Pull into the main parking lot at Westwood Lake Park and you’ll find it nearly full most days.
Beaches, groomed trails to walk, jog, bike or maybe take a four-footed best buddy out for some exercise, plus a boat ramp to launch a day of fishing, kayaking or canoeing, make Westwood Lake Park one of Nanaimo’s best loved outdoor recreation areas.
The park’s central location puts those beaches and trails within a few minutes’ drive from most of Nanaimo.
Westwood Lake is a legacy of Nanaimo’s industrial past.
William J. Westwood settled and farmed the area in the 1860s when the lake was little more than a shallow marsh that fed Darough Creek.
As Nanaimo progressed into the 20th century and demand for electricity grew to power local industry the head of Darough Creek was dammed in 1908, creating Westwood Lake as a reservoir for a hydroelectric plant.
The hydroelectric plant was ultimately abandoned, but the dam and the lake remained and in 1957 Westwood Lake was dedicated as a city park.
Today ghostly snags of trees that stood green before the valley was flooded, reach up from below the lake’s surface and steal the hooks and lures from anglers fishing for trout the lake is stocked with annually. Some say remnants of Westwood’s farm can still be seen on the bottom of the lake.
“The only thing I’ve ever seen on the water was what, to me, looked like the arch of a roof,” said Ed Singer, owner of Sundown Diving. “I haven’t ever seen anything else in there.”
Singer said some divers have reported spotting what appears to have once been a fence line, but stories of others seeing old tractors in barns in the lake’s depths are just tall tales.
Two big sandy beaches are crowded with families on hot summer days when children build sandcastles or wade and swim in the park’s shallow, bordered swimming areas. Lifeguards are on duty through July and August.
The beach area features change rooms and washrooms, a playground, wheelchair access to the water, a wheelchair accessible floating fishing dock, a drinking water fountain and there is usually a vendor parked in the shade of big fir trees nearby who sells hot dogs, popsicles and other goodies throughout the summer.
Picnic tables are scattered among the fir trees between the west beach and the park’s gravel overflow parking lot.
Paths and trails criss-cross the park’s 120 hectares, branching off of Westwood Lake’s six-kilometre main trail that meanders around the shore. It’s well maintained – with wooden bridges and boardwalks and groomed with wood chips – and a favourite route of walkers and runners who don’t mind their pace being broken up with a climb and descent over a rocky knoll on the lake’s north east shore.
About 750 people a day run the trail, which has become a main venue for local charity runs and other special events.
“It’s the only park that we put a running base on,” said Kirsty MacDonald, city parks and open spaces planner.
The trail’s busiest months are April and October.
Westwood Lake Trail links up to more pathways through Morrell Nature Sanctuary. The 111-hectare nature preserve borders the east side of Westwood Lake Park, and offers 11 kilometres of nature walks through second growth forest.
Dog lovers can let their pets run free on the south side of Westwook Lake, in the park’s off-leash area on the powerline service easement lands and roads.
The park is also the gateway to Westwood Ridge, where hikers and mountain bikers test their mettle on a network of trails that traverse streams and small ravines that form part of the Westwood watershed.
Beyond the ridge, Mount Benson’s north face awaits hikers searching for more challenging ascents and grander vistas at the end of the journey.
Te’tuxw’tun trail offers a challenging 11-kilometre round-trip hike to the top of Mount Benson. The trail starts from the west end of Westwood and climbs through steep terrain, logging roads and even some old growth forest.
At 1,000 metres, the top of Mount Benson is the highest point in Nanaimo and from where hikers take in sweeping views of Westwood Lake Park, the city and the Strait of Georgia and coastal mountains beyond.