Rainy roadtrip to beautiful Vancouver Island
There are few places that inspire the imagination quite like the wild west coast of Vancouver Island. Raging storms, rocky headlands, steep mountains plunging into a sweeping sea, dense damp forests with massive moss-draped trees... it’s hard not to feel like a witness to the raw and enduring power of nature in a place like this. And while we don’t get out there near often enough, the area around Tofino and Ucluelet are never far from our mind.
So when Ford Canada asked us to create and photograph a 3 day BC roadtrip we knew where we'd be headed. Pack your rain jackets, we're island bound!
Catching an evening ferry to the island, our first stop was a restful night at Qualicum's famous Free Spirit Spheres treehouses.
We arrived after dark, and Tom and Rosey came out to meet us with headlamps and umbrellas and an easy effortless cheer that brightened the brisk rainy evening. After a brief tour of the grounds and amenities they took us to our home for the night and we settled in. We had seen photos of these little wooden bauble treehouses here and there, but all the photos in the world hadn't prepared us for the amount of care and ingenuity that so evidently went into them. Tom trained as a shipbuilder, and everything in the oak-inlaid interior tucked away and latched when not in use, and efficient use of the limited space seemed incredibly inspired. But above all else it was eminently cozy.
We were in the largest of the spheres, called the melody sphere, rigged up with somewhat elastic ropes. We read for a bit, explored all the cupboards and cubbies and latched and unlatched everything, while the sphere gently bobbed in the trees like a little floating forest boat. After a few hours we turned out the lights, gently swaying in the wind, listening to the lulling lash of rain against the rounded roof. Was this real life?
The rain continued all night and we woke up to another dark wet morning. After a quick wander around the premises with fresh eyes, we hit the road. The drive west across Vancouver Island to Tofino is a singular pleasure. There are waterfalls and cloud-shrouded mountains, beautiful BC lakes and giant trees. Lots and lots of giant trees.
As you head up across the island the forest changes a few times, from the more arid gary oak and arbutus forests on the eastern shore to magnificent douglas fir-flanked mountains in the interior, and finally to thick scraggly old growth western hemlock, sitka spruce, and giant western red cedar on the wet west coast. It is a wonderful drive in any weather, but in the rain it feels like the real deal. It was early March so the brighter greens of summer were still months away, but the darker shades of winter have a particular wet west coast feel that just feels right.
It's a long and winding road to the coast, but finally, inevitably, you make it. You climb Sutton Pass and descend into the Kennedy watershed, a giant lake that at first blush almost looks like a glimpse of ocean. Drive a little further and you can smell the salty spray, hear the faint roar of the battering waves: you've reached the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.
Much of BC's wild craggy coastline is remote and only accessible by boat or floatplane, so tourism is necessarily focused on the few locations you can reach by car, chief among which is the stretch of beachfront between Tofino and Ucluelet.
The two towns are very similar in lot of ways, but they each have their own vibe. Most of the area's resorts and vacation rentals are just south of Tofino, and the town feels a little more touristy, with more of a surfer scene. Looking out from the Tofino Harbour, you're greeted with what feels like a million myriad mountainous islands dotting the famed Clayoquot Sound like emeralds. Growing up, Tofino was always the town I heard most of, a little hippy halcyon perched on the edge of the continent. And even now there is always a sense of long-awaited arrival, of quietly coming home. It always feels good to be here.
But we'd be spending plenty of time in Ucluelet as well. With a more authentic small town feel, Ucluelet is traditionally something of a resource town. And while Ucluelet's harbour is less picturesque than Tofino's it’s still plenty pretty, and the town boasts the the amazing Wild Pacific Trail — an afternoon walk overlooking battered black rocks, salty salal, and views of open ocean and unceasing waves crashing against a squat little lighthouse. We highly recommend a visit, and particularly so in storm season.
We spent two days stopping in the beaches, trekking over rocks, and eating at Shelter, Wolf in the Fog, and warming up with a bowl of hot ramen at Kuma. You can chalk it up to the cold wet weather but we especially liked Kuma. It was so good!
If you're planning your visit in the off season, please note that a few of the park's storm-battered beaches are closed so Parks Canada can save on maintenance and service staff. But when you only have a couple days there's no way you could see it all anyway. There are a ton of places we didn't have time to visit, like Hotsprings Cove, or Meares Island's Big Tree Trail, or the quick hike up the hill for sweeping views of the islands and inlets surrounding Cox Bay. We didn't even stop in at Chesterman Beach. But we figured that it's almost always better to savour a few places instead of rushing around checking a hundred locations off a list. And besides, the Pacific Rim Park Reserve is the type of place you just know you'll be coming back again and again for.
The dark rainy skies finally began to clear on our last day. We woke up to a crack of blue in the sky, which slowly widened into a beautiful bright sunny day. There were still waves of showers and squalls, but they were always passed and the sun returned, warm and full and plenty.
But by now our time here on the wild west coast was running thin. We were up early to make the most of it, heading down to the pier for the hazy sunrise, then out for a quick jaunt on the Tonquin Trail before a tasty little breakfast at The Common Loaf.
We packed up our stuff, had one last look at a couple beaches and waypoints, and headed off into the glowing forest and back to the city.
Big thanks to Ford Canada for helping make this trip possible