The Vancouver to Tofino trip begins on a spectacular mini cruise to Vancouver Island that encompasses amazing scenery, narrow channels between the Gulf Islands and perhaps a whale or two if you are lucky. Once on Vancouver Island you are on “Island Time” as the locals call it and we hope you enjoy the charm and uniqueness that this region has to offer – countryside, seaside, the Pacific Ocean, grand forests, and mountain views. We are going to take you from coast to coast on Vancouver Island.
There are 3 ferry routes to Vancouver Island from the BC mainland – one is from Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver to Nanaimo, a second from Tsawwassen to Duke Point in Nanaimo and the third from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay. This trip will take you via the Tsawwassen Ferry over to Swartz Bay, then up the east coast of the Island on the Strait of Georgia through Duncan, Nanaimo and Parksville, crossing the Island at Qualicum Beach to Tofino and the Pacific Ocean.
The overall trip takes approximately 8-9 hours which includes the 1 hour 35-minute ferry ride and allows for 1-2 hours at the ferry terminal. Ferries are busy especially in the summer and it is highly recommended that you make a reservation online. Go to BC Ferries for information on all routes. Once in Swartz Bay it is 340 km (211 mi) to Tofino.
Section 1: Vancouver to Duncan via Swartz Bay
Directions: The first section of this trip takes you from the BC mainland over to Vancouver Island via BC Ferries. From the City of Vancouver take Hwy 99 south and follow signs to Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal via Hwy 17 (35 km / 22 mi). Depending on traffic this will take approximately 40 minutes. From the Swartz Bay Ferry Terminal head south on Hwy 17 following signs via Hwy 17 and Hwy 1 to Duncan.
Estimated Driving Time: Travel time, including the ferry is 2 hours 25 minutes. Add wait time at the ferry terminal. It is 84 km (52 mi) from Swartz Bay to Duncan.
Where to Camp: For campgrounds and parks available in this area go to Camping & RV in BC and search under Duncan BC. Also find campgrounds in Ladysmith BC.
Things to Do:
Butchart Gardens – This National Historic Site is a must visit in Brentwood Bay. The stunning floral displays set out over 55 hectares (135 acres) enchant visitors year-round. Outdoor entertainment, fireworks on Saturdays and children’s’ activities are some of the fun happenings in the gardens.
Explore the Cowichan Valley – This pastoral and coastal region of Vancouver Island has been named as part of the international slow food movement. Cheeses, seafood and specialty fare are among the local offerings that foodies come here every year to experience. Whilst exploring the food and wine revolution here, visit some of the award-winning artists’ studios that dot the countryside, and even wander through a lavender labyrinth.
Tour the City of Totems – There are 38 First Nations totems in Duncan and you can take a free group tour or go on your own self-guided tour. Whilst there, check out the galleries, bookstores, wine bar and more that encompass this restored historic town.
Section 2: Duncan to Qualicum Beach
Directions: Continue north on Hwy 1 and Hwy 19 (Island Highway) to Qualicum Beach via Nanaimo and Parksville.
Estimated Driving Time: 1 hour 15 minutes (98 km / 61 mi)
Where to Camp: For campgrounds and parks available in this area go to Camping & RV in BC and search under Qualicum Beach BC and Qualicum Bay BC. There are also campgrounds in Parksville BC, Nanaimo BC, Lantzville BC.
Things to do:
Experience Trails of a Different Kind in Nanaimo – Have a sweet tooth? The famous Nanaimo Bar now has its very own trail. Pick up a Nanaimo Bar Trail guide at a local visitor centre and enjoy some tasty treats at locations throughout Nanaimo and beyond. Nanaimo & Comox Valley Ale Trail is part of the BC Ale Trail with many locally crafted beers on tap throughout Nanaimo and area. And whilst here, walk the Harbourfront Walkway and watch the water activity in this busy harbour.
Explore Chemainus – This seaside community has over 40 murals and sculptures that utilize every available wall and space throughout the town. There are also many unique shops selling locally made clothing, arts, antiques and more. The Chemainus Theatre hosts professional musicals and plays throughout the year and is the heart of a town that enjoys its music festivals and entertainment.
Watch the Sun Go Down as the Cruise Ships Glide by – Miles of sandy beach with a tide that goes out forever lines the shore of Parksville and Qualicum. Go beach walking, paddling, and looking for shells and tiny marine life that hide in the tide pools. When the tide is high walk the promenade, dine in a seaside restaurant, or share an ice cream. Feel more energetic? Try out beach volley ball or the outdoor fitness gym in Parksville.
Go Spelunking – If you’ve never been caving, and even if you have, award-winning Horne Lake Caves offers fun for all ages. Take one of their many guided tours to experience the world of waterfalls and crystal formations that lie beneath. Above ground there is a cave theatre, Fossil Trail and other adventures to get involved in.
Section 3: Qualicum Beach to Port Alberni
Directions: Take Hwy 4 W from Qualicum Beach to Port Alberni.
Estimated Driving Time: 40 minutes (42 km / 26 mi)
Where to Camp: For campgrounds and parks available in this area go to Camping & RV in BC and search under Port Alberni BC.
Things to do:
Coombs Country Market – You won’t be able to pass through this small community without stopping to see the goats that feed on the grass roof! You’ll then discover a delightful country market like no other with fresh produce, a deli, restaurants, gifts and more. And before you leave make sure you sample their famous ice cream.
Cathedral Grove – Located in MacMillan Provincial Park, this old-growth forest of Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar is situated either side of the highway. Some of the trees are over 800 years old. You can spend several hours on the trails exploring this magnificent forest.
Ride a Steam Train – Experience the sites and sounds of the steam railway by taking a ride on the Port Alberni Steam Train that runs from Port Alberni to the McLean Mill National Historic Site.
Section 4: Port Alberni to Tofino
Directions: Continue on Hwy 4 W to Tofino.
Estimated Driving Time: 2 hours (126 km / 78 mi)
Where to Camp: For campgrounds and parks available in this area go to Camping & RV in BC and search under Tofino BC. There are also campgrounds in Ucluelet BC.
Things to do:
Experience the Sand, Sea & Surf – Right on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, experiencing the beaches and surf in Tofino draw people to stay and return often. Long Beach is the longest sandy beach in these parts covering 16 km (10 mi) of uninterrupted shoreline. Exploring the tidal pools when the tide’s out, relaxing on the beach, snorkelling or having a go at surfing (you can rent a wetsuit) are just some of the activities that will keep you occupied for many hours.
Hiking – The Pacific Rim National Park Reserve has lots of opportunities for hiking from short, easy walks, to more strenuous hikes. Most trails have wooden boardwalks and some have stairs. Consider reserving to hike the West Coast Trail – this is one for the bucket list.
Whale Watching – This is the place to take a whale watching trip and while you can expect to see Pacific Gray Whales, you may also see a humpback or an Orca. But these trips are not just about whales, there is a very good chance that you will see Bald Eagles, sea lions, harbour seals, otters and even a porpoise or two.
Take a Scenic Flight – In order to really appreciate this stunning landscape, take a scenic flight in a float plane. Follow the rugged coastline and pristine beaches on remote islands, fly over the extraordinary Mariner Mountain Glacier, see whales and other wildlife on a once in a lifetime experience.
Returning to Vancouver from Tofino, take Hwy 4 back to Parksville and follow Hwy 19 south towards Nanaimo watching for signs to the Ferry Terminal. On approach to the Ferry Terminal take the lane(s) signposted to Horseshoe Bay. Once on the mainland follow signs to Vancouver.