As the Pacific salmon swim from the ocean to the spawning grounds of their birth, British Columbia becomes the host of one of the most breathtaking wildlife migrations in the world.
During this time, BC’s rivers and creeks teem with salmon fighting their way upstream, through rapids and cascades, sometimes leaping out of the water to ascend obstacles.
The annual salmon run is an impressive sight and one definitely not to miss when travelling the province in autumn.
In this post, I’ll share some of the best places to watch the salmon run in British Columbia.
Despite calling BC home for 10+ years, I am still awe-struck by the strength and determination of the salmon.
We are fortunate to be able to see (kokanee) salmon running in our home town of Penticton, just a few streets away from our house. I try not to take it for granted, however, and visit other locations when we can. Read on to discover the best spots!
Published September 2023
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BC’s salmon run: the basics
Before getting into the best places to see the salmon run in BC, let’s backtrack a little.
What does it mean to see the salmon run?
There are five Pacific salmon species indigenous to British Columbia – chinook, chum, sockeye, coho, and pink. BC is also home to kokanee salmon, a form of ‘landlocked’ sockeye that do not migrate to the sea.
Pacific salmon start their lives in freshwater rivers, later migrating to the ocean where they grow and mature for several years. Eventually, they return to the very same river they originated from to reproduce, completing their life cycle before passing away.
Travelling back to their origin point is not easy for salmon, however. These tenacious fish spend weeks fighting against the current, leaping cascades, dodging rocks and avoiding predators.
Many do not make it to their final destination (only 1-2% are successful).
Of course, it’s a humbling realisation to realise that those that do make it, die anyway. This dangerous journey is the culmination of the salmon’s life. For this reason, the salmon run is a symbol of the circle of life.
When is the salmon run in BC?
The salmon run is an annual occurance, with the main spawning season for Pacific salmon taking place in autumn.
The actual timing varies between species and location. It also changes from year to year, sometimes occuring slightly earlier and sometimes slightly later. As a general rule, late September to late October is the peak time for the salmon run in BC.
Why is the salmon run so important?
The return of salmon to BC’s rivers is an important event not only for the salmon, but also other wildlife. Salmon are a vital source of food for bears, eagles, wolves, bald eagles and many other animals.
Salmon are also part of the spiritual and cultural identity of many First Nations in BC. Not just a food source, salmon has provided wealth and trade opportunities for thousands of years.
Best places to see the salmon run in British Columbia
The following locations are some of the most popular places to watch the salmon run in British Columbia. Each featured place is very accessible, with easy road access and marked trails.
Don’t think, however, that these are the only places to go! Salmon spawn in rivers across British Columbia and there are many alternative locations. See the next section for more details.
Goldstream Provincial Park, near Victoria
Goldstream Provincial Park is Vancouver Island’s premier spot to watch the salmon run. The return of thousands of chum salmon is the main event, but coho, chinook and steelhead all spawn here as well.
The riverside trails provide many excellent vantage points to watch the salmon swim up the waterway. I’d recommend visiting the Nature House first to learn more about the wildlife in the park. Bald eagles are a common sight along the river, as they swoop down to eat salmon carcasses.
Due to the close proximity to Victoria, Goldstream is usually very busy on weekends during the peak of the salmon run season. Consider going early (before 10am) or late (4pm) to beat the crowds.
Best time to go: End of October
Where to stay nearby: Four Points by Sheraton Victoria Gateway
Puntledge River, Courtenay
There are many different places to spot the salmon run in Courtenay on Vancouver Island. Chinook, pink, coho, and chum all return to this area. We lived in Courtenay for a couple of years and loved seeing the salmon in fall.
One of the most accessible salmon run locations is the Puntledge River Hatchery, less than 10 minutes drive from downtown Courtenay. The facility features multiple river viewing points as well as a huge tank with glass windows.
Just downstream from the hatchery is Puntledge Park. A loop trail leads through the riverside park, with plenty of opportunities to see the salmon in Puntledge River and also Morrison Creek. Black bear love to hang out near the salmon too, so be sure to keep alert!
At Nymph Falls, watch the salmon leap as they climb the man made fish ladder on the Puntledge. The waterfall is 1km return from the parking lot, on a wheelchair accessible trail.
Best time to go: Late September, early October
Where to stay nearby: Old House Hotel, Courtenay
Stamp River Provincial Park, near Port Alberni
The Stamp River has to be one of the most impressive places to watch the salmon run in British Columbia.
Hundreds of salmon congregate in the pool below Stamp River Falls before leaping up the fish ladder. Steep mossy canyon walls rise above the river, with autumn foliage above. A 2km trail follows the edge, offering several viewpoints along the way.
Black bears are a common sight in this area, as well as bald eagles.
The salmon run season at Stamp River starts in late August, when the sockeye arrive. The coho and chinook start joining them in late September.
Best time to go: Early to mid October
Where to stay nearby: Best Western Plus Barclay Hotel
Capilano Hatchery, North Vancouver
Located in Capilano River Regional Park, this hatchery is a popular place for viewing salmon all year round. The facility raises and releases more than one million salmon every year.
The main attraction here is the fish ladder, where chinook and coho leap from step to step. The hatchery has an interpretive centre with underwater windows.
Make the most of your visit with a walk along the river, where you’ll find more viewpoints and salmon sightings.
Don’t have a car? Capilano Hatchery is accessible by bus!
Best time to go: October
Where to stay nearby: Seaside Hotel North Vancouver
Adams River, between Kamloops and Salmon Arm
No list of the best spots to watch the salmon run in British Columbia would be complete without mention of the Adams River. This waterway is host to North America’s largest Sockeye run. Chinook, Coho and pink salmon also spawn here.
Occupying both sides of the river, Tsútswecw (Roderick Haig-Brown) Provincial Park was the perfect place to watch the salmon run. Unfortunately, the 2023 wildfires in this area have heavily impacted the park. It is unknown when/if it will be possible to safely watch the salmon here again.
The Adams River Salmon Society celebrates the dominant run every four years with the Salute to the Sockeye festival. It will next take place from 30th September to 23rd October 2026.
Best time to go: Early October
Where to stay nearby: Sunny Shuswap B&B
As noted above, this park is currently inaccessible due to wildfires. Put it on your list for 2024 or beyond
Other great places to see spawning salmon in British Columbia
There are so many places to watch the salmon run in BC! When in doubt, head for a local salmon hatchery. These facilities often feature riverside trails, viewpoints and observation areas.
The following list features even more great places to watch the salmon run in BC. While it is not a definitive list of every salmon run in the province (that would be SO long!), it provides a good overview.
- Sproat Falls Fish Ladder, Port Alberni
- Woodstream Park, Nanaimo
- Little Qualicum River Hatchery, Qualicum Beach
- Big Qualicum Hatchery, Qualicum Beach
- Millard Creek, Courtenay
- Quinsam River Hatchery, Campbell River
- Marble River Provincial Park near Port Hardy
Lower Mainland and Coast
- Hoy Creek Hatchery, Coquitlam
- Little Campbell River Hatchery, Surrey
- Kanaka Creek Park Fish Fence, Maple Ridge
- McClughan Park onYorkson Creek, Langley
- Cariboo Dam, Burnaby
- Weaver Creek spawning channel, Harrison Mills
- Chehalis River Hatchery, Agassiz
- Thacker Regional Park, Hope
- Mamquam River spawning channels, Squamish
- Tenderfoot Creek Hatchery, Squamish
- Alex Dobler Salmon Centre, Powell River
- John Daly Park, Madeira Park
- Chapman Creek, Sechelt
- Louise Dover Trail Viewing Area (Haans Creek), Haida Gwaii
- Penticton Creek, Penticton
- Hardy Falls, Peachland
- Mission Creek, Kelowna
- Kingfisher Interpretive Centre, near Enderby
- McDonald’s Landing Regional Park, Nelson
- Kokanee Creek Provincial Park, Nelson
- Bailey’s Chute Trail, Wells Gray Provincial Park, Clearwater (currently closed due to slide)
- George Hicks Regional Park, Swift Creek near Valemount
- Rearguard Falls Provincial Park (Fraser River) near Mount Robson
- Horsefly River Trail, Horsefly
- Cariboo Falls near Likely
- Cottonwood Island Nature Park, Prince George
- Williams Creek near Terrace
Important salmon run info
When planning a trip to see the salmon run, please keep in the following in mind:
- Be as quiet as possible. Noise can disturb the salmon. Approach the riverbank slowly and softly
- Consider leaving your dog at home. If you do bring your dog, keep them on a leash and stay back from the water
- Bring polarised sunglasses. These help with the glare of the water and will enable you to see the salmon better
- Consider binoculars, not for the salmon, but the widlfire attracted by them!
- If you can, go earlier rather than later. Closer to the end of the salmon run, it can get a little stinky. It’s sad (and smelly) fact that the salmon die during this process so fish carcasses are an inevitable part of the salmon run
- Following on from the above point, keep in mind that there are plenty of animals that enjoy feasting on the salmon. Stay alert, make noise, keep your distance and always give wildlife an escape route
- There are pretty strict restrictions regarding fishing on salmon spawning rivers. Buy the appropriate licence and double check for closures and restrictions before planning a trip
Other autumn travel posts you may find helpful:
British Columbia’s Boundary Country in Fall: What To See, Do and Eat
Where to Find Golden Larches in British Columbia, Canada
What To Do in Osoyoos in Fall: A Complete Guide
Vernon in Fall: The Best Things to See, Do and Eat
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One half of the Canadian/British couple behind Off Track Travel, Gemma is happiest when hiking on the trail or planning the next big travel adventure. JR and Gemma are currently based in the beautiful Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada