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BC’s Gulf Islands National Park Reserve Offers Rich Opportunities for Exploring

Mount Norman, Pender Island

Mount Norman, Pender Island

The Gulf Islands are one of those places I forget how much I love until I revisit them. Recently my husband and I packed up our truck and camping gear, loaded our motorcycle into the back, and set out to explore Gulf Islands National Park Reserve on Pender and Saturna Islands.

Gulf Islands National Park Reserve was established in 2003 and stretches over 15 islands in the Salish Sea. Pender Island and Saturna Island have the largest park areas accessible by BC Ferries. Many of the other parts of the park are accessible only by kayak, sailboat, or powerboat.

No matter which island(s) you choose to visit, Gulf Islands National Park Reserve offers a wide variety of hiking, wildlife viewing, cycling, and watersport opportunities. The Gulf Islands are a place where time slows down, so make sure you plan lots of time for simply sitting by the ocean and relaxing.

What to Do

Gulf Islands National Park Reserve requires some extra planning to visit as destinations and park sites are scattered across many islands. Pender Island (actually two islands separated by a shipping canal dredged in the early 1900s) makes a great home base as it is (relatively) easily accessible via BC Ferries, offers several National Park sites on the island itself, and provides a great jumping-off point to visit other islands. On Pender Island, make sure you visit:

Roesland, Pender Island

Roesland, Pender Island

  • Roesland: A former holiday resort, Roesland today houses the Pender Islands Museum and serves as the operational headquarters for Gulf Islands National Park Reserve on Pender Island. Download the Parks Canada Explora App for a GPS-guided tour of the property and step back in time as you wander through the apple orchard, past the former seaside cottages, and out to the end of Roe Islet.
  • Mount Norman: Get your heart pumping with a short but steep 1.5 kilometre hike to the highest point on the Pender Islands. With spectacular views westward towards Victoria, Mount Norman is an excellent place to be as the sun dips low in the sky.
  • Roe Lake: For an easier stroll, take the moderate 1.5 kilometre loop around Roe Lake to visit one of the only freshwater lakes in the Gulf Islands.
  • Oak Bluffs: Another excellent place to take in the sunset, Oak Bluffs is another short but hilly walk with great views. From this location, make sure you keep your eyes peeled for passing Orca whales.

    Roe Lake, Pender Island

    Roe Lake, Pender Island

Saturna Island has the largest “chunk” of Gulf Islands National Park Reserve all in one area. The vast majority of Saturna’s interior is protected area, and as such, it is an ideal destination for an off-the-beaten-path experience. On Saturna, take time to visit:

  • Mount Warburton Pike: As the highest spot on Saturna, and in all of Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, Mount Warburton Pike offers commanding views over the Salish Sea and the surrounding islands. Take an old logging road to the top for great views, and then carry on along the ridge of the island by foot.
  • East Point: Home to a lighthouse since the late 1800s, East Point marks the transition between Boundary Pass and the Strait of Georgia. Pack a picnic and spend the day exploring sandstone cliffs and grassy meadows, and watch wildlife pass by right in front of you. East Point is home to the Saturna Island Marine Research and Education Society (SIMRES), so you are in the right place to spot Orca whales, sea lions, seals, and a variety of sea birds.
  • Winter Cove: Make use of the Explora App you downloaded on Pender Island, and take a 1.5 kilometre guided walk at Winter Cove to explore the many types of vegetation found on the Gulf Islands. Take your time, and enjoy beautiful views of the Strait of Georgia along the way.

    East Point, Saturna Island

    East Point, Saturna Island

In the Area

On Pender Island, Brooks Point Regional Park is worth the trip all the way to the Southeastern tip of the island. The park offers grassy meadows and rocky shores, and the perfect place to enjoy a picnic lunch. Pender Island also offers a variety of excellent places to eat and drink. Plan to have at least one breakfast at Jo’s Place, pick up beach snacks and a coffee or two at the Vanilla Leaf Bakery Café, sample local and amazing cider at the brand new Twin Island Cidery, and enjoy a glass of wine on the patio and a meal at the food truck at Sea Star Vineyards. Check in at the Pender Islands Community Hall to see what events and activities are on the menu for a truly local experience.

On Saturna Island, plan your visit to take in the Saturna Saturday Market where almost the whole island (all 350 residents!) shows up to buy local produce, preserves, locally made crafts, and artwork. Check the schedule ahead of time to see if you can time your trip to attend one of the excellent and informative SIMRES SeaTalks. We were lucky enough to catch a double feature about the Southern Resident Killer Whales and the Transient Orca Whales when we visited. As you leave from or return to the ferry, pop in to the Wild Thyme Coffee House – housed in a retro double-decker bus – for a drink and a snack. My favourite: the Orange Creamsicle tea latte.

Tide Pools on the Gulf Islands

Tide Pools on the Gulf Islands

Where to Stay

On Pender Island, Gulf Islands National Park Reserve offers up three camping locations. There is a drive-in site at Prior Centennial, a walk-in site at Shingle Bay, and a boat-in site at Bedwell Harbour’s Beaumont Marine Park. All three sites are quite small, and reservations are highly recommended to guarantee your spot. On Saturna Island,  hike or boat access camping is available and can be reserved at Narvaez Bay. Reservations are strongly recommended.

Gulf Islands National Park Reserve offers rich opportunities for exploration. You can easily fill a long weekend exploring the islands accessible by BC Ferries, but if you want to go further afield and into the boat accessible only areas, you will certainly need more time. Visiting the Gulf Islands is the perfect break from the rush of everyday life as it truly allows you to reset yourself to “island time” and get in touch with the beauty that surrounds you at Gulf Islands National Park Reserve.

For more campgrounds in and around British Columbia check out the Camping Map at Camping & RVing BC.

Check out more blogs in the National Parks & Historic Sites series:

A Primer to Canada’s National Parks in BC.

Explore Fort Langley & Gulf of Georgia Cannery Historic Sites and Check Out Some of BC’s Fascinating History

BC’s Gulf Islands National Park Reserve Offers Rich Opportunities for Exploring

BC’s National Historic Sites Offer a Glimpse into the Past – Here are 3 to Explore

Kootenay National Park, BC Offers Great Vistas, Hiking & History

Visit Mount Revelstoke National Park in August for its Stunning Vistas & Wildflowers

Yoho National Park, BC – A Jewel in the Canadian Rockies

Glacier National Park: A Special BC Destination

Pacific Rim National Park Reserve – A Great Place to Visit in the Off Season

Share your BC camping and travel photos using hashtag #campinbc

Published: June 8, 2017
Last Updated: April 28, 2020

Kimberly Walker by Kimberly Walker

Kimberly is a Special Education, Elementary School teacher in Hope, BC. Previously having worked ten years at the Hope Visitor Centre & Museum promoting tourism in Hope and British Columbia, Kimberly worked on many local history projects in the museum as well as researching and writing articles for the local newspaper. Kimberly loves travelling with her husband Dale and their dog Alpine. In the fall of 2014, they spent the first 78 days of married life travelling and camping their way across Canada - just the two of them and the dog - travelling in a Hyundai Elantra! Kimberly loves various outdoor recreation types and exploring our beautiful province.