon out to celebrate new trails. Lots of industry (3 bike shops had tents out) out to support the new trails
Maple Syrup is in great shape
Among those tourists are roadies and increasingly, mountainbikers. Trails have been built and ridden in the Cowichan area for well over 20 years. As in the majority of the province, there was no sanctioning mechanism for these trails so pioneers like Dan Berard, Trevor Prest, Robin Kenyon (and many others whose names are unknown to us) built trails for the enjoyment of all with nary a care. This has now changed with the creation of the Cowichan Trail Stewardship Society (CTSS) in early 2013 and the signing of a license of occupation with the Municipality of North Cowichan, which formally endorses the 9km long Maple Syrup and Solar Coaster trails on Maple Mountain (resolution is here). The CTSS can now boast of having sanctioned Maple Syrup on Maple Mountain.
Why bother you ask? People have been riding these trails for years without any problems. In order for the sport to grow it needs legitimate trails. Locals such as Robin Kenyon, Jane Kaiser along with the persuasion from Riley Mcintosh , who has been involved with many aspects of mountain biking, saw the potential of this area as a mountain biking destination. Together they are convinced that its time to start thinking bigger and build a legacy that will endure; something that will not just grow a local community but perhaps that will also attract visitors. Through the CTSS, the locals see that legitimate trails accessible to all levels of riders, trail maps and signage will go a long way to create a kickass destination in the Cowichan Valley.
Maple Syrup was originally built by Trevor Prest who is now now busy molding young minds as a teacher in the Duncan area and raising a family. It says a lot about how good he was at routing trails that the top part of the trail is still in great shape. It also says a lot about his skill level that its a challenging trail even with modern bikes
Riley McIntosh and a cadre of CTSS trailbuilders who put in thousands of hours of work into work on Maple Syrup (Trevor Prest’s gnar line from the top was largely preserved) and re-routing the bottom half while adding some new school berms and flair in some part to mitigate private landowner issues. Here’s Riley doing his first repair work on the trail fixing a berm highsided by a previous rider
Maple Syrup and Maple Mountain
The first trail chosen to create this legitimacy, engage the Land Managers and other users was Maple Syrup on Maple Mountain. The bottom section ran through private land necessitating the need for a reroute. The CTSS crew went in, assessed, rerouted and rebuilt the bottom section of this 9km trail using about 2000 hours of volunteer labour.
On Oct 26, 2013 a grand opening day was held on the trail. 60 hikers and 140 mountain bikers hiked and biked the trail. The CAO of the Municipality (Dave Devana) also participated along with one of the Councilors (John Koury) to show their support for the projects. All land managers should be this progressive – such a good model for others to follow. The three local bike shops – Cycle Therapy, Experience Cycles and Cowichan Cycles - were also there with demo bikes along with other industry reps from all over Vancouver Island.
Some of the woodwork on Lower Maple Syrup
Why is the Cowichan, Duncan BC area worth a visit by bikers? It is unique in its proximity to the ocean and the mellowness of its weather; which lends itself to a long riding season. The mountains where the trails are built are round and relatively low (Maple Mountain, Tzouhalem, Prevost, Sicker, Brenton all rise a mere 500 or so meters above sea level) . The terrain has some unique rock features and dirt composition similar to the coast. BUT it sees a fraction of the rain normally falling on the west coast of the Sea to Sky area or Vancouver Island. It also sees very little snow creating a year round riding destination. Sure there is more rain in the winter, but very little snow and not as much rainfall.
To this good weather, add some pretty special bio-geo-climatic features like red-barked arbutus trees, HUGE stands of Garry Oak, sword ferns so green they defy photoshop saturation, moss so thick the beds deform under footstep, pine needle carpets and thick loam. Add a community that actually supports bike trails and hasn’t made an effort to put golf courses or condo tracts through perfectly good green space; then mix in lots of amenities like good food & accommodations. Suddenly the Cowichan looks like a good place to ride bikes to people from Victoria, the Lower Mainland or from other places.
Bottom line is that the Cowichan Valley needs to be on your list of places to ride.
Check out this really good promotional video of the area:
There are three main mountains plus smaller areas in the Cowichan Valley with trails. Mt. Prevost, Mt. Tzouhalem, Mt Sicker and Maple Mountain (Mt Richards is a tiny bump) all of which have trails in various states of repair. Duncan is the biggest town in the North Cowichan, 50km south of Nanaimo on Hwy1. If you are to stay there, the coastal communities of Maple Bay or Cowichan Bay have a bit more of touristic ambience.
Why we were here
We were here to check out Maple Syrup’s Grand Opening (Old Map of Maple Mountain). It looks like just the first step for the CTSS, as a member of IMBA, in beginning its journey to legitimize trails in the Cowichan, to galvanize local support and to create a world class mountain bike destination in the Cowichan Valley.
Bikers wait for the hikers to go first.
Local Fireman drops in
Lee rockin’ the Maple
Nice dirt on the old school top section
With some cool mossy rock
Then you get to the Riley inspired New School section
Good use of terrain!
This 9km trail will challenge all riders. Go fast go slow, its a great ride.
Maple Syrup Map on Everytrail.
Maple Syrup Elevation Profile – now that’s bang for your buck!
Other trails in the Cowichan
There are a whack load of trails in the area including the Cobble Hill area in the video below. Downhillers tend to look for a gravity fix on Prevost. Some of these trails are signed and shown in the Mountain Bike Vancouver Island (4th edition) guidebook.
We also had a chance to ride Big Dog aka Mad Dog on Tzouhalem. Look here for a map of Tzouhalem or check the guidebook mentioned above. The network of trails here is vast and convoluted. There are maps, but good luck figuring out a good loop without a local to tow you around. Big Dog is a pretty fantastic 525m descent on rock, moss and roots from Tzouhalem to Genoa Bay. It’s got some eye-popping scenery. Bring good brakes, some decent tight turning nose-pivot skills and commitment.
Top of Tzouhalem looking towards Cowichan Bay
Technical old school trail, or a hiking trail.
Rambling through the Garry Oak
Cowichan Bay views
Chilling at the viewpoint overlooking Genoa Bay
Arbutus, Garry Oak, moss and ocean
Big Dog/Mad Dog off Tzouhalem
Elevation from Tzouhalem parking lot
From most places in North America you travel to Nanaimo from Horsehoe Bay on BC Ferries. From Victoria you drive N over the Malahat.
Catching the 3:00 ferry on a Friday – Reservations are recommended.
We then drove the hour to Maple Bay to check into our B&B Funky Frog and to meet our hosts Veronica and Dave. The Funky Frog has been in business for one year, can sleep up to 15 people; two bedrooms have ensuites and a private seating area.
Dave and Veronica
Hot Tub, Common area, one of the bedrooms.
On our first night we had dinner at the Terrain Garden in the Oceanfront Suites at Cowichan Bay. Fantastic views and wonderful food define this restaurant. The cool folksy localness of its location entices you to wander around and explore the wharves and water to work off food after you’re done
We also found some other things worth checking out in Cowichan Bay.
Hilary’s Cheese - having a variety of cheese including some they make.
True Grain Bakery – for the gluten intolerant and for those who just like good bread and baked goods
At the end of our ride of Big Dog/Mad Dog we had some amazing food at the Genoa Bay Cafe. Another waterfront gem.
On Saturday we had dinner at the Shipyard – a decent pub in Maple Bay also on the water.
Other things to do
Tourism Cowichan has a pretty cool list of things to do in the area. Since we are tourists we figured we might as well go all out and tour. We spent Sunday afternoon hecking out the Chemainus Murals. The town has done a fantastic job with downtown improvements. Chemainus has a population of about 4500 people but attracts 300,000 or so visitors a year. In 1983 a mill closure imperilled the town’s economy. The community rallied and put a big arts and culture project into place improving and beautifying the downtown.
The resulting murals and improvements endured. When the mill came back online the diversified economy contributed further to Chemainus’s prosperity. The results are a wonderful place to visit and spend an afternoon