Going to Vancouver Island started as an idea to get my husband surfing but it turned into a week-long family adventure on this beautiful coast.
Filled with miles of accessible beaches, moss-filled forests, and the home of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, the West Coast of Vancouver Island is an ideal destination for families who want to explore the wild coastline of our neighbors to the North.
Planning your stay: Start early
As a popular tourist destination, there are a variety of accommodations along the West Coast. Note the key word: popular. As you plan your trip, consider booking your stay well in advance.
Our trip had two legs, which included both renting a house and camping. For the first leg, we rented an AirBNB in Ucluelet, just south of the Park. The house was a short drive from everything we wanted to do along the coast. (We also were coming directly from another camping trip, so laundry and showers were critical for us at this point in our journey!)
For camping, I’d hoped to snag a spot in the Green Point Campground, the only campground located within the Park. But after waiting in an hour-long online queue with thousands of other travelers in early January, I was left with a very empty cart.
Thankfully, we found a spot in a campground just north of the park. (And, as a bonus, the beach at our campground was my favorite beach that we visited!).
Camping and staying in a house were great options for our family. I loved having showers, beds, and laundry in the house, but staying a few-moments walk from the beach at the campsite was unparalleled for me. As you plan your accommodations, consider how your family likes to travel.
Getting into Canada: Check your documents
Months leading up to the trip, I’d diligently checked and re-checked that our kids only needed birth certificates to get across the border. So imagine my horror when I pulled out all of our documents and realized that my husband’s passport had expired three years earlier. For a panicky 30-minutes I thought all of our carefully planned vacation plans would be canceled, until I learned that his enhanced driver’s license was all he needed to get into Canada.
Crisis averted, but lesson learned: Check your documents well in advance to make sure you have everything you need!
Before your trip, check all current requirements for entry. As of this writing, all visitors must fill out the ArriveCAN app. Scan your documents and COVID vaccination information into the app, and show the customs agent the bar code at the border.
Getting there: What to see, where to go on this 5+ hour journey
Getting to the West Coast of Vancouver Island is a beautiful, but long journey. After crossing the border, you have a short drive to the ferry terminal, a 2-hour ferry ride to Nanaimo (make sure you arrive early – the ferry website encourages you to be there an hour early, and will cancel your reservation if you don’t arrive early enough), and then 3 more hours in the car until you reach the coast.
We traveled with a friend who has made the journey to the coast many times, and he gave us an insider perspective on where to stop. Check out goats that live on a roof at a shop in the city of Coombs. (Our son loved this! He thought our trip was just to see the goats on the roof!) Pull off at Cathedral Grove for a quick stroll among 800-year-old trees. And get any last wiggles out at Port Alberni before making the last half of the trip across the Island to the coast through largely uninhabited countryside.
- Accessibility: We certainly have our own stunning beaches in Washington, but many are not accessible. But as you drive along the coast between Ucluelet and Tofino, there are numerous accessible beaches. Some beaches are a short (often steep) hike from the parking lot. Others are just steps away from your car. We got into a rhythm of deciding which beach we would visit each day, and throughout our trip. We didn’t get to all of them (and wished we could have visited some of them again!).
- Learning: Each day, the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve offers a variety of educational programs at the beach. At the talk we went to, our kids got to learn about bears, cougars, and wolves, and examine replica skulls, tracks, and poop from these predominant predators of the area. (On a later hike, we found what we thought was bear poop!)
- Balance bikes on the beach: Our toddlers could not get enough of riding their balance bikes on the hard-packed sandy beaches. (And we couldn’t get enough of watching them enjoy this experience!)
If your kids aren’t balance bike age, consider what they currently enjoy and plan some activities to do while at the coast! Paper and colored pencils for sketching at low tide? Kites for windy days? Games for the beach? There are so many ways to enjoy this beautiful place.
The weather varies on the Vancouver Island coast – one day, you may have hazy fog in the morning and blazing sun in the afternoon. Though we’re quite used to them, rainy days just hit harder when you’re on vacation (especially when camping!).
When it rained on Vancouver Island, we headed to the Ucluelet Aquarium. Local sea life is brought into the aquarium for visitors to enjoy. Then they go back out into the ocean (a catch and release model). We saw some animals during low tide at the beach, but at the aquarium, we got an up-close view of some wild and amazing marine life! We also went hiking in a heavily forested trail in the morning. What could have been a miserable day camping in the rain, turned into a day where we hardly even noticed the rain (thankfully, it was short-lived and stopped by dinnertime).
- Laundry: Camping and the beach = tons of sand and dirt. Add in a potty-training regression and you have a recipe for lots of laundry! We made sure that our rental house had laundry and certainly put it to good use. We hadn’t planned on using laundry at the camp site. But ended up using it when we were running out of clothes towards the end of our stay.
- Food: We had some sticker shock when we grocery-shopped on our trip. With rising food prices and a remote location, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that food was more expensive than we anticipated. I recommend bringing food you know you’ll want, have space for, and can bring over the border.
What a privilege it was to enjoy this beautiful place. I wouldn’t do much different, if we were to take the trip again. I recommend this spot for families that want to enjoy beaches, surfing, nature walks, wildlife, and wild, accessible landscapes for their next vacation.
- Local author Roy Henry Vickers has a beautiful collection of children’s books, as well as a viewing gallery of his art in Tofino.
- Learn about wildlife along the Pacific Coast from the beautiful photography of the Pacific Wild Book collection.
- Author Deborah Hodge celebrates life along the coast in her beautiful children’s books.
Parks that you should check out this fall and winter
Fall camping in the Methow Valley