Adventure on two wheels
An Introduction to Bikepacking Port McNeill, Malcolm Island, and Cormorant Island

The North Island region of Vancouver Island, British Columbia has limitless potential for adventure by bike. Whether you’re on the hunt for a stunning coastal day ride or multi-day bikepacking trip that weaves gravel roads together with small island communities, the options are endless. Port McNeill serves as a fantastic kickoff point for all kinds of bikepacking trips, and in this introduction to bikepacking in the region, Miles shares his thoughts on some of the must-see places in Port McNeill, Malcolm Island, and Cormorant Island.

The Regional District of Mount Waddington, which includes the North Island region of Vancouver Island, as well as Port McNeill, Malcolm Island, and Cormorant Island, is located on the Traditional Territories of the Kwakwaka’wakw people. You can learn more about the tribal regions and First Nations groups that call these lands their home here (https://viea.ca/business-living-on-vancouver-island/first-nations/). 

Three cyclists on a back road surrounded by forest
Malcolm Island, photo by Tom Powell

Words by Miles Arbour, images by Tom Powell.

The northern tip of Vancouver Island, sometimes referred to as the North Island, is unlike any other place in southwestern British Columbia. The North Island refers to an area as far south as Sayward on the coast and the small town of Woss further inland, to the northern tip of Vancouver Island at Cape Scott and to the town of Port Hardy to the east. The beginning of the North Island region is only about a 4-hour drive from the city of Victoria at the southern tip of the island, but somehow still manages to fly under the radar for cyclists and those traveling by bike. 

A few weeks ago, I was invited by Vancouver Island North Tourism to travel to Port McNeill, Malcolm Island, and Cormorant Island to showcase potential bikepacking opportunities. I had previously spent some time in Port McNeill during my original scouting trip for the Tree to Sea Loop, and had gotten out on a quick day ride on Malcolm Island, but Cormorant Island/Alert Bay was new to me.

Three people on bicycles infront of a long house on Cormorant Island
Miles and crew infront of the ‘Na̱mg̱is Traditional Big House, ‘Yalis (Alert Bay)

This area of the North Island is unique in that it’s not currently seen as a bikepacking destination, despite it being a stop on the 1,000km Tree to Sea Loop (https://bikepacking.com/routes/tree-to-sea-loop-vancouver-island/) and brimming with interesting cultural landmarks and stories. In reality, Port McNeill is a great hub for day rides, overnighters, and longer multi-day bikepacking trips. A short ferry ride from Port McNeill is all it takes to visit Cormorant Island and Malcolm Island, and the ferry cost is minimal because one ticket gets you a connecting trip between both islands. For anyone new to traveling with BC Ferries with a bike, it’s an incredibly simple process as you’re more or less treated as a walk-on passenger. Buy your ticket at the booth ~30 min ahead of departure, wait with the rest of the walk-ons, and when the BC Ferries staff allow you to board, you’ll walk your bike to the far end of the vessel and lean it up somewhere out of the way. There are always ferry staff around if you’re unsure. The ferry ride itself is a memorable experience, complete with stunning views of the coastal mountains, wildlife viewing, and we even saw the herring spawning just south of Port McNeill.  

Three people walking bicycles on a ferry
Walking on the ferry

Cormorant island

Cormorant Island, often referred to as Alert Bay after the town, is a small island with a total land area of about 4 square kilometers. By itself it’s not necessarily a bikepacking destination, but it’s a fantastic place to spend a night or two when visiting the North Island, Malcolm Island, and Port McNeill. Cormorant Island, or Yalis as it was originally known, was once populated by the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation, and these days is home to the ‘Namgis First Nation. While small, the island has a number of paved roads to get around, as well as a handful of multi-use and hiking trails through stunning, moss-covered coastal forests. 


Where to stay: 

  • The Alert Bay Campground is an affordable spot to pitch a tent towards the center of the island, right next to the Alert Bay Ecological Park. https://letscamp.ca/camps/alert-bay-campground
  • Alert Bay Cabins is Indigenous-owned and offers a variety of cozy accommodation options complete with electric fireplaces, showers, and fully equipped kitchens. 
  • There are several other small hotels and AirBNB options available. 


Where to go:

Three people standing infront of a big house on Cormorant Island
‘Na̱mg̱is Traditional Big House, ‘Yalis (Alert Bay)
A person showing another person a First Nation's art piece
The mandate of the U’mista Cultural Society is to ensure the survival of all aspects of the cultural heritage of the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw.


Malcolm Island

Malcolm Island is also often referred to by its community, Sointula. It’s much larger than Cormorant at just over 80 square kilometers and dishes up some promising off-road cycling options thanks to the gravel roads that travel across the entire island. To the west, you can ride gravel straight to Bere Point Regional Park for some of the best camping in the region, or continue further towards the lighthouse at Pulteney Point. Head in the opposite direction to the far east side of the island and Mitchell Bay to explore the many beaches. There are also a number of lesser-traveled multi-use trails that connect the gravel roads to secluded beaches. 


Malcolm Island was established as a community in 1901 when a colony of Finnish settlers arrived with utopian dreams of building the perfect community.  While that idea was never fully realized, the village of Sointula is one of our favorite stops when visiting the North Island. It’s always worth setting aside some time to visit the museum, BC’s longest running cooperative general store, and the infamous Coho Joe Cafe, just a stone’s throw from the ferry terminal. 


During our visit, we met up with Alden Barnett, one of the organizer’s behind Malcolm Island’s first mountain bike race, the first annual Malcolm Island XC Gravel Grind. The inaugural event is happening this summer on Canada Day weekend (June 30th) and is shaping up to be an incredible experience. Alden and a dedicated group of volunteers have worked with local landowners to create two route options; a 30 and 60km loop, that follow gravel roads, some singletrack, and decommissioned logging roads and old skidder tracks. We were able to check out a few short sections of their route on the island, and it’s safe to say this will end up being a special annual event to look forward to. 


Where to say: 


Where to go:

Two people sitting on a beach looking out to the ocean
Malcolm Island beaches
Three cyclists on a gravel road surrounded by forest
Navigating Malcolm Island’s back roads
Two people having lunch overlooking the ocean
A well deserved lunch at Coho Joe in Sointula


Port McNeill

Aside from being home to the world’s largest burl, Port McNeill is a fantastic town to start a variety of bikepacking trips from. The Alice Lake Recreation Loop is a great place to star.. This 100km loop begins and ends in Port McNeill, looping south on gravel roads, passing by several lakes and recreation sites, with access to the quaint village of Port Alice not far from the halfway point. 


For something longer, it’s simple enough to follow this route to Port Alice and then connect with the north end of the Tree to Sea Loop, traveling north to Coal Harbour, Holberg, and back to Port Hardy on the east coast before returning to Port McNeill. This area is delightfully remote and one of the most interesting sections of the Tree to Sea Loop. You can grab a bite to eat and rent a small cabin at Vancouver Island’s most remote pub, the Scarlet Ibis, camp on beaches at San Josef Bay, and explore the gravel roads and picturesque lakes on the northernmost tip of the island.

Two people at a brewery laughing with a server
Laughs with locals at Devils’ Bath Brewing Co. in Port McNeill


Know Before You Go:

    • There is limited pay parking near the Port McNeill ferry terminal. Learn more here.
    • BC Ferries schedules can be found online, here is the schedule for Malcolm Island and Cormorant Island
    • The Wild Pledge is a promise to practice responsible tourism and travel with care when visiting Vancouver Island communities, businesses, indigenous communities, forests, and oceans. Learn more and sign the pledge here.
    • The majority of the roads and paths around Port McNeill and the surrounding islands are either gravel or paved, so any bike with at least 45mm tires is suitable. There are some rougher sections when venturing further away from pavement, so up to a 2.2” isn’t overkill for extra comfort.
    • The North Island is home to many animals, including bears, cougars, and wolves. Be bear and cougar aware, always carry bear spray, and hang your food at night. While riding, talk loudly and make noise.


The North Island region of Vancouver Island is a bikepackers paradise. Whether you’re including it as part of a longer bikepacking trip or looking for a starting point for a weekend ride or day trip, Port McNeill serves as a realistic kickoff point for all sorts of bicycle-powered adventures. For those looking to gain a better understanding of the region and the people that call this place home, it’s well worth including Malcolm Island and Cormorant Island into your North Island bikepacking plans.

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