Discover the East Coast of Vancouver Island

5 to 7 Days, 500 km (310.69 mi)

Relax and rejuvenate along this coastal road trip from Victoria to Port Hardy.

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The beaches, forests, and waterfalls along the east side of Vancouver Island will help you let go of your everyday stressors and embrace Island time. The longer you stay, the more noticeable the transformation. Follow the route below, which includes optional detours, to reset and recharge.

Part 1

Tsawwassen to Duncan

Salt Spring Island | Reuben Krabbe

Sail from Tsawwassen, south of Vancouver, with BC Ferries and take in the beautiful ocean vistas as you weave among the Southern Gulf Islands en route to Swartz Bay, at the south end of Vancouver Island.

If you want to start your journey with a little urban enjoyment, take time out to visit BC’s capital city, Victoria. No trip to Victoria is complete without a walk by the seashore, whether that’s in the bustling Inner Harbour or on the quiet stretch of Dallas Road across from pretty Beacon Hill Park.

If city life is not for you, head straight toward the 25-minute ferry crossing from Brentwood Bay to Mill Bay for more memorable views from the water. Time permitting, tour renowned Butchart Gardens before you board the ferry, or drive to the spectacular Kinsol Trestle, the largest trestle bridge along the Cowichan Valley Trail. Ride your bike across, or walk across the bridge and marvel at its beauty and structure.

From there, continue north along Highway 1 toward Duncan.

Part 2

Duncan and Chemainus

Chemainus | Ben Giesbrecht

Duncan is known as the “City of Totems,” and a highlight to your time here is a self-guided Totem Tour Walk past dozens of poles, each of which tells a story. The local Indigenous population has called the area home for thousands of years, and their relationship with the natural environment is one of respect and gratitude. This relationship is represented in many of the lovingly carved totems you’ll see along the route.

As you leave town heading north along Highway 1, pull into the Somenos Marsh Conservation Area, home to more than 200 different bird species. In the fall, keep your eyes peeled for the huge trumpeter swans that feed here.

After making friends with the birds, check out the arts scene in the city of Chemainus, best known for its collection of murals depicting the community’s history from its Indigenous population to early European pioneers. Stop by the Chemainus Visitor Centre and pick up a map of the mural route, and follow the yellow footprints past more than 40 works of art.

Continue north on Highway 1 toward Nanaimo.

Part 3

Nanaimo

The walk to Ammonite Falls | @mr_wilson3

Also accessible via BC Ferries from the mainland, Nanaimo is a jumping-off point for adventure both on land and on the water. Take a car ferry to Gabriola Island to check out the unique Malaspina Galleries, an area on the shoreline where the sandstone cliff has been eroded over time by the ocean to resemble a cresting wave. Newcastle Island is a quick 10-minute passenger ferry ride from the Nanaimo harbour, and it is a popular year-round camping destination.

Before you leave the city, you must try a local delicacy—the Nanaimo Bar. A graham/coconut/cocoa crust is topped with a creamy custard and finished off with a layer of chocolate. Yum!

Leave Nanaimo on Highway 19, and you will have a couple of choices. May we suggest the scenic route, Highway 19A.

Part 4

Parksville and Qualicum Beach

Cathedral Grove | Brian Caissie

Highway 19A takes you along the coast to Parksville, a pretty spot with fantastic beaches that is very busy in the summer but equally delightful in the spring and fall. The highlight here is the beaches. When the tide is out, it goes out so far that you can barely see the ocean with the naked eye, and it leaves behind a series of tidepools perfect for family fun. Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park is one of the most popular places in the province to camp, and Parksville Community Park has a lovely beach as well as a huge playground and waterpark for the little ones. Make a day of it and enjoy the fresh sea air and the sounds of the ocean as the tide comes in.

This is another fantastic place for a detour. Highway 4 takes you west from Parksville to a series of natural treasures. See the waterfalls at Englishman River Falls Provincial Park or Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park, and marvel at ancient and enormous Douglas fir and western red cedar trees at Cathedral Grove, 30 minutes west of Parksville.

Back on Highway 19A heading north toward the community of Qualicum Beach, garden lovers who prefer a more natural look to a highly manicured formal garden will love Milner Gardens and Woodland.

Continue north along Highway 19A toward the Comox Valley.

Part 5

Comox Valley

Strathcona Provincial Park | @stasher_bc

Yet another opportunity for a detour presents itself 30 minutes north of Qualicum Beach in the community of Buckley Bay. Take a ferry to Denman Island, and another from Denman to Hornby Island. Enjoy gorgeous beaches, and great camping and paddling opportunities. You can also experience some of the best cold water diving in the world here with its remarkable visibility and abundant marine life.

When you reach the Comox Valley and the communities of Courtenay, Comox, and Cumberland you will find excellent mountain biking, a vibrant food and drink scene, and four-season fun at Mount Washington Alpine Resort. This is also the access point for rugged Strathcona Provincial Park, the oldest provincial park in BC.

Continue north along Highway 19A to its terminus in Campbell River.

Part 6

Campbell River

Elk Falls Provincial Park | Jordan Dyck

Life in Campbell River is all about the water. The community is known as the Salmon Fishing Capital of the World for good reason. Experienced guides can take you out in search of the area’s five species of Pacific salmon, or you can head out by boat in search of wildlife. Migrating grey whales and resident orcas are commonly seen in these waters, and Campbell River is close to prime grizzly viewing areas. See the circle of life unfold among the salmon and the bears. The Elk Falls Suspension Bridge is another must-do. Look out over the thundering waterfall, and check out the nearby Quinsam River Hatchery.

Campbell River may mark the end of Highway 19A, but you still have a long ways to go to reach the end of Vancouver Island. From Campbell River, there are some amazing natural experiences to be had as you drive along Highway 19 toward Telegraph Cove and Port Hardy.

Part 7

Telegraph Cove and Port Hardy

Orca in Johnstone Strait | Tom Ryan

The picturesque community of Telegraph Cove has a tiny year-round population that increases exponentially in the summer—a good reason to come in the fall. The village itself consists of colourful buildings and a boardwalk built over the water on stilts. It is a very popular whale watching destination as its location on the shores of Johnstone Strait mean almost as many whales as people.

This northern part of the Island is also rich in Indigenous culture. A short ferry ride to Alert Bay on Cormorant Island takes you to U’Mista Cultural Centre and its renowned Potlatch Collection, a culturally rich collection of masks and other ceremonial objects that were restored to the Kwakwaka’wakw people after having been confiscated by the Canadian government and sent to museums around the world.

Highway 19 continues all the way to Port Hardy, the Island’s northernmost community. Spend quality time enjoying the remoteness and the solitude at peaceful Cape Scott Provincial Park at the northern tip of the Island, and then decide whether to head south again and revisit some of your favourite spots, or take a ferry to BC’s central coast and keep exploring.

Driving Directions

Part 1 - Vancouver
  • 6.25 km
  • 12 min
Show Map & Driving Directions

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