Northwest of Vancouver, British Columbia’s coastline becomes almost impossibly rugged, characterised by glacier carved inlets that sometimes stretch for hundreds of kilometres. The two sections of coastline closest to Vancouver are known as the Sunshine Coast.
Offering breathtaking views of Vancouver Island and the Salish Sea, the Sunshine Coast shoreline is lined by vibrant coastal communities and backdropped by mossy temperate rainforest and the coastal mountain range. Quite frankly, it’s gorgeous.
The Sunshine Coast: BC’s most well hidden gem?
Hiding almost in plain sight, the Sunshine Coast may well be BC’s most well hidden gem. With a relaxed, friendly small-town vibe, the Sunshine Coast feels like a world apart from the busy cityscape of Vancouver, despite being just a short ferry away. It’s quiet too, being just off the main tourist route through BC.
Even with the close proximity to Vancouver, I find many visitors and even resident British Columbians are not very familiar with the Sunshine Coast. To me, that is definitely a mistake as this area has SO much to offer in any season.
Unique things to do on the Sunshine Coast, BC
We have just returned from our third trip to the Sunshine Coast, counting about 8 weeks of total travel in the area over the last few years. Needless to say, we are in love with this area.
As much as I’d prefer to keep this wonderful region all to myself, I believe it deserves far more attention than it receives. To prove its underrated nature, read on to discover 14 unique things to do on the Sunshine Coast, BC.
With one exception, all of these activities can be done from spring to autumn. Indeed, many can even be done all year round!
Visiting Princess Louisa Inlet
Remember those glacial carved inlets I mentioned earlier? Princess Louisa Inlet is a magnificent 6km long fjord located northwest of Egmont. It is also known as swiwelát by the shíshálh Nation. Without a doubt, it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in Canada or anywhere in the world.
Incredibly steep carved walls of granite rise up to 2000m out of the calm water in this narrow fjord, providing breathtaking views as well as a sheltered anchorage.
The huge Chatterbox Falls, at the very end of the inlet, thunders with power while dozens of smaller waterfalls cascade down the adjacent sheer rock walls on rainy days.
Princess Louisa Inlet is most easily accessed via a guided boat tour. Our five hour trip with Sunshine Coast Tours was on the rainiest day you could ever imagine, but it turned out to be the best weather we could have hoped for.
Rain, as it turns out, makes fjords look even better. We also had the chance to see humpback whales before we even stepped on the boat.
Taking in the views at Soames Hill
For a rewarding hike, make the time to hike Soames Hill (also known as ‘Knob Hill’) near Gibsons. More of a stair climber than a true nature hike, the journey to the 240m high summit provides a bit of a workout.
It is absolutely worth it though, as you’ll earn stunning panoramas of Gibsons and surrounding islands (Keats, Bowen, Vancouver et al) at the top.
Why do I consider this hike to be unique? To put it simply, it’s short, quick and has an awesome effort to reward ratio. While it is true that there are plenty of other uphill hiking opportunities on the Sunshine Coast, Soames Hill is particularly special for the ease of access and oustanding payoff.
There are a number of different access points to reach Soames Hill, but I’d recommend using the entry on Bridgeman Road (about 4km north of Gibsons). From here, it’s about 45 minutes to the top. There are stairs (400+ of them!) and some steep sections. The trail is well marked and dogs are allowed on leash.
Getting back to nature at Tzoonie Wilderness Resort
If you’ve ever wanted to experience a taste of coastal wilderness but with a proper bed and hot shower every night, you need to check out Tzoonie Wilderness Resort near Sechelt. This unique spot is family run and offers an accommodation experience with a difference.
Each stay at Tzoonie (‘a place of shelter’) starts with a 40 minute long boat ride to the remote Narrows Inlet location. Once at Tzoonie, you can choose to do as much or as little as you like – kayak, SUP, swim or just relax and take in the dramatic views of the inlet.
There’s practically all you can eat seafood too (up to the local catch regulations of course), with fresh oysters, clams, mussels and cockles all easily found at one of the many on-site beaches.
No idea what to do or how to cook shellfish? Don’t worry, Tzoonie’s owners will provide all the equipment and knowledge you need. They may even catch a crab or two and serve it up for your supper as well!
*Tzoonie is open in summer only*
Hiking to Smugglers Cove
For an easy coastal hike with an unusual history, head to the Smuggler Cove Marine Provincial Park near Halfmoon Bay (lower Sunshine Coast). The trail begins in the forest but quickly reaches the coastline with views of pretty Smuggler Cove.
With a round trip distance of around 4km, the Smuggler Cove hike takes around 1.5-2 hours to do. There are a number of other beautiful viewpoints, including one rocky outcrop with fantastic vistas of the Salish Sea.
Along the way, there are interpretive signs to explain the history of the area. Yep, smuggling did happen here, in a few different ways. The cove was used as a launching point to smuggle Chinese labourers (who had worked on the Canadian Pacific Railway) into the USA. American alcohol smugglers also utilised the cove during Prohibition in the 1920’s.
Tasting locally made beer and cider
There’s a huge array of craft breweries and cideries in British Columbia and the Sunshine Coast is no exception to this rule. What is a little different though is the emphasis on community supported, small batch production using farm fresh ingredients where possible. There’s nothing ordinary about the craft beer made in this part of the world.
There are currently four breweries and one cidery on the Sunshine Coast. Each has something special to offer, but we loved Persephone’s sustainability ethos (they have an on-site farm!), relaxed beer garden and huge choice of beers (the cider is also fab).
Over at Tapworks, we were won over by the scenic elevated patio and experimental style. If you like stouts, you have to go here. It was their first beer and you can tell it’s been perfected!
We were already big fans of the dry style offerings from the Bricker Cider Company but their seasonal releases just keep us coming back. The Brickers taproom, not far from Sechelt, has a lovely garden and rotating food trucks.
Townsite Brewing in Powell River has a huge range of beers, thoughtfully crafted by Belgian born brew master Cédric. Housed in the former Federal Building (circa 1939), the brewery itself is as distinguished as the beer. Check out the impressive architecture in the cosy taproom over a flight. Or two. Patio coming in 2020.
Watching the tidal rapids at Skookumchuck Narrows
Twice daily, the Sunshine Coast is witness to an incredible display of the ocean’s power. As the tide changes in the Skookumchuck Narrows near Egmont, the water rushes through at 30km/h and creates huge waves and whirlpools. It’s an awesome sight, especially when kayakers come out to play in the rapids.
The Skookumchuck (‘strong water’ in Chinook Jargon) tidal rapids are accessed via a straighforward 4km trail (8km return) through the temperate rainforest. The path is flat for the most part, with the occasional tree root and rock.
Close to the end of the trail, the path splits and one path goes to the Roland Point viewing area and the other to North Point. Roland Point is best for the big waves seen during flood tides, and North Point for the whirlpools seen during ebb tides.
Watching the Skookumchuck rapids is definitely one of the most unique things to do on the Sunshine Coast, BC. But you must time it right!
The best viewing times change every day according to the tides and can be found here. There is a 20-30 minute window either side of the best viewing times to see the rapids at capacity.
Taking in a one of a kind sunset
Having travelled around much of British Columbia over the last seven or so years, the Sunshine Coast remains one of my favourite spots for watching sunsets. Yes, it’s true, you can see sunsets in many places across BC but watching the sun disappear behind Vancouver Island and the Salish Sea offers a unique kind of magic.
There are plenty of great places to take in a sunset on the Sunshine Coast. Some of my top choices include Bonniebrook beach (Gibsons), Roberts Creek Pier, Davis Bay, Roberts Creek Pier, Halfmoon Bay and Dinner Rock (near Lund). It is also possible to camp at the latter for the ultimate sunset watching experience.
Another wonderful sunset spot is Tin Hat Mountain on the Sunshine Coast Trail, as mentioned below. You can’t get a more ‘top of the world’ feeling than watching the sun go down from Tin Hat Mountain!
Hiking the hut-to-hut Sunshine Coast Trail
The Sunshine Coast Trail is a 180km hiking route from Sarah Point to Saltery Bay (upper Sunshine Coast), taking in old growth temperate rainforest, mountain and lake vistas as well as coastal shore.
There are `14 shelters located regularly along the route, making the Sunshine Coast Trail Canada’s longest hut-to-hut hike. If that wasn’t unique enough, the Sunshine Coast Trail is also completely free to hike!
Not being located in a provincial or national park, the Sunshine Coast Trail is intersected with both local and working logging roads. This offers the chance to hike individual sections without having to commit to the full 180km. There is a shuttle bus operation to help with one-way transport.
We chose the most scenic (and also, apparently, difficult) section to hike – the middle section from Inland Lake to Lang Bay. This 70km route was ideal to hike over five days. It featured four cosy huts, impressive views (and a memorable sunrise) from Tin Hat Mountain, great swimming lakes, huge Douglas Fir trees.
Hiking in September (at least this year) proved to be very wet but also a time for solitude on the Sunshine Coast Trail. During our time on the trail, we only saw one other hiker – a local out for an afternoon stroll.
Driving to the end of Highway 101
It may be a surprising to learn that the tiny coastal community of Lund, north of Powell River, signifies the end (or start, for that matter) of one of the most iconic highways in the world.
Lund is ‘Mile 0’ of Highway 101 (also known as the Pacific Coastal Route), a road that stretches 15,202km to Quellon in Chile.
As a destination, Lund may seem unassuming at first. But this ‘end of the road’ fishing village is wonderfully quaint and well worth a wander.
As well as having the Sunshine Coast’s first full service Indigenous resort, there’s a fantastic bakery, waterside restaurant, ice cream parlor and wool sweater shop. Lund is also the jumping off point for Savary Island and Desolation Sound.
Staying overnight in a converted courthouse
For a more unusual stay on the Sunshine Coast, step back time at the Old Courthouse Inn in Townsite, Powell River. This 1939 Tudor style building once hosted Townsite’s court, jail and police station.
Each of the 7 en-suite B&B rooms has been lovingly renovated and individually themed. The halls display interesting antiques and photos of days gone by.
If you can, combine a night or two at the Old Courthouse Inn with a couple of beers at Townsite Brewing and then a film at the Patricia Theatre (mentioned above). Both are only a two minute walk away!
Breakfast is included with every overnight stay and is served at Edie Rae’s Cafe downstairs. Named after the owner’s mother, vintage portraits of Edie adorn the walls of this cosy, inviting space. A boring hotel breakfast buffet this is not, with traditional cooked options as well as a choice of eggs benedicts.
Paddling the Powell Forest Canoe Route
The Powell Forest Canoe Route provides an an exciting beyond the beaten path multi-day paddling adventure. Including 63km of interconnected lakes and portages, the Powell Forest Canoe Route is definitely one of the most unique things to do on the Sunshine Coast, BC.
Despite being adjacent to many active logging roads, the Powell Forest Canoe Circuit offers a surprisingly remote and tranquil wilderness experience.
After setting out from Lois Lake, we didn’t see a soul for the next five days as we portaged and paddled ourselves around eight lakes.
Whether the Powell Forest is truly wilderness or not, we found plenty of beauty while on the lake and traversing the portages. Mountains peeking out of the clouds, bald eagles circling, huge frogs hopping along portage paths and more. And it is surrounded by amazingly lush temperate rainforest.
Visiting beautiful Savary Island
One of the most unique things to do on the Sunshine Coast has to be a visit to Savary Island. This little piece of paradise is located just offshore from Lund is looks more Caribbean than British Columbian. The gleaming white sand beaches of this cute, crescent shaped island are lapped by warm, turquoise waters.
Populated but not busy, Savary Island is the perfect place for a relaxing holiday on the BC coast. The island is only 7.5km by 1.5km so it is easy to check out a few different beaches by foot or bike. And, as you may have guessed, the sunsets are fabulous!
There is no vehicle ferry to Savary Island, so park your car at Lund and embrace the break! There are regularly scheduled water taxis making the 15 minute crossing to the island.
Watching a film at a 100+ year old movie theatre
Watching a film may not be the most unique things to do on the Sunshine Coast but Patricia Theatre in Townsite, Powell River, is something a little special. For the Patricia is the oldest continuously operating theatre company in British Columbia.
Built in 1913, a trip to the Patricia offers a heritage experience in addition to entertainment. It began in a tent before moving to its current structure in 1928. The walls are decorated with modest painted peacock murals that hint of a more refined era.
As well as showing big blockbusters and independent films, the Patricia Theatre continues its role as a social hub by hosting performances and community events. ‘On the Verge,’ a climbing film showcasing the local crags was featured during our two week visit to the Powell River area.
Kayaking Desolation Sound
Just beyond the northern tip of the Sunshine Coast, Desolation Sound is a paddler’s paradise with calm warm water, abundant wildlife, epic scenery and large choice in campsites. I believe it to be the most accessible and approachable (and obviously beautiful!) multi-day kayaking area on the BC coast.
The largest marine park in British Columbia, Desolation Sound features protected bays, towering rock bluffs and idyllic islands, backdropped by spectacular fjords and snow capped mountains.
If you’re short on time, consider a short trip to the Copeland Islands. Located a very short paddle north of Lund, these small islands have numerous campsites with incredible panoramas of Vancouver Island. If the weather isn’t looking great or we are feeling a little lazy, the Copelands makes for a wonderful quick getaway.
Not an experience kayaker? No problem. There are a number of local adventure tour operators offering guided day and multi-day trips to Desolation Sound.
How to get to the Sunshine Coast
The Sunshine Coast extends 177km along the British Columbia coast from Howe Sound in the south to Desolation Sound in the north. Though part of the mainland, the nature of the rugged coastline means that the Sunshine Coast is separated from Vancouver by a huge inlet.
If you’re anything like me, you will agree that road trip involving a ferry ride automatically qualifies it for being more exciting. I have some good news – when visiting the Sunshine Coast, you’ll need to take at least one to get there!
Taking the ferry to the Sunshine Coast
The Sunshine Coast is separated into two distinct and characterful sections.
The lower Sunshine Coast includes Gibsons, Sechelt and numerous other coastal communities. It is accessible via one 40 minute ferry from Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver. The ferry arrival point is in Langdale, just a ten minute drive east of Gibsons.
The upper Sunshine Coast is connected to the lower section by a 50 minute ferry from Earls Cove. From the arrival dock of Saltery Bay, it is a straightforward 30 minute drive along the coast to Powell River.
The Sunshine Coast can also be accessed from Vancouver Island, via a 90 minute ferry from Comox to Powell River.
Sunshine Coast ferry tips
Sailing on BC Ferries is an quintessential part of the Sunshine Coast experience. Crossing the inlets by boat offers spectacular views of the surrounding coastal mountains, a perspective that is difficult to see by car.
Here are my tips to make the most of the BC Ferries experience.
- While BC Ferries vessels on the Sunshine Coast are reasonably large and can load many cars, the space for oversize vehicles (large trucks, vans, RVs and the one we drive!) is more limited. For this reason, arrive as early as possible to secure a spot.
- Reservations can be made for the Horseshoe Bay to Langdale and Comox to Powell River crossings. Having a booking guarantees a space on a specific sailing, as long as you arrive within 30-60 minutes of the scheduled departure. The cost of a reservation depends on how far you book in advance. If you’re driving an oversize vehicle and/or have limited flexibility with your trip schedule, I’d recommend booking.
- With the BC Ferries fare system, you need to pay for each individual passenger (including the driver) plus the vehicle. Return fares are charged from Horseshoe Bay to Langdale and Saltery Bay to Earls Cove so you only physically pay one direction.
- Planning to visit the Sunshine Coast as part of a longer trip through British Columbia? I’d highly recommend utilising the circular ferry route to make the most of your time. This would include Horseshoe Bay to Langdale, Earls Cove to Saltery Bay, Powell River to Comox and then Nanaimo or Swartz Bay back to Vancouver (Tsawwassen or Horseshoe Bay). This way you can see the Sunshine Coast AND Vancouver Island.
- Take a walk! Ferry crossings offer a good opportunity to stretch your legs while on a road trip. Get up on deck and check out the views.
- Try and spot some marine wildlife on the ferry. It is not uncommon to see dolphins and whales while on the ferry. The staff will sometimes make announcements if wildlife is spotted.
Thank you to both Sunshine Coast Tourism and BC Ferries for supporting our recent three week trip to the Sunshine Coast