Each summer in the Alberni Valley, more than 13,000 tourists line up on the boardwalk outside the Alberni Train Station awaiting their first glimpse of steam from Locomotive No. 7. The 1929 Baldwin steam engine will take them on a rail adventure to McLean Mill National Historic Site. You can learn more about the historic Alberni Railway here.
When the steam train is not running, volunteers with the APR and Western Vancouver Island Industrial Heritage Society (IHS) tend to the six-kilometre line of railway tracks between the train station and the national historic site, and beyond to Loon Lake near the top of the Alberni Summit, but the railway tracks don’t stop at McLean Mill. The line known as the Port Sub—63 kilometres (39 miles) long—extends all the way to Parksville, hooking up with the main Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway and while the IHS is ultimately in charge of maintenance on the Port Sub (and receives the bulk of the maintenance budget from the Island Corridor Foundation) there is a second gang of dedicated volunteers that looks after the other side of the tracks.
The East End Track Gang (EETG) can be seen running their speeders and hi-railer almost weekly along the Port Sub from Parksville to Loon Lake, clearing brush, keeping the broom at bay and making sure no rock slides, washouts or felled trees block the track.
One gloomy Saturday last March Scott McCormick, brothers Al and Glen Migneault, Dennis Dalla-Vicenza and another volunteer launched a pair of Fairmont speeders as well as the group’s hi-railer—four rail wheels mounted onto a 1996 Ford 250 4×4 that can run on either railroad tracks or pavement—on the tracks across from Forest Bus Tours in Parksville.
Even in March, the view is spectacular riding over the trestles at Cameron Lake, with Highway 4 snaking through the barren trees across the glinting steel of the lake’s surface. The terrain is different than the run out to McLean Mill—not as open, but equally stunning, with arbutus trees jutting from rock faces, and lichen the colour of ochre, rich leather and deep red breaking up the dull gray of the rock.
The smooth, gradual ride to the top of the Alberni Summit includes a historical gem at Milepost 19.6, where a small settlement once existed. A “fire can” filled with water sits in the same location where a water tower was once used to put water in tenders for steam locomotives. Close to Loon Lake, there is another unique attraction, a tunnel that was blasted out of solid rock; ostensibly so rail workers wouldn’t have to build another trestle over a small creek, which was diverted through the tunnel.
Currently, there are no formal trails alongside the rail line but plans are in the works for future trail development.
Coombs to Parksville Rail Trail
- The Rail Trail follows along the south side of the E&N tracks between Coombs and Parksville, and is visible from the Alberni Highway (Hwy 4A) as you near Coombs.
- At the Coombs end, the Rail Trail starts at the kiosk across from Station Rd where a crosswalk and pedestrian controlled beacons help you cross busy Hwy 4A.
- Along the way from Coombs to Parksville, you can hop on the Rail Trail from Virginia Rd, Church Rd, Fairdowne Rd, and Nicnbec Rd (off Coldwater Rd). Pedestrian controlled beacons will help you cross busy Church Rd.
- At the Parksville end, the Rail Trail begins at the City of Parksville’s Springwood Park on Despard Ave. The trailhead with kiosk is near the dog park parking lot. A new trail was created through the north end of Springwood in order to separate Rail Trail users on the move from park walkers out for a leisurely stroll.