Rugged coastlines, old-growth forests where cedars soar impossibly high toward a bright-blue sky, secluded beaches and endless ocean views are just the beginning when it comes to the beauty of Vancouver Island. Found on Canada’s west coast, the treasured outdoor playground is one of British Columbia’s best places for a road trip, particularly for those enjoying the popular Nanaimo to Tofino drive.
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Tofino is one of the island’s most popular spots, but the surf town can be a bit tricky to get to by plane due to the airport’s short runway and landings that are commonly interrupted by fog cover. Instead, many travellers choose to take a ferry or fly from Vancouver to the city of Nanaimo, then make the three-hour drive to Tofino from there.
Not only does this avoid the airport hassle, but it makes for a great excuse to explore more of the enchanting island. Here are a few stops worth making along the way for an unforgettable Vancouver Island road trip itinerary.
Places to visit on Vancouver Island
Pick up your ride in Nanaimo then head down Highway 19 until you reach the turnoff for Highway 4, better known as the Pacific Rim Highway. Might I suggest hitting the road in a sporty Buick Regal like the one I tested out during this exact road trip—the built-in massage chairs, WiFi that works even on the island’s remote roads and heads-up display sold it for me!
The first stop is Coombs, which is about one hour from Nanaimo. There’s not much to see in this small community, but it does have one spot worth stopping for: an old fashioned ice cream shop. It’s no surprise then that Coombs Old Country Market is particularly popular during the summer months…and there are also goats on the roof. You’re welcome.
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Next up is Cathedral Grove, an old-growth forest where shaded walking trails wind past towering Douglas fir trees, including some that are more than 800 years old. Found in MacMillan Provincial Park, the pathways are easily accessible from the highway and are also great for wildlife spotting since the forest is home to the likes of owls, deer, elk and even bears and cougars.
Port Alberni is the gateway to outdoor adventures on Vancouver Island like hiking, canoeing, kayaking and fishing, and has a picturesque perch right on the waterfront. A hidden gem that’s worth more than a pit-stop, savvy travellers base themselves in this port city to avoid the higher prices charged at resorts in Tofino and Ucluelet, and take day trips out to serene spots like Parksville and Qualicum Beach.
Other area attractions include a vintage passenger train, wilderness lodges perfect for salmon fishing and black bear sightings, and the Della Falls which is one of Canada’s tallest waterfalls.
This spot is worth pulling over for, if only for the spectacular views of the glistening lake surrounded by thick forests and dotted with tiny, idyllic islands. If you happen to time your visit for the golden hour shortly before sunset, the spellbinding, ethereal scene is sure to make an impression.
One of the final stops before the last stretch to Tofino or Ucluelet, Wally Creek is easily one of the most photogenic places along the entire Pacific Rim Highway. However, it’s one of those blink-and-you-might-miss-it spots, so you’ll need to be on the lookout for the turnoff.
Found right where the creek meets the Kennedy River, there’s a tiny rest stop on the shoulder of the road for parking which leads down to the creek. Depending on the time of year (read: water height) the creek might actually look more like a waterfall, and road-trippers can walk right out on the huge, smooth boulders to explore.
Eventually the Pacific Rim Highway comes to a T-intersection, and travellers can either turn left for Ucluelet or right for Tofino. As it turns out, both are fabulous options.
Ucluelet is about 10 minutes down the road, and chances are the first thing you’ll ask yourself upon arrival is, “How the heck do you pronounce Ucluelet?” Turns out it’s exactly as it looks: You-Clue-Let. If all else fails, just call it “Ukee” like the locals do and you’re sure to fit right in.
Now that that’s sorted, you can enjoy your time in this picturesque village by meandering around the waterfront, booking a boat tour to try your luck at whale watching, poking into the cute cafes and stores, enjoying some pampering at the serene Nurture Day Spa or stopping into the Ucluelet Aquarium which has interactive displays to educate visitors about the local marine life (it’s a popular pick for families).
A highlight of any visit is a jaunt around the famed Lighthouse Loop, which is one of the top Ucluelet hikes. Part of the nine-kilometre Wild Pacific Trail, this scenic pathway hugs the coast and is a prime spot for whale watching. Starting at a photogenic lighthouse perched high on the rocks, the route winds along the Pacific Ocean and past sheltered coves, providing photo-ops galore.
Click here to book the top Ucluelet accommodations.
With expansive beaches, tranquil shorelines and a laid-back vibe, Tofino is considered one of the top things to see on Vancouver Island and is about a half hour drive from Ucluelet. Even in the height of tourist season it’s easy to get your own stretch of sand, as there are plenty of great spots to choose from including Halfmoon Bay, Long Beach, Florencia Bay and Chesterman Beach which is famous for its sunsets.
One standout spot is Pacific Rim National Park, where visitors can head off on an easy hike along pathways like Schooner Cove Trail. There, a wooden boardwalk lined with vibrant green foliage leads through an enchanting forest, complete with hanging vines and gargantuan cedars.
WATCH: Hiking Schooner Cove Trail
Other popular Tofino activities include going to Hot Springs Cove, whale watching, surfing, cycling and eating. Yes, there are some pretty fabulous restaurants here including the always-packed Wolf in the Fog which features creatively-crafted cocktails and a menu inspired by the oceans and forests surrounding it.
But if there’s only one place in town you go, make sure it’s TacoFino. Based out of a food truck tucked away in the Live to Surf parking lot off the highway, this joint serves up tacos that are pretty much life-changing. Bring your appetite, and make sure you arrive well before closing time as it’s so popular that staff are forced to turn latecomers away, otherwise they’d never get to go home!
Wrap up your ultimate Vancouver Island road trip with a relaxing stay in the surf town, by camping or kicking back in a luxe lodge. Some of the best places to stay in Tofino are:
- The Wickaninnish Inn– This beloved resort is as quintessentially Canadian as it gets, with touches like cozy Hudson Bay throw blankets and private balconies surrounded by tree groves overlooking the ocean. Boasting a fabulous location right on the beach, “The Wick” also has a phenomenal restaurant. Click here to book
- Pacific Sands Beach Resort– Located on Cox Bay, this luxurious resort has swanky ocean suites with fully equipped kitchens and private hot tubs. Click here to book
- Tofino Resort + Marina– With a prime spot right in the harbour where whale watching tours depart from, almost every room in this modern, motel-style resort has fabulous views of the water. Click here to book
Globe Guide explored Vancouver Island as a guest of Buick Canada. As always, hosts have no editorial influence on articles.
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Oh my, this was an absolutely perfect guide! Going to Vancouver Island with my partner in a month’s time – I thought I couldn’t get more excited about it, but this did it! Thank you so much!
Oh yay, so glad you found it helpful Lisa! Enjoy your trip!
Nanaimo is nice too! I know, I live here! Swim Nanaimo River, Blueback beach, Jack Point Biggs Park, Neck Point, Pipers Lagoon, climb Mount Benson, walk the waterfront, walk down commercial St and old city quarter for cafes and quaint shop. Head down to Cedar, just a 10 minute drive south of Nanaimo where there is a great english pub, Crow n’ Gate. So much to see and do!!
I’d love to explore Nanaimo- sounds like so much to see!
I’m going to Tofino and I heard its hot springs are good, I’m really excited
Tofino is sooo amazing and beautiful, great vibe. Enjoy the island!!