Doors are open to visitors this fall in Tofino, Ucluelet, and Port Alberni—promising new adventures and countless possibilities. It’s an ideal time to explore sandy beaches and old-growth rainforests fringed by the Pacific Ocean on a road trip.
To check out resident wildlife or learn more about Indigenous cultures that have called this place home for millennia.
So, meet the locals. Plan to stay. After all, there’s no better way to help BC communities than by exploring BC.
Getting to this remote stretch of coastline is an important part of the journey. Want to arrive quickly? Pacific Coastal Airlines can get you there from Vancouver International Airport‘s South Terminal. Or, April through October, head to the Vancouver waterfront and experience the thrill of an hour-long float plane trip with Harbour Air Seaplanes.
But if time permits, there’s nothing like a Vancouver to Tofino road trip. From Vancouver, head northwest to the BC Ferries Horeshoe Bay terminal. Arrive early and stroll the scenic village of Horseshoe Bay ahead of your 90-minute ferry crossing to Nanaimo. Enjoy a meal onboard, and head to the upper deck for fresh air and an unimpeded view. Watch for whales, harbour seals, eagles, and other wildlife—the Salish Sea is a rich marine environment.
Nanaimo is a great jumping off point for Vancouver Island travel. The Island’s east coast boasts a prolific food and wine region to the south, as well as BC’s capital city of Victoria. North of Nanaimo, find unsurpassed salmon fishing in Campbell River, check out the orca and grizzly populations near Telegraph Cove if you’re travelling between spring and early fall, and discover the northernmost town of Port Hardy through an Indigenous lens. From there, you can book another ferry to BC’s rugged northwest coast and keep exploring.
If you’re heading straight to the west coast of the Island, there are some recommended stops long the way.
First up, the eclectic Coombs Old Country Market, known for its resident roof-top goats. Take an hour or two to peruse the market and adjoining stores and pick up some sustenance for the rest of your drive. Take some freshly baked goodies to go, and don’t leave without an ice cream—choose among 55 flavours—and, of course, a selfie with a goat.
The next don’t-miss opportunity to stretch your legs is MacMillan Provincial Park, home to Cathedral Grove with its majestic stands of Douglas fir and western red cedars, some as many as 800 years old. The park’s meandering trails allow visitors to get up close to, and even touch, these massive trees, which can get up to 9 metres (30 feet) in circumference. The short, looped trails are easily walkable and some are wheelchair accessible.
Port Alberni marks the halfway point in the drive from Nanaimo to Tofino, and it’s a great place to explore for a few hours, or even for a night (or two). This sprawling oceanside town has deep roots in the forest and fishing industries, and it proudly showcases this connection through sites like McLean Mill National Historic Site and the Maritime Discovery Centre. From downtown, board a 1929 former logging locomotive for a trip to historic McLean Mill.
For a memorable day on the water, visit Lady Rose Marine Services and book a trip aboard the 1950s-era working coastal freighter MV Frances Barkley, which plies the waters between Port Alberni and Bamfield.
From Port Alberni it’s a 90-minute drive to the junction of Highway 4 and the Tofino/Ucluelet Highway.
The first section of the drive meanders along the shores of Sproat Lake. Watch for scenic pull-outs and rest areas while enjoying the scenery. As you approach Kennedy Lake, watch for West Coast Wild at Ha’uukmin Tribal Park. They offer zipline and kayak adventures through the Kennedy River canyon.
At the end of Highway 4 there is a T-junction. Tofino is to the right, and a left turn to Ucluelet is a must-do detour.
No trip to the west coast of Vancouver Island is complete without a walk along Ucluelet’s iconic Wild Pacific Trail. Watch giant swells crash against the rugged coastline at Amphitrite Point lighthouse. Stormy weather only adds to the drama, enjoyed only if you dress for the weather, so check conditions before you go.
For an inside peek at the sea creatures who call this area home, head to the Ucluelet Aquarium. At this unique and enviro-friendly facility, all the sealife on display is gathered from local waters and released at the end of each season. Ukee, as it’s know locally, is also a great place to book fishing charters, and it’s a popular departure point for kayakers heading to the remote Broken Group Islands.
Too much to do in a single day? Spend a night at the spectacular Black Rock Oceanfront Resort and wake to the sounds of the sea. Or for a more intimate sleep, book one of the four boutique rooms at Pluvio restaurant + rooms. Pluvio’s restaurant was recently named Canada’s Best Destination Restaurant.
As you drive the 40 minutes from Ucluelet to Tofino, watch on your left for a wave-swept expanse of beach to emerge from the lush temperate rainforest. This “West Coast moment” will stay with you.
Tofino is one of those places that has the ability to nurture and replenish your spirit. You can’t help but relax here, and just be in the moment. Whether you’re beachcombing along seemingly endless stretches of sand or finding serenity in the rainforest, taking a surf lesson on Chesterman Beach or taking a boat or seaplane to soak in the healing waters of Hot Springs Cove, the power of nature is evident.
Book a water taxi to nearby Meares Island to see some of BC’s oldest, biggest trees and learn about the significance of this natural landscape to the local Nuu-chah-nulth people. Too see how the land and Indigenous stories translate into art, visit the renowned Roy Henry Vickers Gallery.
Nature also has a profound impact on the local cuisine. Many of Tofino’s chefs grow and harvest the food they showcase on their menus, creating uniquely West Coast flavours. Freshly foraged mushrooms, for example, are a much-loved seasonal delicacy here. Enjoy a memorable meal as you sit on the water-view patio at Shelter Restaurant; savour freshly caught seafood at Wolf in the Fog; or sample innovative cuisine with a 240-degree view overlooking the wild Pacific Ocean at The Point Restaurant.
Local institutions are woven deep into the fabric of this west coast community, including Common Loaf Bake Shop (open since the 1980s) and Tofician, where they’re serious about their coffee. For surf-side bites, head to Tacofino; this mainstay opened their original food truck here in 2009 before bringing their to-die-for fish tacos to Vancouver.
The area’s non-human residents are another major draw. Don’t be surprised to see whales if you’re out on the water—orcas, grey whales, humpbacks, and minkes all frequent these waters, and from April through October, black bears can be seen foraging along the shoreline. Book a whale-watching or a bear-watching tour to greatly increase your chances of an encounter.
Accommodation options in Tofino range from rustic campgrounds to beach-side cabins to luxurious oceanfront resorts. Treat yourself to a stay at the posh Wickaninnish Inn, or book a room with an ocean view at the Best Western Tin Wis Resort. Want to be able to prepare your own meals? Pacific Sands Beach Resort has gorgeous beach houses available, and the “beehive” cabins at Ocean Village Resort are a great background for some vacation pics.
Wherever you lay your head, you will leave Tofino refreshed and recharged, having learned something about yourself along your journey.
Header image: Cox Bay, Tofino | @meghan_reading
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