The Cowichan River originates at the easterly end of Lake Cowichan in southwestern Vancouver Island, in the lush Coastal Western Hemlock zone. The river is fed by small creeks and has a varying pace; from swift rapids, to waterfalls, to wide, slow channels through expansive valley flats. The river ends its journey at the sea, in the drier maritime Coastal Douglas Fir zone.
The unique topography shows evidence of the area’s glacial past, including mounds of gravel left when the glaciers receded. River terraces, alluvial fans and a wide, sweeping estuary are created as the river carves out and deposits sediments along its length. There are impressive viewpoints, such as the ones at Skutz Falls and Marie Canyon that showcase the area’s unique geological history. Numerous species of birds and mammals call the Cowichan their home, and the river’s aquatic wildlife also includes coho, chinook and chum salmon; steelhead, rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout; lamprey, and freshwater mussels.
The Cowichan River Valley is the homeland of the Cowichan First Nation, a Coast Salish people. The Cowichan people continue their traditional use of the river and its 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 settlers arrived, the logging industry became a vital part of the local economy as gigantic Douglas fir, hemlock, Sitka spruce and cedar trees were exported not only throughout North America but also as far away as Australia. The Cowichan River was especially vital during this time as it provided a means to transport the valuable logs to the coast. Today, selective logging methods based on greater than 80-year rotation patterns are used to sustain the forest.
The accessibility of the Cowichan Valley has helped it to become a leading locale for recreational activities on Vancouver Island. An international fishing destination, the river valley is also renowned for its spectacular hikes, beautiful campgrounds and world-class wineries.
Cowichan River Provincial Park is adjacent to an abandoned rail right-of-way that provides recreational opportunities for cyclists, hikers and horseback riders. Visitors can also enjoy the historic 20 km-long Cowichan River Footpath and a variety of campsites, day-use and picnic areas within the park. The restored 66-Mile and Holt Creek Trestles on the Trans-Canada Trail provide spectacular river views and the opportunity to imagine a time when log-laden traincars would thunder along the tracks high above the Cowichan River.
Who Manages the River?
BC Parks is responsible for the CHRS program in the province, and also manages a provincial park along the river. Other important partners in the management of this river include the Cowichan Valley Regional District, the Cowichan Watershed Board, the Cowichan River Stewardship Roundtable, and the Cowichan Tribes.
If you are lucky enough to explore at the right time of year, you may observe rare plant species such as cup-clover, blue-eyed Mary and fawn lily.
Read about the impressive project to restore the Stoltz Bluff, improve the water quality and protect the fish habitat of the Cowichan River in our Success Stories!