The Excitable Scientist

Mostly cheerful, sometimes snarky commentary on life science research and its broader impacts

Trip report: Gabriola Island May 12, 2013

Filed under: biking,camping — excitablescientist @ 10:45 pm

Hello, readers of my neglected blog! I have been brimming with ideas for scientific blog posts but lacking the energy to write them. Instead, I thought I’d warm up my “creative” muscles by writing about a trip I took with friends this weekend. It is often helpful to read others’ first-hand accounts of destinations I’m thinking of visiting, so here is my attempt at returning the favour to the Internet.


Gabriola Island is one of the Southern Gulf Islands in BC, off the coast of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. I first visited this island a couple of years ago, while on route to Mudge Island, a smaller nearby island reachable only by private boat. This year, I proposed to some friends that we go on a biking trip to Gabriola; this article from Momentum magazine suggested it to be a good destination for beginner cycle tourists, which appealed to our group.


To get to Gabriola Island from Vancouver, one can take the ferry from Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver to Departure Bay in Nanaimo, bike a few kilometres to the Nanaimo Harbour ferry terminal, and then catch another ferry to Gabriola. The first ferry is 1h40min, the bike ride 15 min (if you know where you’re going; more on this later), and the latter ferry 20min; not the fastest place to get to but definitely worthwhile.


Buses #250 and #257 will take you from downtown Vancouver to the Horseshoe Bay ferry. Like all Metro Vancouver buses, they have bike racks and there is no extra charge for using them. After buying ferry tickets at the Horseshoe Bay terminal, you have to find your way to a narrow, gated and fenced walkway which leads to the ferry entrance for those with pets, bicycles and kayaks (!). There is no signage here. Cyclists are usually allowed to board ahead of vehicles, which is nice; however, there is nowhere convenient on the ferry to park your bike. We were directed to wedge our bikes (no locking possible) between a railing and the ship’s hull, obstructing access to a panel containing controls for opening the bow doors and other useful things; a ferry employee had to climb over our bikes to get at these when the ship was docking in Nanaimo. Not very well thought out. Given the lack of signage and no dedicated or reasonable bike parking space on the ship, we were displeased with the extra $2 charge levied to cyclists on each ferry crossing, and in addition to complaining about it on the Internet, will also be writing letters to the operator.


Getting from Departure Bay to Nanaimo Harbour is an easy 15min bike ride, but be warned: signage is sparse and the left turn from Stewart Ave onto Terminal Ave is confusing. You ride straight off the ferry and onto the Trans-Canada Highway, also called Stewart Avenue. Towards the end of Stewart Ave, you have to stay in the left lane (which I personally found intimidating as a cyclist competing with ferry traffic). At the intersection, turn left onto Terminal Ave. The signage here is not great; it says something like turn left for downtown Nanaimo and right for Victoria, but there is no mention of Nanaimo Harbour or the Gabriola ferry. Once on Terminal Ave, take the first left onto Comox Road, and then the first left after Promenade Drive, into the ferry terminal.


We stayed at Descanso Bay Regional Park, which was quite lovely, and very close to the ferry terminal on the Gabriola side. We arrived around 9pm on Friday, which was getting pretty dark but still light enough that two of us were able to set up tents, while our friend whipped up a delicious stir-fry with potatoes, carrots, onions, tofu, and home-grown kale (obliterating my idea of instant noodles as camping food). We did spot a racoon, so be sure to stow food out of reach; I’ve had racoons raid my pannier overnight for factory-sealed granola bars and have been extra cautious since.



Our Master Chef preparing supper by bicycle light


The following day, we stopped at the well-stocked Village Food Market for lunch and dinner ingredients, and then took North Road across the island to Drumbeg Provincial Park. The road is in great shape and gently undulating, the traffic sparse and the drivers courteous; the only thing worth commenting on is that the approach to the park involves a kilometer or so of gravel, not great for people on ultralight racing bikes but completely fine with us on somewhat loaded hybrid and touring bikes.


After a rather delightful lunch of bread, avocado, and locally made havarti with tomato and basil, we turned back, this time taking South Road. There is a VERY steep (18% grade) hill starting just before the intersection with Wharf road; this is the only hill worth mention that we encountered on the island. All in all, this island loop measures around 30km and is definitely beginner friendly.


On Sunday, we made a quick jaunt to Malaspina Galleries park, which was gorgeous; below are pictures of a pretty viewpoint and dramatic overhanging sandstone cliffs, which we thought would have been a nice respite from the previous day’s torrential rain.



Malaspina Galleris park viewpoint


Malspina Galleris sandstone cliffs


All in all, I would definitely recommend a trip to Gabriola to novice cycle tourists or anyone looking for a quick and transit-accessible escape from the city.