It’s no secret that Parksville has some of the best beaches on Vancouver Island. And with more than 7km of sandy shoreline here, there’s plenty of space for all – from beachcombers and kite flyers to bird watchers, sandcastle enthusiasts and more!
But Parksville has a lot more to offer than the beautiful coastline that it is rightfully famous for. We recently found out this for ourselves first hand, when we spent dedicated time in the area to discover all of the best things to do in Parksville.
And, honestly, I was amazed! We used to live in Courtenay, less than an hour away from Parksville and have consequently driven through this area so many times before.
This was, however, the first time I really stopped and saw Parksville for what it is – a gorgeous oceanside destination with a whole host of fun next-to-nature experiences for all ages. It’s got year round appeal too, wth snow a rarity in winter.
In this post, I will share our favourite things to do in Parksville. Most are outdoors and involve exploring and enjoying nature in some way.
Parksville is situated on the unceded traditional territory of the Coast Salish peoples. We visited Parksville in September 2020 and were hosted by Parksville Qualicum Beach Tourism. BC Ferries also supported our trip.
The Best Things to Do in Parksville
Parksville may be relatively small in size but there is a plethora of things to do in and around the town.
Better still, it’s really easy to get around and access these attractions and activities quickly due to Parksville’s location close to Highway 19 and Highway 4.
Here’s a preview of what to expect in this post (click to skip straight to the description):
- Take a walk on Rathtrevor Beach
- Visit the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre
- Explore the Central Vancouver Island Bird Trail
- Discover the magic of Butterfly World
- Hike in Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park
- Go whale watching with Ocean EcoVentures
- Explore underground in Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park
- Walk with giants in Cathedral Grove
- Paddle Spider Lake
- Admire breathtaking Englishman River Falls
- Visit the Parksville Museum
- Taste craft beers at Mount Arrowsmith Brewing Company
- See the Goats on the Roof
- Play mini-golf
- Shop for locally made produce at Little Qualicum Cheeseworks
- Stroll the Parksville boardwalk
Use the below map to locate all of our recommended things to do in Parksville. Each activity has been personally tried and tested by us.
Take a walk on Rathtrevor Beach
Parksville is best known for its beaches and for good reason. One of the most popular to visit is Rathtrevor Beach. This long swathe of sand is breathktaking at any time of the year.
When the tide is out, it feels like you can walk for miles. The views stretch endlessly too, towards offshore islands and distant mountain ranges.
2km of the beach is protected by Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park. There are a number of large parking lots as well as a busy forest campground.
Visit the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre
The North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre is the champion of sick, injured and orphaned wild animals in the Parksville area. Visitors are welcomed to the expansive facility to meet the 60+ resident animals and learn about the work of this vital non-profit.
Rehabilitation is always the goal of the Centre, with the intention of releasing animals back into the wild. This is, sadly, not always possible.
For instance, raptors with irreparably damaged wings cannot hunt for themselves properly and would likely die in nature. When this happens, animals take up residence at the Centre and are cared for by a dedicated team of more than 80 volunteers.
Alongside the enclosures of resident animals, the Centre also shares insight into its rehabilitation program. Visitors can, for example, view Canada’s largest flight compound for recovering raptors (see below photo).
But the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre is more than just a sanctuary. Beyond the rehab buildings, educational displays and animal enclosures, there are acres of landscaped grounds to explore.
As well as a nature trail, native wildlife garden and turtle pond, you’ll also find a ‘Magical Field of Stones’ (I’ll let you find out what that is!) Every time we thought we found the edge of this property, it just kept on going.
Explore the Central Vancouver Island Bird Trail
To continue on the theme of wildlife, how about a spot of wild bird watching?
Parksville is part of the newly established Central Vancouver Island Bird Trail. More than 250 species of birds live around the estuary of the Englishman River, including the Pacific Brant Sea Goose.
The estuary can be accessed via an easy 1.8km loop trail, starting at the end of Shelly Road in Parksville. The path is almost completely flat for the entire length so it’s very approachable for all ages.
At the estuary viewpoint, there are benches and interpretive displays. This scenic spot is remarkably peaceful, despite being so close to the hustle and bustle of Parksville.
Discover the magic of Butterfly World
Butterfly World is a tropical oasis in Coombs, just a short drive from Parksville. It offers the chance to see vibrant South American and Asian butterflies in a beautiful tropical environment.
Dozens of butterfly and moth species are represented here, with some of the favourites including iridescent Blue Morphos and huge Giant Atlas Moths.
The contained greenhouse makes it easy to spot all of the different varieties and admire as they soar through the banana trees above. It’s also possible to watch brand new butterflies emerge from chrysalises.
Butterfly World is a particularly excellent destination on a rainy day. The greenhouses are kept at a lovely warm temperature, designed to recreate the tropical environment of the butterfly residents.
There are some exterior areas to explore too, with an outdoor butterfly garden featuring local plants and shrubs as well as a large koi pond. In the summer, a harpist sometimes plays in the garden.
A definite highlight of our visit was the chance to meet Samson, Butterfly World’s resident African Sulcata Tortoise. This huge 20+ year old tortoise absolutely loves to roam, particularly around the gift shop.
Hike in Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park
Little Qualicum Falls showcases a series of waterfalls rushing through a dramatic, mossy gorge. There’s definitely nothing ‘little’ about it! Bridges and elevated viewpoints help to see the action.
A network of trails follows the edge of the gorge. A 3.2km loop from the main parking area takes in both the Upper and Lower waterfalls plus numerous spectacular viewpoints of turquoise pools, roaring rapids, moss covered cliffs and more.
Little Qualicum Falls is a beautiful place to visit, but be sure to stay on established trails at all times and keep well back from drop-offs. The water moves very fast here and caution is needed.
Go whale watching with Ocean EcoVentures
Ocean EcoVentures is the only whale watching company operating between Campbell River and Nanaimo, despite being located in the center of orca whale and humpback whale travel territories.
This is a win-win for both tour participants and whales, as both get to experience a safe, quiet whale watching experience, usually with no other tour boats in sight.
Even if Ocean EcoVentures wasn’t the only whale watching operator in the Parksville area, it’s still the one I’d recommend. This is whale watching done right, with the focus being on education, conservation and safety.
Owner Simon was also our captain. His passion is infectious and we were all soon hanging off every word as he narrated humpbacks feeding, sealions barking and orcas gliding through the ocean.
The small size of our group made it easy to view the whales, and the Zodiac-style boat (previously owned by the coastguard!) allowed us to travel long distances quickly.
Ocean EcoVentures runs daily whale watching tours from March to October. Departures are weather dependent.
Explore underground in Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park
Vancouver Island is absolutely chock full of caves – in fact, it has more caves than all of Canada combined (1000+)! This is thanks to the large limestone deposits that span along the length of the Island.
Most of Vancouver Island’s caves, however, are inaccessible to the public. Horne Lake Caves is one exception, with the provincial park of the same name protecting these subterranean wonders while also allowing limited access.
Prior to the pandemic, it was possible to walk to the entrance of three different caves. At the current time, visitation is via guided tour only. Even in a regular year, it’s well worth going on a tour to get the chance to visit the spectacular Riverbend Cave.
Though we didn’t venture into the caves on our most recent visit, we have previously experienced one of the longer, more adventurous tours.
Our five hour escapade involved a crawl through the ‘Siphon’ (which was as narrow as it sounds!), two rock climbs, cable ladders and a rappel down a waterfall. Needless to say, it’s a wild one-of-a-kind experience.
Walk with giants in Cathedral Grove
I may be pushing the boundaries of the Parksville area here a little but I think you’ll understand! Home to enormous 800 year old trees, Cathedral Grove is a must visit when on Vancouver Island.
Officially known as MacMillan Provincial Park, the trees in Cathedral Grove are amongst the oldest and tallest in Canada.
The reason for the name ‘Cathedral Grove’ becomes immediately obvious only a few minutes into visiting. Soaring towards the sky, these huge trees form their own beautiful cathedral of nature.
Cathedral Grove is located directly on Highway 4 between Coombs and Port Alberni. The park is split into two sections, with short walking trails starting immediately next to the highway.
Parking is limited and can get very busy during peak times (10am-4pm) so, if you can, try to visit early or late in the day.
Paddle Spider Lake
There are plenty of options for paddling around Parksville, but our pick has to be Spider Lake. There are a few reasons why, with the most obvious being the unusual shape of the lake itself. The intricate shoreline, featuring many secluded bays, is an absolute pleasure to explore.
Better still, power boats are prohibited on Spider Lake, so you can paddle in true peace. This unique lake is situated within a provincial park of the same name and is very close to Horne Lake Caves.
Admire breathtaking Englishman River Falls
Without a doubt, one of the most impressive natural sights around Parksville is Englishman River Falls. The river dramatically falls into a narrow canyon, with mist rising above while the water roars below.
Englishman River Falls is incredibly accessible too, with the main bridge viewpoint of the upper falls only 600m walking distance from the parking lot!
For a longer visit (1.7km loop), cross the bridge and continue to descend to the lower falls. Here, you get a great view of the water plunging into a crystal clear pool as well as the algae covered basin walls and overhanging trees. Swimming is allowed here, with caution, when water levels are low.
Be careful not to get this park mixed up with Englishman River Regional Park. While the latter has a lot to offer, you won’t find this waterfall there!
Other popular things to do in Parksville
Now you’ve heard about our absolute favourite things to do in and around Parksville, here are even more ideas!
Visit the Parksville Museum
Not a museum person? Parksville Museum may change your mind. Alongside indoor exhibits celebrating the origins of the town, you’ll also find a pretty courtyard surrounded by heritage buildings.
Relocated from nearby communities, these heritage buildings offer a glimpse into the lives of times gone by. As well as the old French Creek post office, there’s a fire hall, a school, church and beach cottage.
A rustic cabin also houses a blacksmith shop, with the chance to see a blacksmith at work (usually on summer weekends).
The museum and heritage buildings are not open year round but visitors can always explore the grounds.
Taste craft beers at Mount Arrowsmith Brewing Company
For me, the best accompaniment to outdoor adventure (and travel, in general) is craft beer. Mount Arrowsmith Brewing Company, a family owned and operated brewery, has it covered.
Named after the distinctive 1819m high basalt peak backdropping Parksville, this brewery is now one of my favourites in all of BC. Seriously!
The variety of brews on offer here is impressive, with a solid but complex porter alongside refreshing fruit sours, a very sessionable blonde ale and a rich IPA.
Breweries with this type of range sometimes struggle to deliver, but Mount Arrowsmith manages to maintain the individuality of each beer and keep the quality high.
Mount Arrowsmith Brewing Company currently has a small indoor taproom space as well as three (!) outdoor patios, two of which are covered.
There’s also an in-house pizzeria serving inventive, homemade specialties. I absolutely devoured my Herbivore pizza, which, to my delight, included pineapple (yes, I’m one of those people).
See the Goats on the Roof
A Vancouver Island landmark, no list of things to do in Parksville would be complete without Goats on the Roof.
Generations of families have delighted in the sight of these sure-footed residents wandering around on the grass atop of Coombs’ Old Country Market.
The market beneath the goats’ feet is popular in its own right too, with local, fresh produce alongside hard-to-find international groceries. There are three restaurants too as well as scoop ice cream and take-out treats.
Is it really a vacation without at least one round of mini-golf? Parksville has two adventure golf courses – Paradise Mini Golf and Riptide Lagoon. Both feature outrageously fun theming and 36 holes to play apiece (2 x 18 hole courses).
After trying both, we came to the conclusion that we enjoyed the theming and peaceful setting of Riptide Lagoon but the challenge of Paradise Mini Golf more.
For the record, JR beat me in almost every game but I was excited to win a free round of golf at Riptide Lagoon after scoring a hole-in-one at the last challenge!
Shop for locally made produce at Little Qualicum Cheeseworks
With such a mild climate and prime agricultural lands, Vancouver Island is an ideal region for food production. Parksville is no exception, with Little Qualicum Cheeseworks being one of its best known local producers.
Little Qualicum Cheeseworks specialises in artisan cheese made with milk, right from the on-site farm. The cows are grass fed only, with no pesticides or herbicide used in the fields.
The current cheese line-up includes as many as 13 different varieties, with inspiration coming from across Europe and North America. The soft fromage frais is a particular favourite and comes in three different flavours.
After browsing for cheese and watching cheesemakers work, visitors can also go on a self-guided farm tour and meet cows, calves, goats, sheep llamas and rabbits.
Stroll the Parksville boardwalk
Rathtrevor is just one of Parksville’s beautiful beaches. Closer to downtown is Parksville Beach, a sandy stretch with views for miles. The beach is backed by a public boardwalk for easy strolling.
The flat surface of the boardwalk route (445m in length) and wide width is great for walkers, cyclists, runners and families. There’s easy access onto the beach and also the Community Park behind, a huge 39 acre space enjoyed by both residents and visitors.
Beachfest, Parksville’s premier summer festival, happens just off the boardwalk. Master sculptors from all around the world come to Parksville to create extraordinary, larger-than-life sand sculptures.
Where to Stay in Parksville
With the beach being one of Parksville’s biggest attractions, I’d recommend trying to stay as close as possible. Then, you can use your accommodation as a base to explore more of the amazing things to do in Parksville.
Luckily, staying near the beach is easy in Parksville. Sunrise Ridge Waterfront Resort is our top pick, with beautifully modern and luxurious condo-style suites and vacation homes just steps away from the beach.
Our one bedroom suite featured a separate sleeping area (with gorgeous soaker tub!), spacious oceanview patio and a lavish, well-equipped kitchen. Two bathrooms would have made it very easy to share with another couple.
The resort is set on 10 acres of land, offering surprising peace and quiet so close next to the water. Amenities include an outdoor fireplace, fitness facility, seasonal pool and hot tub.
On our first night, we walked all the way to Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park and watched as golden hour lit up the sand channels on the beach and sunset colours danced over the ocean.
In the morning, the sunrise part of the resort’s name came to life. Our third floor patio had the perfect view of the sun rising over the distant mountains.
If camping is more your style, make a booking for Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park.
It’s one of the province’s most popular campgrounds and it’s easy to see why, with 250 spacious sites set under an old growth forest canopy, all a short walk from the beach.
Reservations are absolutely essential in summer (they are required), for weekdays as well as weekends. There is an overflow area available, for campers in a pinch.
The campground is open all year round, though there are limited services between November and March. The reservation season is May to September only.
How to get to Parksville
Parksville is conveniently situated just off Highway 19, about 30 minutes drive north of Nanaimo and 45 minutes from Port Alberni.
Driving between Victoria and Tofino? Parksville is a great place to break up the drive, being just over two hours drive from each.
Travelling to Parksville from mainland British Columbia features a relaxing cruise on BC Ferries.
I don’t know about you, but taking a ferry always makes a trip feel more like an adventure! And on our most recent trip to Parksville, we were lucky to see orca whales right from the ferry.
The closest ferry terminal to Parksville is Departure Bay in Nanaimo. Ferries arrive here from Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver, with up to ten ferry crossings a day in summer. The ferry crossing time is 1 hour 40 minutes.
It’s an easy 35 minute (37km) drive from Departure Bay to Parksville itself. On off peak days, the total journey time from Vancouver across the Salish Sea to Parksville is just more than three hours.
If you’re short on time or have a specific ferry crossing in mind, I’d highly recommend making an advance reservation. It makes the experience that much more straightforward as your vehicle has a secured spot.
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