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Our Western Canada road trip: South Vancouver Island

The first two weeks of our six month road trip around Western Canada had been pretty wet and cold to stay the least. Needless to say, we were pretty excited to have four night stay at a hotel in Tofino waiting for us by day 17.

A stay in tofino

All the way back down from Port Hardy, we were patting ourselves on the back for having the forethought to pick up a really good hotel deal a few months before.

Being that we had already been to this area twice, the hotel stay would enable us to hide from the rain for a few days, catch up on the blog, watch lots of trashy television and get reacquainted with indoor plumbing.

Maybe we would head out to grab some food from Tacofino once in a while. However, as soon as we left North Vancouver Island, the sun came out.

The sunniest stay on the West Coast

The sun didn’t just come out either, it truly shone, from 9am to 8pm almost every day of our visit. The locals were amazed with the 25 degree sunshine too; ‘it never gets like this, even in summer’ they said.

We mourned our lazy hotel stay for about half an hour, and then headed out to frolic in the heat like everyone else. Despite a few exceptions, the next few weeks were more of the same. And we have loved it. Even when it has rained, somehow it just wasn’t so bad.

While visiting Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, one of the wettest places on the Island, we experienced rain so heavy that we could place a 500ml water bottle under our tarp and it would be filled within 5 minutes.

Chesterman beach Tofino
Chesterman Beach, Tofino
Hot Springs Cove.
Hot Springs Cove, north of Tofino. The water comes out at around 100 degrees celcius before cooling down to around 50 when mixed with the seawater. It was a 90 minute boat ride to get here.
Hot Springs Cove

Two weeks of fun

These last few weeks have honestly been wonderful.  OK, I know I talk about the weather a lot, but it really does make a difference when you live in a van.

Aside from the utterly fantastic sunshine that kept pouring out of the brilliant blue sky (fine, I’ll stop) we met up with lots of friends, both old and new, enjoyed plenty of showers, got out in the canoe a fair bit and ate very well.

The best of Southern Vancouver Island

We explored the best rainforest we have seen on the Island (Carmanah Walbran), soaked in hot springs (Tofino), returned to one of our favourite places and had an equally fantastic second visit (Salt Spring Island), climbed small mountains (Mount Maxwell, Mount Finlayson), made new discoveries just off the main highway (Cowichan Bay, Kinsol railway trestle) and finally made it to some long awaited destinations (Newcastle Island, Merridale Cidery, Englishman River Falls).

Warming up

The contrast between our time in the north of the Island and the south was a bit like night and day. It wasn’t only the weather and temperature, but also the landscape, people and places.

North Vancouver Island was just coming out of hibernation in mid-April, while in the south, early May means it’s almost Victoria long weekend (17th-19th) and therefore the start of the summer season.

A social few weeks

It may have been a bit busier (we had to camp with other people!) but the atmosphere was nice after so many days of quiet in the north. It’s been social too.

As well as meeting up with friends around the ‘big’ Island (one of these meetings included a return trip to the Comox Valley) and Salt Spring Island, we’ve been stopped a number of times by curious people.

This is usually regarding our canoe, our GB sticker on the back of the van or what we’re doing in general. It’s been really refreshing to be able to talk about our trip, our plans, get tips and advice, and sometimes even contacts for later on down the road. If we’ve met you recently, then this is a hello for you!

Miracle Beach, Vancouver Island
We returned to the Comox Valley briefly to see a visiting friend, so we stayed at Miracle Beach again (three times in the end!)

Finding free camping on Vancouver Island

What with the south of the Island being so much busier, there are far less free places to camp, even in May.

Our beloved free rec-sites that we were so used to around North Vancouver Island were nowhere to be found, but somehow we still didn’t pay anything for accommodation the whole time (the hotel was pre-paid, so I’m not counting that). We have friends to thank (again, a huge thank you) and a bit of our own ingenuity for that.

Blowing the budget

Unfortunately, our ingenuity was not around while we were in Tofino; I think staying in a hotel went to our heads and the budget just flew out of the window within the first day.

Even in hindsight though, sometimes you just have to live a little.

When bucket lists go wrong

As much as we have enjoyed the last few weeks, a couple of things have not worked out for us. Two of JR’s bucket list items for this trip related to Vancouver Island.

We were unable to find the Cheewhat Tree near Carmanah Walbran (Canada’s largest tree) despite trying on two days. It was pretty disappointing, but Jean Robert loved the Carmanah Valley so much that we tried to focus on that more.

Missing Della Falls

Secondly, we chose not to hike to Della Falls as planned, due to the snow pack coming so late this year.

While visiting higher elevations around North Vancouver Island we couldn’t help but notice the low snow line (indeed, we saw plenty of snow and frost around) and we had no desire to head back up into the higher climbs so early in the season. Watch this space though, it may happen someday! (edit – it did, see link below). 

Newcastle Island canoe
A nice little paddle to Newcastle Harbour, close to Nanaimo. The city is visible behind Jean Robert
Sandstone pulp stones Newcastle Island
Sandstone pulp stones on Newcastle Island (used in pulp mills). The standstone found on Newcastle Island was favoured all around North America, indeed it was used to build the San Francisco mint building
Newcastle Island
Carmanah Walbran
Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park. Home to an amazing collection of some of the Island’s biggest trees
View from Joan and Robs Salt Spring
The view from our friend’s house on Salt Spring Island. On a clear day, you can see Mount Baker in the US
Salt Spring Island Baynes Peak
Reaching the top of Mount Maxwell (Baynes Peak) with the dogs
Salt Spring Island top of Baynes Peak
Salt Spring Island view hummingbird
Salt Spring Island canoe
A canoe around Burgoyne Bay, Salt Spring Island
Victoria view Olympic mountains
Victoria, with views of the Olympic mountains (Washington, USA)
Mount Finlayson Victoria
At the top of Mount Finlayson, with views of Victoria, height 419m
Mount Finlayson Victoria (2)
Shawnigan Lake canoeing
Paddling across Shawnigan Lake, to reach the Trans Canada Trail to….
Kinsol Trestle
….the Kinsol Trestle, one of the tallest freestanding free standing structures of its kind in the world at 44 metres.
Cider by Shawnigan Lake
Drinking local (around 5km away!) cider by Shawnigan Lake. A wonderfully lazy afternoon after the paddle and hike to the Kinsol trestle.
Englishman River Falls
Englishman River Falls

Weeks 3, 4 and 5 – South Vancouver Island – Comox Valley to Comox Valley via Tofino, Nanaimo, Carmanah Walbran, Salt Spring Island, Victoria, Shawnigan Lake

Kilometres driven: 1360 (2762 total so far)

Kilometres hiked: 26km (Newcastle Island, Carmanah Walbran rainforest, Mount Maxwell, Mount Finlayson, Kinsol Trestle)

Lakes paddled: 1 – Shawnigan Lake. 3 ocean canoes

Money spent: Too much! The first week was massively over budget due to treating ourselves in Tofino with the Hot Springs Cove tour and restaurant meals (around $500). Second week was better, totalling $100 ($30 over budget). Third week $120 ($50 over budget) And this was all with free accommodation! Oops.

Camping weeks 3 4 5

South Vancouver Island camping sites

Top level: Next to Taylor River (near Port Alberni), Miracle Beach, Rathtrevor Beach (Parksville)

Middle: Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park

Third level: North Shore logging road to Carmanah Walbran, Goldstream Provincial Park (near Victoria), Englishman River Falls Provincial Park (near Parksville)

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Check out these other posts featuring Vancouver Island

7 Places I Never Expected To See in Canada | Off Track Travel

Tuesday 27th of January 2015

[…] Island hopping is usually associated with exotic destinations such as Hawaii or Fiji, but did you know that you can island hop on Canada’s West Coast too? Between Vancouver Island and the mainland are seemingly hundreds of smaller islands, each with their own character and beauty (as well as some pretty awesome beaches!) Further north, the archipelago of Haida Gwaii has a strong First Nation presence, with half of residents identifying as Haida. The ferry costs may not be cheap, but I loved every one of my island hopping trips to Cortes, Quadra, Cormorant Island (Alert Bay), Denman, Hornby, Gabriola and Salt Spring!  Alternatively, buy your own transportation and paddle yourself as we did to beautiful Sandy Island and Newcastle Island. […]

Rob Lowrie

Tuesday 20th of May 2014

Great to see you two on Salt Spring!! You even managed to squeeze in canoeing Burgoyne Bay! Safe Travels.


Wednesday 21st of May 2014

It was fantastic to see you and Joan! We had such an awesome time on Salt Spring - paddling around Burgoyne Bay was just as beautiful as it looked from Mount Maxwell.