The Getaway
Bucket List Travel: The Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit

Any paddler who hasn't visited the Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit is missing out. This natural wonderland is one of the premier paddling destinations in British Columbia—or even the world. Once you set eyes on its 10 lakes and two rivers, offering days of paddling, you'll understand why it is so beloved. The scenic Cariboo Mountain Range backdrops every corner of the winding waterways, making every minute spent here feel like living in a painting. It doesn't matter if you're looking to challenge the waters, spot charming wildlife, or simply feel like you're embarking on an adventure, the Bowron Lakes Circuit is a perfect choice.


01 Overview of the Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit

The Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit sits in Bowron Lake Provincial Park, a massive wilderness provincial park in east-central British Columbia. The total circuit is a rectangular route that spans an impressive 116 km (72 mi) and snakes across most of the lakes with unique waterways or short portages on trails. If you're looking to travel the entire circuit, expect to spend between six and 10 days canoeing. The west end of the circuit is a bit easier and can be completed in under four days.

02 Planning your trip

Experienced paddlers will probably be used to this process, but if you're a bit newer to the scene, there are a few things you need to keep in mind. First, to use any part of the circuit, you need to make a reservation by visiting the BC Parks website or calling their official number. Making a reservation gives you full access to the circuit and its many campsites for a specific period. Access to the full circuit costs $60 per person for the full circuit and $30 per person for the West Side. There is also a $18 transaction fee for each canoe. July and August are usually the busiest months, so reservations are hard to come by. Aim for June or September if you want to guarantee a spot.

03 Preparing for the journey

Other than a boat, you're probably wondering what you need to bring. The BC Parks website has a great pre-trip information booklet that contains information on all of the gear and other items you'll need to bring or rent for your trip. It includes staples like life jackets, ropes, and similar items, as well as recommendations for safety gear and clothing—such as wearing polyester or wool clothing. Expect it to be cold and wet while you're on the circuit and prepare accordingly.

04 Navigating the circuit

The circuit begins with a mandatory orientation so make sure to ask any last-minute questions and make sure you have everything you'll need. After the orientation, you'll hike along the 2.4 km portage to Kibbee Lake. Though the route is well-maintained, it does have a slight incline. A short paddle across Kibbee Lake will deliver you to a 2 km portage that leads to Indianpoint Lake. This portage is narrower and more muddy than the last one. Indianpoint Lake offers some of the most scenic views available on the circuit. A flatter 1.6 km portage connects you to the large Isaac Lake, which is prone to high winds and rough waters. At the end of this lake, visitors have the option of using a portage or riding a river, but less experienced paddlers should take the portage. From the end of the portage, you will paddle to a log jam above the Isaac River Falls and then land at a short portage leading to McLeary Lake. Paddling on this lake is easy, but the connecting Cariboo River becomes more difficult. The river empties out onto Lanezi Lake, one of the longest and most beautiful sections of the journey. From there, you'll travel to Sandy Lake, then to Unna Lake, and then back on the Cariboo River. Look for the Babcock Creek entrance to enter Babcock Lake and then enjoy an easy paddle across several smaller lakes. Swan Lake gives way to the Bowron River, which ultimately empties into Bowron Lake and the end of the circuit.

05 Wildlife watching opportunities

On your adventure through the circuit, you will have plenty of opportunities to spot local wildlife. Moose are a common sight along the final stretch of the journey, often grazing or quenching their thirst. Bears are also regular visitors of the various lakes and portages, though you may not be able to spot them in certain weather conditions. Throughout each section, birders will have plenty to do as the skies fill with eagles and other species. If you're particularly lucky, you might even see some mountain goats. Make sure to make plenty of noise as you hike to Cariboo Falls, otherwise, you might just come across a wolf or bear.

06 Paddling tips for beginners

Close up of hipster girl holding canoe paddle. Canoeing on the sunset lake

If you're new to paddling, it might be a good idea to try a long overnight trip on another circuit before attempting Bowron. Familiarize yourself with basic paddle strokes like the forward stroke and the sweep stroke. These will enable you to travel quickly and effectively while also preparing you to get back on course if your canoe veers away. Allow yourself plenty of time for portaging. Even with a canoe cart, the hiking sections can be tiring. Try to stay near the edges of the lakes so you can get to shore quicker if you capsize or if the weather starts to change.


07 Camping along the circuit

Campsite Along Shore

The Bowron Circuit includes 54 designated camp areas, with 10 of these reserved for groups. Every camping area includes up to 13 tent pads and some even have cooking shelters or full cabins. At orientation, you'll receive a map of the circuit that includes each campsite and woodlots where you can find firewood—though these are often empty or wet. While most of the campgrounds are pretty comfortable, avoid 32 if you're visiting during the damper months because it is extremely swampy. 31 is an absolute must-stay because it has beautiful views and is the only camp area on McLeary Lake.


08 Fishing on the Bowron Lake Circuit

Fisherman with rod, spinning reel on the river bank. Sunrise. Fishing for pike, perch, carp. Fog against the backdrop of lake. background Misty morning. wild nature. The concept of a rural getaway.

This legendary circuit isn't just a premier canoeing destination—it also has fantastic fishing options. Visitors must follow BC fishing regulations. With some patience, you'll find rainbow trout, bull trout, lake trout, and kokanee. Depending on your luck, you might even grab some salmon. While the fishing is great at any point in the year, the best fishing occurs in June and September. Frequent visitors of the circuit agree that the perfect spot for fishing is the Bowron River toward the end of your journey. It's a long section with a slow current, so you can kick back, relax, and lazily fish at your own pace.


09 Photography and scenic views

Visitors looking to capture their experiences in photos are going to struggle to find any that look bad. With the mountains lining the horizon in every shot, serene lakes dancing with light, and the occasional peek at the local wildlife, there are tons of opportunities for great photos. The portage leading to Cariboo Falls features plenty of wild blueberries along the path, which are a great backdrop for any picture. The falls themselves are immensely powerful subjects for a photoshoot. Lanezi Lake's rocky shores are also perfect for your Instagram.

10 Portaging tips and techniques

Group of paddlers carrying their whitewater canoes

Many people prefer to use a canoe cart, but experts advise skipping the cart for the Bowron Circuit because of the potential for slipping and the steep portages toward the end. If you do use a cart, make sure to get one with vertical supports, not horizontal ones. When carrying your canoe, occasionally drop one arm to the side for some relief—you'll need it. Carrying bars will make this much easier. Keep some simple snacks like nuts with you to stay energized along the journey. Rest often and remember that the frequent rain will make the portages muddier and harder to climb. Most people struggle with portages two to five because of this, so wear shoes with plenty of grip. The trip down to McLeary Lake is also quite difficult.


11 Weather and seasonal considerations

While kayaking in the Canadian wilderness, the rain storm continues to form

Expect it to be rainy and cold for most of your trip through the circuit. Strong winds are also extremely common and big storms can blow in without warning. To stay prepared, bring some waterproof tarps for emergency shelter and to protect your items. A hammock will help you relax away from the wet ground. Merino wool socks are basically a must-have. They keep your feet warm even while wet and dry extremely quickly. You'll also be extremely thankful for any insect repellant you bring, especially on the warmer days.


12 Leave no trace principles

A sign that reads "Leave No Trace' with a trail in the background.

No matter where you visit, you should follow the seven Leave No Trace principles to help preserve the natural environment and keep the area clean and safe. Know all the regulations for the area, prepare for extreme weather, and repackage food to minimize waste. Only travel and camp on durable surfaces and never alter a site. Concentrate use of existing trails and campsites. After cooking, clean up thoroughly. This means picking up all garbage and cleaning up any food scraps or crumbs. If you packed it, it needs to return to your pack. Do not take any rockets, plants, or other objects of interest from the circuit. Use lightweight stoves for cooking and keep your fires small. Put out fires completely and scatter the ashes. Respect any wildlife you find, as well as any of the other guests on the circuit.


13 Cultural and historical sites

Bowron Lake Provincial Park - August 16, 2019: Front entrance sign of Bowron lake park.

]The Bowron Lake area isn't just great for paddlers, it's also perfect for history buffs. Adding an extra day to your trip for a visit to the old mining town of Barkerville is a great way to learn some of the region's history. Plus, many First Nations once frequented the Bowron Lake Provincial Park, so the entire region is full of important heritage sites. Bowron Lake was once known as Bear Lake and was the home to a 100-person village—though mudslides destroyed the area in 1964. Visitors consistently find clam middens, old campfires, and arrowheads throughout the circuit, as well.


14 Challenges and rewards of the circuit

Those who have traveled the Bowron Lake Circuit before know that it tests your physical and mental strength. However, those who are willing to endure in the face of frequent weather, muddy hills, and physical exhaustion will receive rewards. The sense of success in completing the circuit is one part of it, but there are also all of the beautiful vistas and picturesque sights throughout the waterways. Plus, there's just something about the area that stays with you, long after you return home to your normal day-to-day.

15 Returning home

Speaking of returning home, the trip back can be surprisingly difficult. You're exhausted from the journey, but elated from having finished, and then you suddenly have to clean up and put away your adventuring gear? The secret to making this easy is dish soap. It will eliminate almost any stain you can think of, so just wipe down your gear with a sponge, some water, and some dish soap, and then hose it all off. Once you've got that finished, you can sit down and go through your photos of the trip, reliving each memory. Don't forget to share them on social media and tag the official Parks pages so that other paddlers can join in on the fun.


Scroll Down

for the Next Article

The Getaway Badge
Sign up to receive insider info and deals that will help you travel smarter.