Midway through October, Kate and I officially had been living in Tofino for over a year. When we first moved here the plan was to stay throughout the winter months and then carry on with our journey of full-time RVing somewhere else in Canada. Needless to say, we fell in love with Tofino and believe it will be our home for many years to come. Saying that, just like any home, it’s great to get away for a bit.
After a busy summer where Kate and I both worked jobs while also running our business – Tofino Food Tours – we were ready for a departure from Tofino. Since we moved to Tofino, we’ve only take a couple trips around Vancouver Island. We’ve seen nearby Port Alberni & Nanaimo and travelled a bit to Victoria as well. Other than that we knew we wanted to explore this rugged & wild island that we now call home.
Seeing as Vancouver Island is the largest island on the West Coast of North America there were no shortages of places to go. Still, we only had two weeks and we wanted to see most of Vancouver Island in that time. Our main stops were to visit the areas around Mount Washington, Gold River, Port MacNeill, and Port Renfrew. We figured that itinerary would give us the opportunity to do some hiking in some beautiful areas while also relaxing in some quiet and peaceful surroundings. Happily, we can say that’s exactly what we got.
Mount Washington|Courtenay|Comox|Campbell River
For our first week away from Tofino we ventured up to one of the more popular winter destinations on Vancouver Island – Mount Washington. This beautiful area is home to a very impressive alpine centre, but Kate & I were more interested because of its proximity to Strathcona Provincial Park.
As the largest provincial park on Vancouver Island & BC’s oldest (opened in 1911), Strathcona had a lot of natural appeal to Kate & I. Filled with networks of hiking trails we figured we’d have lots to do while spending time at Mount Washington. But were in for a bit of surprise.
We began our vacation at the beginning of November and while the weather typically cools off, we weren’t entirely prepared for what would greet us when we arrived at Mount Washington. The night before we left Tofino, a cold snap made its way over Vancouver Island bringing with it the rare sight of snow in Tofino. While we got a small dusting in Tofino, Mount Washington being at a much higher elevation got hit with a substantial amount of snow.
While we weren’t necessarily expecting to be surrounded by snow at the beginning of November, we must say it was quite beautiful to look around us and see nothing but alpine forest covered with a thick blanket of snow.
Because of the snow, we weren’t able to hike the number of trails we were expecting to hike in Strathcona. While there was a fair amount of snow on the ground we weren’t going to be stopped from hiking some trails of the Forbidden Plateau area of Strathcona. So there we were – Kate, Bella, & I, happily hiking through the ankle-deep snow along the trails of the Forbidden Plateau.
Because of the parks popularity and proximity to Mount Washington, the snow on the trails was already mostly packed down by other hikers which was nice. Surrounding us as we hiked was a complete sheet of whiteness. It was quite stunning to see. Plus, it was so peaceful. While we couldn’t hike many trails, this hike gave us a good taste of what beauty lies within the park having us wishing to return again in the future to explore further.
While the snow may have stopped us from hiking further into the Forbidden Plateau, it opened up the opportunity to find some gems around Courtenay, Comox, & Campbell River.
Elk Falls Provincial Park
Near Campbell River, we discovered a gorgeous park – Elk Falls Provincial Park. We spent a good chunk of a day at this park, wandering the many trails that wind through it. Along the way, we were able to find a couple bald eagles perched high up in the trees watching the river for food. We also had the opportunity to cross the relatively new (opened in 2015) suspension bridge which crosses the canyon giving some great views of Elk Falls.
Nymph Falls Nature Park
Within the Comox Valley, we also found what we assume to be a popular summer destination for locals – Nymph Falls Nature Park. Along the Puntledge River, there are trails that give you some beautiful views of the river and falls. We were hoping we might be able to see salmon jumping up the river to their spawning grounds. It appeared that we were a couple of weeks late as we didn’t see any jumping, however, we saw some decomposing along the river banks. While we were walking along the rocks of the river it became obvious that with its shallow natural pools that the river would be a hot spot for swimmers during the summer.
Courtenay River Estuary
Driving around Courtenay, mostly to find somewhere to eat, we discovered one of the highlights of our trip – the Courtenay River Estuary. Comox Bay divides Courtenay and Comox and that’s where you will find the Courtenay River Estuary. From either side, however, we were amazed at the amount of wildlife. Up close we witnessed many different birds, many of which we had never seen before. Seals would happily pop up and check us out near the water’s edge. The highlight, though, was the bald eagles. At one point, we counted probably at least 50 bald eagles including a mixture of juvenile & fully matured eagles. It was incredible to see so many in one place. I also managed to get incredibly close to a great blue heron which allowed me to snap one of my favourite series of photos I’ve ever take. Throughout the week we spent at Mount Washington, we travelled down to the Courtenay River Estuary to walk the trails or just sit in the car and watch the show.
Located almost right in the middle of Vancouver Island is the logging town of Gold River. What we discovered when in Gold River is that it’s the hub for a lot of different activities. Many use Gold River as a way to hike the Nootka Trail. Others enjoy cruising aboard the MV Uchuck III. For us, however, we used Gold River as our gateway to the other main corridor of Strathcona Provincial Park – the Buttle Lake area.
Once arriving, we were happy to see that unlike Mount Washington, there was no snow and the temperatures were much milder. For a couple of days, we explored much of the shorter trails that wind through the Buttle Lake area. There we saw some beautiful waterfalls tucked amongst the untouched ancient old-growth forest.
One rainy day we even took a drive down a 70km logging road to reach the village of Tahsis. Once a booming logging town with over 2500 residents, the town now has only 370ish year-round residents after the mill closed in 2001. What we found there wasn’t much aside from a beautiful and protected body of water known as the Tahsis Inlet.
Port McNeill/Port Hardy/Telegraph Cove
One of the ideas behind this trip was to check out most of Vancouver Island from top to bottom. Getting to the top meant heading towards Port McNeill & Port Hardy. Before we made our way to the Port villages, we made a quick stop in Telegraph Cove.
All summer, while working at Jamie’s Whaling Station in Tofino, I heard tourists mention Telegraph Cove. Naturally, my interest was heightened about this place. What we found were postcard-like surroundings where an old fishing village has been turned into a resort. At this time of year, the resort was closed down so it felt very much like a ghost town almost making it more beautiful. During the summer, Telegraph Cove is a busy spot for wildlife tours as you can take whale watching trips that frequently see killer whales.
During our two days in Port McNeill, we did some hiking but also drove down some long and winding roads to find small communities like Coal Harbour and Port Alice. While there wasn’t much happening in either destination it was still nice to travel to these beautiful tiny communities which helped give us an idea of what life is like in some of the more remote areas of Vancouver Island.
Having seen the northern part of Vancouver Island, it was time to check out the other end. To do so, we stayed for a few days down on the southwestern part of Vancouver Island in Port Renfrew. Like many of the other spots we visited on our vacation, Port Renfrew is a tiny village that thrived on logging for many years. Nowadays, while there is still logging in the area, it’s the trees that haven’t been chopped down that are attracting visitors to Port Renfrew.
A short drive from Port Renfrew, there are a couple of popular destinations with travellers who are searching for massive old-growth trees – Avatar Grove & Big Lonely Doug.
Avatar Grove is home to “Canada’s Gnarliest Tree” as designated by the Ancient Forest Alliance. A short uphill hike through majestic ancient old-growth forest put us in front of the gnarly tree with its massive burl a short distance up its thick trunk.
A few kilometres from Avatar Grove is Big Lonely Doug. After a drive up some old logging roads and a short trip over a somewhat frightening logging bridge, we discovered Big Lonely Doug. Unlike Avatar Grove which is flush with untouched trees, Big Lonely Doug is famous because he is the lone Douglas fir that was spared during a 2012 clear cut of the ancient old-growth forest. So there Doug stands amongst the small trees that have begun to sprout in the last 5 years. The story of Big Lonely Doug is an incredible one and we highly recommend you read this article by the Walrus that wonderfully details the history behind Doug.
While we were staying in Port Renfrew, we decided to take the short trip to Sooke. I’ve heard many people mention how much they love Sooke and that next Tofino, it’s their favourite spot on Vancouver Island.
Even though we only had one day to explore, we got a pretty good glimpse of what Sooke offers. We did a couple of short hikes including the Sooke Potholes and a short hike on the Galloping Goose Trail to the Charters Creek Trestle.
It was on the trestle where we had a fun little encounter with wildlife. As we were walking back along the trestle towards our vehicle I noticed a couple hundred of meters ahead of us two big black blobs on the trail. Sure enough, there was a mama and cub black bear. Kate and Bella had failed to see them and they were walking ahead of me so naturally, I stopped, and whisper-yelled, “Kate! Bear!” Quickly, her and Bella stopped in their tracks and we stopped to watch the bears. The bears took a quick look at us but didn’t really seem to care about us which was a relief. Seeing as there was only one way to our vehicle we had to wait about ten minutes until the bears carried on into the forest before retreating to our truck.
While Vancouver Island is one large island, we were fortunate enough over our two-week vacation to cover a good chunk of it. One thing that we both learned from the trip is how lucky we are to be able to call Tofino our home. All the stops we made on our journey were fabulous but it became obvious to us both that there really is no place on Vancouver Island – possibly Canada – like Tofino. With pretty much all of the daily amenities that you need, combined with being in a beautiful remote area full of outdoor adventure around every corner it truly is hard to beat Tofino. That being said, it’s hard to beat Vancouver Island as a whole. The enormous trees and rugged coastline make for a tremendous landscape to traverse and we highly recommend you come explore someday.