Vancouver Island, B.C
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
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
1 swim suit
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 this activity 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.