Island of 1,000 Smiles: Cortes, Quadra, and Back
Last fall, Miles set off on a last-minute overnighter between three islands off the coast of British Columbia. With nothing more than ferry schedules as his guide, he savored the trip’s slow pace and took time to engage with friendly locals. Find photos, route details, and a reflection from his ride here…
Vancouver Island and British Columbia’s coastal mountains receive a lot of justified praise from outdoor enthusiasts, but the coast is also home to thousands of equally captivating islands. I can actually see several of them out my kitchen window, but for one reason or another, a trip to them has always evaded me. I’ve been talking about exploring more of them by bike for several years now, and last fall, it was finally time to make it happen. My original plan was to rally up a group of friends and ride bikes across Cortes and Quadra Island, but with no set date and cool fall weather approaching, I decided to take advantage of a warm weekend a few months back and ride the loop solo. While not overly ambitious, this would be my first time on Cortes Island, which can be accessed via a 25-minute boat ride from Lund, just north of Powell River. Before long, I had arranged a boat ride from Powell River to Squirrel Cove, packed my tiny bike with camping gear, and was on my way past the Copeland Islands, Desolation Sound, and my drop-off point on the east side of Cortes Island.
The island itself is just 25 kilometers long and 13 kilometers wide, with the majority of roads and trails found on the lower two-thirds. There are a few small communities, as well as some shops and resorts, and it’s primarily accessed via ferry from Vancouver Island, with a connection across Quadra Island. For those coming from the Sunshine Coast, there are various private charter options to get to Cortes, setting riders up for an interesting little weekend loop. While most of Cortes is paved, there are a number of interesting side trails and spurs worth exploring, and Quadra is home to some of the best singletrack I’ve ridden on the coast, which provides many great options. Equipped with 20″ wheels, a front basket, and zero expectations, I set off feeling happy just to be outside.
Unlike the majority of my bikepacking trips, I followed a primarily paved route. It was a nice change of pace, and not having to be on the constant lookout for roots, rocks, and other trail hazards was relaxing. I took this opportunity to cruise around to the south end of Cortes Island instead of cutting straight across on Whaletown Road. My first side trip was down a trail to Hank’s Beach, a beautiful spot with impressive views of Bliss Landing, Desolation Sound, and the expansive range of coastal mountains. It felt amazing to soak up the warm fall sun for a few minutes by myself.
Although I was happy to ride pavement, it was both fun and easy to jump onto nearby trails to change things up. I knew there were some trails around but wasn’t sure what sort of condition they’d be in. I was pleasantly surprised by the abundance and quality of the various paths and side roads I ventured down. These little detours were some of the most beautiful sections of my trip, not planned at all, and I only experienced a fraction of what was available to ride. A sure sign that I’ll be back soon.
The first and most obvious camp spot on my loop was Smelt Bay Provincial Park, on the south end of Cortes. I was making good time, so I continued north along the west side of the island toward Whaletown Bay and the ferry to Quadra. I was originally planning on checking out the trails northeast of the ferry, by Carrington Bay/Lagoon, but I had already bounced my way down enough trails for one day and decided to catch the next ferry instead. BC Ferries has crossings every two or three hours and it normally costs a small fee for a walk-on and a bike, but because I was technically a return passenger on my back to Quadra, I didn’t have to pay for the sailing.
After docking at Heriot Bay on Quadra Island, I stopped off at the grocery store to grab some food for dinner and took the road down to We Wai Kai Campsite. I had visited Rebecca Spit Provincial Park before, but on foot, so I took the opportunity to ride the trails before settling in at camp. I managed to snag a spot overlooking Drew Harbour, right on the water. The campground was relatively quiet, and I took the opportunity to crawl into my tent and listen to a few podcasts before drifting off to sleep.
As per usual, I woke up craving a cafe and beelined it from the campground to Quathiaski Cove and Cafe Aroma. Unfortunately, the cafe was closed for thanksgiving weekend, so I hung out at the ferry terminal for an hour in the morning sun before catching the boat to Vancouver Island.
My route between Campbell River and Comox primarily followed the Tree to Sea Loop. I’m particularly proud of this section as the southern stretch does a good job at staying off the South Island Highway and on side roads and sneaky paths that make for an interesting beginning and end of the full Tree to Sea Loop. From Oyster Bay, the route links Miracle Beach Provincial Park, Kitty Coleman Provincial Park, and several smaller parks together, following a nice mix of pavement, gravel roads, and multi-use trails. Popping out a few hundred metres away from the Little River ferry terminal to Powell River made for a perfect fall weekend outing.
Cortes Quadra Island Loop
What stood out on this trip was my time on Cortes Island, or the “Island of 1,000 Smiles,” as I lovingly refer to it now. Each and every motorist passing by gave plenty of room and almost always threw a hand out the window and gave a wave. Such welcoming gestures are hard to come by these days, especially on some of the more touristy islands off BC’s coast. I saw enough big smiles and friendly hands to nearly change my plans of continuing on to Quadra altogether. Although, to be fair, I’ve had nothing but positive experiences on that island as well. I look forward to my next trip over, hopefully with friends!
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