Located just off the coast of British Columbia (BC) is Vancouver Island. Covering a whopping 32 sq km this unique habitat is home to temperate rainforests, gigantic old growth trees, the Pacific Rim National Park, the capital of BC – Victoria, the surfer towns of Tofino and Ucluelet and a healthy population of whales, bears, cougars and wolves. The perfect destination for an unforgettable Canadian road trip!
Today almost 1 million people live on the island, most in the southern town of Victoria. It has one of the mildest climates in the whole of Canada as it sits below the 49th parallel – the imaginary line dividing the US and Canada; so don’t be shocked if your phone suddenly pings to a US supplier. Read on for my suggested road trip itinerary from Victoria to Tofino.
Map of the suggested route: From Victoria to Tofino
Day 1: Ferry from Vancouver (Tsawwassen) to Swartz Bay (Victoria)
Ferry time: Approx 1.5hrs. Drive or get the bus from Swartz Bay to Victoria (31km).
On arrival in Victoria, head straight towards the historic harbour area as this is a great base from which to explore the city. Right in front of you you’ll notice the English-style architecture of the BC Parliament Building and the Empress Hotel. If you’re interested, you can take a free guided tour through the Parliament Buildings (more info here).
Stroll towards the floating harbour of Fisherman’s Wharf before stopping for refreshments at 10 Acres Bistro. There’s are heaps of little alley ways to explore off Wharf Street or head up to the corner of Blanshard St and Fort St to discover trendy independent boutiques and the deliciousness that is Discovery Coffee.
Restaurant ideas near Victoria:
- Pizza Prima Strada – Awsome pizza!
- Kid Sister icecream – homemade delicious ice cream.
- 10 Acres Bistro – geat happy hour, right near the harbour.
- Be Love – delish vegan food.
- Part and Parcel – homemade and fresh.
- La Taqueria – taco heaven.
- Olo Restaurant – slightly more pricey. Seasonal fresh produce.
Day 2: Get outdoors and explore Victoria
Today it’s time to get outdoors to explore Victoria. Start with a drive, or walk if you’re feeling energetic, up to the viewpoint at the top of Mount Tolmie. On a good day you will be able to see all the way across to Mount Baker in Washington State.
Next make your way to Mt Douglas and follow the trail head all the way to the top (4km round-trip, approx 1.5hrs) and you’ll be rewarded with spectacular 360 degree views across Victoria and beyond. Of course on the day we went Victoria was drowning in rain!!
Finish the day with the scenic route along Beach Drive, which backs onto the waterfront. You can follow this road all the way to / from Victoria itself, the name of the road changes, but the trick is to stay as close to the water as you can.
Day 3: Venture into the heart of Vancouver Island, Victoria to Parksville
Drive time: 148km (approx 2 hrs)
Begin your drive towards Parksville / Nanaimo. I’m being flexible with your end destination here as you may find accommodation in either place. Be warned neither are the most picturesque of towns, but offer a great pit stop to break up the journey.
First stop – the Kinsol Trestle. This is one of the tallest free-standing timber rail trestle structures in the world. It’s a whopping 44m high and 187m long. Park up in the parking lot and take the easy trail towards the trestle (approx 1.5 kms).
Your next stop is the small fishing community of Cowishan Bay; a wonderful lunch spot with a renowned bakery, cheese shop and plenty of coffee shops.
Just after Cowichan Bay you will come off Route 1 towards Mt Tzouhalem. A 6km roundtrip hike to an awesome viewpoint. It will take around 2.5 hrs to complete.
After some fresh air get back in your car and head for your accommodation. We opted for Rathtrevor Beach Campground. Located in a wooded area, the campground backs onto Rathtrevor Beach with over 2km of sandy beach and hiking trails within the park. It was wonderful, we saw rabbits hopping along and plenty of seabirds. The camp itself if very well kept with modern clean showers.
Crow and Gate Pub just before Nanaimo
Black Goose Inn – 1km walk from Rathtrevor Campground
Day 4: Head across the island towards Ucluelet
Drive time: From Rathtrevor Campground to Ucluelet – 154km, approx 2.15hrs
Start your day with a walk along the glorious Rathtrevor Beach. It was STILL raining for us so the views weren’t all that great,but this beach is meant to be wonderful at low tide.
Today your drive will take you across the center of Vancouver Island towards the Pacific Rim National Park. First stop is the bizarre village of Coombs. Visit the famous market which has goats living on the roof (as you can tell from this shot, it was sill raining!)
About 20 mins down the road you’ll come across Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park. There’s an easy hiking loop, which takes in both the lower and upper falls. It should only take you 30 mins to complete so I recommend doing them both.
Next it’s time for the giant old growth trees at Cathedral Grove!! There are two paths into the forest, one on either side of the road. If you have time why not wander through them both? Yep you guessed it, still raining for us! I’m not surprised these trees have grown so large. Allow yourself 30 mins to 1 hr to take in this unique place. The largest tree in the park is a giant Douglas-fir. It is over 800 years old, 76m tall and 9m round (that’s taller than the Leaning Tower of Pisa).
It’s at this point you want to check supplies, especially petrol, as Port Alberni will be the last major town for a while. Once you’re set, continue on Route 4 which weaves in-between lakes and rock faces, so take your time as there’s plenty of blind bends.
Before you know it you’ll have reached the end of the road. It’s at this point you will need to purchase your Parks Canada Discovery Pass (if you haven’t already). This is a legal requirement giving you access to the Pacific Rim National Park and one pass will grant to entry to over 40 National Parks in Canada.
Green Point Campground. I would highly recommend this place! It’s located inside the National Park with a healthy population of bears, wolves and cougars.
We made a pit stop for supplies in the small coastal town of Ucluelet, before making our way to Green Point Campground.The campsite is almost equidistant between Tofino and Ucluelet – the two main towns near the Pacific Rim National Park. This is where you will find supermarkets, the start of the walking routes and tours guides. I would highly recommend this place! It’s located inside the National Park with a healthy population of bears, wolves and cougars. The Park Rangers are incredibly strict about bear safety in camp and so it’s rare that you would have a dangerous encounter with the animals, but a thrill to know you are sharing their habitat. We opted for a walk-in site, but there are drive in ones. And lovely clean new shower blocks and best part is…direct access to Long Beach.
The Pacific Rim National Park and the Pacific coastline are home to some of BC’s most stunningly beautiful and wild beaches. You could spend an entire day beach hoping, going from one to the next. Here’s a useful guide to help you choose which to visit. We spent some time at Long Beach and the views were out of this world.
Day 5: Let’s go kayaking in Tofino!
Wake up and drive towards Tofino. We booked a 4hr kayak tour with Tofino Sea Kayaking and I can’t recommend them enough. Make sure you fuel up with one of their delicious coffees and fresh pastries beforehand, then head down to the water front for a safety briefing. We paddled out on the water, taking in some quite exciting rip tides which literally spun the kayak, and landed just across the bay on Meares Island. Following a boardwalk through the forest, our guide amazed us with facts about the local first nations communities and the struggle to prevent this old growth forest from the logging industry.
Finish the day with hands down the best chips I have EVER tasted at Shed Tofino. Their salad bowls and burgers are pretty good too! Tofino has an awesome selection of trendy restaurants from tacos to Japanese – this small community caters for every taste. Be sure to swing by the Tofino Brewery (just a few hundred meters outside of the town).
Day 6: Spot some whales!
We moved campsites for our last night, opting for Surf Junction Campground, which is closer to Ucluelet. They offer surf lessons and gear rental. Oh and they also have a hot tub and sauna to use, which looks out on the open lake. It’s open to 11pm- nice!
The deep waters off the coast of Vancouver are some of the best to see whales. On Vancouver Island you’re most likely to see grey whales, although orcas can often be seen in the waters.
Today is whale watching day! The deep waters off the coast of Vancouver are some of the best to see whales. On Vancouver Island you’re most likely to see grey whales, although orcas can often be seen in the waters. We booked a 2.5 hr tour with West Coast Aquatic Safaris, located in the heart of Tofino. I picked this company as their tours are run on sturdy-looking two-level boats, which I prefer over rib boats, which I find always leave you wet and cold.
We headed out onto the water in search of whales. Along the way we spotted sea otters floating on their backs, bald eagles and plenty of seals. Finally in a small bay, just 100m off the coast, we spotted a grey whale! Our captain estimated that the whale was around 10m in length. We would see it dive down for 2 minutes at a time and then come up for air with a big spray of water from its blowhole. A magnificent sight to see. Unfortunately my photos aren’t great (I don’t know how wildlife photographers do it), but it was truly mind-blowing to think that this gigantic almost prehistoric-looking creature lives in the waters so close to shore.
Most whale and bear tours will be finished by around lunchtime, so at that point why not hit one of the local trails to take in the beautiful scenery? We ventured south towards the start of the Wild Pacific Trail – a world renowned pathway running along the Pacific coastline – the most westerly point in Canada. The entire trail would take you weeks to complete, but it can be broken down into chunks.
We opted for the Lighthouse Loop. Starting in the town of Ucuelet, this trail is well trodden and so the chance of encountering bears/wolves etc is limited. Follow the path along the coast for 2.6km (allow 45mins) and take in the magnificent views of the many inlets.
Day 7: Time to make your way home
Drive time: From Green Point Campground to Nanaimo Ferry Terminal – 175km, approx 2hrs 30mins
After a week of exploring the best that southern Vancouver Island has to offer, you’ll be ready for a rest! We drove back to the ferry terminal at Nanaimo and caught and ferry back to the mainline from there. Travelling back to Victoria would have added another 2hrs drive time onto the journey.
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