To say it is a challenging year to travel out of province is to put things mildly in the extreme. With the enduring COVID-19 threat, most provinces have residents-only campsite reservation policies and national campgrounds have been booked tight for months.
Yet with a little ingenuity and adventurous spirit, we discovered that British Columbia is accessible to camping visitors from other provinces. Visitors just have to be prepared to go with the flow, consider unconventional approaches and be flexible enough to adapt to travel with no reservations.
We’re experienced campers, both in tents and with our beloved Aliner hard-shell pop-up trailer. As we age, we find the comfort of sleeping off the ground on a soft bed in a water-tight unit with a furnace is increasingly attractive. So our Aliner tagged (and sometimes bounced) along as we explored the Sunshine Coast and east side of Vancouver Island.
To make the logistics even more challenging, we chose to avoid private campgrounds. Sure, they have showers and electricity, but they tend to put convenience ahead of esthetics. With their ubiquitous large RVs and trailers, we think of them as family friendly tin can alleys. We strongly prefer more rustic settings, free of squealing children on too-close adjacent campsites.
Yet each of these shortcomings can be offset with some prep and we say it’s worth it. If you live off-the-grid, packing in your own resources, you’ll find the rewards are nothing short of spectacular.
The not-widely-advertised “rec sites” (as in recreation) that can be found across B.C. These campgrounds tend to be in remote locations at the end of at times brutally punishing logging roads.
There are next to no services – maybe fresh water but often not. Pit toilets and no showers. And don’t even mention electricity if you don’t want to be laughed at.
But they are often available and dirt cheap – some free and some with nominal fees ranging from $14 to $20 a night (cash only). Campsites are spaced widely apart. And, best of all, they’re often situated next to remote mountain rivers or lakes. In almost every case, they were worth the extra effort of getting there.
Here’s how our trip unfolded.
Two families ventured out together: my wife and I and our border collie, and our daughter’s family, which includes a partner, one seven-year-old and two Siberian Huskies, with two trucks and compact trailers. The group headed from their home in Kelowna toward the Sunshine Coast via the scenic and twisting secondary roads that cut through Merritt, then trace the Fraser River north from the hamlet of Lytton.
Our first-day destination was the Lillooet Lake recreation site and it required travelling 17 km on a very bumpy gravel logging road. The stunning campsites overlooking the near-deserted lake made the trip worthwhile. But we quickly discovered the area was infested with hungry no-see-ums, the notorious bugs also known as biting midges. A planned two-day stay was cut short to a quick overnight sleep.
Leaving early, we drove west through the outdoor sport mecca of Whistler to Squamish, stopping in town to sample the fine local brews, such as Babymaker ISA, and pizza at Backcountry Brewing. We had no campsite lined up but our server tipped us off to a rec site about 20 km out of town. As is typical, there are no signs or directions to the site, but we eventually found it along the Cheakamus River. We later judged it to be our least favourite rec site of the journey – local partiers have left the sites scattered with trash – but the setting is picturesque. We again decided one night was enough.
It’s a short drive to the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal, where we planned to head for the Sunshine Coast. But, without reservations, we face a two-ferry wait – about three hours. We use the time to search for campsites and find one billed as a “private” campground at Homesite Creek, a couple of kilometres inland from Halfmoon Bay. When we got there, we were delighted to discover it was actually a rec site.
Our local host, Dootee, collected the $14-a-night fee and confided that she’s worried that too many people are discovering this magical place, located in old-growth trees beside a cascading mountain creek with pools of ice-cold water. Absent showers, a short dip in the pools works as a refresher. We stay for two nights and use the time to explore the area.
After a two-night stay, we drive up to Earl’s Cove at the northern end of the lower Sunshine Coast and catch the ferry – the only free one – on the first try. With all private campsites booked all the way north to Lund, we looked for rec sites and find one at Lois Lake. It’s another long, rough ride up a logging road, causing our trailer to jostle and scrape bottom in the deeper ruts. Absent any clear signage, we also made a wrong turn before flagging down a local logging truck driver, who set us on the right path.
Once again, the destination made the ordeal of getting there worthwhile. The stunning lake has a smattering of floating homes and a couple of motor boats from nearby Powell River but, mostly, it feels like our lake alone. We paddle far down the lake (part of an extensive portage route), find a sandy beach and bathe in the clear warm water.
As a bonus, there’s no site host and no fee for camping in one of the most scenic campsites in Western Canada. Not surprisingly, there are also no flush toilets (just pit toilets) or local clean water supply – but we were prepared.
During a two-day layover, we made one trip into Powell River to stock up and grab some Perfect Storm oatmeal stout and Tin Hat IPA at Townsite Brewing, located in an old brick building in the old part of town overlooking the paper mill. A small outside patio allows us to observe COVID-19 protocols and give our three dogs a quiet place to grab some air.
After two glorious nights at Lois Lake, we’re up at 5 a.m. so we can catch the 8:05 a.m. ferry to Comox/Campbell River on Vancouver Island. (This is the August holiday weekend and all the reserved spots on the ferry have been booked.) Ferry veterans know that waiting in line can become a social event; we chat with other tourists, break out the coffee pot and make ourselves breakfast, since no nearby cafes are yet open. Our early start pays off – we catch the 8:05 (and part with a $162 fare for the one-hour ride).
Our luck with campsites, however, began to run thin. Every campsite in the Campbell River area – public and private – was booked solid, so we gambled on driving south to Parksville to stay at the highly recommended Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park, on the oceanside. One of the biggest annoyances of B.C.’s park system (although not that province alone) is the inability to call and talk to a human about campsite availability. When we drive into the campground, we learn that all sites are booked solid for a week: information that would have been useful to know in advance.
Campground staff recommend we try Englishman River Falls, about 20 minutes inland near the hamlet of Errington (“Good luck,” he says, as we leave). We’re fortunate to find two side-by-side sites there. This is the only provincial park we stay at and it’s a beautiful, well-maintained campground featuring two sets of falls. Alas, like the rec sites, it offers no showers.
We head back to Parksville to buy fresh oysters and whole Coho salmon from the excellent French Creek Seafood Ltd., located at the end of the town pier. The shuck-’em-yourself oysters are the best we’ve ever had and the fresh Coho is an equal treat.
Englishman River Falls is worth every minute of our two-night stay and we decide to gamble again on snaring a site further south at Campbell Provincial Park. With no one to call, we just have to drive there, only to discover that the campground is full and in fact there are only three first-come, first-serve sites to begin with.
Another great rec site on the popular Cowichan Lake, about 50 km inland, comes to the rescue. Passing through the cute little tourist town of Lake Cowichan, we leave pavement behind and travel a gravel road for 18 km en route to the Nixon Creek rec site. It’s a terrifying ride, as fully-loaded logging trucks come roaring at us, leaving an apocalyptic cloud of dust in their wake. Incredibly, we encounter cycling tourists who are also braving the road.
Once again, the rec site at Nixon Creek makes the ordeal of getting there worthwhile. The campsites are well treed and widely spaced apart, with some sites on the water reserved for tents. We set up for two nights and sleep through a steady overnight rain.
Cowichan Lake is every bit as scenic as Lois Lake and almost as deserted, even in August. A strong wind makes the water choppy, but we go out on our kayaks to explore parts of its largely unspoiled shoreline.
After two quiet days, we head south once again, but this time find our camping options in the populous Victoria area are as unappealing as the rainy weather. We catch the ferry (no wait) to the terminal at Tsawwassen, about 50 km south of Vancouver, and head straight through to Kelowna.
Camping at high season during a pandemic is not easy, but B.C.’s rec sites made our venture a rich and rewarding experience. If you don’t mind playing rough, these sites provide the most car-accessible backcountry experience you can have.
The key is preparation: bring adequate supplies of water, keep your cooler packed with ice, have some hand tools ready and keep the fuel tank above half-full. With a little common sense, you will find it’s easier to tame B.C.’s wild side than you could ever expect.
This link will give you more information on B.C.’s recreation sites.
Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media. Travel Like This editor Lisa Monforton is an award-winning Calgary-based travel writer. Follow @lisamonforton on Instagram and Twitter.
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