Tales From the Trail…
The Cowichan Valley Trail is truly a gem amongst the easily accessible trails on Vancouver Island. The trail, a portion of the Trans Canada Trail (TCT) network, runs from the south end of Shawnigan Lake to the TCT Western Terminus at Lake Cowichan and then follows Highway 18 back to Duncan following the former E&N railway grade.
The Cowichan Valley Trail was originally a railway serving Lake Cowichan and went as far north as Youbou and Kissinger, 31 km up the lake at its head. Constructed to haul lumber and logs, it was part of the Canadian National Railways 250 km rail network on Vancouver Island stretching from Victoria to Port Alberni. Decommissioned in 1983, the railway and the line were ripped out, paving the way for the multi-use Cowichan Valley Trail.
One of the big draws of the Cowichan Valley Trail is the Kinsol Trestle that spans the Koksilah River several kilometres north of Lake Cowichan. The trail was on my bucket list, so when one of my riding buddies suggested we tour it with our cyclocross bikes, I was all in. This was much to my wife’s chagrin, as she had wanted to go since the trestle restoration was completed in July 2011.
We decided to park in Duncan and ride out 15.5 km by road and bisect the trail just above the Kinsol Trestle. After visiting the trestle we would head northwest along the trail to Cowichan Lake and back by the upper trail section. As luck would have it, the morning was sunny and warm for mid-September. Armed with coffee from the local Starbucks, and with water and food on-board, we clipped into our pedals for the ride out of town.
Cowichan Valley Trail- Duncan to Kinsol Trestle
The bike riding in the Cowichan Valley is quite spectacular and is some of the very best I have encountered on the Island. The secondary roads away from the main highway are fairly quiet, winding through rural farmland ranging from vineyards to cattle operations and everything in between. We wound our way down Koksilah Road, onto Howie Road and then Mountain Road. The pavement turned to gravel on Mountain Road, but the surface was in decent shape. At kilometre fourteen, a steep hill lasting about 600m got our blood pumping and bodies primed. Over the top and down the other side to the trail junction just past Kinsol Road and we were ready for the main act.
The Cowichan Valley Trail is well marked and is signposted at all road intersections along with ample signage along the trail letting you know the distance to the next landmark. We covered the 3.5 km to the Trestle in no time flat as the trail is downhill from the Mountain Road Junction.
Downhill is a relative term here as the trail is rail grade, meaning it never gets steeper than about two percent, so it is easy to ride in either direction. A number of other users were on the trail including bike riders, walkers and joggers, and ample leftover evidence along the entire trail suggested frequent equestrian use.
Arriving at the trestle, we were greeted by a truly impressive structure rising 142 feet above the Koksilah River and spanning 187 metres (614 feet) across the gorge making it one of the largest wooden trestles in the world. Over half the original timber remains in the structure that was completed in 1920 by Canadian National Railways as a way to transport lumber and minerals to market. However, the last train crossed the trestle in 1979 and since then it had fallen into serious disrepair requiring either a full overhaul or a dismantling to prevent collapse into the river. The decision to repair the trestle was not only a boost for the local economy and a tourist draw, but meant the missing link in the Trans Canada Trail to Cowichan Lake was completed. Originally named the Koksilah Trestle, it later became known as the Kinsol Trestle after the nearby King Solomon mine — a copper-silver mine in operation from 1910 to 1914. If the trestle is your destination, plan to spend some time exploring the site. There are a number of forest trails here as well as picnic tables for enjoying a mid-day snack.
How to get to the Kinsol Trestle
Access is best from the south side via Shawnigan Lake if you are walking, as parking is only 1.2 km from the trestle. If you want more information on the trestle, stop by the Shawnigan Lake Museum for pictures, scale models, and restoration videos.
Heading northwest toward Lake Cowichan, the trail meets the Cowichan River at Glenora Park. This is a good spot to park if you want access to the Cowichan Valley Trail for just the lower section either down to Shawnigan Lake or up to Lake Cowichan. From Glenora, the trail follows the river until Lake Cowichan. Sections of this trail are not easily accessible by road, so if you are riding be prepared by taking spare tubes and tools for repairs. However remote it may seem, the trail is relatively smooth doubletrack for the majority of its length, leaving little reason to have any serious mechanical issues on these sections. Several sections of the lower leg are getting somewhat bumpy with larger exposed rocks protruding a few centimetres above the surface. We were clipping along at 20-30 kph, making it slightly harder to dodge rocks at that pace.
The Holt Creek Trestle just past the Glenora trailhead is also impressive as is 66 Mile Trestle, although they do not compare in sheer size to the Kinsol Trestle. When you arrive at Skutz Falls, take some time to explore the area. Washroom facilities and a picnic area are available as are trails along the river. As you move up the trail from Glenora to Lake Cowichan, a number of access points to the river are available. These well-worn paths will be obvious if you keep a lookout, and can be perfect spots for a swim during the summer, or a rest at rivers edge. After the last trestle—70.2 Mile Trestle—about 6 km remain to Lake Cowichan and the Trans Canada Trail Western Terminus. This section winds through agricultural land and a number of rural homes have backyards fronting the trail.
It is worth taking a few minutes to explore the town of Lake Cowichan and grab a coffee at one of the local coffee shops. If it is a Sunday as it was when I rode the trail, you will have fewer options as many businesses are closed on Sunday. We ended up getting coffee and pastries at Tim Hortons before the return along the upper section.
Cowichan Valley Trail- Cowichan Lake to Duncan
The upper section from Cowichan Lake to Duncan is in by far the best condition of the entire trail. As with the lower section, the grade never varies more than a few percent, but in the last few years, there have been major trail improvements. These include a well-graded, smooth surface of fine pea gravel making for a solid, well-packed riding surface. Our group of riders averaged 35 kph on this section and had no worries of loss of control at that speed. There are numerous road crossings, all of which are well marked to ensure you slow down before crossing. The first half of this section is a long gradual uphill followed by a long downhill into Duncan. This section or parts thereof would be perfect for smaller children on bikes or for towing a trailer with the bambino.
The trail runs through a mix of deciduous and coniferous forests as well as farmland and several rural subdivisions. The maples were clothed in their fall colours of red, yellow and gold, and in places, they created a tunnel-like effect with their canopies overlapping the trail.
We rolled into Duncan by mid afternoon after a thoroughly enjoyable day, ready for a round of refreshments and plotting for the next time we would return to do it all again.
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