Plan Your Trip to Northern Vancouver Island

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Wandering the beach in San Josef Bay in Cape Scott Provincial Park

Northern Vancouver Island is a place unlike anywhere else in the province (or the world, for that matter), where remote and rugged coastal adventure awaits. The scenery on Vancouver Island changes dramatically the farther north you drive: the highway narrows to two lanes, the trees grow taller, and the rivers are more plentiful. Up here, towns are smaller and more spaced out, the beaches are less crowded, and the wildlife is more prevalent. 

The experiences are as breathtaking as the views, from watching a whale glide effortlessly through the water to trekking along a vast stretch of beach at low tide. If you’re looking for a wild West Coast escape that’s filled with big nature, incredible wildlife viewing, and rich Indigenous culture, this is a must-do trip to add to your list.  Plan ahead to get the most out of your visit to Northern Vancouver Island.  

A totem in the making by Calvin Hunt in Port Hardy | Shayd Johnson

WHAT TO DO

From fishing and whale watching to hiking the seaside routes and exploring vibrant Indigenous culture, most activities on the north Island revolve around the ocean.

In Campbell River, scuba diving and salmon fishing compete for top draw. Nearby Johnstone Strait is renowned for its strong currents, and the lush underwater environment in these oxygenated waters attract divers from around the world. Orca sightings are common here, and the area is a kayaker’s utopia.

The village of Telegraph Cove was built as a frontier lumber mill in the 1920s. Today, the wooden boardwalks and buildings lining the protected cove operate as a resort, with former workers’ cabins and offices transformed into accommodation and restaurants.

 

Prince of Whales Whale and Marine Wildlife Adventures tours depart from Telegraph Cove and head to the nearby protected waters of the Broughton Archipelago—home to an abundance of marine mammals and seabirds. Orcas are most frequent, with humpback whales, Dall’s porpoises, and Pacific white-sided dolphins encountered regularly. If you’re looking for a self-propelled adventure, take a kayaking tour or rent kayaks to explore on your own.

Indigenous-owned Seawolf Adventures offers day trips from Port McNeill to remote areas for wildlife viewing of grizzly bears and orcas. The U’Mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay celebrates the history, culture, and art of the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw First Nations. Don’t miss their collection of artifacts recovered after BC’s infamous Potlatch Ban.

On the northern tip of the Island, Cape Scott Trail has been attracting intrepid hikers from around the globe for decades. It is a solid hike of close to 25 kilometres, and most choose to camp for one or more nights. For adventurers who want more, the North Coast Trail is an extension of Cape Scott, offering over 40 kilometres of more advanced hiking terrain.

From nearby Port Hardy, you can explore the edges of the Great Bear Rainforest by Zodiac with Coastal Rainforest Safaris. The BC Ferries vessel Northern Expedition, departs from town on a scenic 15-hour journey to Prince Rupert through the Inside Passage. 

Camping on Northern Vancouver Island, Steven Fines

Where to Stay

The communities on Northern Vancouver Island range from relatively small (Campbell River, 35,000 pop.) to extremely tiny (Sointula, 600 pop.). Accommodations vary accordingly, from Campbell River’s luxurious offshore fishing lodges and range of hotel options, to tiny bed and breakfasts in smaller communities. Indigenous-owned Kwa’lilas Hotel is a new option in Port Hardy, owned and operated by the Gwa’sala ‘Nakwaxda’xw Nations. The hotel and affiliated tour operators provide a glimpse into the arts, culture, and history of the local nations.

Camping remains a popular alternative, particularly for remote coastal locations such as Cape Scott Provincial Park. Typically, summer months are busy and finding accommodation can be difficult. However, with fewer international travellers visiting British Columbia this year, there are plenty of places to stay in 2020. RV camping is another option at properties such as Alder Bay RV Park and Marina south of Port McNeill.

Float plane in Coal Harbour near Cape Scott Provincial Park | Nathan Martin

Getting There

There are few airports on the northern tip of the Island, with daily scheduled flights between Vancouver and Campbell River, and Vancouver and Port Hardy. Plan to fly into a small regional air strip in Campbell River, Port Hardy, or Port McNeill and rent a car for transportation ease. You can also take a floatplane to Nanaimo or Campbell River. 

Those who love a good road trip can drive from Vancouver and enjoy the BC Ferries voyage to Nanaimo’s Departure Bay or Duke Point (reservations are highly recommended). From Nanaimo, it’s approximately 1.5 hours to drive to Campbell River, then another 2.5 hours to Port Hardy.

A third option is to fly into Comox Airport and rent a vehicle, allowing you to skip the ferry crossing.

Featured image: Wandering the beach in San Josef Bay in Cape Scott Provincial Park | Shayd Johnson

This story was originally published in 2017 and has been updated.

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WRITTEN BY: Mike Berard

From: Vancouver Island
Mike Berard is a born-and-raised Vancouver Island writer and photographer. He gets excited about deep snow, flowing singletrack, and craft beer. He is the editor of Coast Mountain Culture magazine.