Despite being close to civilisation, the Powell Forest Canoe Route offers a surprisingly remote and peaceful backcountry experience.
The scenery is ever changing but resoundingly lush and full of life, even in the rain. Think white-capped mountains, deep blue fjords and misty temperate rainforests.
Including eight lakes, around 55km of paddling and 5-6 portages, the Powell Forest Canoe Route is an exciting beyond the beaten path multi-day paddling adventure on British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast.
Here’s what to expect in this post:
- About the Powell Forest Canoe Route
- Our experience
- Powell Forest Canoe Route guide
Updated 2022. There are affiliate links in this post. If you make a qualifying purchase through one of these links, I may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.
- Always bring the 10 Essentials
- Know how to stay safe in the backcountry
- Remember to Leave No Trace to help keep the wilderness wild
- Understand how to avoid negative bear encounters
- Trying out backpacking for the first time? Read Backpacking 101
- Recommended gear is listed on our Shop page
- Check out our packing guide with gear recommendations
- Sign up to our newsletter for a free backpacking checklist
The Powell Forest Canoe Route
First developed by a group of passionate locals, Powell Forest Canoe Route is a series of eight lakes connected by eight portages.
This ‘almost circuit’ is located on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, Canada, the traditional territory of the Tla’amin and shíshálh First Nations.
Most paddlers spend 4-6 days exploring the lakes, using the maintained portage routes to carry gear and equipment from one to another.
There is no fee to paddle the route, nor any reservation or permit system. It is also completely free to camp at 20+ campgrounds scattered along the route, which operate on a first come, first serve system. Donations to the Friends of the Powell Forest Canoe Route Society are very welcome.
Despite feeling wonderfully remote at times, the Powell Forest Canoe Route is not quite in wilderness. There are logging roads around most of the lakes and a fair amount of houseboats and cottages, especially on Powell Lake.
True wilderness or not, there is plenty of beauty to be found in the Powell Forest.
The mountains peeked out of the clouds when they could, bald eagles circled above us, huge frogs hopped along on the portage paths, and giant tadpoles swam under the floating docks. Everywhere you look is lush temperate rainforest, practically dripping with life.
The next section of this post features a day-by-day account of our Powell Forest Canoe Route adventure. It is followed by a paddling guide, which you can use to plan your own trip.
Paddling the Powell Forest Canoe Route: Our experience
The Powell Forest Canoe Route was our very first experience of outdoor adventure on BC’s mainland after living on Vancouver Island for 2.5 years.
And what an introduction! We couldn’t believe how well kept this ‘almost’ circuit seemed to be, with great signage, beautiful campgrounds and canoe rests on almost every portage.
Best of all, we saw no other paddlers. It really felt like we had the entire Powell Forest to ourselves!
We paddled the Powell Forest Canoe Route in 2014 and hiked the Sunshine Coast Trail above it in 2019.
Day 1 – Lois Lake to Little Horseshoe Lake
We started the Powell Forest Canoe Route on an ominously cloudy and drizzly day in May.
The sun peeked through the clouds here and there, but for the most part, it was just us, the relatively calm waters of Lois Lake and a few ospreys flying above. There wasn’t even a single other boat on the lake.
The calm conditions were in our favour and we quickly found ourselves at the first portage. And it was an ‘easy’ one too. Though I loved the look of the campground at the other end of the portage, it felt too early to stop for the day.
One of the unique features of the Powell Forest canoe circuit is the choice of routes at the end of Horseshoe Lake. We chose to go east, which I believe is the lesser used side.
Landing at the next portage proved to be a bit tricky with a major logjam blocking the shore. To get through, we had to play a bit of log Tetris.
Another short-ish portage down and we decided we were definitely done for the day, setting up camp at pretty Little Horseshoe Lake.
Day 2 – Little Horseshoe Lake to Windsor Lake
Remember when I said that it felt like we had the circuit all to ourselves? As it turns out, we actually did.
Over the whole five days we were on the circuit, we saw no other paddlers or campers. The most human activity we saw was two people and their dog hanging out at their cottage on Dodd Lake on day two.
As we approached the dock at the end of Dodd Lake, I noticed a lot of movement on the surface of the water. Getting closer, it almost looked like it was boiling over!
The water was absolutely full of huge tadpoles, with the head being 3cm or so wide. I had never seen anything like it (and still haven’t!)
We stopped to marvel at them over a long, late lunch before starting the next portage, which crossed and stayed close to surrounding logging roads.
Day 3 – Rained in at Windsor Lake
Windsor Lake was by far our favourite lake with beautiful views of the mountains, waterfalls cascading hundreds of feet, no clear-cuts and a mostly quiet logging road.
It turns out to be quite a good place to be rained in on day three when it absolutely poured 12 hours straight. And believe me, it really was a deluge!
We set up a tarp over one of the picnic tables and played many games of cards with the rain pattering down above us. It felt remarkedly cosy.
Day 4 – Windsor Lake to Fiddlehead Landing, Powell Lake
We weren’t really in a rush to start our fourth day on the Powell Forest Canoe Route. It began with a tough 2.4km portage to Goat Lake, with a 111m descent.
At least it was a lot easier than climbing it in the other direction! Powell Lake awaited us at the end of this tiring portage, the largest lake on the route.
Knowing that the prevailing winds would be against us, I was a little apprehensive. The first few hours were relatively smooth but the winds started to pick up as the afternoon wore on.
We were so pleased to stumble upon the Fiddlehead Landing hut (photo below). One of many of the 180km Sunshine Coast Trail, this hut is completely free to use.
It was wonderful to be out of the tent after two days in the rain, though the hut’s ventilation grates didn’t keep out the vicious blackflies. Bug bites aside; staying in the Fiddlehead Landing hut was a great way to end our time on the Powell Lakes route.
Day 5 – Fiddlehead Landing to Powell Lake Marina
Most of the lakes in the Powell Forest are small, easily crossable in a few hours or less. Powell Lake is different.
Deep, mysterious and seemingly never-ending, paddling it is an experience in itself. We started our last day early, with almost 20km left to paddle on this great lake.
Halfway through, one-metre swells and headwinds started and accompanied us all the way to the end. Even so, we admired the immense power and size of this lake.
As it seemed to get choppier by the minute, I was happy to finally spot the marina in the distance. We landed about an hour or later than originally predicted.
JR quickly ran off to try and get the bus to Powell River, while I packed up the gear and sat on the shore to wait. Our adventure was over!
Powell Forest Canoe Route Paddling Guide
The standard Powell Forest Canoe Circuit route, located on BC’s Sunshine Coast, includes eight lakes, with around 55km of paddling and 8km of portage.
There are quite a few adaptions to the route; you can add more lakes (such as Khartoum near the start or Inland close to the end), or cut it down to about half by turning around at Dodd Lake.
Canoe circuits are immensely satisfying. It is a fantastic challenge to transport your gear over both land and water, and the mixture of hiking and paddling keeps the experience and scenery varied.
Though this canoe route may not be a true ‘circuit’ (its shaped more like a horseshoe), it still offers an incredible backcountry adventure for novice and experienced paddlers alike.
The Powell Forest Canoe Circuit is located on the upper Sunshine Coast of British Columbia. The closest city is Powell River.
Although the upper Sunshine Coast is part of the British Columbia mainland, it is only accessible by BC Ferries.
From the Vancouver area, you must first take the ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Langdale and then another ferry from Earl’s Cove to Saltery Bay.
From Vancouver Island, it’s possible to take the ferry directly from Comox to Powell River.
I would highly recommend making a BC Ferries reservation when travelling on the weekend or during the summer months.
The Powell Forest Canoe Route is a fun but sometimes challenging backcountry adventure.
Portaging and paddling for extended periods of time can be strenuous. The good news is that the difficulty can be reduced with lighter equipment and a longer itinerary.
If you’re not an experienced or regular paddler, you may find the paddling part of the canoe route very tiring.
I would recommend learning basic strokes and paddling some smaller lakes before attempting this canoe route. Knowing how to recognise changing weather and lake conditions is important too.
Powell Lake is the largest body of water on the canoe route. The paddling distance from Goat Lake to Powell Lake Marina is around 26km.
The winds on Powell Lake can be treacherous for paddlers, so it makes sense to break up the journey into two days if you can. The calmest conditions are usually experienced before midday and after 5pm (this was absolutely true on our trip).
The prevailing winds blow towards Goat Lake, a fact that persuades some paddlers to traverse the canoe route in the less travelled clockwise direction.
Paddlers completing the standard Powell Forest Canoe Route will need to portage at least five times. Portaging is the act of carrying all of your gear and equipment between water bodies (in this case, lakes).
If you’ve never tried portaging, you may be surprised how exhausting and time consuming it can be. To lessen the load, be careful not to overpack.
To put it simply – the lighter your gear, the less tiring the experience will be. This is especially true regarding your chosen canoe, which will be your largest item to carry. The portages aren’t really suitable for canoe carts.
The most difficult portage on the canoe route is between Windsor Lake and Goat Lake. It is reasonably long (2.4km) and has an elevation change of 111m. The trail between these lakes is nicknamed ‘Cardiac Hill’ for this reason.
The challenging nature of this particular portage means that most paddlers choose to traverse the canoe route in a counter-clockwise direction to descend Cardiac Hill, rather than climb it.
When to go
In theory, the Powell Forest Canoe Route can be paddled almost all year round.
On practical terms though, the best time to paddle the route is from June to September when the weather is usually warmer. These are the driest months as well. July and August are definitely the best months for swimming in the lakes.
On the downside, the lakes are busiest in the summer. Powell Lake has many houseboats and day visitors. Water levels will also be lower in late summer.
May and September can be a bit variable, with consistently cool and wet weather some years.
We paddled the canoe route in May and did not see any other paddlers. In fact, we only saw two other humans during the entire five day period! It did rain quite a lot however.
Criss-crossed by many industrial roads, Powell Forest Canoe Route has multiple possible entry and exit points.
Most paddlers, however, start at Lois Lake Recreational Site and finish at the marina on Powell Lake (counter-clockwise direction).
Lois Lake Recreational Site is best accessed via the Canoe Main FSR, which is usually open 24/7. The turnoff on Highway 101 is opposite Loubert Road, in the small community of Stillwater. The drive is 5km (about 15 minutes). Canoe Main is an industrial road so the condition varies. A vehicle with high clearance is preferable.
Powell Lake Marina is located just north of Townsite, about 10 minutes drive from Powell River itself. The access road is completely paved and also signed from Highway 101.
As mentioned, there are numerous other entry points to the Powell Forest Canoe Route. Lois Lake and the Marina are, by far, the easiest to reach. The others are located on industrial roads, some of have limited opening hours and/or one-way systems (this community website is helpful resource).
There is a lot of logging in the Powell Forest area and drivers should expect and anticipate meeting logging trucks and other large vehicles on industrial roads.
Drive with care and give way as soon as possible. Be sure to check your spare tire before leaving the highway as road conditions can vary. I recommend using the Vancouver and Coast Backroad Mapbook for navigation.
Lois Lake Recreation Site has a separate day use and camping area. There is a decent sized parking lot. We parked our vehicle here for five days with no issues.
Powell Lake Marina is fairly large with moorage for 200+ boats. There is a paid parking lot here, as well as a pub that is named after the Powell Lake Shingle Mill that previously stood on this site.
One downside to the Powell Forest Canoe Route is that it is not a true canoe circuit that starts and finishes in the same location.
With the route being shaped like a horseshoe, there is an approximate 30km gap between the end at Powell Lake and the start at Lois Lake. There are four main ways to ‘close the gap’ when paddling the route:
- Two vehicle shuttle system
- Paid shuttle service
- Public transport/taxi combination
Larger groups may opt to DIY a vehicle shuttle system to save on costs, though it does take some time. Anticipate spending two hours before starting the route and another two hours afterwards organising and shuttling vehicles.
Sasquatch Trails offer a shuttle service for Powell Forest Canoe Route paddlers and their gear. This is the fastest and easiest way to ‘close the gap’ but also the most expensive method.
Sasquatch Trails also offer shuttles to other entry and exit points along the route. If Sasquatch Trails is already busy, Jesse from Sunshine Coast Shuttles may be available.
Public transportation/taxi combination
The third option to ‘close the gap’ is time consuming but can be money saver.
Two BC Transit bus routes (1 and 14) pass by the Powell Lake Marina, the most popular finishing point. Both services stop at the Town Centre Mall, where a taxi can be hired to the Lois Lake Recreation Site turnoff on Highway 101. The final 4.5km distance would need to be hiked.
At the time of our trip, we only had one vehicle and more time than money so this is the method we chose.
As it turned out, the taxi driver didn’t mind driving on logging roads so drove JR all the way to Lois Lake. JR then drove back to the marina to pick me and the gear up. It cost $50 for the taxi, $2.25 for the bus and took about two hours total.
The Powell Forest Canoe Route is completely free to paddle. There is no permit or reservation system.
Camping at any of the en-route campsites is also free, with the exception of Haywire Bay Regional Park on Powell Lake. All campgrounds (again, with the exception of Haywire Bay) operate on a first come, first serve system.
The Friends of the Powell Forest Canoe Route Society help to maintain the route and donations are very welcome.
There are 20 campgrounds located along the main Powell Forest Canoe Circuit Route. There is an additional campground on Khartoum Lake, just off the main canoe route.
All of these campgrounds are free to use, most being Recreation Sites maintained by the Ministry of Forests.
The majority of campgrounds are located right on the lakeshore, with a few situated on the portage trails. A handful have road access but most are trail/lake access only.
Rustic in nature, each campground has an outhouse, flat area for tents, metal fire pits and picnic tables. Some have docks and open sided shelters.
Campfires are allowed on the Powell Forest Canoe Route when there is no campfire ban in place. Check for fire bans before you head out – the Powell Forest is in the Coastal Fire Centre.
Other options for camping
Haywire Bay, a paid campground run by the qathet Regional District, is located on Powell Lake. Being so close to the ‘end point’ for most paddlers, it’s not often utilised by Powell Forest canoeists.
The Sunshine Coast Trail‘s Fiddlehead Landing hut is situated half way along Powell Lake. This is a completely free to use shelter with outhouse, covered picnic table and enclosed sleeping loft.
We stayed at the Fiddlehead Landing hut on the last night of our Powell Lake Canoe Route adventure (and were the only occupants). Keep in mind that this hut is primarily for the use of Sunshine Coast hikers.
For the most part, we found the Powell Forest Canoe Route straightforward to navigate. There are portage signs as well as orange trail markers (though some have faded to white).
We had just a few moments of confusion when portaging across or close to logging roads. It also wasn’t always obvious where portages were until we were quite close.
I’d recommend picking up a free Powell Forest Canoe Route map at the Powell River Visitor Centre before heading out. It has all the campgrounds clearly marked as well as portage information. Referring to the map almost always solved any issue we were having.
The Maps.me app can be used offline (download the relevant area first) and shows portage routes and most campgrounds. It’s even possible to use it to see remaining distance on portages.
The entire Powell Forest Canoe Route includes a total of eight portages, though most paddlers will only traverse five or six.
Overall, we were impressed by the condition of the portages. Those on the ‘eastern route’ (see below) were a little more overgrown as I believe they are less used.
Almost all of the portages featured wooden canoe rests at varying intervals along the trail – a very helpful feature as I don’t think a canoe cart would be very practical on most of the portages.
The first portage is from Lois Lake to Horseshoe Lake, which is 1.7km in length and mostly flat.
At the end of Horseshoe Lake, paddlers have the option to take the western route or eastern route.
The western route is longer, with a 2.4km portage between Nanton Lake and Ireland Lake followed by a 0.8km portage to Dodd Lake.
The eastern route, on the other hand, features an additional portage (one with stairs!) and smaller lakes.
Horseshoe Lake to Little Horseshoe Lake is just over 1km, Little Horseshoe to Beaver Lake is 600m and then Beaver Lake to Dodd Lake is around 400m.
The next portage from Dodd Lake to Windsor Lake is 0.7km and follows an old corduroy logging road built in the 1930’s.
The final portage is from Windsor Lake to Goat Lake and is the most difficult on the canoe route. The 2.4km distance features 111m of elevation change, descending from Windsor to Goat.
For some trip planning inspiration, here are some example Powell Forest Canoe Route itineraries.
The wonderful thing about this particular canoe trip is the flexibility to choose how far to paddle each day. On calm days, you may decide to paddle further. On rainy days, you may want to stay put and wait it out.
When choosing between the eastern or western route from Horseshoe Lake to Dodd Lake, consider that the western route is longer but easier (flatter trails, less portages). The eastern route has some stairs.
5 day Powell Forest Canoe Route itinerary
Day 1 – Lois Lake Recreation Site to Horseshoe Lake
Day 2 – Horseshoe Lake to Dodd Lake (either route)
Day 3 – Dodd Lake to Windsor Lake
Day 4 – Windsor Lake to Powell Lake Recreation Site (near Fiddlehead Landing)
Day 5 – Powell Lake Recreation Site to Powell Lake Marina
This is the most popular paddling itinerary for the Powell Forest Canoe Route as it breaks up the paddling and portaging into manageable distances. The long paddle on Powell Lake is also split into two, so you can make the most of the usually calmer conditions in the morning.
4 day Powell Forest Canoe Route itinerary
Day 1 – Lois Lake Recreation Site to Ireland Lake, Little Horseshoe Lake or Beaver Lake
Day 2 – Ireland Lake, Little Horseshoe Lake or Beaver Lake to Windsor Lake
Day 3 – Windsor Lake to Powell Lake Recreation Site (near Fiddlehead Landing)
Day 4 – Powell Lake Recreation Site to Powell Lake Marina
Strong paddlers on a time limit may consider this challenging itinerary. It’s basically what we did, though we decided to stay at Windsor Lake for two nights due to heavy rain. It does involve some long paddling days, however. If you have the time, I’d recommend 5 days instead.
Alternative 4 day itinerary
Day 1 – Lois Lake Recreation Site to Horseshoe Lake
Day 2 – Horseshoe Lake to Dodd Lake (via western route)
Day 3 – Dodd Lake to Horseshoe Lake (via eastern route)
Day 4 – Horseshoe Lake to Lois Lake Recreation Site
This is a more approachable 4 day itinerary that starts and ends at the same location, skipping the potentially difficult paddle on Powell Lake.
This is an ideal itinerary for novice paddles or anyone wanting a taste of the full route without the hassle of organising a shuttle. Next time we visit, we’ll probably try this route.
3 day Powell Forest Canoe Route itinerary
Day 1 – Windsor Lake to Dodd Lake
Day 2 – Dodd Lake to Horseshoe Lake (via either route)
Day 3 – Horseshoe Lake to Lois Lake Recreation Site
Short on time but still want a taste of the experience? Book a shuttle to Windsor Lake via Sasquatch Trails and then paddle back to Lois Lake from there.
6 day Powell Forest Canoe Route itinerary
Day 1 – Lois Lake Recreation Site to Horseshoe Lake
Day 2 – Horseshoe Lake to Dodd Lake (either route)
Day 3 – Dodd Lake to Windsor Lake
Day 4 – Windsor Lake to Goat Lake
Day 5 – Goat Lake to Powell Lake Recreation Site (near Fiddlehead Landing)
Day 6 – Powell Lake Recreation Site to Powell Lake Marina
Extra time on your hands? Enjoy the prettiest lakes for longer with this 6 day itinerary. Novice paddlers or families may also appreciate the slower pace of this trip.
The Powell Forest is home to a variety of wild animals, including black bear, cougar, coyote, deer, elk and racoon. Grizzly bears are not commonly seen but still a possibility.
When travelling the Powell Forest Canoe Route in May, we actually saw more animals than people!
Some of the campgrounds have food storage pulleys (to hang food away from animals) but I’d recommend bringing a rope and carabiner just in case.
Be sure also to keep a clean camp; cook away from tents and pack out all rubbish (including food scraps) with you.
While travelling the portage trails, make noise to alert wildlife of your presence. If you do see any animals, keep your distance and allow them an escaper route.
It’s a good idea to carry bear spray ‘just in case.’ Keep it in a convenient place, close enough to access quickly. I’d recommend using a holster like this. Check out our bear safety guide for more information.
Though located reasonably close to civilisation, the Powell Forest Canoe Route is still a backcountry adventure.
Phone signal is very limited in this area. Emergency assistance will take some time to arrive. Paddlers should therefore be completely self sufficient.
- Tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to be back
- Carry additional food and supplies in case difficult lake conditions prevent travel (but remember that you still need to portage everything!)
- Powell Lake is best paddled in the morning (before midday) and early evening (after 5pm). The winds can be very strong and usually blow towards Goat Lake
- Stay close to the shore on Powell Lake so you can get off the water easily if winds pick up
- Always wear a PFD (life jacket) and ensure you have a bailer/pump as well as a rope
- As mentioned above, I’d recommend carrying bear spray
- Allow plenty of time for the difficult portage between Windsor Lake and Goat Lake
- Say alert when crossing logging roads – industrial vehicles tend to move pretty fast and may not be able to stop quickly
Here’s a couple of items that we found indispensable when paddling in the Powell Forest, in addition to the 10 Essentials:
- Before hitting the circuit, drop into the Powell River Visitor Center to pick up a map. There’s an online version as well
- Don’t have a canoe and/or gear? Rent what you need from Mitchell’s, a local outfitter (go as lightweight as you can!)
- Paddling the Powell Forest Canoe Route in the shoulder seasons? Be sure to bring a lightweight tarp for rain shelter
- A BC freshwater fishing license is a legal necessity if you plan to fish on the route
- For easy portaging, we prefer Seal Line dry bags. The durability is incredible, especially since we don’t treat our gear very delicately
- To stow our DSLR camera, we use a Pelican case – it hasn’t failed us yet despite plenty of torrential rain and some accidental dunkings
- For general adventures around the Powell River area, the Coastal British Columbia Backroad Mapbook is a must! It includes all of the local logging roads and points of interest that you won’t see on a regular map
Where to stay
The Northern Sunshine Coast offers a variety of places to stay before after paddling the Powell Forest Canoe Route. Choose between resorts, motels, cottages, campgrounds, guesthouses and even oceanside Airbnbs.
Powell River is an ideal place to stay due the availability of accommodation, local facilities and central location.
We loved the Old Courthouse Inn, located in the Townsite district. Yep, it really is an old courthouse, but is completely renovated and each room has a unique theme.
A freshly made hot (or cold, it’s your choice) breakfast is included for all guests. Townsite Brewing is also conveniently located just across the street.
For free camping, consider staying at Lois Lake Recreation Site the night before starting. There are 12 vehicle accessible spots as well as 4 walk-in sites.
Check out these other paddling posts next:
FREE PRINTABLE PADDLING PACKING CHECKLIST
Sign up to our monthly newsletter and receive a completely free download of our printable, customisable packing checklist for multi-day paddling trips
One half of the Canadian/British couple behind Off Track Travel, Gemma is happiest when hiking on the trail or planning the next big travel adventure. JR and Gemma are currently based in the beautiful Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada