This story was originally published in April 2022.
British Columbia has its own unique, laid-back west coast island vibe: The pace is a little slower and life a little calmer beside the sea. On Vancouver Island you can recharge the nervous system with the rhythm of the ocean, ease into communities inspired by the landscape, and tune into the natural world as it quietly stirs about around you.
Victoria is the perfect starting point for a Vancouver Island road trip. Book a whale-watching day trip from the downtown Inner Harbour, stroll Dallas Road for views of the ocean, and eat your way around this foodie-favourite city with stops in Canada’s oldest Chinatown and at hot spots like Rebar and Q Restaurant at The Empress. Then hit the road and explore along the Pacific Rim, up the East Coast, through the Inside Passage, or around the Coast Circle Route, where each destination offers more wildlife to see and natural spaces to explore.
(Minimum 3 Days)
There’s nothing quite like the west coast of Vancouver Island: It’s wild, rugged, and the energy of the crashing waves, incredible sunsets, and mysterious rainforests captivates curious souls. It’s why British Columbians call this pocket of BC one of their favourite places to be.
Journey from Victoria to Ucluelet, making a stop in MacMillan Provincial Park and Cathedral Grove to stare at 800-year-old towering Douglas fir trees. Continue on to Ucluelet, often known as Tofino’s sister-city. Explore the black, rocky shores along the Wild Pacific Trail, tour the Ucluelet Aquarium, or simply watch the waves from one of many oceanside hotels or campgrounds.
From here, you can launch kayaks into the Pacific and explore the Broken Group Islands; these islands are best explored safely while on a multi-day trip with a guide. Outfitters can set you up with supplies, gear, and licensed guide for an unforgettable adventure. Paddle the turquoise waters, cool off with ocean dips, and keep an eye out for jellyfish, starfish, and other ocean life along rocky banks and shorelines.
Journey on to unwind in Tofino. Stroll Long Beach’s 16-kilometre (10-mile) stretch or hike along the forested boardwalk trails that scatter along either side of the Pacific Rim Highway. Purchase a Pacific Rim National Park Reserve pass to wander the beaches and trails. Grab a surfboard and feel the power of the ocean in Cox Bay, enjoy beach bonfires, and walk about the quaint downtown to feel laid-back, surf-culture vibes. Check out Little Ronnies (where the locals like to hang) for a menu of barbecue and live music immersed in the rainforest.
This journey is best experienced by car. Book a rental in Victoria for the drive to Ucluelet and Tofino. Alternatively, take a floatplane from Victoria to Tofino direct and rent a car (or a bike) to get around. There are also daily shuttles running between Victoria and Tofino with the Vancouver Island Connector.
(Minimum 4 Days)
Relax and rejuvenate on the beaches, in the forest, and beside waterfalls on Vancouver Island’s east side. Cruise up the coast from Victoria to the Island’s northern tip. You will feel the power of nature’s grasp with every passing mile while travelling this 500-km (310-mi) journey. The farther you drive, the more remote you get and the more wildlife you’re likely to encounter.
Stop in the city of Duncan and follow yellow footprints along a self-guided Totems Tour to see Indigenous carvings that stretch to the sky. In Nanaimo, explore the forest by mountain bike or by hiking to Ammonite Falls. Nanaimo is the perfect jumping-off point to Gabriola Island, accessed via a quick 20-minute ferry. Here you can unwind on the beach or wander around this “Isle of the Arts,” known for its high concentration of artists and artisans who call this place home.
In Parksville, ocean lovers can stroll sprawling Rathtrevor Beach or walk the trails to Englishman River Falls. Journey on north to Courtenay, and if you’re feeling extra exploratory, take the ferry to Hornby Island, where idyllic turquoise beaches and artisan communities thrive.
To get into Vancouver Island’s mountain ranges, drive inland towards Mount Washington Alpine Resort for laps in the downhill bike park. For the experienced hiker, head to Strathcona Provincial Park to hike the 31-km (20-mi) trail though the Forbidden Plateau, past alpine lakes and a frozen icefield, before summiting the 2,093-metre (6,866-foot) Mount Albert Edward peak.
Have more time to explore? Go deeper in the rainforest and Coast Mountains of BC. Book a wilderness lodge stay in the Great Bear Rainforest with pickups in Campbell River and other parts of the Island. Or, take BC Ferries from Port Hardy—at the very north end of Vancouver Island—and cruise the Inside Passage through the Great Bear Rainforest.
This journey is best experienced by road. Car rentals are available in Victoria or Nanaimo to make the journey up the east coast of Vancouver Island.
(Minimum 5 days)
Make your way to Telegraph Cove and book wildlife viewing trips with Prince of Whales and Tide Rip Tours to see whales, bears, and more. In Port McNeill, join an Indigenous-led wildlife-viewing trip with Sea Wolf Adventures. Watch for whales, bears, and other sea life as you navigate the waters of the Broughton Archipelago and the Great Bear Rainforest. From Port McNeill, take a ferry to Alert Bay to learn about the thriving Indigenous cultures of the area and understand their ways of living at the U’mista Cultural Centre.
Hop aboard BC Ferries for the 16-hour journey up the coast; park your RV or camper right on deck, or book one of their inboard or outboard cabin suites, complete with private bathrooms and beds for a relaxing journey. From the ferry deck, see the towering Coastal Mountains, and keep eyes and ears on high alert for eagles, whales, porpoise, seals, and more.
Navigate through coastal fjords and between the islands and inlets of the Great Bear Rainforest. Northern Vancouver Island before heading from the docks at Port Hardy on a sailing to BC’s northernmost coastal town of Prince Rupert.
In Prince Rupert, hop off and explore this marine coastal town on a canoe trip with Outer Coast Outfitters, or book a trip to see one of the densest natural grizzly bear sanctuaries in North America. Book a seven-hour tour with Prince Rupert Adventure Tours, who will take visitors right into the heart of the Khutzeymateen Provincial Park (a.k.a. Khutzeymateen/K’tzim-a-deen Grizzly Sanctuary).
Rent an RV or car and book the BC Ferries route from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert. Choose to get off and stay overnight in Bella Coola or keep on going up the Inside Passage. Arrive in Prince Rupert and explore the region via rental car or public transit, or by walking (it’s a quaint town).