One of our favourite paddling destinations has to be Desolation Sound on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast. If you’re planning a trip (and trust me, you should be!), here’s everything you need to know when organising an adventure paddling in Desolation Sound.
Remember to always follow Leave No Trace principles when exploring the backcountry. Some links within this post are affiliate links which means if you purchase an item through these, I receive a small percentage of the sale at no extra cost to you. This enables me to write free content such as this article.
Highlights of Desolation Sound
Desolation Sound is truly a paddler’s paradise. Why? Some of the best reasons include:
- Natural beauty. Protected bays, towering rock bluffs and idyllic islands framed by a mountainous backdrop….paddling in Desolation Sound is breathtaking.
- Scenic campsites. Situated on small islands, dramatic headlands and nestled into cosy bays, Desolation Sound’s camping areas are all picture perfect in some way or another. Camping areas lend themselves well to easy base camping trips as well as touring adventures.
- More than a paddling trip. Desolation Sound isn’t just limited to exploration on the water. Combine your paddling with hiking, swimming, fishing and wildlife watching!
- A warm welcome. The warmest waters north of Mexico can be found in Desolation Sound. It’s possible to swim in the ocean (comfortably!) as early as May here.
- Great for all paddlers. Desolation Sound’s calm, warm waters, sheltered bays and comfortable campsites are perfect for first-time paddlers. The area is also a good launching point for longer and more challenging BC coastal trips (Toba Inlet, Discovery Islands).
How to get to Desolation Sound
Desolation Sound is located at the top of BC’s Sunshine Coast. A minimum of two ferries are needed to get here from the BC mainland. Powell River is the last major refuelling place for groceries and other paddling supplies.
The two main launching sites for Desolation Sound are located at opposite sides of the Malaspina Peninsula, at the top of BC’s Sunshine Coast.
Highway 101 ends at the tiny town of Lund. Here, you’ll find a handful of hotels, restaurants and shops plus a paid long-term parking lot and all important boat launch.
The marina kayak launching and pick-up fee is $5 per kayak ($10 return trip), payable in an honesty box. There are flush toilets available for public use at the marina.
End of the Road Parking Limited looks after the main Lund parking lot, with regular office hours 8am – 5pm. They usually ask kayakers to keep their keys (they also offer valet service) to allow for early/late departures. The fee is $7/24 hours. It is also possible to park on the side of Highway 101 approaching Lund, with no security.
A little further south of Lund on the eastern side of the Peninsula is Okeover Arm harbour. There is a government dock and boat launch here, with a $2 fee for kayakers ($4 return trip). A large (free) parking lot is located on the other side of the road. We had no problems parking here for 5 days.
A very short walk away from the boat launch is Okeover Arm Provincial Park. There are 14 first-come first-served vehicle accessible campsites available for $14/night.
Lund vs. Okeover
Having launched paddling trips from both Lund and Okeover, my personal preference would be to leave from Lund. Both are equally convenient for paddling in Desolation Sound and have all the facilities needed, but I think the experience is more interesting from Lund overall. While Lund may have more boat traffic, the narrower parts of Malaspina Inlet can have currents up to 4 knots at times. There are also more camping options closer to Lund than Okeover, handy if starting late on the first day.
The perfect solution would be to start at Lund and end at Okeover (or vice versa!) if you are able to have two vehicles.
Where to camp
Campsites in Desolation Sound generally come in two forms: Marine Provincial Park sites and informal camping areas. The latter offer no organised facilities but have been previously established by other boaters. Wild camping on crown land outside of the Provincial Park is allowed, but suitable land (easy access with flat, cleared space) is in short supply so not recommended.
Desolation Sound Marine Provincial Park
There are 11 designated backcountry camping areas in Desolation Sound Marine Provincial Park with almost 70 tent pads total. Fees are $5 per person, per night, payable between June 1st to September 15th every year. There are deposit boxes in both Lund and Okeover, or you can pay online. Note that buying a permit is not a reservation.
The camping areas are split into three general groups – the Copeland Islands, around Malaspina Inlet and the Curme Islands. Tent pads must be used due to the delicate ecosystem in each location. There are outhouses at all but one of the camping areas (campers at Curme East need to travel to one of the other Curme Islands). No fresh water or food caches are available at any of the camping areas.
The Curme Islands are a top destination for a lot of Desolation Sound kayakers. With a central position in the Sound and epic views of the mountain, it’s easy to see why.
alternative camping options
Aside from Desolation Sound, there are a few other Provincial Parks in the wider area. Roscoe Bay, to the north of the Curme Islands, has space for 4-5 tents (with an outhouse) at the far west of the inlet. The fee is $5/per person/per night.
There are a few completely free unofficial camping areas outside of the Provincial Park. Martin Island and Kinghorn Island both have a couple of areas each. To the north, there is an informal camping spot near the waterfall in Teakerne Arm. For more detail on these sites and others in the Desolation Sound area, check out the most excellent Wild Coast 3 book by John Kimantas.
Paddling in desolation sound
Paddling in Desolation Sound is easy. The water is generally warm, calm and sheltered. There are a few open sections that must be paddled to reach the most popular camping locations (Curme Islands), but these are very short (2-3km). That all said, we have experienced some wild windy days on the water on Desolation Sound.
On our first trip, gale force winds were predicted to arrive on the afternoon of our last day (thanks, VHF radio). So we packed up quickly and got onto the water early for a quick exit. The winds came in earlier than expected and we battled some metre and a half swells before finally turning into the much calmer Malaspina Inlet.
There was also one ferociously windy day during our last trip, this time in the northern Desolation Sound area. Luckily we had nowhere to be so we were able to leisurely wait it out. Some very tired kayakers joined us at our campsite that afternoon, having taken almost the whole day to paddle the relatively short distance from the Curme Islands in high winds.
Moral of the story: always allow more time for your trip than necessary and assess the weather conditions (and forecast) before setting out. Desolation Sound may be one of the most sheltered and calm areas of the BC coast, but it still can be hit by high winds and dangerous paddling conditions like everywhere else!
Cell phone signal is prevalent (as are other boats) throughout the Desolation Sound area. Even knowing this, we still like to carry a basic VHF radio. It’s useful for checking the weather and tides as well as listening to what the larger boats are up to! Of particular interest, at least for us, is the local whale watching boats…
There are several places to find fresh water while paddling in Desolation Sound. The most obvious sources are Unwin Lake and Black Lake, accessible via short trails from Tenedos Bay and Roscoe Bay respectively. Not just great for collecting water, both lakes are also perfect for a swim! Keep in mind that the lake water should be treated before drinking.
Fully treated water can be found at the boater’s supply village of Refuge Cove.
When to visit desolation sound
The best time to paddle Desolation Sound is May – September. The summer months are busy, with hundreds of touring pleasure boats addition to many private and guided kayaks paddling Desolation Sound. With the limited availability of sites in summer, choosing a base camp and day touring from there may provide a less stressful experience.
If you prefer to avoid crowds and have your pick of sites, plan a mid week visit in May, June or September. Shoulder season weekends can still be fairly busy so try and avoid leaving on a Friday if possible.
Shellfish collecting has long been a favourite of Desolation Sound paddlers. We have feasted on many an oyster during our trips; they are large, plentiful and flavoursome. Mussels are much less common, with only small ones sighted on our last trip. Rockfish fishing was more successful, particularly just to the west of Kinghorn Island, just outside of the Conservation boundary.
The Desolation Sound region is located in BC Tidal Area 15. There are some quite specific rules and regulations concerning fishing and collecting shellfish to follow while paddling in Desolation Sound. Quite simply, you can’t just do it everywhere. For example, there is a large Rockfish Conservation Area covering much of Desolation Sound that restricts any fishing of Rockfish at all.
It is very important to always read and understand the area closure maps and collection limits before fishing and collecting shellfish. For the latter, it is also vital to check that there are no biotoxin (‘red tide’) shellfish contamination warnings in place. Eating contaminated shellfish can be fatal.
To fish or collect shellfish, you must hold a BC Tidal Waters License. These are currently $22 for an annual pass for BC residents.
Canoe vs. kayak: paddling desolation Sound
Lucky enough to own both canoes and kayaks, we have visited Desolation Sound with each type of boat. The vast majority of people paddling in Desolation Sound are equipped with kayaks, but we did spot one other canoe on our first trip. We paddled a little faster in the kayaks than the canoe and felt that they handled better in rougher water.
Most campsites in Desolation Sound are on rock bluffs or headlands. Accessing them was easier in the kayaks, with one person getting out of their kayak and then helping the other. Moving the kayaks to higher ground was also a simpler process as they weigh only 45lb each compared to the 80lb canoe and spray deck.
outdoor gear we used in desolation sound
For the curious, I thought I’d compile a list of some of the outdoor gear we used on our most recent paddling trip in Desolation Sound.
- Kayaks – We use 14 feet Delta kayaks. They are thermoformed (ABS acrylic) kayaks made in Maple Ridge, Vancouver. Lightweight, durable and easy to manoeuvre, we love our Deltas. And they look great too!
- Camp kitchen – This was our first paddling trip using a Jetboil Genesis cooking stove. It’s a bit of a luxury set-up for the backcountry but we really liked the quick cooking time and convenience of having two burners.
- Tent – Our MSR Freelite 2 is standing the test of time so far, with over 25 nights of successful use over the last two camping seasons. The weight (2lb 11oz packed) is ideal for any backcountry trip we do. The floor space is not as roomy as the Hubba series equivalent, which prioritises space over ultralight weight.
- Sleeping – On our most recent Desolation trip, JR used his Klymit Insulated Static V (super comfortable!) and I had my Exped Synmat HL. Unfortunately, I made a rookie error and forgot to test my mat before the trip (since it was the first of the year) and it had an air chamber issue. On return, I warrantied it and upgraded to the Exped Synmat HL Duo, so we can lighten our gear kit even more. Sleeping bag wise, we use a couple of old 0c rated bags from MEC.
- Hammock – Our ENO Doublenest hammock is perfect to bring on paddling trips when we have a little more flexibility with space and weight. It’s great to have somewhere else to hang out and relax.
If you’re planning a trip to Desolation Sound, let me know in the comments!
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