Welcome to the Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit! This 120-km paddling route in Northern British Columbia is praised as some of the best canoeing in BC. A rectangular chain of 10 lakes, 2 rivers, and 11 km of portages, you’ll find pristine campsites to choose from in this haven for backcountry paddlers. Here is a complete guide to planning your very own adventure!
This past August, I had the chance to paddle the full Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit over five days. Initially, I had planned to complete the 120-km route over 7 days, but ended up solo paddling the entire circuit in 5 days / 4 nights. If you’re looking for an incredible backcountry canoe adventure, I would highly suggest adding Bowron Lakes to your list. It’s truly spectacular! Keep reading to learn how to plan your own trip.
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About Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit
Location: Beginning in Bowron Lake Provincial Park
Distance: 120 km loop
Difficulty: Moderate to difficult. Depending on fitness level, trip itinerary, and paddling skills.
Time: 5 – 10 days
Campsites: 54 campsites and 4 cooking shelters
Lakes: Kibbee, Indianpoint, Isaac, McLeary, Lanezi, Sandy, Babcock, Skoi, Spectacle, Swan, Bowron
Portages: 10 portages — 11 km total
Season: Mid-May to end of September
Reservation: Yes, reservations and backcountry permits are required.
Dogs: Pets are not permitted on the circuit.
Features: Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit is a backcountry paddling paradise in northern British Columbia, complete with several lakes, challenging portages, and multiple campsites to choose from. This paddling route features the spectacular Caribou Mountains and wildlife viewing opportunities in pristine Canadian wilderness.
Reservations for the Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit open for the 2024 season on October 24, 2023, at 7am PT.
Bowron Lake Provincial Park is located in the traditional territories of the Secwépemc, Lheidli T’enneh, Dakeł Keyoh (ᑕᗸᒡ ᗲᘏᑋ) and Dënéndeh.
Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit FAQs
Q. Where is the Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit located?
A. The Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit is located in Northern British Columbia. The route begins in Bowron Lake Provincial Park, located approximately 120 km east of Quesnel.
Q. How long is the Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit?
A. Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit is officially 116 km (I clocked 120 km) and typically takes between 7 – 10 days to complete. Advanced paddlers may choose to complete the route more quickly. Create a custom trip to match your skills and desired duration.
Q. Are there shorter trip options on the Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit?
A. Short answer – yes. However, this depends on your skill, fitness level, and preference for the length of your trip. When I visited, the dry and calm weather allowed for longer paddle days to complete the route in 5 days / 4 nights. For a shorter distance, you could also consider only paddling the west side of the circuit.
Q. Is the Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit difficult?
A. Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit is a backcountry canoe route. Paddlers must be self-sufficient and experienced with wilderness canoeing. To some degree, you can determine route difficulty based on the length of your trip. You may need more days if cold and stormy weather rolls in. Portages add another challenge but canoe carts are helpful.
Q. How many portages are on the Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit?
A. Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit has 10 portages, with three portages around 2 km each between the Registration Centre and Isaac Lake. Most portage trails are well-maintained. Total portage distance is about 11 km.
Q. Should I bring (or rent) a canoe cart?
A. Most paddlers will find a canoe cart useful. I brought an expedition canoe cart from Bowron Lake Canoe Rentals and used it on every portage. Highly recommend an expedition cart over a smaller cart option.
Q. How many people paddle the Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit each season?
A. According to BC Parks, up to 4,500 people paddle the circuit each year.
Q. How much canoe experience do I need for the Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit?
A. Prior canoe-tripping experience is helpful before tackling the circuit. When you’re in it, you’re in it. Paddling isn’t overly technical, though river waters pose additional obstacles with dead heads and sweepers. “The Chute” is the most technical section but you can easily portage around the rapids.
Who Should Paddle the Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit?
Wondering if the Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit is right for you? While prior paddling experience is helpful, the circuit’s well-marked route and portages make it doable for advanced and novice paddlers alike. Beginner paddlers should be comfortable with basic paddling techniques and safety measures. If you’re new to paddling, Paddle Canada offers courses and resources to learn more. Experienced paddlers will relish the challenge of this iconic route, exploring pristine waterways and wilderness. It’s a slice of backcountry heaven.
Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit Map
When To Paddle The Circuit
You can book the Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit between late spring to early fall, specifically from May 15 to the end of September. During peak season in July and August, paddlers enjoy milder weather, warmer temperatures, and longer daylight hours. However, weather can change at any time in this inland rainforest. For me, I loved canoeing this route toward the end of August with minimal rain and calm waters. Book your trip well in advance if you plan to paddle during peak season. Remember, weather and paddling conditions can quickly change. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a few warm and sunny days!
How To Book Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit
Ready to make a reservation? Visit the BC Parks website to book your trip. If you haven’t already, create an account and sign in before reservations open. You can also contact the park’s reservation service at 1-800-689-9025 (toll-free in Canada and U.S.) or 1-519-858-6161 for international. For the 2023 paddle season, reservations opened in December 2022.
To book your canoe trip, select your desired orientation date and time, choose individual (1-7 people) or group (7 to 14 people), and specify whether you will paddle the full circuit or west circuit. Backcountry orientations takes place at 9 am and 12 noon daily. If you miss your orientation, your reservation will be cancelled. Paddlers are limited to 14 nights on the route.
Only 27 canoes or 54 people are permitted to start the circuit each day. BC Parks strongly recommends individual parties as they can travel the full circuit or west circuit at their own pace. Groups are limited to one departure each day, and must camp at predetermined campsites. Groups must follow an assigned 7-night itinerary.
Tip: Have a few dates in mind before reservations start. Dates can book up fast for peak season, so having a few options can help avoid disappointment. Reservations can be booked up to 2 days prior to departure date.
How Much Does Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit Cost?
The cost to paddle Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit depends on several factors, including where you are travelling from, the number of people in your group, the length of your trip, and whether you are renting equipment or bringing your own.
Here’s a breakdown of potential costs:
|Category||Approximate Cost (CAD)|
|Non-refundable Reservation Fee||$18|
|Circuit Fee||$60 full circuit / $30 west side – per vessel|
|Canoe or Kayak Rental||$30 – $60 per day (approximate)|
|Canoe Cart Rental||$40|
|Food and Supplies||Varies based on preferences|
|Transportation to the Park||Varies depending on location|
It’s important to note that these costs are approximate and they can change over time. Contact the park and canoe rental companies directly for up-to-date pricing. Remember to budget for any additional gear or personal expenses you may need for your trip, such as camping equipment, clothing, and food.
Mandatory orientation is required for all paddlers heading out on the Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit. You can choose to attend orientation at 9am or 12 noon daily at the Registration Office before starting your trip. In about 30 minutes, park staff provide important information related to safety, route conditions, wildlife encounters, and Leave No Trace principles. During orientation, I found out that Unna Lake was closed due to black bear activity.
Following orientation, staff will issue your park permit and review the park regulations with you. You’ll need to weigh your gear prior to departure. I recommend bringing a dry bag with straps and a hip belt to carry on portages (I used this Level Six Algonquin 95). Anything over 60 lbs will need to be carried during portages. Attach the permit to your canoe and you’re good to go!
The Registration Centre is open from 8am to 6pm daily from May 15 to September 30.
Remember: Paddlers must attend an orientation session at the Registration Centre in Bowron Lake Provincial Park prior to starting your trip. Mandatory orientation is held at 9 am and noon daily. If you do not attend orientation, your reservation will be cancelled without a refund!
Bowron Lake Canoe Rentals
Bowron Lake Canoe Rentals is an excellent option for renting a canoe and other canoe gear for the Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit. You’ll find good-quality equipment conveniently located next to the Registration Centre — just don’t forget to book in advance. I highly suggest bringing or renting a heavy-duty canoe cart for portages. During my trip, one group’s personal canoe cart broke on the first portage so they returned to the Registration Centre for a replacement. Not all canoe carts are created equal!
Booking online through Bowron Lake Canoe Rentals is a straightforward process, or you can contact them directly. You can pick up your canoe rental beginning at 8am on the day of your rental. Rentals are due back by 4pm on the final day of your rental.
Psssst. Need a canoe rental? Check out Bowron Lake Canoe Rentals conveniently located in Bowron Lake Provincial Park. Reserve your canoe and canoe cart here.
Directions to Bowron Lake Provincial Park
To start the Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit, head to Bowron Lake Provincial Park located about 120 km east of Quesnel. Drive north on Highway 97 through Quesnel and then follow signs onto Highway 26, which leads through Wells. Approximately 1km before the historic townsite of Barkerville, turn left onto the Bowron Lake Road. You’ll drive another 27km to the park entrance on a well-graded dirt road. Continue past the Bowron Lake Provincial Park sign and then find the parking area.
Tip: If you need supplies, Quesnel is a good place to stop before heading toward Bowron Lake Provincial Park.
Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit Itinerary
How long do you want your trip to be? Most people take between 6 to 8 days to complete the circuit. However, there are various itinerary options to suit different trip lengths and paddling preferences. Here are a few options to consider:
- Day 1: Registration Centre to Kibbee Lake
- Day 2: Kibbee Lake to Isaac Lake (Wolverine Bay)
- Day 3: Isaac Lake
- Day 4: Isaac Lake to McLeary Lake
- Day 5: McLeary Lake to Unna Lake
- Day 6: Unna Lake to Spectacle Lake
- Day 7: Spectacle Lake to Swan Lake
- Day 8: Swan Lake to landing dock on Bowron Lake
A longer itinerary, this option will allow you to enjoy campsites on some of the smaller lakes. Why not spend more time in the backcountry?
Standard 7 Itinerary:
- Day 1: Registration Centre to Indianpoint Lake
- Day 2: Indianpoint Lake to Isaac Lake
- Day 3: Isaac Lake
- Day 4: Isaac Lake to Lanezi Lake
- Day 5: Lanezi Lake to Unna Lake
- Day 6: Unna Lake to Spectacle Lakes
- Day 7: Spectacle Lakes to Bowron Lake (Registration Centre)
Consider paddling/portaging distances and put together an itinerary that works for you. You can extend your trip with a rest day, which might be especially enticing with nice weather.
5-Day Itinerary (My itinerary):
- Day 1: Registration Centre to Isaac Lake (Site 18) – 25.7 km
- Day 2: Isaac Lake (Site 18) to Isaac Lake (Site 26) – 23.9 km
- Day 3: Isaac Lake to Lanezi Lake (Site 37) – 31.2 km
- Day 4: Lanezi Lake to Swan Lake (Site 51) – 31.4 km
- Day 5: Swan Lake to Bowron Lake (Registration Centre) – 12.8 km
I wouldn’t consider this an easy route, and is much quicker than most paddlers choose for the circuit. However, if you’re looking for a challenge, short on time, or simply enjoy long days on the water, this itinerary could be an option. I recommend an extra day or two buffer in case the weather turns sour.
Campsites on Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit
Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit features 56 designated campsites scattered along the route. There are 10 group campsites (7-14 people) and 46 individual campsites (1-7 people). All campgrounds are first-come, first-served so you may need to change your itinerary depending on campsite availability.
Campsites are equipped with tent spots, outhouses, fire pits, and food storage lockers. Some campsites have covered cooking areas, including historic cabins that can be used for cooking or emergency shelter. Most campsites offer picturesque views of the surrounding wilderness, so don’t forget to bring your camera. My favourite site was #37 on Lanezi Lake.
If you want a campfire, pick up firewood at designated locations along the route. You won’t typically find firewood at your site. Ask parks staff about pick-up locations. Remember, check fire bans to ensure that you are burning legally. When I visited in August, I wasn’t able to have backcountry fires due to forest fire risk.
Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit Distances
Here are the official distances from BC Parks:
|2.4||Kibbee Lake Portage||2.4 km portage.|
|4.8||Kibbee Lake||2.4 km paddle between two lengthy portages.|
|6.8||Kibbee / Indianpoint Lake Portage||2 km portage.|
|13.2||Indianpoint Lake||6.4 km paddle across a secluded lake.|
|14.8||Indianpont / Isaac Lake Portage||1.6 km portage.|
|21.6||Isaac Lake (west arm)||6.8 km paddle to the main arm of Isaac Lake. Wind and waves can be a challenge.|
|52.8||Isaac Lake (main arm)||31.2 km to paddle the main arm of Isaac Lake, typically takes a couple of days. Caution “The Chute” rapids at the south end of Isaac Lake.|
|55.6||Isaac River Portage||2.8 km portage starts at log jam. Isaac Falls viewpoint.|
|56.8||McLeary Lake||1.2 km across the small lake.|
|62||Caribou River||5.2 km down first section of Caribou River. Watch for dead heads and sweepers. Watched family of river otters.|
|76.8||Lanezi Lake||14.8 km across Lanezi Lake, surrounded by towering Caribou Mountains. Travel close to north shore to access campsites during high winds.|
|78||Caribou River||1.2 km down second section of Caribou River. Watch for dead heads and sweepers.|
|82.8||Sandy Lake||4.8 km across lake.|
|86.4||Caribou River to Babcock Creek||3.6 km down third section of Caribou River. Watch for dead heads and sweepers. Saw black bear here.|
|86.8||Caribou River; Babcock Creek to Unna Lake||Do not go past small entrance to Unna Lake on Caribou River. Caribou Falls presents dangerous hazard.|
|88||Babcock Creek Portage||Do not paddle up Babcock Creek. Use the 1.2 km portage.|
|90.8||Babcock Lake||2.8 km paddle across Babcock Lake. Loons here.|
|91.2||Babcock – Skoi Lake Portage||0.4 km portage. Short and easy.|
|92||Skoi Lake||0.8 km paddle across another small lake. Loons here.|
|92.4||Skoi – Spectacle Lake Portage||0.4 km. portage. Short and easy. Final portage of the circuit.|
|105.2||Spectacle / Swan Lakes||12.8 km paddle up Spectacle Lakes and Swam Lake. High winds can cause challenging conditions.|
|109.2||Bowron River||4.0 km paddle up shallow river.|
|116.4||Bowron Lake||7.2 km across Bowron Lake to boat launch.|
Here are the distances I clocked on my GPS, varying slightly from the official BC Parks distances:
|25.7||Site 18 – Isaac Lake||2 tent spots, outhouse, fire pit, food locker. |
Historic cabin for emergency shelter or cooking.
Deep water for swimming.
|49.6||Site 26 – Isaac Lake||5 tent spots, outhouse, fire pit, food locker|
Decent beach for swimming.
|80.8||Site 37 – Lanezi Lake||2 tent pads, outhouse, fire pit, food locker|
|112.2||Site 51 – Swan Lake||4 tent pads, outhouse, fire pit, food locker. |
Very swampy/muddy entrance.
Portaging on Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit
The Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit includes several portages connecting the various lakes and waterways. More specifically, there are 10 well-maintained portages on the circuit totalling nearly 11 km. From my perspective, the canoe cart made portaging much more manageable, especially as a solo paddler. I highly recommend an expedition canoe cart with larger wheels, as smaller carts wouldn’t be as effective on the rugged terrain.
Tip: Don’t rush the portages. Take your time at the beginning of the portage trail to properly centre the canoe on the cart and then tighten the straps. Make sure your gear is centred in the canoe. Remember, no more than 60 lbs in the canoe during portages.
Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit Navigation
Navigating the Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit requires planning and preparation. Before starting your adventure, check out the Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit map and familiarize yourself with the route. I don’t always suggest using the AllTrails map, but campsite locations and distances are fairly accurate in this instance. Download for offline use to have another navigation tool in the backcountry. Bring a map and compass and know how to use them. You can purchase a waterproof map at the Registration Centre.
Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit Weather
During the paddling season, spanning from late May to early September, visitors can expect a range of weather conditions. While the peak summer months of June and July offer the mildest temperatures and longer daylight hours, the early and late parts of the season can bring cooler weather and a higher chance of rain.
Regardless of when you plan your trip, it’s important to pack clothing and gear suitable for variable conditions, including rain gear and layers for chilly evenings. Check the weather forecast before your journey and be prepared for changes.
During my trip, the heavens opened up on my final night and rain continued for my last day of paddling. I was very thankful for my rain jacket, rain pants, water shoes, paddling gloves, and Buff to stay warm in the wind and rain. You should also bring a tarp to create shelter if (or when) the rain shows up.
Safety and Emergency Rescues
How do you stay safe on this canoe circuit? Prioritize safety precautions and be prepared for anything. First and foremost, make sure you’re not biting off more than you can chew. Have you paddled several days in a row before? Do you have backcountry camping experience? Have you completed a wilderness first-aid course? Consider your own preparedness for a multi-day, backcountry canoe adventure.
Before you reach the park, do your research and plan your route. Learn about the lakes, portages, rivers, potential hazards, campsites, weather conditions, emergency radio locations, and so on. Create your route itinerary and leave your plan with someone you trust, along with instructions for what to do if you don’t complete your trip on time. Check out AdventureSmart if you need help creating your plan.
Test your equipment beforehand—a backcountry trip is no place to learn that your new stove doesn’t work properly (!). Remember to practice safe paddling, including wearing your personal flotation device (PFD), bringing an extra paddle, and carrying other essential equipment such as a whistle, bailer, and painter rope.
Emergency rescues can be complex and time-consuming in remote settings. It’s essential to be well-prepared and make informed decisions to prevent emergencies. However, if an emergency situation arises, you can find one of six public two-way radios on the circuit (see map for locations). There is no cell phone reception on the circuit and I highly suggest carrying a sat comm device. Zoleo is an essential part of my backcountry kit.
If you’re like me, you’ll want meal options that are lightweight and easy to prepare. For breakfast, instant potatoes mixed with bacon bits and cheese is a delicious choice. For supper, I typically opt for freeze-dried meals which require only hot water to rehydrate. You can never go wrong with lasagna, in my humble opinion. These lightweight meals are packed with calories to replenish energy after a day of paddling. For lunch, wraps with peanut butter or pepperoni sticks are quick and tasty options. Additionally, I usually bring trail mix, granola bars, and dehydrated fruits for snacking throughout the day. Don’t forget to bring a compact camp stove and cooking utensils for meal preparation.
Outhouses are located at designated campgrounds and rest areas along the Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit. These basic facilities help paddlers and campers with proper waste disposal and minimizing environmental impact. Don’t forget to close the door when you’re done.
If nature calls and you can’t find a toilet, it’s important to follow Leave No Trace principles. Dig a cat hole at least 6-8 inches deep for your business. Make sure the cat hole is at least 200 feet away from water sources and trails, and then cover it securely to minimize your impact on the environment.
Wildlife On The Circuit
Due to bear activity, Unna Lake Campground was closed during my trip. Sadly, previous campers didn’t use the bear cache and a hungry bear sought an easy meal. Human food kills bears. Habituated bears can become aggressive toward visitors and the bear often pays the price. I crossed paths with what I can only assume was the habituated bear. Thankfully, she continued on her way after we exchanged curious looks. I was ready with bear spray but didn’t need it.
Along the route, practice Leave No Trace principles to limit human impact on the environment and wildlife. If you pack it in, be prepared to pack it out. Use the food storage lockers (i.e. bear cache) to keep your food out of reach. Use designated campsites and avoid cutting down live vegetation.
In the event of a bear encounter, speak calmly, move away slowly, and make yourself look bigger by raising your arms. Carry bear spray as a precaution. If you see a moose, keep your distance and give them plenty of space. Moose can be unpredictable and moody.
Here’s a list of items you should consider packing for the Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit:
- Tent (I used this one)
- Sleeping bag (like this one)
- Sleeping pad (like this one)
- Lightweight camping stove and fuel (I used this one)
- Utensils (like this one) and bowl (I use this)
- Camp mug (like this)
- Biodegradable soap and sponge
- Headlamp (I used this one)
- Waterproof dry bags, including 95-litre dry pack with straps (I use this one)
- Siltarp (like this one)
- Moisture-wicking, quick-drying clothing (I used this one)
- Insulating layers (fleece or down) (like this one)
- Waterproof and breathable rain jacket (I use this one) and pants
- Warm hat and gloves (like these)
- Sun hat or cap
- Sturdy, comfortable hiking or water shoes (I use these water shoes)
- Socks and underwear
- Insect repellent (like this)
- Sunglasses with UV protection
- Personal hygiene items (toothbrush, toothpaste, toilet paper, etc.)
- First-aid kit with essentials
- Prescription medications, if needed
- Towel or packable microfibre towel (like this)
- Multi-tool or camp knife (I use this one)
Navigation and Safety:
- Waterproof maps and compass (like this one)
- Waterproof map case or bag
- PFD (personal flotation device) for each person
- Whistle (like this one)
- Bilge pump/bailer (like this one)
- Painter rope
- Spare paddle
- Waterproof matches or a lighter
- Repair kit for your canoe or kayak
- Satellite communication device (I use Zoleo)
Food and Water:
- Meals and snacks (plus extra)
- Water filter or purification tablets (like this gravity filter)
- Water bottle (I use this one)
- Hammock (like this one)
- Powerbank and charging cables
Rules and Regulations
Canoe Carts: You can use a canoe cart with a maximum axle width of 30 inches. Wide-track tires used on expedition canoe carts are recommended. If using a cart, the weight of cargo in canoe cannot be more than 60 lbs. You must backpack all gear in excess of the 60 lbs limit to prevent excess trail damage. I used the Level Six Algonquin 95 to carry gear. Worked great!
Pack it in, pack it out: Do not leave any garbage in campsites or along the route. You can burn paper in campfires, but do not burn plastics, tin foil, or other non-paper items. Remains left in fire pits can attract bears and other animals.
Leave cans and bottles at home: Commercially packaged beverage or glass containers (i.e. drink cans/bottles, liquor bottles, etc.) are not permitted on the route.
Use bear-proof lockers: Visitors MUST use metal bear-proof caches to store all items with any scents that could attract bears (i.e. food and garbage, cooking equipment, toothpaste, etc.). Bears become “problem bears” when they learn to seek out human food, and park rangers may be forced to destroy bears when they become aggressive. Remember, a fed bear is a dead bear.
Campfires: You can have a campfire in metal fire rings in designated campsites. Fires are not permitted on beaches. Limited firewood is provided at marked wood lots throughout the circuit. Find woodlot locations at the Registration Centre.
Camp stoves: Carry and use portable stoves for cooking, as firewood is limited and not always available.
No speakers: Music on external speakers is not permitted on the circuit, to maintain high-quality wilderness experience for all visitors.
No guns: Firearms and crossbows are prohibited in Bowron Lake Provincial Park.
No dogs: Dogs and other pets are not permitted on the circuit.
Fishing: Fishing is permitted on the circuit in compliance with BC Non-Tidal Sports Fishing
Regulations. Licenses are not sold in the park. June and September are considered the best months for fishing.
Motor boats: Powerboats are permitted only on Bowron Lake and are not allowed on the
Bowron River or other lakes along the circuit. You may see staff members use powerboats to travel throughout the circuit.
Drones: Drones are only permitted with permit from BC Parks.
Regulations may change over time, and it’s important to verify the current rules and regulations for the Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit by visiting the official BC Parks website or contacting Bowron Lake Provincial Park directly.
Have you paddled Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit? What was your experience like? Is anything missing in this guide? Let me know in the comments below.
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