Seven days on the Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit
The Bowron Lakes is a classic canoe trip in Northern BC. It takes about a week to paddle and portage the 116km (72 mile) circuit, traversing a chain of 12 lakes, meandering rivers, pristine mountain waters and fetid swamps, with quiet campgrounds, ample wildlife, and stunning views of the Cariboo Mountains and the Quesnel Highlands.
Located about 100km (65 miles) east of Quesnel past the tiny towns of Barkerville and Wells, the circuit is open mid-May thru the end of September. July and August are the most popular and warmest months, with bugs being at their worst in June and July, and lower water levels and more underwater hazards in August and September.
The circuit is mostly lakes and flat water so it's a good beginner trip, but there are a few tricky river sections so be advised. You can portage around the most difficult of these, but still a bit of paddling experience is recommended and there are a few sections where you'll need to remain alert. If you don't have time or feel comfortable with the full 8 day circuit you can also take 4 days and just paddle the western side which skips most of the portages and all of the difficult sections, and where the weather is drier and the water is warmer (but also more brown, so your swimming opportunities may vary).
To minimize impacts on the environment and make sure the campgrounds aren't overrun, BC Parks limits the amount of people starting every day, so you'll need to reserve a spot. Most years reservations open at the beginning of April and fill up fast, but check the BC Parks page for more info. If you don't manage to book in time check back now and then to see if a cancellation has opened up. Once you arrive you will attend a mandatory info session and weigh-in either at 9:00am or 12:00pm, depending on when you booked.
This is a backcountry trip so you'll need to bring everything with you, including water filter, extra food, camp fuel, bear spray, rain gear, and emergency equipment. I'm not normally a bug spray guy but I'm very glad we had some. There's a maximum of 60 lbs allowed in the canoe during portages (not including paddles, PFDs, etc), so anything extra you'll need to carry on your back. There are 10km (6 miles) of portages, some of them pretty rough, so pack light and carry sturdy shoes. I also recommend bringing a good map — the one they provide (above) is ok but doesn't include a lot of detail so finding some of the campgrounds can be tricky. It's all we used and we made it ok, but next time I would want a bit more info.
There are a handful of places to rent canoes and kayaks and carts, which you'll want to arrange ahead of time. We rented from Becker's Lodge, which had a nice selection of quality canoes (but ugly plastic paddles). Other outfitters include Bear River Mercantile, Bowron Lake Lodge, and Bowron Lake Canoe Rentals. I believe for each they will bring the gear to the start for you and then you conveniently finish on their beach.
We paddled the Bowron Lakes over 7 days in late July 2022 with Megan's dad Pat. It's normally recommended that you take 8 days but we accidentally finished early even with a few rest days. We could easily have finished in 5 or 6 days, not sure how that happened! Should have budgeted an extra day at Unna Lake.
There were many days where we saw almost no one else. We heard a lot of loons, saw a couple moose and plenty of big fish, and swam and read and napped and snacked and picked berries and relaxed. It was really nice. This was Meg and her dad's second time on the circuit, and I would whole heartedly recommend it and do it again and again.