The route north up Vancouver island begins at Langford, where the Island Highway (#1) heading north meets Sooke Road (#14) heading west. This route will take you past areas of forest, some recently clear-cut, some regrown after cuttings of years past. If you are arriving from the Mainland at Swartz Bay, and catch the Brentwood Bay – Mill Bay ferry, join the itinerary from Mill Bay.
The first stretch north passes the Victoria Regional Water Supply Area, and a number of parks. Thetis Lake has great swimming and boating, as well as hiking around the lakes. Goldstream Provincial has virgin forests of Douglas firs and 600 year old cedars. There is a salt marsh and a few 1800s-era mineshafts from the area’s gold-rush days.
City of Langford
Shawnigan Lake is an 8 km long lake, to the west of the main highway. There are three roads leading in, one just 11 km north of Goldstream Park, one from Mill Bay and one further north. On the west side of the lake are two provincial parks: Memory Island, accessible by boat, donated by families who lost sons in World War II, and West Shawnigan Lake where there is swimming, boating, and picnicking. At the town of Shawnigan Lake is a summers-only museum in an old firehall, an area art gallery, and the Merridale Cider plant (250-743-4293), which offers year-round tours.
If you didn’t catch the side-trip to Shawnigan Lake, you have a couple of great consolation prizes. There is a spectacular 16 km drive over Malahat Mountain (352 metres high), that was originally a livestock trail (you must drive this road in a northbound direction). This is also a great viewpoint of the Gulf Islands, the Saanich Peninsula and Washington’s volcanic Mount Baker.
Mill Bay has about a thousand residents who enjoy great Gulf Island views to the northeast. Seals tend to clutter the community’s flats and docks. This is where to catch a ferry to Brentwood Bay in order to get to Swartz Bay and the Mainland. The Ferries leave every hour and 10 minutes throughout the day.
A side trip to the east takes you into Cowichan Bay, a thousand resident town at the mouth of the Cowichan River. This town was first settled by non-natives in 1862 when residents arrived aboard the HMS Hecate, accompanied by Governor James Douglas. This town has both a fishing and forestry-based economy. There is a major log dump and sawmill at the head of Cowichan Bay. You can watch the small boom boats bring the logs to the sawmill. The Wooden Boat Society and Cowichan Maritime Centre (250-746-4955) strives to preserve traditional boat-building skills.
Whippletree Junction is 7 km south of Duncan and is a recreated turn-of-the-century village with 14 restored buildings, mostly from the Duncan area, including from its old Chinatown. A few km further is the Old Farm Market, very popular with people coming from as far away as Victoria for its bargains.
Duncan is a 4,300 population town is now the commercial centre for the Cowichan Valley’s 50,000 residents. The 2,000 member Cowichan Indian band, known for their sweaters and totems, have a reservation nearby. Duncan is known as the “City of Totems“, with over 41 erected since 1985, linked by a trail marked with yellow footprints. In 1988, the world’s largest totem was carved here. The town has several fine museums and attractions. The Native Heritage Centre offers native handicrafts and foods. The Cowichan Valley Museum (250-746-6612) has local artifacts from homes, farms and doctor. The Cowichan and Chemainus Valleys Ecomuseum Society (250-746-1611) is a museum without walls, with tours and trips to area sites. Just 3 km north of town is the BC Forest Museum, which portrays the history of BC’s forestry industry through indoor and outdoor displays, including a sawmill, a planer mill, a pit saw, a blacksmith’s shop, and a working narrow-gauge steam locomotive.