No visit to Vancouver Island would be complete without a stop in Tofino. Here, the Pacific Ocean travels unencumbered all the way from Japan. The waves draw crowds of surfers and storm watchers, while the old growth forests and epic sunsets enthrall nature enthusiasts. Tofino may be a small town, but it has a lot to offer and keep you busy for days. Growing up on Vancouver Island, I have visited Tofino several times and I am still finding new areas to explore. You can’t make a bad choice in Tofino. Whatever you decide to do, or not do for that matter, Tofino will definitely find a place in your heart.
Places to Stop on the Way to Tofino
Coming from Vancouver, you will need to take a ferry to either Victoria or Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. Some tourists like to start in Victoria, but you will have a shorter drive going through Nanaimo. Note that there are two ferry terminals in Nanaimo. The Duke Point ferry actually departs from Tsawwassen outside of Vancouver and arrives just south of the Nanaimo, while the Departure Bay ferry departs from North Vancouver and delivers you closer to downtown Nanaimo. The Departure Bay ferry will get you closer to Tofino and shorten your drive.
The drive from Nanaimo to Tofino takes about three hours. It’s not a long drive, but there are sights along the way that are worth checking out, especially if you need to stretch your legs a bit.
(If you don’t have access to a car, you can take a bus from Nanaimo for $46. This fare is reduced to $42 if you are a Hostelling International member. While you can take this bus right from Vancouver, you will pay an extra $15-20 just for the bus which does not include you $17.50 ferry ticket. To compare, the public bus to Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal costs only $2.85.)
Coombs This tiny little town has its tourists charms, but what draws many is the mossy roof on The Old Country Market. The market keeps a couple of goats that hang out on the roof and feed on the greens. Quaint, I know, but goats are adorable and people kind of go crazy for this place.
Cathedral Grove One of the biggest draws of Vancouver Island are the old growth forests. Even driving through Cathedral Grove, you can feel the majesty of these ancient trees. This is a popular place to stop and the parking lot can get busy, but it’s a nice stroll through Douglas Fir and Red Cedars trees that have been around close to a thousand years.
Englishman River Falls Forest, canyons, and waterfalls…not a bad trio at all. In the summer months, you can swim in the clear pool at the bottom of the lower falls.
Wally Creek This rapid creek winds its way through some truly picturesque rock formations. The beautifully coloured waters will entice you to dip your toes or dunk your whole body.
Sproat Lake Provincial Park If you’ve never seen petroglyphs, this is your chance! Of course, this provincial park also has more of those beautiful forests and waters you came to Canada to see.
Canoe Creek – Giant Cedar There is a pullout about halfway between Port Alberni and Ucluelet with a short walk to check out one of Vancouver Island’s giants – about 4 metres across!
Things to Do in Tofino
Tofino is a massive playground for outdoor enthusiasts. Besides the town of Tofino itself, there is nearby Ucluelet and other small islands waiting to be explored. Many people come to Tofino to surf or see whales, but the following list focuses on walks and hikes – most of which can be done for free.
Kayak to Big Tree Trail (Meares Island) If you are ocean kayak certified, you can paddle yourself to this Indigenous island that has been saved from big logging companies. Even if you’ve never kayaked before, it’s still an easy paddle on a guided tour. I went with Paddle West Kayaking and loved everything about the tour. Usually, I try to travel independently, but this was a company that exceeded my expectations. They guide you in and around the little islands, providing both historical and ecological information along the way. The walk to the Big Tree is fairly short, but the forest is pristine. Remember that image of children holding hands and singing while protesting to save the trees? Well, THAT tree, almost two thousand years old, is still there! If you are looking for a longer hike, there is also a 4 kilometre loop that takes in the Big Tree (though you will have to take a water taxi or paddle yourself to the trail head). Oh, and there have also been Sasquatch sightings on this island…
Note that this trip was partially sponsored by Paddle West Kayaking.
Tonquin Trail A short, easy walk through the trees to one of my favourite beaches in Tofino, and quite possibly the best place to watch the sunset. There are a couple of extensions to this trail if you want to explore a bit more.
Rainforest Trail Another short walk, but this one takes you through the temperate rainforest. There are two loops, one on each side of the highway, and each about 2 kilometres in length.
Wild Pacific Trail For a longer hike, head to Ucluelet. Here there is less beach and more cliffs where you can watch the waves pound relentlessly against the rocks. There are a few options on this trail, so you can make it as long or as short as you like.
Schooner Cove Trail A steeper walk than some of the other beach trails, this pretty walk through forest and stream also has over 300 steps to walk down (and up). If you are exploring the rocky pools at low tide, be mindful of the water coming back in so that you don’t get stranded.
Combers Beach Trail While a stop at Long Beach is obligatory for the first-time visitor, Combers beach is just adjacent to its more famous neighbour and has free parking as well as all the big waves and miles of beach for which Long Beach is known.
Canso Plane Crash Site This is a short 5 kilometre hike, but the trail and destination are a ton of fun. To access the trail, park at the Radar Hill parking lot and walk back down the main highway south (to the right when exiting the parking lot) for about 500 metres. The trail head is marked by a kid’s shoe hanging from a telephone pole. Follow the easy path until you come to an abandoned building. Stay to the left as you go through this building until you exit onto a trail again. There will be spray paint on the wall guiding you to the trail as well. Once back outside, you will be walking through a bog which can get extremely muddy. Pay close attention to the trail markers – yellow reflectors, ribbons, and rope – as the trail can be easy to lose (people do get lost up here). Near the end, you will see a circular pond that was created when explosives on the plane were safely detonated. The plane itself crashed in 1945 and there were no fatalities.
Shorepine Bog Trail A super short trail (less than 1 kilometre) that won’t take you long to complete. However, if you don’t feel like getting your feet muddy at the Canso Plane Crash Site, this trail allows you to explore a different ecosystem while keeping your feet well above the muck on a boardwalk. Combine this walk with the nearby South Beach Trail and Nuu Chah Nulth Trail.
South Beach Trail Another beach and another short trail. Yet, every trail and every beach in Tofino has its own unique character, beauty and charm. Explore as much as you can and find your personal favourite. Combine this trail with the Nuu Chah Nulth Trail as both start in the same place.
Nuu Chah Nulth Trail At nearly 4 kilometres long, this trail is worth strapping on your hiking boots. Trees branch over the boardwalk that, with the exception of a short section where you have to walk over tree roots, takes you all the way to Florence Beach. While you’re there, check out the little museum at the Kwisitis Visitor Centre.
Wild Side Trail This beautiful 22 kilometre trail (round trip) winds through isolated beach and forest on the Maaqtusiis reserve. To access the trail you need to take a $25 water taxi to Ahousaht on Flores Island (more Sasquatch sightings here!). While this trail can be done in a day, it is well worth considering camping overnight so you can hear the wolves howl you to sleep. Indeed, we actually did see a wolf loping along the beach! You can log your trip, pay your $25 trail fee, and buy a hoodie to commemorate your hike at the Wild Side Trail office on the island.
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