#explorethevispine: Running 49kms from Lake Shawnigan to Lake Cowichan


Thank you for joining me on the #explorethevispine challenge!  This year I will be running ultra sections of the Vancouver Island Spine Trail as a way to raise awareness, support and resources for VISTA, the amazing team behind this truly visionary, 700km trail.  Be sure to check out the #explorethevispine page on this blog to find out more and to learn how you can join me in supporting this great cause!

The south end of the VI Spine Trail actually begins at Clover Point on Dallas Road in Victoria and follows the well established TCT northward along the Galloping Goose Trail out to Langford.  At this time, the trail is incomplete between Langford and Shawnigan Lake, although work is underway and plans are set for the 'Malahat Gap' to be completed by 2017 as part of Canada's 150th birthday celebrations.  You can learn more about the Trans Canada Trail here.

The first leg of my #explorethevispine challenge took place this past weekend on the southern end of Vancouver Island where the Spine Trail and the Trans Canada Trail overlap.  Snow in the mountains means that I will be running the lower elevation sections of the Spine Trail first and the 'Cowichan Valley Trail' from Shawnigan Lake to Lake Cowichan was a beautiful place to start! 

Shawnigan Lake to Lake Cowichan 

Distance: 49kms

Elevation Gain: 470m

Run Time: 4.5hours 

Difficulty: Easy terrain 

Terrain: Flat, non-technical railway grade path, 2-3 metres wide.

Surface: Crush gravel, dirt, wooden trestle bridges.

Users: Walkers, runners, cyclists (with off road bikes/tires), horses, strollers, some sections are wheel chair accessible such as the Kinsol Trestle access.

Highlights: Kinsol Trestle- spectacular, must see!!  Multiple trestles, river crossings, swimming holes, fishing spots and access points for day trips, picnics and shorter adventures.  

Access. South: via Sooke Lake Road off of South Shawnigan Lake Rd.  North via Cowichan Lake Rd at the TCT Western Terminus (furthest west spot on the Trans Canada Trail!), near the Visitors Centre.
My ultra buddy Sandra, aka @trailhardy, started out with me for the run and a few other friends came out to ride the trail out and back that day (100kms!)  It was so awesome to share this new adventure and this special first leg with friends.  Terry Lewis, Cumberland trail builder extraordinaire, who is also a VISTA board member, rode the entire route out and back and spent the day GPSing and taking photos of various spots along the trail.  So fun to see everyone out on the trail!

Kms 1-13

The Cowichan Valley Trail is a 2-3metre wide path that follows an old railway so it is on a very flat grade and is very accessible for all types of users.  The start of the trail follows along the west side of Shawnigan Lake road for about 10kms with a gentle downhill grade.  Glimpses of the south end of the lake can be seen early into the route and at about 7kms the trail crosses the McGee Creek Trestle, the first of many awesome structures along the route.

From the north end of Shawnigan Lake the trail crosses Renfrew Road before reaching the Koksilah River and the spectacularKinsol Trestle, approximately 13kms into the route.  The Kinsol Trestle is a must see for Vancouver Islanders and visitors alike! There is easy access to the Trestle from Renfew Road along a 1.2km section of the Cowichan Valley Trail (Spine Trail / TCT) that is wheelchair accessible.  Originally built in 1911 it was re-constructed in 2011 by the Cowichan Valley Regional District as part of the TCT.  From theCVRD website:

The Kinsol Trestle is one of eight trestles along the Cowichan Valley Trail route and by far the largest and most spectacular. The Kinsol Trestle is one of the tallest free-standing and most spectacular timber rail trestle structures in the world. At 187metres in length and standing 44 metres above the salmon bearing Koksilah River, the Kinsol is an incredible structure.         


Watch this video, "Walk the Trestle: Reflecting on the Kinsol Trestle" by Phil Ives, to see why you must go visit the Trestle!

After spending a few minutes marvelling and taking photos at the Kinsol Trestle, Sandra and I continued down the trail at our own paces so that we could both get what we needed out of the day.  Sandra was in Zone 1 training mode for a 100 mile run and I was already trained and tapered for a 100km mountain run that I had to withdraw from at the last minute.  I was fresh and ready to run so I cashed in on the training in my legs and Sandra gladly let me go so she could focus on her own pace for her training.  

Kms 13-26

The next 13kms or so of the trail travels through farm lands and horse country with many wide open views that let the sun shine in.  Spring was exploding along the trail and the show included enormous patches of beautiful yellow skunk cabbage flowers, choirs of singing frogs and speedy humming birds zipping by.  As the trail approached the community of Glenora, many different types of users were seen out and about enjoying the trail on a sunny Saturday.  Horse back riders, joggers, families on bikes and many dog walkers.  Everyone was so friendly and it was awesome to see such a harmonious multi-use trail in action.  Success, Cowichan Valley!  Well done!

(Kms 15-31 is a nice long gradual downhill grade section fyi!) 

 Kms 26-43

After leaving Glenora the trail passes over the Holt Creek Trestle and heads west towards Lake Cowichan through the Cowichan River Provincial Park.  The landscape changes dramatically here and the trail moves into lush forest groves alongside the gorgeous Cowichan River.  Beautiful sections of mixed Cedar, Hemlock and Douglas Fir forest provide a lovely shaded route and shelter from the elements.  The Cowichan River is love at first sight.  Aqua tinted in colour, it rushes past the trail, connecting communities and bringing life to the people and creatures that depend on it for food and water.  

I grew up playing along the banks of the Cowichan River with my cousins and sisters under the wild guidance of my Dad.  Weekends and summers were spent exploring the parks and trails of the Cowichan Valley.  Dad knew what was best for hyperactive kids and he set us free into the wilderness for hours on end day after day.  Diving for craw fish in quiet eddies, hunting salamanders under rotten old logs and creating endless stories in the woods.  Those adventures made me who I am today and I cannot thank my Dad enough for sharing his love of nature with us in those early days.  Get your kids outside, people. 

Returning to the Cowichan River was like coming home for me.  I saw my childhood self on the trails we explored during in the Cowichan River Park.  Endless recreation opportunities exist in this unique Provincial Park.  Day use areas with fantastic swimming holes and scenic vistas are spread out along the river and can be accessed from the Cowichan Valley Highway.  Along the way you will pass Sandy Pool Park, Marie Canyon Park, Skutz Falls Park and many access points to the Cowichan River Footpath.  Pick up a map from the friendly staff at the Cowichan Lake Visitors Centre to learn more and to plan your next adventure in this awesome Provincial Park.

The Cowichan Valley Trail crosses the great Cowichan River in two spots- over the Marie Canyon Trestle and again at the Mile 70.2 Trestle.  Access roads to the trail in this area come from the Cowichan Valley Highway and include West River Bottom Road and Skutz Falls Road.  The Trail leaves the north end of the Park at the Mile 70.2 Trestle, approximately 43kms from Shawnigan Lake.  Only 6kms left to Lake Cowichan!

Kms 43-49

The final stretch of the CV Trail is flat and straight and true.  As it approaches the community of Lake Cowichan, the signage increases to inform you of your remaining kms to the Western Terminus.  The trail runs behind a few homes then suddenly pops out onto Pine street in Lake Cowichan- follow the signs leading to the TCT Western Terminus.  2 blocks downhill, along Pine Street and you will see the next TCT sign straight ahead.  At this sign, turn left to reach the Lake Cowichan Western Terminus, or turn right to carry on towards Duncan and Nanaimo on the TCT.  The Spine Trail goes left here, to Lake Cowichan and this leg finishes right across the street to the Visitors Centre which has plenty of information to help you explore this lovely community.  Public washrooms are available at the Centre during office hours and the friendly staff are more than helpful as I learned while doing research for this leg of my adventure.  Say hello to Catherine for me when you stop by!  Lake Cowichan has everything you need to refuel and recharge.  Stay for lunch, enjoy the Lake views and explore this sunny little community if you have a chance. And don't miss the Saturday Farmers Market in Honeymoon Bay, just up the South Shore Road.

From Lake Cowichan the Spine Trail currently follows the South Shore Road to the far west side of Cowichan Lake.  It is paved road to Gordon Bay at this time.  Beyond Gordon Bay the South Shore road is an active hauling logging road and I do not recommend travelling on foot on this section of the trail at this time for safety reasons.   This is a section of trail that VISTA is currently working towards completing in conjunction with the Cowichan Valley Regional District and private landholders.  Check out the details and up to date plans on the VISTA website fmi here.

All in all it was an awesome day for a run on the Spine Trail with friends!  The sun was shining, the temperatures were fantastic and spring was in the air.  This is a remarkable piece of trail that travels through a wide range of scenery and is accessible for all abilities and user types.  I can't belive I hadn't been on it before!  If you are ready to join the challenge I encourage you to get out and start with the Cowichan Valley Trail.  Get your family, grab a friend or explore the trail on your own...but get out there and do it!  You can tackle this section in short day trips and spend time exploring the side trails and scenic spots.  Or you can hammer it all out in one day on foot, bike or horse.  It is an awesome trail system that we are lucky to have on Vancouver Island.  I can't wait to go back and explore more of it with my family! 

I am thrilled to have kicked off my #explorethevispine challenge and I am stoked for the next leg on my adventure.  I am already planning Run # 2 so stay tuned!

Happy Trails,