Cowichan River

Location: Cowichan River, British Columbia
Region: Outside Ontario
Character: Heritage River
Length/Size: 48 km

Cowichan River
By The Canadian Heritage Rivers System

A Shared Treasure

The Cowichan River on Vancouver Island flows 47 kms from mountain-ringed Cowichan Lake through forests and fields to a large ocean estuary at Cowichan Bay. Cowichan, derived from the Coast Salish word 'Khowutzun' means "land warmed by the sun" and ice formation on the river is rare. The estuary is a wintering area for thousands of waterfowl, and salmon and trout spawn up the river and its tributaries.

This provided a rich food source and the river was a central location in the history of the Salish Aboriginal people. Today, the river valley is a homeland to the Cowichan First Nation and a recreational treasure at the doorstep of nearby communities. A footpath along its entire length and a park along 20 km of the river allow access to fishing, swimming, tubing and canoeing.

The Cowichan River encompasses an impressive balance of natural, human heritage and recreational values. The river also supports hundreds of species of fish, mammals, birds, insects and amphibians in a lush oasis just minutes from urban areas. Not only is it a pillar of economic stability in the region, but it also allows for a myriad of recreational activities from swift water kayaking to peaceful nature walks, all taking place around a river flowing through a glaciated valley in a stunning landscape. With over 88,000 visitors yearly to Cowichan River Provincial Park alone, it is certainly a premier destination within British Columbia.

For these reasons in 1997 the British Columbia Heritage Rivers Board nominated the Cowichan River for the Canadian Heritage Rivers System. With a management strategy complete the Cowichan River as accepted as a Canadian Heritage River in 2003, making it the third river in British Columbia to bear this distinction.

The Cowichan River originates at the easterly end of Lake Cowichan in southwestern Vancouver Island, in the lush moist Coastal Western Hemlock biogeoclimatic zone. At its head is Cowichan Lake, the source of the river and twenty miles long, ringed by hills up to five thousand feet. The lake drains a watershed of about two hundred square miles. Like the river, its length is from west to east. Towards its eastern end it gradually narrows. Faint currents begin to flow together and, as they are compressed by the closing shores, the river is born. The river is fed additionally by numerous small creeks from surrounding Vancouver Island Ranges as well as the smaller Somenos and Quamichan Lakes near the town of Duncan.

Less than thirty miles away and five hundred feet lower, the river ends its journey at the sea, in the drier maritime Coastal Douglas Fir zone. At both ends, for half a mile or so, the river is comparatively quiet under the influence of the lake and the ocean tides. In between, it rushes and fights its way off the boulder-strewn floor of the valley, varying from swift rapids to waterfalls, to wide, slow channels through expansive valley flats.

Natural Heritage
The Cowichan provides an exceptional example of a river valley created by varied geological processes. The most notable of these features are:

unique topography which shows the area's glacial past, including depressions and mounds of gravel left behind as the glaciers receded and combined with evidence of tectonic activity as the river is located along the Cowichan Lake fault line;

river terraces, alluvial fans and a wide sweeping estuary are created as the river carves out and deposits sediments along its length;

viewpoints at Skutz Falls and Marie Canyon showcase the area's unique geological history;

wintering waterfowl, including swans and Canada geese congregate at the estuary, while upstream the river is home to over 200 species of birds including osprey, hawks, owls, ducks, bald eagles, ravens, etc.;

mammals inhabiting the valley include black bear, cougar, gray wolf, Roosevelt elk, wolverine, mink, marten, otter and beaver;

aquatic wildlife include coho, chinook and chum salmon and steelhead, rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout, as well as lamprey, freshwater mussels and the occasional white sturgeon; and

Douglas-fir and western hemlock forest communities are well represented and rare species such as cup-clover, blue-eyed Mary and fawn lily can be observed.

Human Heritage
The Cowichan River Valley is the homeland of the Cowichan First Nation, a Coast Salish people. The Cowichan people continue to use the river and associated ecosystems for food, clothing, shelter and medicine. The river has always been used as a significant travel corridor leading to other watersheds and trading opportunities.

When Europeans and Asians began settling the Cowichan Valley in the mid 1800's they treasured the area for its rich agricultural opportunities. The valley supported a substantial forestry industry that would turn into the economic base for the entire Cowichan region. The gigantic Douglas fir, hemlock, Sitka spruce and cedar trees (commonly over ten feet in diameter) provided a seemingly endless supply of timber to the settlers. The Cowichan River was especially vital during this time as it provided a means to transport the valuable logs to the coast. Once there, they were made into booms and towed to the many mills peppering the coast. Eventually they would be used within British Columbia or sent abroad to the huge timber markets of Australia, Hawaii, Chile and Shanghai to be used in construction and ship-building.

When the E & N Railway reached Lake Cowichan in 1913 the railway became the preferred method to transport logs; this sparked a huge logging boom in the area. As camps moved and were dissembled, they left behind roads, infrastructure and water supplies, providing perfect town sites for the communities springing up throughout the valley. Logging has slowed down from what it was a century ago, but using selective logging methods, with a greater than 80 year rotation pattern, the valley is managed sustainably to this day.

Conveniently located between Victoria and Nanaimo, the Cowichan Valley is a centre for recreational activities on Vancouver Island. Originally internationally renowned for its spectacular fishing, the area is now acclaimed for its exceptional hikes, beautiful campgrounds and world-class wineries. Besides being a destination for adventuring, it remains popular with residents who use the area for a quick trip to the park to walk the dog. The Cowichan is an immensely popular tourism destination with thousands of visitors seeking out the region each year.

Canoeing, Kayaking and Tubing: The Cowichan River has always been popular with locals. But its reputation has spread since the creation of the Cowichan River Park in 1995. The park provides access points at various locations along the river. This allows canoeists and kayakers of all skill levels the opportunity of experience on the water. As the river is prone to fluctuating water levels and swift currents, visitors should observe posted hazards. During the summer months tubing is extraordinarily popular on the Cowichan River. Thousands will bob and spin down the river as they take the day long trip beginning from Lake Cowichan through peaceful bends and invigorating rapids until they reach the Glenora Riverside Community Parks.

Hiking and Cycling: The Cowichan River is home to a system of trails with links to national, provincial and regional trails. In addition to the numerous hikes and nature walks found in the provincial and regional parks, the Cowichan River footpath has been added to the Trans-Canada Trail, contributing to its national heritage. The result is numerous hikes, from short jaunts to challenging hilly trails, or access to a nationwide expedition. Key sites include the restored 66-Mile and Holt Creek trestles, Skutz Falls and Marie Canyon. Cycling is also popular on the Trans-Canada Trail. However it is prohibited on hiking trails within the Provincial Park.

Camping: There are two campgrounds along the river within the Cowichan River Provincial Park. The Stoltz Pool and Skutz Falls campgrounds provide 76 campsites with both vehicle accessible and walk-in group camping. The surrounding valley also contains numerous local government and private campgrounds. Visitor information centers in the area have complete listings.

Fishing: The Cowichan offers world-class fishing. The river is home to seven species of game fish, coho, chinook and chum salmon and steelhead, rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout. The Cowichan is only one of two rivers in British Columbia known to contain Brown Trout, which were brought from Scotland in the 1930's. The Cowichan River is also the subject of many books written by the renowned fisherman and conservationist Roderick Haig Brown.

Please see the BC Ministry of Environment for information on fishing within British Columbia ( In addition, all anglers should check the current regulations issued by Fisheries and Oceans Canada prior to salmon fishing for up-to-date information.

Enjoy the words of one ardent angler who voices an earnest passion for the Cowichan River and the abundant variety it provides:

"I have walked every inch of its tortuous length more than once. Along the way can be found every imaginable type of water. There are deep, calm pools and rushing white rapids, soft, gravel-bottomed flats and shaded boulder-filled runs. There is a thunderous waterfall, impassible to boats, skirted by concrete fish-ladders. There is a canyon whose dripping rock walls provide cold depths even in the full blast of summer heat. There is a log jam whose jumbled mass splits the river into a dozen channels. There are tidal flats filled with the cries of sea-birds and, where the river flows out of the lake, are lagoon-like depths of the Hatchery Pool...

All this, then, makes my fishing and my river. Its setting is incomparable, from the evergreen hills that confine its bright waters, to the maples and willows, cottonwoods and alders that shade its pools. There is always something happening there on the rare occasions when the fish will not oblige. There is the procession of ducks up and down the valley, mallard and golden-eye, merganser and harlequin. There is the procession of wild flowers, from the gross yellow skunk cabbage of early spring to the steely waving tiger lilies of summer - forget-me-nots and daisies, lupins and stocks, willow-herb and Indian paintbrush.

Above it all the eagles cruise hungrily, supported on warm gusts of scented air, Balm of Gilead in spring, pine resin in summer. The deer tread delicately to the water's edge to drink and to browse, black bears and cougars roam the woods, more seeing than seen and the furtive mink leave tracks on every sandbar. Otters pause in the fishing to blow on the surface."

Visitor Information
Access: Located directly on the Trans-Canada Hwy, the Cowichan River is easily accessible. In addition, Highway 18 follows the river from Maple Bay to Lake Cowichan making it easy to access the river throughout its length. The river is near Nanaimo (51 km) and Victoria (60 km), the two main arrival points to Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Both cities are reached by air including an international airport in Victoria. The are also numerous ferries with service from both the mainland of British Columbia at Vancouver (Tsawassen) and Horseshoe Bay, as well as from Washington State at Seattle and Port Angeles.

Accommodation and Services: With the communities of Duncan and Lake Cowichan located directly on the Cowichan River, services and accommodation are available year-round. Detailed information is available from Tourism Information Centers located in Victoria, Nanaimo, Duncan and Lake Cowichan, which are all open year-round (

Topographic Maps: The Cowichan River system is covered at the 1:50,000 scale by maps 92B/13 and 92C/16 in the National Topographic Series and at the 1:250,000 scale by map 92B/00 (Victoria). Maps may be obtained from the Canada Map Office, 615 Booth Street, Ottawa, K1A 0E9 (

Further Information
BC Parks - Cowichan River Information (

BC Fishing Regulations, Licenses and Information, BC Ministry of Environment (

Cycling BC's Trans Canada Trail - Information and Maps (

Tourism British Columbia, Parliament Buildings, Victoria, B.C. V8V 1X4 (

Duncan-Cowichan Chamber of Commerce & Visitor Center, 381 Trans Canada Highway, Duncan, B.C. 9L 3R5 (

Tourism Vancouver Island, 203 - 335 Wesley Street Nanaimo, B.C. V9R 2T5 (