Best Canoe Routes in British Columbia

Heading for Powell Lake
Heading for Powell Lake

Transporting a canoe and gear around multiple lakes to complete a circuit or route is both exciting and a huge challenge. Slowly viewing the changing landscape from the canoe and portage trail is also immensely fascinating and the main reason why I love this type of adventure. British Columbia is home to some amazing canoe circuits. Here are just three of my favourite canoe routes so far.

Looking down the Bowron Lakes
Looking down the Bowron Lakes

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Bowron Lakes Canoe Circuit – 105.6 km paddling, 10.8 km portaging

A perfect parallelogram of rivers, lakes and portages surrounded by dark temperate rainforest and imposing mountains, the Bowron Lakes canoe circuit is a something of a geographical wonder.

The eastern side is both wet and wild, with long lakes, muddy portages and rapids to finish. After floating along the silty Cariboo River paddlers arrive in the drier, western half of the circuit and are welcomed by sandy beaches and small, picture-perfect lakes.

The journey takes around four to seven days, though some paddlers choose to stay the full two weeks allowed.

The Bowron Lakes chain is the most popular canoe circuit in BC, featuring on the bucket list of many paddlers around the world. It’s this popularity that leads Bowron to be at an interesting juxtaposition of being a remote, wilderness area with lots of visitors.

The good thing is that many of Bowron’s lakes are so big that there are times when you wouldn’t even believe that anyone else was sharing the view.

The lakes aren’t the only big spectacles on the Bowron circuit. The serrated peaks and glaciers of the Cariboo Mountains range provide an epic background to Issac, Lanezi, Sandy and Unna Lakes before the rounded hilltops of the Quesnel Highlands accompany paddlers to the end.

A short blueberry lined hike from Unna Lake leads to the impressive 24m Cariboo Falls.

The animals of Bowron are large and numerous too, with moose often spotted alongside bears, mountain goats and caribou.

Helpful to know

Reservations are essential for trips on the Bowron Lakes circuit in summer, with only 50 people permitted to start every day. All participants must complete a short orientation before setting off.

Due to the high elevation of the lakes and surrounding mountains, weather can be very unpredictable on the route. Heavy rain for consecutive days and low summer temperatures are not uncommon (the average daily temperature for our August trip was around 12°C!)

3 of the Best Canoe Routes in British Columbia
Sandy Lake on the Bowron Lakes Canoe Circuit
3 of the Best Canoe Routes in British Columbia
Lanezi Lake on the Bowron Lakes Canoe Circuit

Powell Forest Canoe Route – one of the top canoe routes in British Columbia

Distance: 55 km paddling, 8 km portaging

A slight exception to my canoe circuit rule, the Powell Forest Canoe Route is not quite a true circuit. There is a tiny 25 km gap between the southern eastern start point of Lois Lake and the western end on Powell Lake. The experience however, matches the other two circuits mentioned here. In some ways, it actually exceeds them.

During the five days we paddled this route we didn’t see a single soul. No boaters, no hikers nor any people camping at the many Recreational Sites en route.

The most human activity we heard was a distant rumble of a logging truck during a portage and a barking dog outside a faraway cottage. The Powell Forest Canoe Route must be the Sunshine Coast’s best kept secret.

This circuit has some fun challenges (the ginormous Powell Lake, one very steep portage, a wet climate) but rewards are constant.

Tiny still lakes surrounded by lush temperate rainforest with a hint of mountains peeking through the mist above, the occasional sound of a fish jumping. Other than that, silence. For a place so relatively close to civilization, the Powell Forest surprised us with its wonderful wilderness feel.

Helpful to know:

The portages are generally well maintained with canoe stands every hundred or so metres and wooden docks at either end (such luxury!).

High winds can pick up fast on Powell Lake and so paddlers should aim to complete this section early in the morning.

3 of the Best Canoe Routes in British Columbia
Portaging on the Powell Forest Canoe Circuit
3 of the Best Canoe Routes in British Columbia
Windsor Lake on the Powell Forest Canoe Circuit
Follow the markers to reach Powell Lake
Follow the markers to reach Powell Lake

Sayward Forest Canoe Circuit – one of the less well know canoe routes in British Colunbia

Distance: 39.3 km paddling, 8.1 km portaging

The area directly west of Campbell River is littered with dozens of small lakes and rivers. If travelling north on Highway 19, you’d probably never even notice. Some of these lakes handily align to form an oval circuit route that is usually completed in around three or four days.

The smallest circuit of the three mentioned here, Sayward still has a lot to offer with beautiful island campsites, fun river sections and sandy shores.

With fairly short paddling and portaging distances, the Sayward Forest is a great circuit for novice canoeists. The lakes are generally small and have enough different views and features to hold interest on a long paddling day.

There are many sandy beaches for swimming, picnic lunches or sunbathing and almost all portages can be completed with a canoe cart.

With the Sayward Forest being an active logging area and very popular with other recreational users (think RVs and ATVs), it may not be the first circuit that springs to mind when thinking of wilderness. Having said this, there are still pockets of lesser visited backcountry to be found on the route.

Amor Lake is a highlight with its many islands, unusual shape and rugged mountain views. Tiny lily-padded Whymper Lake is another place to slow down and explore.

Helpful to know

The layout (and lack of regulation) of the Sayward Forest circuit means means you can start in a counterclockwise direction anywhere on the route. A popular spot to begin is Mohun Lake as there is a Provincial Park operated parking area.

Paddling the circuit is generally wetter in spring and early summer but water levels are higher and allow for easier river navigation.

3 of the Best Canoe Routes in British Columbia
Island camping on the Sayward Canoe Circuit
3 of the Best Canoe Routes in British Columbia
Whymper Lake on the Sayward Forest Canoe Circuit

More canoe routes in British Columbia

These aren’t the only epic canoe trips on offer in BC.

Alternative adventures include the Nazko Lakes Chain (Williams Lake), Nanika Kidprice chain (Burns Lake) and Nation Lakes (Prince George).

For a base camping style canoe trip, consider Main Lake Provincial Park on Quadra Island.

Some useful items to have on any canoe trip

You might find thedetailed backroads map bookshelpful for navigating or finding places to camp pre or post paddle.

For repairs of tents, clothing, sleeping pads and more pick up a package or two ofGear Aid Tenacious Tape.

A goodcamp pillowthat you can inflate can make sleeping way more comfortable.

Dry packsare invaluable. I keep my sleeping bag in one and clothes in another. If you’re kayaking rather than canoeing, you are probably better off buying smaller dry packs and splitting your gear so you can fit them more easily in the hatch. These packs are helpful on any of the canoe routes in British Columbia.

Location map of canoe routes in BC


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3 of the best canoe routes in British Columbia

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