When it comes to freshwater swimming spots, Vancouver Island has many to choose from. And with the summer warmth upon us, it’s the perfect time to share a few of my favourite Vancouver Island lakes. The below list is written in geographical order, starting from the south and working north.
For even more swimming spots, please check out this other post, ‘The Best Spots to Swim on Vancouver Island.’
This large park within the Capital Region District is one of the most frequently visited. The area boasts over 40 km of trails to explore and Upper and Lower Thetis Lakes. It was established as Canada’s first nature sanctuary in 1958. These freshwater lakes are perfect for swimming, canoeing and fishing (the lakes are stocked with catchable Rainbow Trout). No motorized boats are allowed unless they have electric motors.
The main beach area has accessible toilets, change rooms, a water fountain, and a grassy picnic area. The second parking lot has a boat launch and fishing area, toilet facilities, and a beach.
Pay parking is in effect from May 1 to September 30 (at a rate of only $2.25 per day). The ticket dispensers accept loonies, toonies, quarters and credit cards.
Thetis Lake is located approximately 20 minutes from Victoria, in the Colwood area. From Highway 1, take the Colwood exit, then turn right on Six Mile Road and follow the signs to the park.
For over a century, families flock to the tranquillity of Shawnigan Lake for summer recreation, and it’s one of the more popular Vancouver Island lakes. As the area is now considered a year-round waterfront resort community, there are plenty of things to see and do. This seven km long lake offers wonderful hot weather activities, including swimming, sunbathing, waterskiing, and windsurfing. The lake is also stocked with trout, making it a popular angler location.
West Shawnigan Lake Provincial Park offers a day-use area with lakeside beach access and a designated swimming area. Facilities at this Provincial Park include picnic tables, pit toilets, a grassy area and a change house. The nearest boat launch to this park is on Clearihue Road (turnoff beside Firehall #2). The CVRD public boat launch is located on the opposite side of the lake off Barton Place.
Boat Access Only Park
You can paddle or boat to Memory Island Provincial Park at the southern end of Shawnigan Lake. This marine park (and small island) protects a variety of small mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and plants, and you are allowed to explore on foot. The closest boat launch to Memory Island on Shawnigan Lake is located on the west side of Malahat Drive (Hwy 1) and off Shawnigan Lake Road. From here, it is only a 1 km paddle to the island.
Getting To Shawnigan Lake
Approximately 3 km west of Mill Bay, Shawnigan Lake has three major access points. If coming from the north, take either the Cobble Hill road exit (off Hwy 1) or the Shawnigan Lake-Mill Bay Road exit (a bit further south, off Hwy 1). If coming from Victoria, take Shawnigan Lake road off the Malahat.
Lake Cowichan offers miles of spectacular boating, hiking and camping opportunities. And even though it’s the second-largest lake on Vancouver Island (62km2), during the summer, water temperatures can get quite warm, making it a popular location for waterborne activities. This is due to the Cowichan Valley consistently setting records for having some of the highest average temperatures in Canada.
A few campsites give you direct access to Lake Cowichan, with Gordon Bay Provincial Park being the biggest. This Provincial Park offers 126 vehicle-accessible sites and one group campsite. This park has a large day-use and picnic area which provides picnic tables, an adventure playground, flush toilets and beach access. A boat launch is also located northeast of the day-use parking lot.
For a private campground with full RV hookups (and close to town), check out Lakeview Park. Of the 75 sites this campground offers, 28 have lake views. The marina is just a short walk away too.
Tubing down the Cowichan River is a popular recreation activity I highly recommend trying on a hot summer day.
Getting to Lake Cowichan
The Town of Lake Cowichan is approximately 27 km west of Duncan. The day-use area at Gordon River Provincial Park is a further 10 km. The area is accessed via Hwy 18 off Hwy 1.
One of Nanaimo’s best-loved parks, Westwood Lake offers much to its visitors year-round, but especially during the summer. From June to August, the main beach area becomes Nanaimo’s only lifeguard-patrolled freshwater swimming spot. There is a washroom and change room building on-site and a small playground at the second beach near the gravel parking lot.
There is a well-maintained 5.5 km trail that circles around the outer edges of Westwood Lake offering a relatively easy walk. The one steeper section near the west end of the lake makes the walk a little challenging but still doable even with a stroller. If you are looking for something less strenuous, head to the south end of the lake and take the shorter loop.
There is an off-leash area underneath the power lines for those with dogs in tow. You will find this area about halfway around the 5.5 km loop. Other than the designated off-leash area, dogs must always remain on a leash (and it’s strictly enforced).
Getting To Westwood
The address is 381 Westwood Road. From Hwy 19, take the Jingle Pot Road exit (the Southend one) and then left onto Westwood road. Follow to the end.
Located along Hwy 4 on your way to Port Alberni, Cameron Lake offers a spectacular place to swim during the hot summer. As the surrounding mountains create a bit of a wind tunnel, this lake is also a great spot to windsurf or sailboard.
The clear water attracts freshwater scuba diving, and the lake is one of the only in BC known for brown trout.
Picnic tables and pit toilets are available off the small parking area at the south end of the lake. While there is no public boat launch, if you are lucky enough to secure a full-season camping site at Cameron Lake Resort, you can use their private one.
One of the biggest disadvantages of this lake is the lack of available parking. This is why you often see a long line of cars parked along Hwy 4 near Cameron Lake.
Cameron Lake is located approximately 15 km east of Port Alberni, along Hwy 4. It’s a great place to stop for a picnic if you are heading towards the Pacific Rim.
Of all the Vancouver Island lakes to explore, Sproat is one of my absolute favourites. The surrounding scenery is stunning, and several amazing hidden gems are also in the area. And let’s not forget about the crystal clear water, making it a perfect choice for all your freshwater adventures.
Two of the three Provincial Parks along Sproat Lake offer excellent camping opportunities, with Sproat Lake Provincial Park being a family favourite for many.
The main boat launch is located in the day-use area of Sproat Lake Provincial Park. Although widely used for various boat sizes, it’s not the most user-friendly. There is no dock to tie your boat up to, which requires launching to be a two-person job.
Once you get your boat on the lake, you have many fantastic places to explore!
The day-use area is your best bet for public lake access as well, for much of the lake’s beachfront is privately owned.
Sproat Lake Provincial Park is located 13 km northwest of Port Alberni. The park sits on the north shore of Sproat Lake and is reached via Hwy #4.
Don’t let the name keep you away from this beautiful little lake. It’s a glorious place to cool off in the summer and one of the best picnic sites in the Oceanside area. Spider Lake features a small sandy beach and warm water perfect for all ages. The lake gets its name from the many legs of winding inlets, making it a popular choice for canoeing and kayaking.
Spider Lake does have a reputation for swimmers itch, but from personal experience, as long as you don’t just frolic at the shoreline, you should be ok.
Spider Lake (Provincial Park) is located16 km west of Qualicum Beach. The park is accessed via the Horne Lake exit off Hwy #19 or Hwy #19a. Follow signs for 5 km to Spider Lake.
This man-made glacier-fed lake was created in 1912 as a reservoir for hydroelectricity production and as a drinking water source for the nearby communities of Comox, Courtenay and Cumberland. Despite this, it’s also used as a recreational lake for all waterborne activities.
At 15 km long and no more than 2 km wide at any given point, locals flock to this lake to kayak, paddle board and canoe. While paddling along the shoreline, you can still see the remains of semi-submerged stumps and still-standing dead trees. The scene offers something a little eerie and fascinating all at once.
On any hot summer day, the boat launch at Cumberland Lake Park is a bustle of activity with many ski boats waiting, in turn, to get out on the water. The boat launch is open daily from 7:00 am to 10:00 pm, and a pass must be purchased at the office before launching. Current rates (2022) are $9.00 per launch/trailer or $65 for a yearly pass. Please note that a launch pass does not guarantee parking. And parking is definitely at a premium!
Cumberland Lake Park also offers sandy beaches, a safe swimming area, a campground, watersports rentals, and a concession stand. Nearby you can find beautiful hiking trails and climbing crags. And at only 5 km west of the historic Village of Cumberland, you also have legendary mountain biking trails, pubs, breweries, eateries and small shops to explore at your leisure. It’s the perfect family-friendly destination!
Take the Cumberland Road exit (#117) from Hwy 19 (Inland Island Hwy). Continue to follow Cumberland Road, which eventually becomes 4th Street. Turn right onto Dunsmuir Avenue and then left on Sutton Road. At the sharp bend, Sutton Road becomes Comox Lake Road. Follow this until the end.
This long narrow lake with towering trees and majestic cliffs lining both sides is a visual treat and a fantastic place to explore.
Buttle Lake offers the only two vehicle-accessible campgrounds in Strathcona Park (Buttle Lake and Ralph River). The remoteness and ruggedness of these campgrounds make it feel like you are backcountry camping without the hassle of carrying your gear.
Due to the steep shoreline and convection heat, the lake can get extremely windy in the afternoon on hot summer days. So if you are doing any type of boating (other than windsurfing), you may want to do so in the early hours or later in the evening. Boaters should also exercise extreme caution because the lake is a reservoir and there are submerged stumps, particularly close to shore.
The day-use area provides access to the shoreline of Buttle Lake for swimming opportunties.
The main access to Strathcona Park is via Highway 28, just outside of Campbell River. Follow Hwy 19 to Campbell River, then follow Hwy 28 west for 48 km. Hwy 28 provides access to Buttle Lake.
There are many more lakes to explore on Vancover Island, including the largest, found en route to Tofino (Kennedy Lake) as well as many amazing alpine lakes, but this list gives you a great place to start. If you are looking for that perfect place to cool off or just a beautiful spot to sit back and enjoy the views, any of the above mentioned lakes will do.
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