Traveling to Vancouver Island and looking for the top adventures? We've got you covered in this adventure travel guide with advice on when to go, getting around, places to stay, adventure gear and packing list, and suggested itineraries. Having explored this island while living for 9 years (in Zac’s case) in Victoria, we have a great sense of what adventures are out there. This ultimate adventure travel guide will navigate you through the must-see destinations, hidden gems, and top outdoor activities on Vancouver Island.
Located right off Canada’s Pacific Coast, Vancouver Island is known for its mild climate compared to the rest of Canada. The island stretches for 460kms (286 miles), from British Columbia’s colonial thriving capital of Victoria in the south to Cape Scott’s wilderness and hidden beaches in the north.
Along with the Gulf Islands, this unique destination combines large forests, rugged landscapes, rocky mountain peaks, and mysterious coastlines. Whether you want to go on a relaxing weekend getaway, explore the jagged landscapes and abundance of wildlife, or conquer the waves of the Pacific, Vancouver Island has it all!
Vancouver Island Quick Facts
Strathcona Provincial Park is home to Canada’s highest waterfall, the Della Falls at 440m! This is considered one of the ten highest waterfalls in the world.
With its 460km in length and 100km in width, Vancouver Island is similar in size as the Netherlands!
Unlike the mainland of Canada, there are no grizzly bears, mountain goats, moose, skunks or coyotes on Vancouver Island. However, there are PLENTY of black bears and wolves. Vancouver Island is said to have the highest density of bears in the world!
The highest point on the island is Mount Golden Hinde at 2,200 m, located in Strathcona Provincial Park.
Victoria is the capital of British Columbia (NOT VANCOUVER!). That is why the Parliament is located here.
Being so close to both mountains and sea, it comes as no surprise that Victoria is the most popular and accessible destination on the island. Within 20-minutes driving radius of the city, there are tons of things to do in Victoria. From exploring the British colonial Downtown of Victoria on foot to taking a tour to the Butchart Gardens, to exploring the wildlife on a whale watching tour, to going to one of the many beaches, viewpoints, or parks. Victoria has something for everyone!
Victoria Beaches: Visit the small, sandy Gonzales Beach for a beautiful view of the Olympic Mountains, Willows beach for a younger crowd and relaxed atmosphere, or the warmer waters of Thetis Lake and Durance Lake for a swim.
Victoria Parks: Visit Beacon Hill Park for an afternoon stroll, or Gowlland Todd Provincial Park for a day hike with stunning views over the Malahat. Go to Goldstream Provincial Park and explore the gorgeous “Niagara” waterfall, overcome your fear of heights on the old Trestle Bridge used by trains in the past, or do a challenging hike to the neighbouring peak of Mount Finlayson.
Victoria Mountains: Go to Mount Doug for a spectacular view of the ocean towards the mainland and Gulf Islands, or to Mount Tolmie for an impressive city view.
Read our complete Locals Guide to Victoria to find out more information about the top things to do and how to get there!
Walbran Lookout, Victoria
Tofino and Ucluelet
Tofino and Ucluelet are both great destinations to get away and relax in nature on Vancouver Island! Both spots are about 4 hours away from Victoria by car and the towns are only 30 minutes apart from each other. There is great hiking, surfing, and the sandiest beaches on the island! Our top pick of beaches include Cox Bay, Mackenzie Beach, Chesterman Beach, and Long Beach.
Tofino is known for having the best surf in all of Canada and the culture of the town is reflected in that, with chill vibes and laid back people who genuinely respect and care about the nature surrounding them.
Ucluelet, or "Ukee" as the islanders call it, is more known for its relaxation and peaceful hiking on the coastal routes surrounding the town.
Hidden Gem: Cox Bay Lookout
The Cox Bay lookout is by far the best viewpoint in all of Tofino! However, it is a bit tricky to find if it's your first time there. Since the trail is not officially marked anywhere or even maintained by anyone in particular, it can be hard to navigate. Read in our 3-day guide to Tofino how to get there.
Cox Bay Lookout, Tofino
Strathcona Provincial Park
Strathcona Provincial Park has the purest nature, richest wildlife and most breathtaking scenery on all of Vancouver Island. Not only is Strathcona Provincial Park the oldest park within British Columbia, but it is also a smaller, less touristy version of the renowned Rocky Mountains. With 250,000 hectares of land, Strathcona Provincial Park offers the best outdoor and hiking activities.
Our top favourite picks in the park are:
Landslide lake: This is our favourite lake in Strathcona Park. Tucked away high in the alpine, you will need to hike to get there. With its impressive teal colour, this lake is a unique sight on Vancouver Island!
Mount Albert Edward: Peaking at 2,093m (6,867 feet), Mount Albert Edward is the sixth highest mountain on Vancouver Island. Not surprisingly this mountain also offers the most epic views!
Buttle Lake: The 23 kilometres (14 miles) long Buttle Lake is one of the only lakes in Strathcona Provincial Park that is accessible by car. No need to hike, so you just relax and enjoy!
Mount Washington: This is the must-visit place in the winter with unlimited skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing.
Read more about the top places to visit in our blog here.
Hidden Gem: Glacial Lake (above Landslide Lake)
This hidden gem is nestled between the snowy peaks of Mount Colonel Foster. When you reach the beautiful Landslide Lake, hike up to the Upper Glacial Lake by following the less-maintained trail to the left side of the lake. Please note that this is not an official route, so be prepared to get pretty dirty!
Landslide Lake with Mt. Colonel Foster and Glacial Lake in distance
Sooke to Port Renfrew
The West Coast of Vancouver Island is the perfect destination for travelers who love remote beaches, lush rainforests, and rocky cliffs. The area between Sooke and Port Renfrew is a true haven of peace and tranquillity, which can be easily explored within a day or weekend. Rent a car and drive the West Coast Road from Sooke to Port Renfrew!
Along the road, you will find some of the most beautiful beaches on all of Vancouver Island! Our favourite beaches in terms of atmosphere, sights, and natural beauty are Sand Cut Beach, Mystic Beach, Sombrio Beach, and Botanical Beach. Read more about these beaches and other highlights on a road trip from Sooke to Port Renfrew here.
Hidden Gem: Secret Waterfall at Sombrio Beach
A 20-mins walk to the left side of Sombrio Beach brings you to the only creek that runs into the ocean. This is where you want to follow the creek inland until you reach the canyon and waterfall soon after. The giant green wall with the tumbling waterfall is the picture-perfect location of the whole area.
Secret waterfall at Sombrio beach
There are 15 Gulf Islands that lie between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia. With its abundance of wildlife, nature, coastal activities, and laid-back atmosphere, the Gulf Islands are a true paradise. Each of them can be reached by ferry or in several cases by seaplane.
Go to the forested islands of Mayne, Galiano, Hornby, Saturna, or Gabriola, to explore the outdoors. Or go to the largest island, Salt Spring Island, to visit the famous Saturday afternoon market.
Hidden Gem: Hornby Island
Also called “Canada’s Hawaii” this hidden gem lies more to the north compared to the other Gulf Islands. Get blown away by its sandy beaches, lush forests, and stunning views of both the mainland and Vancouver Island.
TOP OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES
Hiking the best trails
The hiking opportunities on Vancouver Island are unlimited. From easy day hikes to challenging multi-day hiking in the alpine region, Vancouver Island offers trails for everyone who wants to explore the wild nature filled with waterfalls, meadows, lakes and beaches.
Best day hikes on Vancouver Island
Old Baldy Mountain: Not far from Victoria, this 2.4 km back trail is located near Cowichan Valley Regional. The swing on top of the mountain and the views of Shawnigan Lake make this hike a must-do!
Wild Pacific Trail: Near Ucluelet, the 2.6 km Wild Pacific trail provides a glimpse of the wild and rugged West Coast of Vancouver Island. Look at the waves crashing on the rocks, the islands in the distance, and the wind-blown Douglas fir trees.
Cox Bay Lookout: This short 1.5-hour hike brought us to our absolute favorite viewpoint on all of Vancouver Island, with expansive views of Cox Bay, the surrounding mountains, and the islands in the distance.
Mount Tzouhalem: A 6 km hike will bring you to the cross on Mount Tzouhalem that offers a breathtaking view of the Cowichan Valley. It is a truly rewarding hike (steep at first) that starts near Cowichan Bay.
Coast trail: This 13 km thru-hike winds through the rainforest right next to the coastline in East Sooke Regional Park. Along the trail, you will find rocky bays, hidden beaches, tide pools, and spectacular views of the Strait of Juan the Fuca and the Olympic Mountains in the distance.
Mount Tzouhalem viewpoint
Best multi-day hikes on Vancouver Island
Juan de Fuca Marine Trail: This 47 km coastal trail takes approximately 3 to 4 days to complete, passing by rugged shorelines, and the beautiful Sombrio Beach and Mystic Beach. Start from China Beach or Port Renfrew and camp at one of the many campsites along the beach!
West Coast Trail: Stretching 75 km from Port Renfrew to Bamfield, this coastal trail is challenging and takes at least 4 to 5 days. You will need a permit, that allows you to explore this outstanding West Coast nature.
Elk River Trail: Leading to the stunning Landslide Lake, this 26 km hike is ideally done in 2 days. It is by far the most popular hike in Strathcona Provincial Park for a clear reason!
Mount Albert Edward: This 32 km trail can also be found in Strathcona Provincial Park. It is a difficult trail with significant elevation gain, and therefore best to be completed in 2 to 3 days. The constant change in scenery, from the lush green Paradise Meadows to the dark Circlet Lake, to the old-growth forest, and the alpine meadows filled with wildflowers, will blow you away!
Download AllTrails to check out the hiking trails! This app covers hundreds of hiking trails on Vancouver Island alone.
Waterfall along the scenic Juan de Fuca marine trail
Kayaking on Vancouver Island
With its abundance of ocean scenery, wildlife and island, Vancouver Island is the ideal place to go on a kayaking excursion! From a simple half-day or day paddle in the Clayoquot Sound near Tofino to a multi-day expedition through the Desolation Sound, kayakers of all levels of experience will fulfill their kayaking needs.
However, if you are not as experienced or confident to go by yourself, it is possible to book a kayaking tour. The open ocean is often rough and requires tremendous experience. Besides, guides have the knowledge about the most beautiful places as well as the wildlife hotspots. The ocean surrounding Vancouver Island is home to many otters, sea lions, killer and grey whales, and birds!
Whale watching in Victoria
One of the most popular things to do on Vancouver Island is to go whale watching. And for a good reason… with abundant marine wildlife and various types of whales in the waters surrounding Vancouver Island, this is the perfect spot to observe these majestic creatures. Whales include the orca, or killer whale, and the gray, humpback, and minke whales. Other sea life includes sea lions, seals, dall’s porpoise, and many marine birds.
Victoria is by far the most popular location to take a whale watching tour. With three orca pods nearby, it is almost guaranteed that you will spot one of the whales! When we went whale watching, we saw both humpback and orca whales in addition to sea lions, porpoises, and seals. The guides are extremely knowledgeable and helpful, telling you all about these majestic mammals.
If you are uncertain when to go whale watching and which whale watching tour best fits your needs, read our comparison article here.
WHEN TO GO
The best times to visit Vancouver Island
Even though Vancouver Island is known for its relatively mild climate, it is still affected by the different seasons. Each season brings different activities and events, and therefore should be consulted before planning a trip to the island.
June to September is considered the high season on Vancouver Island. With temperatures ranging between 15 and 25 degrees Celsius and little to no rain, it is the perfect time to explore the outdoors. From camping to whale watching, surfing, swimming and hiking, the summer brings a wide variety of activities to choose from!
However, the prices of accommodation will go up significantly during these months, as well as the number of tourists that flock to the island. Especially the number of cruise ships that arrive at the Victoria harbour daily, create a busy atmosphere in and around Victoria.
The shoulder season runs from September to November and March to May.
October, November, and March are quite rainy and grey, with temperatures averaging 5 to 15 degrees Celsius. The fall and early spring bring the colors to Vancouver Island, making for beautiful scenery. Some exciting annual events take place during this time of the year, such as the Salmon Run.
September, April, and May are quite sunny and pleasantly warm! Daytime temperatures range from 10 to 20 degrees Celsius, allowing occasionally for short-sleeved shirts and shorts. This time of the year is probably the best time to visit Vancouver Island as the tourists are generally not overcrowding the area. Also, the wildlife will come back to life (e.g. the bears get out of hibernation around April-May), thus allowing for better wildlife viewing opportunities.
The low season to visit Vancouver Island is from November to March. This is when the days are the greyest, most of the rain falls, and the temperatures drop to as low as 0 to 10 degrees Celsius. Most of Vancouver Island will remain snow-free throughout the year, with the exception of the mountains. In Strathcona Provincial Park, the mountains peaks will be covered in snow for months. Where hiking trails will become inaccessible, winter sport opportunities will be thriving. Mount Washington is the only ski resort on the island, which offers great skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing opportunities!
High season at Sombrio Beach
Car and RV rental tips for Vancouver Island
Getting around Vancouver Island is not as easy as elsewhere in Canada. With limited access to public transportation (there are no trains on the island!), you are almost forced to rent a car or RV. Luckily, there are many rental options available from the main cities, such as Victoria, Nanaimo, Duncan, Courtenay, and Campbell River.
While renting a car is ideal when you are staying in the cities or you have your camping gear with you for camping, an RV is a better option when you don’t have your gear but still want to explore the abundance of nature on the Island! If you are looking to rent an RV, check out Outdoorsy. Often referred to as the Airbnb of the RV world, Outdoorsy is a peer-to-peer rental company that allows you to rent RVs from RV owners.
Other things to consider when renting a car or RV
As renting a car or RV on Vancouver Island isn’t really cheap, it is best to compare rental prices before you book. Several websites exist that compare different rental companies. Carrentals.com is a great website including all the renowned car rental companies like Avis and Hertz.
If possible, avoid airport pick-ups and drop-offs as they cost more. It is best to drop off the car or RV at the same rental location as additional fees apply when you drop off the car or RV at a different location.
Check the age restrictions. In Victoria, you'll need to be at least 21 to be able to rent a car or RV, and most rental companies charge additional fees if you are younger than 25.
Choose your vehicle type carefully. Even though Canada is a developed country, there are many remote places on Vancouver Island that can only be accessed via gravel or logging roads.
Get coverage! There are many dirt roads on Vancouver Island and we have run into a lot of backroads with potholes, etc. when exploring these remote destinations to hikes and beaches.
PLACES TO STAY
From luxury hotels to quaint homestays and campsites in the middle of nature, Vancouver Island has something for every taste.
If you’re traveling during national holidays or the high season, we highly recommend that you book your accommodations ahead of time! Especially campsites tend to sell out quickly on those days!
Camping on Vancouver Island
If you decide to rent an RV or you bring your camping gear with you, there are a wide variety of camping sites to choose from. There are over 700 National and Provincial Parks in British Columbia, and many more Regional Parks. Many of these offer camping facilities, some of which permit reservations. Find yourself sleeping in the most idyllic setting... right at the beach, the lake or in the middle of a mountain range!
Most camping sites do not have electrical plug-ins and water hook-ups for recreational vehicles at campsites. However, they do have basic toilet facilities, food caches, and a platform for your tent.
For Campsites on Vancouver Island and other tips, read our complete packing list at camping tips for camping in Canada article.
Budget accomodation on Vancouver Island
Camping at Strathcona Provincial Park
GEAR AND PACKING LIST
Preparing for a trip to Vancouver Island is the same as preparing for a big adventure! The mild climate means that you need to prepare yourself for both warm and cold weather, and occasional rain. Especially in the evenings it gets really cool, so it’s a good idea to bring a few warm sweaters, thermal underwear and a (rain)jacket!
If you are going to camp, you should also make sure to bring a waterproof tent, warm sleeping bag, comfortable sleeping pads, a camping stove (to boil water and cook food), and a cooler (to keep your food cold). We also recommend bringing a sturdy water bottle with a purifier, especially when you are planning on hiking. There is often no water on the campsites or along the trail, which means you’ll have to get water from the river. Water purifiers or water tablets take the bacteria out of the water, eliminating the chance to get “beaver fever”.
While a bear is unlikely to attack, there are numerous black bears on Vancouver Island. As there is a high chance that you will encounter one during your visit, we recommend bringing bear spray. Bear Spray is more effective than the bear bells you often see. Bear spray is considered a “weapon” and largely reduces the risk of injury or death in the case of an attack. It is therefore important to know how to use it. Check below how to use the bear spray.
And don't forget to bring our free Vancouver Island Bucket list with you so you can check off all the hidden gems on the island as you go.
Don’t forget to bring your video equipment to capture the incredible scenery of the island! We use a GoPro 7 black and the perfect travel-size drone DJI Mavic Mini to film our adventures and compile the materials into an amazing travel video! For a full review of the top 7 best travel drones in 2019, CLICK HERE.
If you have 1 week on Vancouver Island
2 days in Victoria
2 days to go from Sooke to Port Renfrew (tip: camp on Sombrio Beach!)
3 days in Tofino
If you have 2 weeks on Vancouver Island, add
4 days in Strathcona Provincial Park
3 days on one of the Gulf Islands (we recommend Hornby or Salt Spring Island!)
If you have more than 2 weeks, add
Cameron Lake (Parksville / Qualicum Beach)