Local Layover: 48 Hours in Duncan, British Columbia
Miles recently met up with Natalie Jones and Tom Roozendaal for a ride on Mount Tzouhalem and Maple Mountain in Duncan, BC, Canada. Learn about Natalie’s free women’s mountain bike lessons, Tom’s involvement with local trail building and advocacy, and a few of the go-to spots in town…
The climb trail from Mount Tzouhalem’s new lower parking lot, aptly named A Grand Traverse, winds its way up the east side of the mountain and into the mountain’s vast network of trails. It’s one of the best climbing trails I’ve ever ridden, and brilliantly executed. Still, it’s no walk in the park, with a few tight switchbacks and rocky ledges that require careful navigation. Not to mention the sheer length of the climb, which at over three kilometres is impressive in itself for an urban area. Our trio, which consisted of Natalie Jones, Tom Roozendaal, and myself, followed closely behind one another. As I locked in on Natalie’s rear tire with laser-like precision, to avoid slipping on a root or taking an unfavourable line, I could tell it was going to be a great day.
I first met Natalie at the 2019 Bikepacking Summit at Mulberry Gap Getaway in Eljay, Georgia. At a gathering of mostly American bikepackers, it didn’t take long for us Canadians to link up, exchanging classic Canadian compliments and stories of world-class riding on British Columbia’s west coast. Unlike me, Natalie has spent the majority of her life in BC, mainly on Vancouver Island, so I couldn’t think of someone more perfect to show me some local riding. I was originally intrigued by Duncan as a destination for two reasons. One, it’s no secret that it has some of the best riding on the island. And two, my recently published Cowichan Valley 8 route skirts right through downtown. A short drive south led me to Mount Tzouhalem in Duncan, and although I didn’t know it yet, a truly fantastic day on (and off) the bike.
We weren’t far into A Grand Traverse when I asked Natalie more about her involvement in the local mountain biking scene. It turns out Natalie has been offering free mountain bike lessons for women for over 10 years now. Along with her partner Tara, she has been able to grow the Dirt Divas program to the point where they are seeing over 50 women come out to hone their skills some nights. She explained how special it is for her to see women riding with friends on the weekend that were previously new to mountain biking, developing close friendships along the way. Natalie’s positivity is infectious, so it’s no surprise that the program has been so successful. She explained that not having any fees or registration process makes the rides more inviting for newer riders. The lessons are structured around the least experienced person, so if there’s someone who needs to learn how to shift and brake, they are likely to end up with a one-on-one lesson. During my two days of riding with Natalie, she pointed out several Divas who had at one point made their way through the program.
Tom also happens to be a key player in the local riding community, maintaining and building the same trails on Mount Tzouhalem that we rode that day. Unlike most trail systems on Vancouver Island, the majority of Mount Tzouhalem is municipally owned, and although it didn’t happen overnight, the trail system features a sizable parking lot complete with washrooms, a bike repair stand, and bike wash station. The Cowichan Trail Stewardship Society has been busy creating a multi-use destination, and it shows. The area sees a staggering amount of fallen trees each year, especially after windstorms, and Tom explained that volunteers use it as an opportunity to compete to clear the most trees. There’s also strong involvement from First Nations communities with local trail projects, one example being the Story Trails Program led by Riley McIntosh, launched as an outdoor alternative school aimed at helping First Nations youth find success in the public school system. This group is responsible for Maple Mountain’s Story Trail climbing trail, as well as the impressive totem gateway at the entrance.
The entire area is also well signed and has over 100 trail maps posted within its network. Although the main parking lot was busy, we only passed a few others during our ride. Mount Tzouhalem has over 50km of trails, everything from hard-packed flow trails to the old-school tech lines that both Natalie and Tom navigated with such ease. As we made our way closer to the top of the mountain, Tom effortlessly listed off trail names and details like who built them, the stories behind their names, and why we took a right instead of a left.
Here’s what Natalie and Tom had to say about the Cowichan Valley area…
Words by Natalie Jones and Tom Roozendaal
The uniqueness of the Cowichan Valley was known long before the Europeans arrived. The indigenous people knew it as Quw’utsun’, meaning ‘warmed by the sun’. When other areas of Canada are enduring freezing temperatures, deep snow, and biting wind, the east coast of Vancouver Island is often mild. The area also resides in a rain shadow produced by the Sooke Hills. This all translates into year round riding. When other areas are shut down by snow, Cowichan offers up tacky dirt.
The southeast aspect of the Cowichan Valley is presided over three main mountains: Mt. Tzouhalem (Pi’Paam’), Maple Mountain, and Mt. Prevost (Swuqus). Each has a unique mountain biking experience. Mt. Tzouhalem is crisscrossed by a myriad of trails that cater to a wide range of experience. From the panoramic Rocky Mountain Ridge to the flowy Double D, there is much variety to be had. Maple boasts the first sanctioned climb trail built by the Cowichan Trail Stewardship Society, which is almost nine kilometers in length and climbs to a rewarding view. The journey down is strictly ‘old school,’ running on trails almost 30 years old. A new flow trail was recently constructed by the CTSS, which gives another option for the descent through heady berms. Finally, Mt. Prevost, still wild in both trail offerings and legality. Two world class downhill riders have been spawned from this slope, including world champion Steve Smith and top ten contender Mark Wallace.
Bikepacking is relatively new to this area. The entire valley and surrounding hills are dissected with logging roads both currently used and decommissioned. Access to lands well off the beaten track are available for the intrepid. What awaits are forest stands, lush valleys and river explorations. Those who wish to venture into the rainforest will be rewarded with solitude, views, and an abundance of wildlife. Main corridors include the Trans Canada Trail and other reclaimed railway beds that can transport riders up the valley to Lake Cowichan.
Cowichan also offers much in terms of food and drink. Due to the warm climate, the valley has more than a dozen wineries that produce excellent products. It also has craft breweries, a cidery, and distilleries. Along with this, a true farm-to-table experience is possible. Organic produce is abundant and served up in a plethora of eating establishments from casual to exquisite.
The Cowichan Valley is a wonderful spot to stop for a layover on a bikepacking trip and do some singletrack shredding. It does not disappoint.
Nearby Bikepacking Routes
- Cowichan Valley 8 and access to The Great Trail, which can link up with our BC Trail route.
- The Englishman River Overnighter for a quick adventure leaving right from downtown Parksville.
Bikepacking Oriented Bike Shops
- Cowichan Cycles is positioning themselves to be the go-to bikepacking bike shop in the area. They are a full-service bike shop, stock bikes from Santa Cruz, Marin, and Norco, and some of their staff are bikepackers. They’ve organized a couple of group bikepacking trips in the past, and are looking forward to planning more. For those interested, pop by or give them a call to express your interest.
Where to Eat and Drink
- Duncan Garage is a quirky spot that attracts longtime residents, tourists, and mountain bikers alike. The unique yellow and red building is home to the Duncan Garage Cafe & Bakery, a bookstore, and gallery. They are known for good quality food with an emphasis on organic and locally produced.
- Small Block Brewing Co.,located just off the Trans Canada Highway, is a cozy spot to enjoy a pint and a wood fire pizza. Small Block takes the time to source local ingredients from Vancouver Island, offers a regular lineup, and several limited releases throughout the year.
- Red Arrow Brewing Company was launched in 2015 by Chris Gress and Lance Steward, finding the perfect spot in the old, yet beautiful, Arrow Custom Motorcycles building in Duncan. They have a small outdoor patio and picnic area, as well as an original Cowichan totem on site.
- Duncan, including the trails on Mount Tzouhalem and Maple Mountain, is located on the unceded traditional territory of the Cowichan Tribe and part of the Hul’q’umi’num treaty group. Learn more here.