Contrary to many first-time visitors expectations, Vancouver Island is a big place. At a length of 460km, it is actually twice the size of Prince Edward Island (which is a whole province!) in Eastern Canada. It also has five times the population. There are lakes the size of towns, lush rainforest, jagged mountain peaks and pristine sandy beaches that stretch for days.
Most visitors, however, only see Victoria and the coastal town of Tofino. I’m not saying that the Victoria/Tofino combination is a bad one. This is not the case at all, in fact, I can completely understand why the combo is so popular. The coastal scenery around Tofino is simply stunning and BC’s capital has plenty of attractions (and an amazing location) in its own right. What I’m saying here is that there is more to Vancouver Island than just Victoria and Tofino. As I mentioned, this place is big. It offers a huge variety of scenery which can be experienced for less cost and with fewer crowds than the standard Victoria/Tofino trip.
Going beyond the beaten path on Vancouver Island
Here are my top three suggestions for beyond the beaten path Vancouver Island road trips. Two of three of the layouts I have proposed involve driving on logging roads, so sections would not be suitable for every type of vehicle and/or rental cars. They can, however, be adapted, but the circular nature of the route would be lost.
Route 1: Coast & City Copycat – 420km
Starting and ending in Victoria, this road trip is a Victoria/Tofino alternative for travellers looking for an alternative option. Head north out of the city, stopping at Goldstream Provincial Park to awe at the trees, salmon (in season) and the views from Mt. Finlayson. Continue onto Cowichan Lake, a popular summer retreat for residents of Victoria.
Many visitors to Tofino stop at Cathedral Grove for a taster of Vancouver Island’s old-growth rainforest; get the full experience in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, home of the Island’s largest and tallest trees. It’s a bit of a drive but a walk amongst the giants is worth the effort. Arriving to the Pacific coast after a few hours in the forest provides a fantastic transition. The Juan De Fuca coast is a local’s version of Tofino’s Pacific coastal experience, offering beach-combing, ocean-side camping and rugged coastline. Follow the coast back to Victoria, via Sooke Potholes and a section of the Galloping Goose Trail.
Route 2: Three ferries, two coasts – 420km
Stay coastal with this route on mid-Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast. OK, a cheated with this one a little and extended it to a non-Vancouver Island location, but trust me, it makes sense. Arriving in Nanaimo, make your first stop Newcastle Island , a beautiful Provincial Park where only boats, bikes and hiking boots are allowed. Head north via dramatic Englishman River Falls to the Comox Valley, where you’ll find spectacular ocean and mountain views.
Kayak, golf, hike, swim, fish….you can do a bit of everything here, including skiing and snowboarding in the winter. A drive to Goose Spit in Comox is almost mandatory, to admire both the glittering water and mountainous landscape in one glance. Multi-day hikes are available from both Forbidden Plateau and Mount Washington, alongside more of those views.
Take the short ferry over to Powell River and explore galleries and the awesome Townsite Brewery. If you have a kayak or canoe, this area is paradise, with Desolation Sound to the north, Savary Island to the west and the Powell Forest Canoe Circuit to the south-east. Hikers are catered for, with the 180km long Sunshine Coast Trail – take a day-hike or stay overnight in one of the trail huts. Return to Vancouver via two more ferries and a stop at Sechelt for yet more beach time.
Suggested add-ons: Hornby and Denman Islands are worth two extra ferries for yet more beaches, fantastic snorkelling/diving and a slice of laid-back island life.
Route 3: Northern Escape – 750km
Looking for a Vancouver Island road trip that is truly off the beaten track? This is the one. Being that it strays into more remote areas, I’m including some extra information too.
How long to spend
I’d suggest a week as the minimum due to the driving distances and road conditions involved. Add more time depending on personal interest.
We’ve spotted black bears, elk, deer and several varieties of grouse while driving on the following roads. Orcas, seals and black bear can be seen on whale watching trips from Campbell River, Telegraph Cove, Port McNeill and Port Hardy.
Activities on offer
Description of route
From Campbell River, head west along Highway 28 towards Strathcona Provincial Park. Stop at Elk Falls just outside of town for a short hike ending in dramatic views of the 25m waterfall. The highway follows water along most of its route, so if you have a canoe or kayak consider heading off-route along the logging roads to enjoy one of the many local lakes (my favourites are Mohun Lake, Amor Lake and Gosling Lake) or even complete the 3/4 day Sayward Canoe Route.
If you prefer to stay on dry land, there are plenty of short and long hikes available once you pass into Strathcona, BC’s oldest Provincial Park. There are also two campgrounds along the shores of the deep and brooding (and very long!) Buttle Lake.
Turn off Highway 28 at Gold River, and follow the gravel Gold River and Head Bay roads to Upana Caves. Vancouver Island is a hotspot for caving, with more explored limestone caves here than the rest of Canada combined. There are fifteen entrances to Upana’s cave system, with caves ranging from tiny passageways to large openings. Be sure to take a couple of light sources and enjoy! Note that in late April there was still a fair amount of snow here.
After the caves, head back to the Gold River Road and head north, later crossing onto Nimpkish Main South logging road. Muchalat Lake, around 20 minutes in, has an excellent Recreation Site for camping, but it $12/night from May to September. Nimpkish Main South was a fairly well-maintained road at the end of April 2014, reasonably quiet with traffic as well. The road continues to Vernon Lake (free Rec Site) and then heads right to Klaklakama Lake Rec Sites (both free, Lower has the best views). Woss Lake to the west offers more yet free camping, fishing, hiking and paddling opportunities.
From Klaklakama or Woss Lakes, you are just a few kilometres from the main (and paved) road, Highway 19. In between here and Port McNeill there are more caves in Little Huson Regional Park, just south of the very windy Nimpkish Lake. There are further options for free camping here too at the surrounding lakes. It’s a pretty area but very wet.
Port McNeill is the jumping off point for trips to the islands of Sointula and Cormorant. Alert Bay, on the latter, may be a tiny community in size but still has a lot to offer, with rich First Nation culture and plenty of wildlife opportunities. A short drive from Port McNeill is Telegraph Cove, an attractive former fishing and cannery village. No doubt a touristy place, Telegraph Cove is still worth a stop, especially in the low season when the boardwalks and parking lots aren’t so busy. There is a whale museum (by donation) and many whale watching and kayak tours leave from here.
To the end of the Island! You’ve come this far, so keep going. Once near Port Hardy, turn off and follow the signs for Cape Scott Provincial Park. A good few hours of logging road driving (reasonably good condition, moderately busy, slippery when wet) is ahead of you, but it’ll be worth it. Visit San Josef Bay (Cape Scott Park), Raft Cove Provincial Park or Cape Palmerston for a coastal experience like no other on Vancouver Island.
This area offers a wilder and more authentic version of Tofino; rugged coastline, jagged rocks, beautiful beaches and incredible Pacific Ocean views. Best of all, you’ll probably only share it with a handful of people, if any at all. There is free camping available at Cape Palmerston and Raft Cove. If you’re up for a challenge, consider a multi-day hike to Cape Scott’s lighthouse (around 45km return).
Back on the road, retrace your steps and return to Highway 19. If you’ve still got time and a sense for adventure, consider a side trip to the Port Alice area before you reach Port McNeill. Not only are there plenty more lakes to fish and paddle, there are a number of geological oddities in the area, such as the Eternal Fountain, Devil’s Bath and Vanishing River. The logging roads are a bit rougher down here, but are fairly quiet.
Heading east on Highway 19, you’ll be on a straight run all the way back to Campbell River. Enjoy the mountain views and stop at the many rest areas to soak up the scenery. It becomes less interesting around the turn-off for Sayward. The best place for a final night or two of camping lies around an hour north of your final destination.
Pye (H) and Stella Lakes, accessible via the reasonably well maintained Rock Bay FSR provide a number of excellent Recreation Sites with free camping. Even better still, is Little Bear Bay Rec Site, fofrund another 20-30 minutes to the north. It may not offer a lot of privacy for campers, but it is directly located next to the ocean. An absolutely beautiful spot for your last night travelling Northern Vancouver Island.
This trip involves a lot of logging roads and a circular route is lost if this is not possible, as well as some of the best destinations (Pacific Coast, Little Bear Bay, Upana Caves etc). Elk Falls, Strathcona Park, Telegraph Cove, Alert Bay and Port Alice will still provide a fun and scenic taste of Northern Vancouver Island if you are limited to the main highways.
Quadra and Cortes Islands provide an excellent side-trip before or after a road trip around Northern Vancouver Island. Easily accessible from Campbell River, they offer fantastic kayaking and coastal views. For the ultimate departure from the Island, consider travelling up the Inside Passage via Port Hardy. It’s expensive, but a great alternative to driving the route inland.
The need to know
Unsurprisingly, the rainforest in this area is pretty wet and can be significantly cooler temperature-wise than southern Vancouver Island. Make sure you have a good tarp for camping and know how to put it up, especially in the shoulder seasons (September-June). Having a copy of the Vancouver Island Backroad Mapbook is almost a necessity for navigation, especially on the logging roads. It is a $25 investment well worth making in my opinion!
Are you planning to road trip Vancouver Island this year?
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