Explore southwestern Vancouver Island via the Pacific Marine Circle Route
If you’re the kind of traveller who doesn’t like to retrace your steps, B.C.’s network of circle routes is for you. Whether you have a day or several weeks at your disposal, eight scenic byways spiral either north from Vancouver to the Yukon Territory or east from Vancouver Island to Alberta.
The most recent addition, the 255-kilometre Pacific Marine Circle Route, invites explorers to traverse the coastlines of southwestern Vancouver Island and the mountainous spine between them. Along the way, it passes through Duncan, Lake Cowichan, Port Renfrew, Sooke, and Victoria. At the time of the Pacific Marine’s inauguration, in 2005, Lake Cowichan’s then-mayor Jack Peake, one of the route’s most ardent proponents, was quoted as saying: “Today is Christmas for me. This is the day, folks. I want to see some of those tour buses coming in here. There is no way of defining how valuable this is for the community.”
Four years later, with the blacktopping of a formerly rough stretch of logging road between Lake Cowichan and Port Renfrew, the route really came into its own. No longer were drivers faced with a jarring jaunt across a narrow, pothole-dimpled backroad.
When the Georgia Straight contacted Lake Cowichan’s current mayor, Ross Forrest, he confirmed that the circle route was, indeed, having the desired impact on his town. “We’re starting to see the effects. Last summer, our info centre had 20,000 people pass through its doors. Forty percent of visitors were asking for details on the route. The road seems particularly popular with motorcyclists. It’s twisty, so I guess that appeals to them. I know when our family entertains visitors, it’s a treat to take them to see the big tree at Harris Creek to give them an idea of what’s there—or at least what was there before the logging. It’s also becoming a hot spot with geocaching groups.”
When asked to describe his community, Forrest—who was born and raised in Lake Cowichan, where he has resided for 55 years—said, “In one word: beautiful. Our clean lake and river resources are second to none. The town doesn’t have the economy like it had decades ago, when we were a forestry centre and everyone made pretty good money. Since local mills at places like Youbou have shut down, we’ve transitioned to tourism or as a bedroom community for Duncan and even Victoria.”
Farther west, Port Renfrew Resorts owner Perry Heatherington said by phone that the opening of the Pacific Marine Circle Route had produced “quite drastic changes” for the village best known as the southern terminus of the West Coast Trail. “We have motorcycle groups of 60 to 100 riders showing up, plus lots of day trippers from Nanaimo and Duncan. We never saw this before. The route is wide open for them. Before they paved the road, you had to really want to be here. Now if you want to come for lunch, you can.”
An hour west of Victoria in Sooke, an oceanside community currently undergoing rapid changes, Lorien Arnold, owner of Sooke Mountain Cycle, told the Straight that having the circle route has produced some unexpected results. “It’s a little bit of a weird thing. The recreational route draws folks of all shades of adventure. Not only are people visiting the beaches, they’re also going out into the rain forest, finding big trees and trying to protect them. One example is the large Douglas fir in Avatar Grove beside the road just north of Port Renfrew. I was just out there with my young daughter. It’s an amazing thing to witness. Surf and rain forest together are becoming a big deal. I was at Sombrio Beach two days ago and there were a hundred wave riders. The locals aren’t stoked, but you can’t keep a secret forever.”
When Arnold bought Sooke Cycle and Surf seven years ago, he dropped the shop’s long-time involvement with board sports to concentrate on serving the burgeoning mountain-bike community. “With surfing going so big, I guess I’ll have to get back into it.”
Long before Tofino became identified as B.C.’s big-wave hot spot, beaches along Highway 14 between Port Renfrew and Sooke—such as Sombrio, Mystic, China, Jordan River, and French—lured a nascent group of board aficionados. When winter storms kicked up swells, members of the Jordan River Surf Club gathered to test their mettle in bone-rattling conditions. In the 1980s, the tightly knit clique evolved into the West Coast Surfing Association. Today, the club’s funky wooden sauna still stands, padlocked, on a point of land overlooking the broad beach.
When the Straight stopped by in January, a friendly attendant manned the beach’s now-gated entrance. For a modest admittance fee, visitors can park, enjoy the view across Juan de Fuca Strait to Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula, or even head out into the swells if so inclined. On this day, a stiff breeze confined surfers to shore but hardly deterred their windsurfing compatriots from skimming along. Among the many sights on offer along the circle route, this iconic West Coast image still presents the most compelling reason to journey here.
ACCESS: For details on the Pacific Marine Circle Route, visit www.th.gov.bc.ca/circle_routes/pacific_marine.htm. For tourist information on the route, including accommodation and dining, visit www.vancouverisland.travel and hellobc.com.