Time from Seattle: 9 hours
Ferry en route
In this post, we're venturing beyond the comfort of our American borders and out to Tofino - the surfing capital of Canada and a Vancouver Island hot spot. It's a trek, so we took Friday off work to have a four-day Labor Day Weekend to make sure we had enough time to discover as much as we could! I'd recommend at least a three day weekend for such a trip because not gonna lie, it's deep. Here, you'll discover how to navigate the ferry situation, and where to stop along the way to Vancouver Island's west coast, as well as local surf spots, dope camp sites, prime sandwiches, and the best brews in and around Tofino.
Packing List for Summer:
Camera + 50 mm lens (still working on that second lens dream) - highly recommend a telephoto lens if you've got one! (For surfing pics of course)
Polaroid + Film (click for mine!)
2 pairs of leggings
1 pairs of jeans
1 pair of jean shorts
1 pair of running shorts
1 hiking shirt
1 comfy sweater/pullover/zip-up
Shout out to this awesome app for getting us through the serviceless Vancouver Island. You can plan out your entire road trip from start to finish and add stops along the way to use completely offline later on. Your profile icon tracks you as you make your way through your itinerary. Just make sure to plan it out before losing service! Add everything from hiking trails, lakes, caves, and other outdoor attractions to restaurants and more!
My alarm startled me awake and I quickly grabbed my gear and loaded up the car for our early departure. Why so early you ask? Well, if you know me by now, you also know how last minute all of my trips tend to be. So naturally, I didn't make ferry reservations until two days before (incurring a $17 reservation fee instead of the usual $10). The reservation? 7 a.m. ferry because the rest were booked full for Labor Day. So, take into account the two-hour drive to the border, border crossing (setting a little extra time aside in case we happened to be searched), and the additional 30-45 minutes to the terminal, you've got a 3 a.m. wake up call.... yayyyyyy
Pro Tip: You MUST arrive to your ferry reservation AT LEAST 31 minutes early or your reservation will be given away and you're forced into that standby life. Learn from my mistakes! Been there, suffered that.
There are a few ferries that get you to Vancouver Island. All take reservations. Listed from south to north:
Black Ball Ferry Line (runs only in the summer months) Port Angeles to Victoria
Anacortes to Victoria
Tswassen (B.C.) to Swartz Bay (just north of Victoria)
Tswassen (B.C.) to Duke Point (1.5 hrs north of Swartz Bay)
Horseshoe (B.C.) to Nanaimo
No traffic, no border issues, and we arrived at the Tswassen ferry terminal WAY too early. 5:30 to be exact. But luckily, the nice ferry worker asked if we wanted to try for the 6 a.m. to Swartz Bay and of course we said yes! So we ended up being well ahead of schedule, which is something we're not used to.
If you can stay awake, do! The ferry ride takes you through Canada's beautiful islands off the coast of Vancouver Island. Lighthouses, rocky cliffs, and maybe, if you're lucky, some Orca whales! It's about 1.5 hours all together, and we were able to see sunrise over the islands as we cruised to Swartz Bay. Ideal.
We arrived at about 7:30 and were ready for a bite to eat. After a little research, we drove maybe 30 minutes down the peninsula closer to Victoria (if you have more time, Victoria is a beautiful place to discover!! There's so much to see and eat that it could be a trip all on its own) for a quick breakfast at The Ruby restaurant. It's in the lobby of Hotel Zed and it was delicious!! I mean, just look at this photo. This here is the Pork Hash. Two please, plus one to-go, thanks.
The Road Trip to Tofino
Stuffed to the brim and well-caffeinated, we set off for our first stop: The Kinsol Trestle
About 50 minutes from the restaurant or an hour and ten from Swartz Bay and an easy, well-groomed 1.2 kilometer stroll lies the historic Kinsol Trestle - the largest of eight trestles on the Cowichan Valley Trail (part of the Trans-Canada Trail). It's one of the tallest free-standing and spectacular trestles in the world standing nearly 614' above the Kosilah River below. Walk where the tracks once were and then down to the river to see the sun peek through the crisscrossing wood fixtures. We spent some time down by the river and a river otter swam by! I almost mistook it for a rat it was so small!
The Old Country Market
Social media tells me that goats are the thing these days, and I may have fallen into that trap for a hot sec; I couldn't help myself!! The Old Country Market is in the cute little touristy town (or I guess "center" would be the correct term) of Coombs and their main attraction is goats... ON THE ROOF! I'm not joking you guys. You can dine outside of the market on their patio while goats dine on the grass above. It's pretty freaking cool.
Even if the goats aren't out that day, the market itself is pretty sick! A cold case houses 6+ types of smoked salmon, there's a bakery section with incredible baked creations, there are cheeses, souvenirs, jams, crackers, furniture, garden supplies, you name it, they have some version or another of what you're looking for. But dang, was it crowded!
After the market, hop across the street to the ice cream shop for so many flavors it's next to impossible to choose just one. For indecisive people like me, it's a frustrating disaster in the best way possible. I ended up getting some maple, raspberry something and it was so. freaking. good. There is also a surf shop, a fruit market, and a hidden sculpture garden surrounded by a restaurant, bookstore, gallery, and more little shops. Cute stopover! But a quick one at that.
And we're off to Qualicum Falls. It's known as an epic cliff jumping site with gorgeous blue water. We had every intention to take a refreshing dip on that steamy day but after scoping it out and finding no way to emerge from the plunge pool, we decided to play it safe and continue on. Still an easy hike to a beautiful waterfall, though! The other popular falls in the area is Englishman River Falls. It was a tough choice between the two!
Horne Lake Caves
We almost cut Horne Lake Caves from the itinerary but I'm SO happy we didn't! This was probably one of my favorite stops on the road trip to Tofino. When we heard we could embark on a self-guided tour of three different caves, we were expecting roomy, touristy, and safe. While still safe (for the most part), it was way better than anything I expected, and we were grossly unprepared.
With one lantern and a phone as our only lights, no helmets, and me in a rain jacket and leggings, we hiked the short distance to the mouth of the first cave (explained as the shortest but most scenic). It was already 4 p.m. and the attraction closed around 4:30, so, with those restrictions and our road trip time crunch, we explored just the one.
The entrance is through a barred gate and once we crouched through, a small stream appeared that we had to avoid while navigating the sharp walls. A guided group came in behind us, and I kid you not, we had to squeeze into the sides of the walls to let them pass, which actually worked out in our favor. Every time we thought the cave ended, it was just a small hole in the rock we had to work our way around to continue to the "birth canal" as they call it. We eavesdropped a little :) The "horse's saddle," the guide explained, "is a little tricky, You start by swinging your right leg over, facing backward, then you lean your entire body back, bend your head a bit, and swing your left leg behind you to get to the other side." My eyes were wide, and that's when I decided, Yup! I'm doing this.
The "birth canal" was a big, open round room at the end of the cave that held a puddle of water. I began ,my way back underneath the rocks and Arturo climbed up an over. While I was crouched in the tiny, wet entrance to the canal, my worst fear happened: MY LIGHT WENT OUT. I was wide-eyed and by myself in a pitch black cave not much bigger than my body. Luckily, instead of assuming the fetal position, I laughed frantically (which is what I do when I get super nervous) until Arturo figured out what happened and told me to hit the lamp a few times. Sure, enough, it came back on, and my heart rate calmed a little. Possibly one of the scariest moments of my life haha. It's fine. I survived!
On the way back, the guide took his group through the "wormhole" where he slid his legs in a hole that was as big around as him, slid through, crouched underneath the rock wall, and emerged on the other side. That's where I drew the line and decided to go back the way I knew, over the "horse's saddle."
A little nerve-wracking, but so freaking epic and absolutely gorgeous!!! Highly recommend. UNLESS you're claustrophobic - in that case, I'd skip it all together because those caves are less than roomy and darker than I thought possible.
The Hole in the Wall
Publicized but difficult to find, the Hole in the Wall is a fun quick stop right off the highway just outside of Port Alberni. It's a man-made hold through a shale wall that was created to connect the Port Alberni waterline. Park along the pullout and venture down the trail to find the Hole in the Wall sign. From there, follow the logging road down to the river. I'd check your map to make sure you're going the right way because there are a few offshoots where it can get confusing.
Once at the stream, take a right to an outcropping where you'll discover the hole! Covering the riverbed are a ton of inuksuk or man-made statues (like trail markers) and not gonna lie, it's super creepy. I felt like I was in the Blair Witch Trials as Arturo and I - and no one else in sight - crossed the river and climbed the tree trunk to the hole. We walked through to the other side to find even more statues and a little plunge pool. Due to the discarded socks and other articles of clothing, it looked like a popular swimming spot on a hot day!
After a few photos, a solid dose of freakiness, and a scary af HUGE spider that decided to crawl up my leg, we hiked back to the car to find sustenance.
We ate at a decent Aussie restaurant called Boomerang and found a rest stop to sleep at for the night so we could enjoy the last stretch of the beautiful drive through the mountains to Tofino in daylight.
Day 2: Tofino
After transferring our belongings back to our "bed" from the front seats, we took off down the winding road among beautiful alpine lakes and fog rolling over mountain peaks - the final stretch of road before Tofino. Even discovered a rare specimen of the Pacific Northwest! Check out the photos!
Where to Camp
We arrived in Tofino at around 10 a.m. with a mission: to find a campsite for the night - our one night of luxury ;) Labor Day Weekend is also a Canadian holiday (I had no idea), which made the already slim chances of finding a campsite even slimmer. Almost every campground takes reservations, and they've been booked for weeks.
For some quick answers, head to one of their two visitor centers and ask if they know any open campsites off the top of their heads. The park ranger basically said you're tough out of luck, and the tourism person in the same office recommended a few sites to check out for cancellations. I called a few places on our way to the campground and found basically a first-come-first-served parking lot that still had two open spots if we wanted to car camp. Luckily, Bella Pacifica Campground at MacKenzie Beach had a cancellation for the weekend, so we snagged it.
Pretty epic location for a last minute site too! The campground is right on MacKenzie Beach - one of just two that allow beach fires - with relatively nice facilities and a younger crowd. It's also just a 10-minute drive to downtown Tofino.
Wasting zero time, we paid for one night of camping and immediately took off to try arguably the best cafe in town and rent some surfboards.
Other notable Tofino campsites include:
If you'd like to camp closer to Ucluelet:
OR maybe a ton of rain is in the forecast, or you simply prefer a bed instead of the cold, hard ground. If so, check out this list of hotels in the area.
Rhino Coffee House
Arguably the best cafe in Tofino, Rhino Coffee House was decked out in repurposed beachy wood with a vintage yet modern-looking vibe (if that's a thing) with delicious donuts and tasty sandwiches! We ordered the orange/blackberry donut, the roast turkey & bacon wrap, and a vanilla latte. Highly recommend. I devoured that wrap like it was nobody's business.
It was between Rhino and Common Loaf for breakfast that day. Common Loaf is super cute and a little more spacious located on the other side of town. Try their signature breakfast pizza!
Didn't get the chance to go here but had every intention to. Taste the land with Sobo's local left coast food!
Shelter claimed the title of "Tofino BC's Favorite Restaurant" and not gonna lie, it was pretty dang good. An outdoorsy area features fire tables, the downstairs houses the bar and additional seating, and upstairs is a quiet more intimate dining experience. I ordered the seafood chowder off their "Local Waters" menu, and Arturo ordered the Pan-Seared Local Wild Salmon. Both were delectable. Highly recommend.
Pro tip: arrive after 10 p.m. for $4 beers!
Waterfront dining and poutine, yes please!! The Hatch offers a gorgeous view of the islands and mountains over the docks. They have a ton of delicious beer on tap and for all you sports fans out there, this is where you'll find TVs to watch your favorite games. Happy hour is two-for-one appetizers and $1 off select beers, soooo we ordered a ton of food: Shrimp Tempura, Fish Tacos, and Poutine... duhhhh.
What is poutine you ask?? Allow me to enlighten you. It's french fries, cheese curds, and gravy. Sometimes you'll see pork, sausage, onions, and other toppings mixed in, and it's the greatest drunk food/apres ski food EVER.
It sounds gross, I know, but you gotta try it to understand its magic.
I was SO bitter I didn't get to try one of these legendary fish tacos. Everyone raves about Tacofino, and yes it's a chain but this here is the original, and the line reflected that. Arturo hates lines, so we agreed to come back before closing to snag a taco or two, but it turns out they close early. Wait in the line, just do it, and then tell me how freaking delicious these things are! So.bitter.
Braving the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest is definitely a test of character. It's not the warm tropical waters I'm used to - you sadly can't just paddle out in your bikini. We're talking wetsuits, booties, gloves, and even hoods on occasion. :Luckily, we were presented with a gorgeous sunny, 68-degree day with a beautiful swell and wore nothing but a wetsuit. But before I get ahead of myself, let's talk rental locations!
Pacific Surf Co.
After much research, we settled on Pacific Surf Co. as our rental gurus. They provide lessons, rentals, sell sick apparel, and has the mission to "create the opportunity for all to experience the life changing impact of the ocean." If that's not convincing in itself, maybe their staff will be! Let me explain:
We arrived on one of the busiest days of the season, and on top of that, it was freaking gorgeous. Upon walking in, I overheard a staff member talking about how they were completely out of boards. So I asked to see if that was true, and everyone directed me to Tom. If you're reading this, Pacific Surf Co. owners, Tom deserves a fat promotion. This guy provided us with the best customer service I think I've ever experienced. He checked multiple times in the back to see if there were any boards available, he asked to see when a lesson would be returning so we could steal their boards, and he was super kind, happy, and apologetic with his Kiwi accent the entire time.
We asked how long the wait would be and he said, "I dunno maybe ten minutes or so?" Followed by a lot of "I'm sorry guys," and "If you'd like me to refer you to someone else I totally get it! But I do hope you stick with us for a little!" To us, 10 minutes is nothing. If you've ever waited in line for brunch in Seattle, you probably feel the same way. Those lines can be over an hour long!! So we laughed and said no problem at all. We walked across the street, shopped around a little, met another dope local at Storm Light Outfitters and had just entered a little boutique when we hear, "Hey Guys!! We got you boards!!" Just around that 10-minute mark. Talk about ultimate customer service!! He literally came and found us!
Back at the shop and he's got our two boards loaded on our car before we've even signed the paperwork. But once it came time to hand over our credit cards and disclose our measurements for our wetsuits, I noticed a the bottom of the page it said, "10% off because everything went wrong." LOL If this was everything going wrong, then my life is a complete and utter mess. I'm so curious what kind of life this guy leads!
A typical surf rental period is about six hours for $40 CAD (that's including wetsuit rental). We obtained the boards at about noon and their last return slot is 7:30 p.m., so we would've had the chance to rent it for the full six hours, but Tom wasn't content. He offered a return time of 10:30 a.m. the following day instead, so we could surf as long as we wanted and maybe even throw in an a.m. ride as well (we're not thaaaat badass). But we took his offer with gratitude, asked him for his favorite surf beaches, picked up some local brews, and hit the road.
Long story short, RENT FROM HERE!
So, you have your trendy touristy spots: Shelter, The Wolf in the Fog, and Shed, which are pretty incredible, but then there are the grungy local bars which always tend to be my favorite. Our server from Shelter actually gave us these recommendations. Historically, the Royal Canadian Legian Branch 65 was once a real Royal Canadian Legion building, but its since been turned into a bar with live music. We arrived around 10:00, so probably a little too early, and we were the first ones there. With a cover of $10, we politely turned it down and headed to the next recommendation. The music sounded good, but we wanted to meet some awesome people!
The Maq is a hotel above and a pub below that serves local and regional beer and cider, offers free popcorn (one of my many weaknesses), and is complete with a stage and dance floor. $5 to get in (which I was told is unusual - it was a poppin' night!). Butterflywingtip and Frase were the two bands playing that night and they were insanely good!!! Look them up, seriously. The place was crawling with "locals" which in Tofino means you're a seasonal worker arriving in May and leaving in November. Rumor has it, you can apply for a visa and hotels in the area will sponsor you to run their establishments! I definitely considered it.
We spent the rest of the evening here.
Pro Tip: Tofino is serious about their max capacities. Tofino Brewing Co., for example, has a max cap of only 30 people, and Arturo and I were the last to get into The Maq. I wish there was a better way to plan for that... get there early I guess? Idk, let me know if you figure it out.
Towards the end of the last band's set, we retired for the evening and passed out at our campsite only to wake bright and early the next morning to grab breakfast, return our boards and head out for phase 2 of Tofino: Hiking.
Day 2: Ucluelet + Hiking
We put off our caffeine and food cravings until we reached Ucluelet (Ukee) about 40 minutes down the peninsula (of sorts). Zoey's Bakery and Cafe - a whole foods bakery using mostly organic, locally-sourced ingredients with products that change with the seasons. We ordered a quiche and cinnamon roll with orange frosting (ask for it warmed up) and a vanilla latte (using Drumroaster Coffee from B.C.). The decor was cute and the water could be seen off the patio to the left.
Shop: The Wreckage
Before leaving town, make sure to check out The Wreckage. This shop was INSANE. You walk inside the nautical door complete with portholes to find a floor made of wood rounds and to the right, the wall was built to accommodate a massive boulder. Records lived here, and to the left, local art (which I couldn't help but purchase), body care items, nautical-themed gifts, and more. AND the center was the cash register and an espresso stand serving Foggy Bean Coffee roasted right here in Ukee. Hell yeah. Check it out! Seriously.
Wild Pacific Trail - The Lighthouse Loop
Worked out the arms yesterday while surfing, it's now time for the legs. Well, in all honesty, none of the hikes around Tofino and Ukee were all that demanding. The Lighthouse Loop is a beautiful 2.6 km section of the Wild Pacific Trail, which to anyone but a photographer would typically take 30-45 minutes to complete. I, on the other hand, had to stop at every outcropping, trail to the beach, and unique tree on this short loop. Do it for the shot, ya know?
The Wild Pacific Trail is rated one of the top ten things to do in British Columbia, and it sure was gorgeous. The trail guides you along the rocky coastline with sea stacks and past the historic Amphitrite Lighthouse. It was originally built in response to a shipwreck in 1908 and replaced a short seven years later to better withstand the fierce winds of the area. Keep an eye out for birds! Over 300 species migrate through here. Whales often gather here too! Halfway through the loop from the parking lot (if you begin walking to the northeast), you'll turn inland to discover the rainforest and coastal brush. Every turn was absolutely stunning. Highly recommend.
Rainforest Trail Hike
Hardly a hike, the rainforest trail is merely a boardwalk stroll through the lush green rainforest of the 511 square kilometer Pacific Rim National Park. Don't worry, the hike is only 2 km round trip, BUT it features 731 stairs. Make sure those shoes are tied! You'll have to purchase a park pass to visit (no pass required to drive through), and a pay station is available on site. We were told to hike Route A so that's just what we did! Although, I heard both were incredible and it wouldn't take long to do them.
Another local favorite, Tonquin Beach is a short hike to a hidden cove if you park in the right parking spot. Guess what? We didn't haha, classic I know. The hike wasn't too long though! We arrived with every intention to take a nap, and it turns out we weren't alone. Pretty much everyone was sleeping, no joke. So, we laid out our blanket and passed out for an hour among the little, beached island and saltwater pond with the waves crashing ashore in front of us. There were maybe eight other people there besides us? And one was playing guitar. Not too shabby.
For the last leg of our adventure, we gathered our unused firewood from last night's campsite and built a beach fire just on the other side of the point between North and South Chesterman to block a bit of the breeze. At low tide, you can walk out to a little island here.
I broke out the ukulele for once in my life and we chilled for a while as the sun set over the ocean. The ocean, the boy, and a roaring fire; I was in my element.
And just like that, our epic four-day adventure was practically over. Instead of paying for another night, we decided to drive straight across the island to Duke Point ferry terminal to try to make their first ferry (5:15 a.m.). We had a ferry reservation out of Swartz Bay but that's an extra 1.5-hour drive. They said to come back around 4:15 and we're practically guaranteed a spot. So we drove to a rest stop, slept for a solid five hours, ran to Tim Horton's the next morning for a breakfast sandwich and coffee, and sure enough, we made the first ferry on standby no problem, because honestly, who in their right mind would want to catch that super early ferry on the last day of a three-day weekend? I guess that's us.
Luckily, we were on the top half of the ferry this time, so we climbed in the back of our car and slept the entire two hours to Tswassen.
The rest is super boring driving time so I'll spare you an even longer post (this is definitely the longest yet, so props to you if you made it this far!! You deserve an "Eva's #1 fan" award because there were some serious words in this one.) And as always, PLEASE send me your recommendations if you've been here, your questions if you're about to go, and honestly anything else! Your favorite road trip playlist? I'm into that too! Until then, happy tripping!
What People are Saying:
"Your writing and blog in its entirety is wonderfully put together. I wish you well in your future adventures and am looking forward to reading more."
- Allie - Manager at Zoe's Cafe and Bakery, Vancouver Island + Tofino
"Thanks for... including us in your blog! I just finished reading it, wow you guys were busy that weekend but you definitely found some of the gems Vancouver Island has to offer. We hope to see you then next time you’re out our way."
- Chad - Old Country Market, Vancouver Island + Tofino
"Beautiful post!... Really enjoyed reading about your time here. It's nice sometimes to be reminded of outsiders perspectives about a place you've become so familiar with!"
- Jess - The Maq Hotel, Vancouver Island + Tofino