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A Vancouver Island road trip, Canada: From the tip to the top

A Vancouver Island road trip: From the tip to the top

Looking at a map of Canada, Vancouver Island isn’t more than a dot off the coast of British Columbia. But this is Canadian scale – where everything’s bigger than it looks. In reality it’s the largest Pacific Island east of New Zealand, stretching 290 miles from north to south. The island has a mix of beaches and rainforests, wildlife and waterfalls, seafood and local wine – and a Vancouver Island road trip is the perfect way to discover them.

AD: My visit was hosted by Canada Keep Exploring but all views are my own.

Temperate rainforest on Vancouver Island
Temperate rainforest on Vancouver Island

Vancouver Island lies about 60 miles west of the city of Vancouver, and it’s easy to combine a trip to the city with a few days on the island. BC Ferries run routes from Vancouver to Victoria and Nanaimo, or there are airports in Victoria and other major towns. But in this part of the world, you don’t need an airport or even a runway to fly in, with seaplane services meaning you can get almost anywhere around the island by air.

We were heading to Port Hardy at the far north of the island to visit the Great Bear Rainforest. But rather than flying straight there we decided to drive from the tip to the top of the island on a 365-mile road trip. Where most Vancouver Island road trip itineraries concentrate on the south west region around Tofino, this route took us along the island’s east cost, featuring a selection of the great things to do on Vancouver Island.

Vancouver Island road trip map

A Vancouver Island road trip, Canada: From the tip to the top
Vancouver Island road trip map

Our road trip from Victoria to Port Hardy covered 365 miles one way. We did it two days and one night, stopping in Campbell River for the night. But you could easily extend the trip by adding a day or two in Victoria itself, taking it slower and stopping off along the way (see the section at the end of the post for accommodation suggestions along the route).

With more time you could add in more wildlife-watching activities or walks, or if you’re making it a round trip you could add on a couple of days on the west coast at the popular surf town of Tofino. We travelled by car on our Vancouver Island road trip, but it would also be good to do in an RV motorhome, with plenty of campsites on the island.

Boat trip in the Discovery Passage off Vancouver Island
Wildlife watching boat trip

Victoria

We started our Vancouver Island road trip in Victoria. The island’s capital is a charming small city with a beautiful waterfront location and European feel that’s compact and easy to get around on foot. It’s worth adding on a day or two in the city before hitting the road to check out some of the main sites like the Royal BC Museum and British Columbia’s parliament, walk through Beacon Hill Park and have afternoon tea at the Fairmont Empress hotel.

Read more: A weekend in Victoria, British Columbia: A 48-hour itinerary 

The harbour and  Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria, Vancouver Island
Waterfront Victoria

Cowichan Valley

After leaving Victoria we followed the Trans-Canada Highway north to the Cowichan Valley (34 miles/45 minutes). Canada isn’t the first country you’d think of for wine (other than ice wine), but the south of Vancouver island has a growing number of wineries. The Cowichan Valley was originally a dairy farming area, but has turned to wine-making.

The region’s latitude in the extremes for grape-growing, but as well as Vancouver Island having Canada’s mildest climate, the Cowichan Valley is 10 degrees warmer than Victoria – its name even comes from a First Nations’ word which means ‘warm land’. There’s also plenty of sunshine, shelter from storms thanks to nearby mountains and a low risk of frost. So if you pick the right soil and a south-facing slope then grapes will thrive.

Vines in Vancouver Island's Cowichan Valley wine region
Among the vines

Most wine producers in the Cowichan Valley are small-scale, making only a few thousand cases of wine per year, and many offer cellar door tastings. Blue Grouse Winery was one of the first Cowichan wineries, growing grapes since the 1970s and setting up their tasting room in 1990. It’s been redeveloped into a new, bright and airy building with views out over their vineyards, where winemaker Bailey Williamson gave us a tasting of some of their wines.

The Cowichan Valley’s climate is best for white grapes, though we did try an unusual black muscat, a cult favourite red with flavours of lychee. Most white varieties are cross-bred grapes specially designed for cooler climates. So you don’t get big names like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, but instead there are varieties like Bacchus and Ortega.

Wine tasting at Blue Grouse Winery in the Cowichan Valley
Wine-tasting

Nanaimo

With wine supplies for the trip safely stowed, we got back on the road and headed towards the city of Nanaimo (34 miles/45 minutes). It’s located just across the other side of the Salish Sea from Vancouver, with a ferry connecting the two. Nanaimo’s nicknamed ‘Bathtub Racing Capital of the World’ after an annual race where competitors use baths converted into boats to sail to Vancouver. One to check out if you’re visiting on the last weekend in July!

Nanaimo’s other claim to fame is the Nanaimo Bar, and you can’t pass by without picking one (or two) up. These triple-layered treats don’t need baking and are made up of a biscuit crumb base, buttercream layer and dark chocolate topping. The city’s so proud of them they feature in the local museum and there’s a whole trail dedicated to the best bars, whether you’re a purist or fancy trying a cheesecake version or Nanaimo Bar Martini.

Nanaimo Bar – a biscuit crumb base, buttercream layer and dark chocolate topping
Nanaimo Bars

Coombs

A short drive north of Nanaimo (27 miles/35 minutes) we stopped for lunch at another quirky stop – Coombs Country Market. Not just your average shop and restaurant, it’s famous for its grass-covered roof home to four resident goats. They’ve got a wooden house to live in and plenty of grass to munch on, which they do oblivious to the camera-toting tourists below. And you can have a (goat-free) Italian feast of pizza and pasta at Cuckoo restaurant.

Goats on the roof at Coombs Country Market
Goats on the Roof and lunch at Cuckoo

MacMillan Provincial Park

Next we took a short diversion inland to MacMillan Provincial Park (12 miles/17 minutes). The park is home to one of the oldest and most impressive ancient forests in Canada. The most famous section south of the highway and is known as Cathedral Grove. Some of its Douglas Fir trees are over 800 years old and the largest has a circumference of nine metres.

You can follow walking paths through this land of giants, with loop hiking trails and raised viewing platforms which take you up among the trees. You can also go swimming in Cameron Lake or visit the waterfalls in neighbouring Little Qualicum Falls Park.

And if you’ve got a couple of days to spare on your Vancouver Island road trip, carry on along the Pacific Rim Highway to Tofino (88 miles/2 hours 10 minutes each way). The road has stunning views of snow-capped mountains, lakes and forests. And Tofino itself is known for wildlife-watching in Clayoquot Sound as well as for hiking, biking and surfing.

Cathedral Grove’s giants – photo credit Travel with Kat

Campbell River

After rejoining the Island Highway at Qualicum, we travelled further north up the island to Campbell River (80 miles/1 hour 20 minutes), passing waterside holiday spots to one side of us and the ski resort of Mount Washington on the other. Our stop for the night was at two twin resorts which face each other across the waters of the Discovery Passage.

On the Vancouver Island side is Painter’s Lodge*, a favourite spot for salmon fishing trips. I had no idea how big salmon could get (mine come filleted from the supermarket) but they have a special club for people who’ve caught one bigger than 30lb, known as a tyee. And if catching it isn’t hard enough, you also need to do it from a traditional rowboat.

April Point Resort on Quadra Island
April Point Resort

A five-minute boat ride took us to April Point Resort* on Quadra Island, one of the enticingly named Discovery Islands. It gets its name from Peruvian explorer Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra who mapped the BC coastline along with another famous name, George Vancouver. The island is 22 miles long and a permanent home to 2700 people, including First Nations communities, mostly living in the south and leaving the north as unspoilt rainforest.

You can hike, cycle, kayak or take a Zodiac boat tour to spot wildlife – whales, dolphins, seals and sea lions all live in the waters of the Discovery Passage. But I’d have happily spent a week there just soaking up the scenery. It’s one of those places that feels miles from modern life as we ate freshly caught salmon and watched the sun set over Campbell River.

Sunset over Campbell River on Vancouver Island
Sunset over Campbell River

Elk Falls

The following morning we were back on the road for the next stretch up to Port Hardy, Vancouver Island’s most northernmost city. But first up was a stop at Elk Falls Provincial Park (3 miles/6 minutes away). The park is one of the most popular on the island with a path through a thick conifer forest leading you to the falls. They drop 25 metres down into a rock-walled canyon and are at their most powerful in the spring when the snow melts.

There are wooden viewing platforms as well as a 60-metre-long suspension bridge across the canyon, giving you a great (if slightly wobbly) view of the falls. It’s another area known for salmon fishing, and you’re visiting from August to November look out for spawning salmon in the river. Salmon lovers can also take a tour of the nearby Quinsam Hatchery.

Elk Falls Provincial Park
Elk Falls waterfall and suspension bridge

Telegraph Cove

Leaving Campbell River behind, the road got quieter and the towns got smaller and sparser. After driving through miles of forest roads we emerged alongside Nimpkish Lake before rejoining the coast at Telegraph Cove (128 miles/2 hours 40 minutes).

This colourful village was founded in 1912 as a sawmill but fell into disrepair until the late 1970s when a local couple created a campground and marina before restoring its old wooden buildings and boardwalks. Now it’s a protected area and eco-tourism hub that’s a prime spot for whale-watching, and there’s also a whale museum in the village.

Although it can get packed in the summer, off-season there are only 20 permanent residents. The lovely, brightly coloured fisherman’s houses – which are built up on stilts and connected by a raised boardwalk – have been turned into holiday rentals, where you can go off the grid for a few days away from the modern world and its phones and TVs.

Wooden buildings and boardwalks at Telegraph Cove
Colourful buildings at Telegraph Cove

Port Hardy (and beyond)

The final stretch of our Vancouver Island road trip took us 40 miles/50 minutes to Port Hardy – the end of the line for the Island Highway. Port Hardy is home to the largest community in northern Vancouver Island, but its main attraction for visitors is as a jumping-off point for all sorts of exciting wilderness adventures.

From Port Hardy you can catch the ferry to Prince Rupert on the northwest coast of British Columbia, or travel along the Discovery Coast and through the Inside Passage to Bella Coola. You can also leave the car behind and take on a long-distance a hiking trip, including the 11-mile Cape Scott Trail and the challenging, multi-day North Coast Trail.

Or you can take to the skies on board a float plane to explore some of the region’s more remote spots. We headed out into the wilderness of the Great Bear Rainforest – an area covering 12,000 square miles that stretches up to the Alaskan border, where you can watch grizzly bears from boats in spring or feeding on salmon in autumn.

Bear in Great Bear Rainforest Canada
Grizzly in the Great Bear Rainforest

Where to stay on a Vancouver Island road trip

Nanaimo

The Coast Bastion Hotel* is just across from the harbour in Nanaimo and it’s an easy walk to reach bars and restaurants. Rooms start from CAD $170 a night. Or just outside the city the Living Forest RV park and campground has a peaceful location by the waterside.

Campbell River

April Point Resort* is in a gorgeous spot on peaceful Quadra Island, accessible by boat from Campbell River. It has a mix of rooms, suites and cottages, which start from CAD $189 a night, as well as a restaurant, terrace bar, spa and activities like kayaking and boat tours. Or there’s a campsite which also has RV pitches at the nearby Elk Falls Provincial Park.

Wooden buildings and boardwalks at Telegraph Cove
Telegraph Cove’s historic houses

Telegraph Cove

Telegraph Cove Resort has a mix of lodge rooms, dockside suites and the historic wooden cottages, which sleep from two to nine people and start at CAD $145 a night in high season. There’s a café and pub on site, plus a campground with full hookup for RVs.

Port Hardy

The Kwa’lilas Hotel (which means the ‘Place to Sleep’) is a First Nations-owned four-star hotel which features masks and artworks created by First Nations artists. Rooms from CAD $149 a night. Or try the Quatse River Regional Park and Campground for RV pitches.

Painter’s Lodge in Campbell River
Painter’s Lodge near Campbell River

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A Vancouver Island road trip in Canada – travelling from the tip of the island to the top, with wineries, waterfalls and whale-watching along the way | Vancouver Island road trip | Vancouver Island itinerary | Things to do on Vancouver Island | British Columbia road trip | Canada road tripExploring Vancouver Island with a road trip along the east coast of the island from Victoria to Port Hardy, with ancient forests, beaches, boat trips, waterfalls, wildlife and wineries along the way | Vancouver Island road trip | Vancouver Island itinerary | Things to do on Vancouver Island | British Columbia road trip | Canada road trip

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Joe

Thursday 14th of October 2021

I live on the island and did the trip when I was younger. From Victoria to what is now from what I heard no longer active CFB Holberg just before Cape Scott. So I have pretty much being from Tip to Tip. Absolutely amazing

Lucy Dodsworth

Tuesday 26th of October 2021

Such a great place, I would love to come back sometime.

Silas McLean

Thursday 9th of July 2020

This is great for anyone considering at least traveling here, I highly endorse moving to Vancouver Island if you're looking for small town feel yet everything you'd need in a big city. Nice job on the post!

Of course it's dependent on your preferences as to what you would like about the island, but to pretty much anyone looking for good nature/wildlife I'd recommend exploring Goldstream, Sooke - Port Renfrew, Cathedral Grove, Comox Valley and Mt Washington, just to name a few. There are endless places to go though!

Lucy Dodsworth

Thursday 23rd of July 2020

Thanks for the tips – hope to get back to the island and explore some more someday!

darren wiebe

Saturday 16th of May 2020

have you never heard of,or stopped to visit the comox valley?!? voted best ski town and pub( Waverly pub,Cumberland) best sand beach north of victoria (Goose spit, courtenay/comox) mt washington ski hill (fantastic bmx,walking trails in summer) puntledge river parks,forbidden plateau...u missed the best part of van isle north of victoria...and no, i dont live there, unfortunately.

Lucy Dodsworth

Wednesday 3rd of June 2020

Not yet but it sounds great – hope to get back to the area next year so I'll check it out, thanks!

Neil

Thursday 30th of January 2020

Heading for Vancouver Island for 2 weeks and found your information very useful. Vancouver City appears to have lost its shine since I last visited, so I’ll give it a miss. I may try the skiing on the island but skiing Bansko for 9 days when I get back, so may stick to the coastal delights!

Lucy

Friday 31st of January 2020

There's some gorgeous coastline on the island to explore! Have a great trip

Taylor Hearts Travel

Monday 7th of September 2015

I've been thinking about visiting in 2016 and ever since then I keep seeing blog posts about it. It's clearly a sign! Thanks for the tips.

Lucy

Wednesday 9th of September 2015

Funny how that happens isn't it! Loved Canada (and can't wait to get back and see more) so hope you get to make the trip out there soon.