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  • Meg Cuthbert

Bike Camping on Gabriola Island

Note: This bike trip took place when there wasn't a provincial travel advisory and was done with people inside one social bubble.

Gabriola Island is a short 20-minute ferry from downtown Nanaimo. It's known for its natural beauty, artist community and cyclability. The Island has been on my travel list for a long time, and guess we can thank the pandemic for keeping us all home to do some more local exploration.

At the end of August 2020, Holly, Steph and I went for a weekend bike trip on Gabriola. I rode up from Cowichan and met the gals at the ferry terminal in Nanaimo.

Like all Gulf Islands, Gabriola is hilly, not Pender Island hilly, but the Island greets you with a steep slope right off the ferry — it's a little Gulf Island hello.

The Island is very cycling friendly, and I've been told that it is an e-bike hotspot for the locals. Which we witnessed first hand as we were grinding up the hills with our camp gear and boxes of wine in tow and a couple lovely seniors on e-bikes buzzed passed us. However, cycling on Gabriola isn't just kept to the roads. There are dozens of trails woven all over the Island — here's just a taste.

We stuck to the main roads as we made the quick ride from the ferry terminal to Descanso Bay Campground (less than 2k). Descanso Bay is a regionally operated campground that is very busy in the summertime. Although it's just minutes away from downtown Nanaimo, Gabriola feels worlds away once you get on the Island, making the campground a very popular among the city folk. Luckily, there are three bike-in only sites and managed to snag one by booking four weeks in advance.

Descanso Bay Campground also rents kayaks. So after the quick ride to camp, we pitched our tents and decided to go for an evening paddle. It was glorious and warm, and we got to glimpse the Island that we would explore the next day from the sea.

The next day we did our bike around the Island. Roughly a 40-kilometre loop, this circuit takes you past a lot of the Island's sights. We stopped in at the Saturday Farmer's Market, cruised past some beaches, stopped ice cream in the village. The only thing about this trip that I'd change is taking the loop slower and spending more time exploring the many beaches and parks.

Once we finished our loop of the Island we cruised out to the Surf Lodge for a beer and some snacks. This is notable because not only do they have a nice lawn patio, they also have wonton nachos. Maybe they have the best wonton nachos? You decide.

Our day of cycling and exploring complete we went back to camp to watch the sunset from the beach.

On our last day, we packed up early and biked over to the Malaspina Galleries. It's an open-concept ocean cave carved into the sandstone. The best time to visit is in the evening at low tide. Sunsets on that side of the Island are beautiful, and the sunlight in the summer warms up the sandstone. However, we went in the morning because that fit our schedule and it was still great.

This quick bike trip was typical type one fun. It's not one of the big expeditions I had planned for the year, but it put some miles on our gear while exploring close to home. We are lucky to live in this part of the world where our own backyard is full of adventure and surprises. I'm looking forward to the days that we can explore further afield, but for now, these quick trips are a great way to get to know home.

Gabriola Highlights

I've lived on Vancouver Island on and off for over ten years, and this August was my first trip to Gabriola. Just days after booking my campsite, Daniel and I were contracted to film a series of tourism videos for the Island. So the next month I got to go back and explore even more of Gabriola, here a bit from that project.


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