The Cowichan Valley

We have combined a number of municipalities in this section, all of which are situated in the Cowichan Valley. There are three other municipalites in the Cowichan Valley that have their own pages on Discover Vancouver Island: DuncanLadysmith, and Lake Cowichan.

POPULATION: 17,000

MUST DO: Swimming & Fly Fishing

river-in-cowichan-valleySOUTH COWICHAN

Comprising the communities of Mill Bay, Cobble Hill and Shawnigan Lake, South Cowichan is your first major stop when heading north out of Victoria.

Mill Bay, a seaside village, was the site of one of the first sawmills (built in 1861) on Vancouver Island. The village offers a huge array of shops and services, including a full-service marina for moorage, fishing supplies, gas and launch. Go off the Tans Canada Highway onto Mill Bay Road, and you will enjoy a scenic drive along the oceanfront where you’ll find warm-water beaches, perfect for a swim or beachcombing. There’s also a ferry connection across Saanich Inlet to Brentwood, near Victoria.

Shawnigan Lake is west off the Trans Canada, about 10 minutes from Mill Bay. The lake is the area’s biggest tourism draw, great for swimming, fishing, sailing and canoeing. Take a leisurely drive around its shore.You’ll find a number of spots for a picnic.

The village was not much more than a logging camp until the Esquimalt & Nanaimo (E&N) Railway went through in 1884. Sir John A. Macdonald, then Prime Minister of Canada, arrived in 1886 to drive the last spike, a spot marked by a stone cairn. A short hike will take you to this historic spot. The railway also crosses the Kinsol Trestle, one of the largest and highest wooden trestle bridges in the world. The railway spurred the construction of a hotel that catered to the fishermen who came to try their luck in the lake. The railway made the trip from Victoria ‘easy’, and weekends saw trainloads of city dwellers descending on the sleepy village. Shawnigan Lake is also home to the internationally-respected Shawnigan Lake School, a private facility catering to students from around the world.

Cobble Hill, north of Mill Bay, is a sleepy little village, filled with art galleries and antique shops.

South Cowichan is also known for a few small wineries. Some offer tours and wine-tasting.

North Cowichan

Known as the Gateway to the West Coast, the area comprises the communities of Lake Cowichan, Mesachie Lake, Honeymoon Bay and Youbou.

The villages are strung around the shores of Cowichan Lake, at 30-kilometers long, one of the largest freshwater bodies on Vancouver Island. Called Kaatza ‘The Big Lake’ by Native Indians, the lake was used extensively early in the century for transporting logs to nearby sawmills. A large mill still exists at Youbou; however, the area’s economy is becoming more and more dependent on tourism.

The lake is great for swimming, boating, water-skiing, windsurfing and fishing. In fact, the area boasts some of the best fly fishing in all of Canada.

The best way to experience Lake Cowichan is to take a leisurely drive around its shoreline. Begin at Kaatza Station Museum, on the South Shore Road. Housed in the old Esquimalt & Nanaimo (E&N) railway depot, the museum recalls the area’s heritage through murals, photographs and displays.

Continuing along the south shore, your next stop is Mesachie Lake. Along the road and in the village you will find 33 species of trees imported from around the world during the 1940s. Over 230 trees can be found in the community, and a short self-guided tour is a must. Begin at the large ‘Trees of Mesachie’ map, located behind the village store.

Your next stop is Honeymoon Bay and nearby Gordon Bay Provincial Park, a must see, particularly for its wildflower ecology reserve. If you’re there in April, you can see the wildflowers blooming in the second-growth forest.

The pavement turns into a gravel road just past Honeymoon Bay. This section has no services but does contain campsites and boat launches. (A logging road begins here with branches to the Carmanah Valley, Bamfield, Port Alberni, the north end of the West Coast Trail and Pacific Rim National Park.) The gravel road continues around the western most point of Cowichan Lake, turning back into pavement at Youbou. A few kilometers further and you’re back in Lake Cowichan village.

Fishing on Lake Cowichan is for trout, with rainbow, cutthroat, bull, kokanee and brown trout up to four pounds. Nearby rivers offer great fishing, too. The Cowichan River is considered one of the best fishing rivers on Vancouver Island. Bring your flyrod!

For some great hiking, the Cowichan River offers a 30-kilometer hiking path. Between Youbou and Lake Cowichan is the Bald Mountain Trails, offering hikes for all types. The Denninger Trail climbs to an old lookout where you are rewarded with excellent views and a great picnic spot. The Beaver Walk is much easier, leading to the recreation site. At the south end of the lake, the Heather Mountain Trail is a three-hour climb to the summit where you’ll find wildflowers and great views.

If You Go to South Cowichan

BY ROAD: From the south, take the Trans Canada Hwy. north from Victoria. Mill Bay is about an hour out of Victoria. From the north, take the Trans Canada Hwy. south from Nanaimo. South Cowichan is about an hour away.

If You Go to North Cowichan

BY ROAD: From the south, take the Trans Canada Hwy. north from Victoria. Just north of Duncan, head west on Hwy. 18. From Victoria, the trip is about 1 1/2 hours. From the north, take the Trans Canada Hwy. south from Nanaimo to Hwy. 18. The 73-kilometer trip is just over an hour.

BY AIR: Scheduled airline connections are out of Vancouver to Victoria or Nanaimo airports.