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Beautiful places on Vancouver Island and the Sea-to-Sky Highway

If you're visiting Vancouver, it's a good idea to plan a few extra days for Vancouver Island and for some of the wonderful hiking trails north of Vancouver.


For basic information (such as visa, SIM, weather, ...) on traveling to Canada, check out my previous Vancouver blog post

Joffre Lakes hike, Canada

And now let's get down to business. In this post I'll introduce you to Vancouver Island and the Sea-to-Sky Highway area north of Vancouver.


3. Vancouver Island Orca - Whale watching tour

  • Moss Lady & Beacon Hill Park

  • Downtown, Harbourfront Promenade, Parliament House

  • Breakwater Lighthouse

  • Chemainus - a charming little town

  • Mountain lookout

  • Cathedral Grove - walk among the giant cedars

  • Taylor River

  • Rainforest hiking trail

  • Lismer Beach hiking trail

  • Long Beach

  • Cox Bay Lookout

  • Tofino 

  • Tonquin Beach


  • Beautiful panoramic drive

  • Shannon Falls

  • Sea-to-Sky gondola + suspension bridge and hiking trails at the top of the mountain

  • Brandywine Falls + plus small lake

  • Whistler Olympic Village

  • Nairn Waterfall

  • One Mile Lake

  • Joffre Lakes hike



Vancouver Island

We had a little over 3 days on Vancouver Island. To be honest, it was a bit of a tight pace and we had to prioritize what we wanted to see the most. But I think we managed to get the most out of those three days.


Car rental

So how exactly do you get to Vancouver Island from Vancouver? I wrote in my Vancouver post that renting a car in the city of Vancouver is completely unnecessary.

Camper, Outdoorsy

However, once you get away from the city, a car becomes a must. We opted for our loved way of travel: renting a campervan. And as returning customers, we booked again through Outdoorsy. It's like airbnb but for campervans. We have had nothing but positive experiences with Outdoorsy so far, so I can only recommend it.


Ferry to Vancouver Island

Once we had the car, we drove to the ferry terminal and we were only a 2-hour ferry ride away from Vancouver Island. 

The ferries depart from Horseshoe Bay, and in high season (in the summer) you should book in advance as they may fill up. However, a portion of the maximum available tickets are always reserved for passengers arriving at the port without a reservation, so if there are no tickets available online for that date, you may still be able to get a ticket for that ferry at the port. But otherwise, you can check the ferry company's website to see the current availability. 


Ferry prices vary depending on availability, but for us it was 105 CAD for two people + a campervan (one way).


If you arrive at Horseshoe Bay well before the ferry departs, it's worth parking your car in line and walking across to the bay shore. There is a small harbor with small boats, and we were lucky enough to see seals. 🙂


Orca - whale watching tour

One of the highlights of our whole Canadian road trip was the orca-watching near Vancouver Island.

Orca

The orca, also known as the killer whale, is the largest species of dolphin in existence.


Its distinctive black and white pattern makes the orca perhaps one of the most easily recognisable marine creatures. 

Orcas are very social creatures, mostly living in large pods and families. They have highly developed, co-ordinated hunting strategies. 


In the North Pacific, three different types of Orca are distinguished. Resident, Transient, and Offshore orcas. These species have different habits and lifestyles.

  • Resident orcas feed on fish, mainly salmon, and live mostly close to the shore.

  • Transient orcas are true predators, preying on larger marine mammals such as seals. And they often live along the coast. This means that their territories may even overlap with the territories of the Resident orcas. 

  • Offshore orcas mostly live further offshore. 

Studies show that different types of orcas do not interbreed with each other.


Orca family tree

However, the importance of underwater sounds is very important for all species. It is how they communicate, navigate and it is essential for their hunting. So the presence of marine vehicles disturbs the orcas' communication and navigation, therefore making hunting much more difficult for them. For this reason, there are strict regulations that endangered species must not be approached within 100 (or 200) meters (depending on the type of vessel). If you stop the engine they might approach you though. 

The most endangered species is the Resident orca, so be sure to choose an orca-watching company who will only approach the mammals (within the allowed distance, of course) only if they see Transient orcas. In the case of Resident orcas, they will not even go close to the allowed distance, thus securing their own habitat. This is much needed, and let's hope we can bring them back from the brink of extinction.


We were extremely lucky to find a pod of five Transient orcas during our tour. 


We went by a small zodiac motorboat. The first hour we were out in the open waters, the ocean was very choppy, and as we couldn't find orcas out in the sea, we went back to the calmer, more sheltered waters of the strait, which is a popular passage not only for boats but also for orcas. After some time we received a report that an orca pod had been seen from a distance by another boat, a good few miles away but they had not been able to identify them and had since disappeared. After about 15-20 minutes of fast speedboat ride, our captain suddenly slowed down and our guide pulled out the binoculars. All along the coast, hundreds of meters away, she spotted the orcas, but until she could identify them we had to wait. Then she finally let us know that we were lucky and they were Transient orcas. 


Orca

I think we stayed close to them for about an hour, but I completely lost track of time because it was such a wonderful experience to see them pop up and come close to us occasionally. 


Identification is possible by their fins and their spots. Each fin is different and the white spots’ location on the orcas’ bodies also differ a bit. It's like fingerprints for humans. And the best way to tell which species is which is by observing the shape of the dorsal fin.


Transient orcas often have small injuries on the dorsal fin, because they feed on larger marine mammals and often damage their dorsal fins when hunting. 


It was a great experience, and we saw even more wildlife on the way back. We saw seals, birds and even tiny harbor porpoises (a mini dolphin species).


I'll write a few more words about our “outfit” for the ride. It was thirty degrees, but I knew it wouldn't feel like that on the boat (zodiac), so I put on all my layers of clothes I had and we had to wear these Antarctic-adventure-like overalls on top, and with all these it was just the right temperature. Because when you ride a speedboat at 50-60 km/h for 2-3 hours, it's really cold, especially on the open waters where it is extremely windy.


Orca whale watching tour, Vancouver Island

I think I have described the orca trip in enough detail, perhaps you can feel from my description how great the experience was. For me it was a real bucket list item, and I really hoped that we would be lucky because there are not many places in the world where you can see orcas in such pleasant conditions (relatively high probability, not minus 10 degrees, bright daylight...)


We went with the Vancouver Island Whale Watch company and started the tour from Nanaimo. And it cost about 180 CAD per person.


Victoria

  • Downtown

  • Waterfront promenade

  • Parliament

  • Fairmont Empress Hotel

  • Fisherman's Wharf

  • Moss Lady & Beacon Hill Park

  • Breakwater Lighthouse


Continuing south by car, we arrived in Victoria, the capital of British Columbia. Victoria is a small city in a beautiful setting. In fact, you can get around the small city in 1-2 hours.


Victoria, Vancouver Island

The city center has charming streets, and the whole section near the port is practically a pedestrian area. From here you can admire the Parliament building and the fabulous Fairmont Empress Hotel. Walk a little further and you'll reach the Fisherman's Wharf.


Victoria, Vancouver Island

When in Victoria, don't miss Beacon Hill Park, a beautiful park just minutes from downtown. Here you will find the reclining female moss statue, the Moss Lady.


Moss lady

It's worth walking further, as there are beautiful ponds, fountains, squirrels and birds in the park. 

From here you can drive to the pier at James Bay, where there is a lighthouse at the end of the pier.


Butchart Gardens

Since we didn't have much time, we had to really think about what we could squeeze into our itinerary, but we definitely wanted to see the Butchart Gardens. This botanical garden is a half hour drive north of Victoria.


Butchart Gardens

The price of admission is seasonal, for us it was $36,5 CAD in early June. 


The site of Butchart Gardens was originally a cement mine. A husband and wife, Robert and Jennie Butchart moved to Vancouver Island from Ontario to build a cement factory on a rich limestone deposit at Tod Inlet. After the mine was exhausted. Jennie had the idea to turn the barren place of the previous mine into a beautiful garden. Thus the Sunken Garden was born. The name refers to the fact that it lies in a 'pit' lower than the average level, due to the former mining activities. 

This is how the barren, grey stones have been transformed into a green oasis. And the project was so successful that the botanical garden began to cover an even larger area, bringing in more and more unusual plants from all over the world.


In addition to the Sunken Garden, the park also has a giant fountain, a Rose Garden, a Japanese Garden, an Italian Garden and a Mediterranean Garden.

Butchart Gardens

All in all, Butchart Gardens is a very beautiful place and has a tremendous history (in Canada). Butchart Gardens was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 2004, the centenary of the park's founding. 

I liked it a lot, but I felt it was a bit too artificial, too regular, but nevertheless I think if you are in the Victoria area you shouldn't miss it!


Tod Inlet Trail

Just behind the Butchart Gardens car park there is a short walking loop, the Tod Inlet Trail, which leads down to a small lake through a forest section. Max half an hour return loop, easy terrain.


Tod Inlet Trail

East Sooke Regional Park - Creyke Point

We only visited the beginning of the southwest coast of Vancouver Island, as there are pretty similar rocky shores all the way. 


Our choice was the short Creyke Point hike in East Sooke Regional Park.


Road to Tofino and Pacific Rim National Park

After the southern coast of Vancouver Island, we headed to Tofino and the Pacific Rim National Park. 

Stops along the way:

  • a charming little town

  • Mountain lookout - viewpoint

  • Cathedral Grove - walk among the giant cedars

Cathedral Grove is a beautiful stop on the long drive. A boardwalk can be found on either side of the road, leading through the giant cedars. It's amazing how big the trees are. You can see a few dead ones laying on the ground, but they're still very impressive, because you can really see how huge their trunks and roots are. The biggest tree here (going to Tofino) is on the left side of the road. This tree is over 800 years old and 76 meters high. So it is taller than the Leaning Tower of Pisa and unbelievably this tree was already about 300 years old when Columbus discovered America. It's pretty incredible to think about...


Cathedral Grove, Vancouver Island

The remaining stretch between Cathedral Grove and the national park is particularly beautiful. And you almost don't even have to get out of the car, because there is a beautiful view all around.


  • Taylor River

Of course, if one has a lot of time and is not in a hurry, there are many wonderful stops. A few minutes off the road is the Taylor River stop for example. It's well worth having a quick walk at the beautiful crystal clear waters of this greenish river. There are picnic tables and restrooms at the stop.


Taylor River

We arrived at the National Park in the early evening (still during the opening hours of the visitor center). We had planned to buy a Discovery Pass at the visitor center, but they closed earlier than their official closing hours. 


Discovery Pass

If you plan to spend at least 7 days in national parks during your trip to Canada, it's better to buy the annual Discovery Pass than to buy day passes. 

A day pass is usually 10,5 CAD per person and a Discovery Pass is 72 CAD and gives you unlimited visits to national parks in whole Canada for a year.

We flew over to Calgary after Vancouver Island and spent 10 days in Banff, Jasper, and the surrounding smaller national parks, so the Discovery Pass was definitely worth it for us. 



National Parks - Overnight

In the national parks in Canada, you can only stay overnight in official campsites, whether you are staying in a tent or in a campervan. A valid park pass is a prerequisite for overnighting in campgrounds within the national park.


Overnight stays with a small campervan start at around 25 CAD, but on average the cheapest places are more like 35 CAD. 


However, there is a large parking lot at the visitor center, just before the entrance to the national park (Pacific Rim National Park), where you can easily camp overnight.


Ucluelet

Since the visitor center was closed, we could only buy the Discovery Pass the next morning, so instead of going to Tofino the night we arrived, we went to Ucluelet and visited the lighthouse trail.


Ucluelet lighthouse

There is a very nice hiking trail on the cliff around the lighthouse, and it's amazing how different the overall effect is depending on whether you're there in the morning or evening light. I think it's worth seeing it at either time of the day. 


Alternatively, in Ucluelet I think you should visit Little Beach and the harbor.


Pacific Rim National Park

Then the next morning, after we managed to buy the Discovery Pass, we headed to Tofino. The national park has many wonderful places to visit, but Tofino itself is not that special in my opinion, I think it's the drive through the national park which is really special.

The most beautiful stops were:

  • Rainforest hiking trail

  • Lismer Beach hiking trail

  • Long Beach

  • Cox Bay Lookout


Cox Bay

After the beautiful hikes in the national park we soon arrived to Tofino. In Tofino there are only a few streets, so I don't think you should spend much time in town, but rather visit Tonquin Beach. This is one of the few beaches where you have to pay for parking. Here 2 hours of parking costs 3 CAD, and there is no possibility to buy a ticket for a shorter period. So if you just want to check out what the beach is like, you should still buy the 2 hour ticket.


But you won’t regret it, this beach is a hidden gem. It's completely isolated from the city and feels like a small desert island. So if you get down here (you can't see anything from the parking lot), you definitely won't regret it and will stay here for a while.


Tonquin Beach, Tofino

Tofino was our last stop on Vancouver Island, so we headed back to the east coast to catch the ferry in the evening, but we didn't count on the fact that in the meantime one of the forest fires had spread and the road directly to Nanaimo was closed, so we didn't manage to catch the evening ferry, because the only option was a five hour detour, mostly on dirt roads, in pitch darkness, with zero street lights... But we had no choice, as we wanted to catch the dawn ferry at least the next morning, because we wanted to spend two more days exploring the Sea-to-Sky Highway north of Vancouver.


Sea-to-Sky Highway

The Sea-to-Sky Highway is a beautiful panoramic drive north of Vancouver. The name is derived from the cycles of sea and rainfall. 

We drove up to the Joffre hiking trail, our northernmost stop. The road leading there has many beautiful stops, waterfalls and hiking trails along the way:


Shannon Falls

This is a free waterfall close to the main road. It's a very nice park setting, perfect for picnics.


Shannon Falls


Sea-to-Sky gondola + suspension bridge and hiking trails at the top of the hill

Sea-to-Sky gondola + suspension bridge and hiking trails at the top of the hill

This cable car takes you up to 885 meters, and in nice weather, you'll have a beautiful view of Howe Sound Bay and the surrounding mountains. 


There are hiking trails of all lengths and difficulties starting at the gondola terminus and a suspension bridge at the top.

Sea-to-Sky gondola

We did 3 trails. One led to a small inland lake, another to a mountain lookout, and the third was a panoramic trail with several beautiful lookouts.


The gondola costs 69 CAD + tax at the counter, but you can buy online with a discount of 5 CAD.


Brandywine waterfall + plus small lake

It's an easy hike from the parking lot to a huge waterfall, plus there's also the option to detour to a small pond to cool off.


Brandywine waterfall


Whistler Olimpic Village

The 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics were held in and around Vancouver. This was special because it was the first time in history that Indigenous peoples were recognized as official Olympic hosting partners. The people of the First Nations (Lil'wat, Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh) were involved in every aspect of the event.

Whistler olimpic village

The Olympic Village was built in Whistler and can still be visited today. It is a very charming little town.


Nairn Falls

This waterfall also has an easy hiking trail along the river. A platform takes you right up close to the falls, so you can really see the sheer power of the waterfall up close.


Nairn Falls

One Mile Lake


Joffre Lakes hike

And last but not least, one of the most amazing hiking trails in the Vancouver area: the Joffre Lakes hike.

It's a 9,4 km hike with a 490 meter elevation gain. We completed the hike at a comfortable pace, with short stops, in 4 hours 15 minutes.


Joffre Lakes hike, Canada

The hike takes us past 3 lakes. The first one is right at the start of the hike. Between the first and second lake is the steepest and most strenuous section. The second lake is simply beautiful bluish-green with the glacier in the background. From there it's just a shorter stretch until you reach the third lake, right at the foot of the glacier.


If you want to do a hike near the Sea-to-Sky Highway, this is the one you should definitely do, you won't regret it, although you'll need to be lucky with the weather. 


So to sum up, I think you need at least a week to explore Vancouver, Vancouver Island, and the Sea-to-Sky Highway. In the case of a week you still need to prioritize well and rest doesn't really fit into a 1-week-schedule. So stay longer if you can, but if you also want to go to Banff and the surrounding national parks, you have to compromise to make the most out of both areas. 

We spent a week in the west (Vancouver side) and 10 days (9 full days) in the Banff area. I thought that was great, but if you don't want to spend 9 days hiking around Banff, you can spend less time in Banff and then regroup these days to the west coast.


I hope you enjoyed my post about Vancouver Island and the Sea-to-Sky Highway.


If you like mountains, turquoise lakes and bears, I also recommend my next post "Canadian Rockies: from Banff to Jasper: Lake Louise, Lake Moraine, glaciers, bears, ...". 


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