One of the most spectacular ways to experience the beauty and diversity of Vancouver Island is on a Road Trip along the Pacific Rim Highway. I often have my best experiences outdoors when I hop in my car for a Road Trip with only a destination in mind but plenty of time to stop and explore along the way.
Starting on the Eastern shores of Vancouver Island in Qualicum Beach, Highway 4 begins its westward journey. Spanning 165km the Pacific Rim Highway ( dubbed Canada’s Surf Highway ) travels amongst mountains, giant ancient forests, pristine lakes, might rivers and spectacular beaches.
With only 165 kilometres to travel you might think a few hours would be enough to make this trip. Although after reading this list of must do stops along the way you will quickly consider allocating an entire day to make the journey. Viewpoints, unique communities, and fun easy hikes will have the time slip away and put you at ease amongst the remote rugged beauty Vancouver Island has become famous for.
Spectacular waterfalls amidst a lush forest rushing through deep canyons and raging rapids. A family-friendly well maintained provincial park hiking loop. The trail allows great views of both the upper and lower falls from both sides of the Little Qualicum River. Entrance to the park is 9.3km west of the highway 4 and Island highway intersection.
A short way further down the highway enters the home of the ancient giants of Vancouver Island. Cathedral Grove is a much loved spot that is home to some of the largest Douglas Fir and Red Cedar trees in Canada. These ancient trees aging up to 800 years old provide a unique look into forests past. Rich and vibrant colors of all shades of green carpet the forest from the ferns and mosses to trees towering above line the family friendly hiking trail. The pullout is on either side of the highway 20km east from the Island Highway interchange. Be cautious for traffic and pedestrians during peak tourist summer months.
Just as you enter the harbour town of Port Alberni is the hidden unique stop of Hole In The Wall. To find this spot you will need to park at a small dirt pullout on the north side of the highway just prior to Coombs County Candy store. From there you will cross over to the south side of the highway and just to the right of the concrete barrier follow the gravel trail down. Small wood signs have been mounted to help you navigate the 15 minute walk to the Hole in the Wall. As history goes, the town needed to blast a hole through the rock wall to run their water supply pipe. Times changed and the pipeline was no longer needed. Now all that remains is a unique hole that water cascades like a waterfall through for a unique photo stop.
Once you have re-fueled your mind, body and vehicle in Port Alberni (explore Harbour Quay, Sproat Lake & Stamp River Falls on your next trip) the highway continues onward to the mountainous rugged portion of the trip. After roughly 56 km you will see a large curve in the highway. It’s here that you will see a roadside pullout along a rocky option section of the Kennedy River. Here you will find the Love Lock fence where couples and family members leave reminders of their stop. You can explore out upon the rocks along the river and see the power of the river cutting its way through. Be extremely careful as the rocks can be slippery and a fall could be perilous.
A short 6 km further down the highway a small sign and pullout signals the trailhead for the Giant Cedar Trail. Still left in a very natural state the dirt trail allows a more intimate experience in the forest than Cathedral Grove. This particular forest trail lets you see the uniqueness that the Giant Cedar trees offer compared to the Douglas Fir that dominate the forest of Cathedral Grove. Make sure to explore along the river bank and take in views of the Kennedy River.
An important stop along this road trip route would be the Walk in the Forest Trail. Maintained by the Central Westcoast Forest Society, the trail was developed to educate the public on the importance of rehabilitating the forests. Making a visit here is worth the small amount of time to explore the wooden boardwalks and see the importance of restoring degraded old growth forest. Only 1.5 km before the Pacific Rim Visitor Centre junction you will find the pullout on the north side of the road.
Turn left at the T-junction and head to south to Ucluelet. A short 6km drive brings you to the Ancient Cedar Loop of the stunning Wild Pacific Trail. This short easily accessible trail takes you past Giant Cedars, Hemlock and the warped and twisted old growth Sitka Spruce. The trees on this trail are thought to be over 800 years old. Be sure to take a short detour onto the Rocky Bluff portion of the trail. Enjoy the rugged coastal shoreline of the Pacific Ocean as it meets Vancouver Island. Expect to spend at least an hour here or plan an extended visit to explore some more special spots in Ukee, as the locals call it. Some suggestions would be the Ucluelet Harbour, Big Beach, the Ucluelet Aquarium, and the Lighthouse.
After leaving Ucluelet headed back North be sure to stop back at the “T- Junction” intersection you turned south at. Here you will visit the Pacific Rim Visitor Centre and pick up your National park pass to experience the rest of the trip. Once you have your pass head north towards Tofino for 16km and watch for the Schooner Cove parking lot on your left. This trail is a favourite in the region consisting of 2km of boardwalk built through the rainforest leading all the way down to Long Beach. Once at the beach you will see the massive sandy sprawl of the 10km Long Beach whose name is well deserved. Explore the rocky beach outcrops and crashing waves in the distance.
The second spectacular beach to enjoy is Cox Bay. The parking is accessed 8km past the Schooner Cove parking lot and found a short distance down Maltby Rd on your left. The unique crescent shape of Cox Bay provides a beautiful beach to sit back and watch the local surfers test their skill against the waves. (On a future trip consider hiking to Radar Hill for a unique “top of the world” view of Cox Bay and Tofino.)
Quite possibly the most beautiful place to experience a sunset on Vancouver Island would be on this Tofino beach. How suiting is it then that the road trip day would end at Chesterman Beach. Only a short 2km up from Cox Bay beach parking you will turn down Chesterman Road watching for the parking lot on the right. Park and then walk the short path down the beach where the sprawling sands greet you. Head to your right and make your way towards the outcropping of Frank Island that is accessible during low tides. The most vivid and photogenic spots are found from this point, and are sure to create a sense of wonder and awe at the beauty.
With so many places to see and things to do on a road trip along the Pacific Rim Highway it was hard to narrow down to a few favourites. Make sure you allow yourself a few extra days in the region so you can explore each community more intimately. Discover what the west coast is all about is all about and #ExploreBeyondTheUsual.
PS, for more information about a road trip on Canada’s Surf Highway, and to check out details about a photo contest you can enter, visit www.therealwestcoast.ca.
Written by Chris Istace