A Big Island with a Small Town Feel
A Van is the Perfect Way to Circumnavigate Vancouver Island
Grab your passport and prepare for an adventure! Over the next week you’ll just start to scratch the surface of all there is to seze and do on Vancouver Island. We’ve hand-selected the highlights of this magical place, a 290-mile long by 60-mile wide island just off the west coast of Canada.
This itinerary is packed and fast-paced. Feel free to pick and choose your destinations and attractions. History buff? Consider more time in Victoria, the capital of British Columbia. Into surfing? Tofino is your spot. All about scenic drives? Save extra time for the Sunshine coast.
Or just follow along as we’ve planned it. Either way, you’re sure to have a great trip! Please keep in mind that this itinerary requires a minimum of a 9-night rental from Peace Vans. In the low season we can shrink this down to 8 nights.
Day 1: Seattle to Victoria (160 miles, 5 hours, including 2 hours on ferries)
Today is all about the ferries! Your first ferry sails from downtown Seattle to Bainbridge Island, a scenic half hour crossing (you can check the sailing times here).
Find your way to the Washington State ferry terminal at pier 52 and prepare for your first taste of van life. Assuming that you packed plenty of tasty treats, queue up for the ferry and enjoy snacks in the comfort of your van. Once on board, be sure to head up to the deck for an epic view of the Seattle skyline as the ferry heads west.
Upon arrival on Bainbridge Island, consider a quick stop off to wander down Winslow Way to take in the shops. Otherwise, continue onward- your destination is Port Angeles. You have a date with the M.V. Coho ferry, privately owned and operated by the Black Ball Ferry Line. With between one to three sailings per day (depending on the season) you’ll want to make reservations ahead.
With multiple ferries to catch between Seattle and Victoria, there's a a bit of a logistical challenge to time things just right. Don’t fret if the timing doesn’t work! Instead use it as an opportunity to camp the night before your departure at Dungenss County Park. Walk along the spit with water on both sides, and enjoy views across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Canada.
What kind of friend would we be if we didn’t mention Cock-a-Doodle Doughnuts at the docks in Port Angeles? You’ve got a long (not really), hard (not at all) journey ahead of you and so you’re going to need some sustenance to make it all the way (it’s only an hour and a half) to Canada. Canada! I mean, it’s a totally different country! You need food for that kind of journey right? Just sayin,’ get the donuts. You won’t regret it.
Enjoy the crossing to Canada, and keep your eyes peeled - if you’re lucky, you may spot whales. After disembarking from the M.V. Coho, you’ll be directed through Canadian customs, and then you’ll find yourself smack dab in the middle of downtown Victoria.
Spoiler alert: You’ll eventually make your way to Goldstream Provincial Park to set up camp. This park boasts big trees, waterfalls, and a river, and it’s only a 20-minute drive from downtown Victoria, making it a great home base for exploring the city further. That said, there are many things to do in Victoria, all of which are highlighted under day 2, where you can choose your own adventure.
Day 2: Victoria (choose your own adventure)
There are so many things to do in the lovely city of Victoria. We’ve provided some suggestions, but feel free to pick and choose based on what you’re most interested in. Or do it all! After your day in Victoria, return for another night to the Goldstream Provincial Park before continuing along the west coast tomorrow.
- Before heading to the main downtown area, live like a local and check out the Fol Epi Bakery and Caffe Fantastico coffee shop. They co-exist (along with a bike shop!) in a rustic but modern Platinum LEED certified building. Grab an espresso and a pastry, or perhaps some picnic supplies for later. Pro tip - the deli inside will pack you a charcuterie plate in a pizza box to go!
- Tour the Parliament building. This gorgeous piece of architecture was built in 1898 in the Neo-Baroque style. On the tour, you’ll not only get to see the inside architecture and design, but you’ll learn a lot about Canada’s history and government. Tours last about an hour and run frequently, so you don’t need to make reservations in advance.
- If you’re into museums, the Royal BC Museum is not to be missed. The exhibits focus on native culture, animals, and BC history, and they are extremely high quality. The museum isn’t huge - you easily cover it in 2-3 hours - although there is an iMax, so plan extra time if you want to stay for a movie.
- Harken back to simpler times and enjoy high tea at the Empress Hotel. This is a pricey outing, and you’ll need to dress smart casual, but it’s a wonderful experience and you’ll be sure to leave full of delicious sandwiches and pastries.
- Leave yourself plenty of time to stroll through town, grabbing an ice cream or a coffee. If you’re looking for lunch, check out The Pink Bicycle for tasty burgers and salads. Victoria is very walkable and if you stroll north for about a mile, you’ll find yourself in Chinatown.
- It is absolutely worth the half-hour detour to the Buchart Gardens. They are stunning! Tour the grounds and be amazed by how one woman transformed a former quarry into the gorgeous gardens you see today.
- Stay for the evening and stroll through the Inner Harbor, checking out the boats and taking in the twinkling lights on the Empress Hotel. If you’re in Victoria on a weekend in the summer, there is also a great pop-up market of local artisans each evening.
Day 3: Goldstream Provincial Park to Juan de Fuca Provincial Park (60 miles, 2 hours)
Depart from Goldstream Provincial Park and head west toward Sooke. Don’t dismiss Sooke. While it’s a quiet town, it’s also your last chance to stock up on provisions for a few days, so grab gas and food while you’re there. Don’t miss Stick in the Mud, a VW-themed coffee shop.
From Sooke, the road hugs Vancouver Island’s west coast. You’ll have lots of opportunities for scenic photos. Plan to stop off at Sandcut Beach, where (after a 10-minute hike) you’ll see a waterfall falling directly into the ocean.
Juan de Fuca Provincial Park spans 30 miles on this coast, and it’s spectacular. You’ll see the rest of Juan de Fuca Provincial Park tomorrow, but for today, keep your eyes peeled for the China Beach campground (about 20 miles west of Sooke).
Find your spot for the night and set up camp, then take the short hike to Second Beach. You’ll most likely be the only ones enjoying this beautiful beach, surrounded by trees and with views of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.
Day 4: Juan de Fuca to Englishman River (115 miles, 4 hours)
You might want to walk down to Second Beach for a second time this morning before hitting the road. You’ll enjoy some relaxing ‘windshield’ time today, crossing Vancouver Island from west to east. It’s about a 4-hour drive, including a good stretch on logging roads between Port Renfrew and Lake Cowichan. Be sure to fuel up in Port Renfrew because you definitely don’t want to run out of gas along the way!
Signs of civilization start to pop up again as you enter Lake Cowichan, which is about the halfway point on today’s journey. If you’re hungry, find a nice picnic spot along the lake and take some time to stretch your legs.
As you head into Nanaimo, take the opportunity to explore Petroglyph Provincial Park. The short hike is absolutely worth doing! You’ll see many different petroglyphs created by First Nations people around 1,000 years ago, including wolves, fish, and human creatures.
From the petroglyph park, it’s only about a 10-minute ride into the town of Nanaimo. This is a great spot to grab a drink at a bar or enjoy a meal out - there’s something for everyone, Greek, Japanese, Korean, French, and even vegan. And don’t leave without picking up some Nanaimo bars - a layered dessert made famous here in the 1950s.
If you’re looking for some culture before heading to camp, check out Nanaimo’s galleries. This artsy town has lots of shops with locally made items. Start your walking tour at the Nanaimo Art Gallery, grab a map of the local hot spots, and explore from there.
When you leave Nanaimo, you’re about 45 minutes from Englishman River Falls Provincial Park, where you’ll set up camp for the night. This park has not one but two stunning waterfalls. Enjoy an easy hike through old-growth forest - hit the lower falls first and then climb back up to the upper falls. The lower falls make a great swimming hole if you’re feeling brave (the water is cold!), and the upper falls are epic - you might want to sit for a spell and watch the water wash by.
Day 5: Englishman River to Tofino (110 miles, 2.5 hours)
Today brings another journey across Vancouver Island, this time from east to west, with a destination of Tofino. You might be asking, why didn’t I drive straight to Tofino when I was already on the west coast at Juan de Fuca? The answer is, because there is no road!
Scenic Route 4 is the only way in and out of Tofino. The town of Port Alberni will be your last chance to stock up on food and gas before reaching Tofino, so take the chance if you need it. From Port Alberni, the road passes through gorgeous forests, winding along a river most of the way.
Once you hit the Long Beach peninsula, you can’t go wrong. Turn left (south) to check out the fishing village of Ucluelet, or turn right (north) to head straight into Tofino. Tofino is a laid back surf town with full of friendly people, cute shops, and beaches galore. Surprisingly, it’s also a foodie haven! There are plenty of fish and chips shacks and ice cream windows around town, but if you’re looking for something to mark a special occasion, grab a table at the Wolf in the Fog. This is a nationally-acclaimed, award-winning restaurant, located right here in the sleepy town of Tofino.
You’ll definitely need a reservation to camp in Tofino in the summer, so plan ahead. If you’re able to book far in advance, claim a beachfront campsite at Bella Pacifica. If you can’t get a beachfront spot, don’t despair. Everything in Tofino is close to the beach! Another place to check is the Green Point campground within the National Park.
Day 6: Tofino (choose your own adventure)
There are so many awesome things to do in Tofino! Here are some of our favorites - pick and choose to design your perfect day.
- Are you a surfer (or wannabe-surfer)? Rent a board (and a wetsuit - the water here is very cold!) in town and catch some waves. Ask a local for surf spot tips, or head to Cox Bay, which is pretty much guaranteed to have steady waves.
- Not so much into getting wet? Grab a blanket, have a picnic on the beach, and watch the waves roll in. It’s the best therapy for weary minds!
- Grab a tide chart and find your way to Chesterman Beach, where you can out walk out to Frank Island at low tide, a totally unique experience! Just don’t enjoy it too much that you lose track of time… you don’t want to have to swim back!
- Take some time to stroll through town, ideally at a time when you’re hungry. Grab an ice cream cone and go window shopping. There is also an organic grocery store if you need to stock up on provisions. Then, maybe another ice cream, just to be safe, you don’t want to go hungry after all.
- Are you a plant nerd? Tofino has beautiful botanical gardens. Take an hour or two and stroll through their 12 acres of plants and flowers.
- Is it happy hour yet? Grab a drink at the epically-located On the Rocks Pub at the Wickaninnish Inn. The Wick Inn is quite fancy, but the pub is laid back. You can watch the waves crash through their big windows. If you happen to catch a rainy day, this is a great hang-out spot.
- If you’re feeling adventurous and have a little extra cash, book a seaplane to the hot springs. Tofino Air makes this trip daily - it’s a 4-hour outing with about 20 minutes of flight time there and back, a short hike to the springs, and the rest of the time to soak.
- Ravenous after all that exploring? Head to Tacofino, perhaps the best taco truck in all of Canada. Skeptical? Judge for yourself… you will not be disappointed!
Day 7: Tofino to Comox (150 miles, 3 hours)
It’s time to make the trek back across Vancouver Island, but before you leave Tofino, fuel up on brekkie sammies and donuts at Rhino. You passed through MacMillan Provincial Park on your way to Tofino, but today take the time to stop. Go on a short hike through Cathedral Grove and marvel at the wise old trees, some are more than 800 years old.
After being humbled by the age and beauty of those forest giants, head to the Old Country Market. This old-timey general store and village is a little touristy, but the goats on the grass roof are fun for the whole family, and this is also a great place to stock up on essentials for the road, like cheese and salami. There’s also an ice cream shop with nearly 100 flavors. Touristy or not, there’s an impressive selection of items, and it’s genuinely fun to window shop.
Wave goodbye to the goats and head to Kitty Coleman Provincial Park to camp for the night. You’ll park your van within old-growth forest, and from there you can explore the half mile shoreline, now that you’re back on the eastside of Vancouver Island.
There is more to do tour north of here, but you’ll want to save some time to cross the Salish Sea and explore British Columbia’s Sunshine coast as you make your way south back toward Seattle.
Day 8: Comox to Porpoise Bay (100 miles, 4.5 hours, including 2 ferries)
Today is a big travel day, but the BC Ferry system will be doing most of the driving. Get up early and break camp, and don’t worry about breakfast - head to catch the ferry from Comox to Powell River, and grab breakfast on board. The BC ferries have a full kitchen, and they offer great eggs, bacon, sausage, and fruit. If you’re planning ahead, you can reserve your sailing time in advance, which comes in handy during the busier summer months.
Once your ferry docks in Powell River, you’re back on the mainland of British Columbia. Enjoy the short but scenic drive from Powell River to Saltery Bay. Your next ferry is Saltery Bay to Earl’s Cove - reservations aren’t accepted, and the ferry sails infrequently, so plan accordingly (you can check the schedule here). If you have extra time, spend it exploring Powell River, as the only thing in Saltery Bay is a roadside fish and chips stand (and a good one, at that!).
Your second ferry will land you in Earl’s Cove. From there, check out the crazy whitewater and whirlpools at Skookumchuck Narrows - it’s worth the short detour! Head south from Skook Narrows to camp at Porpoise Bay Provincial Park. This campground is closer to town, but has a great beach and lots of trees. If you’re looking to dine out, check out the Lighthouse Pub or their associated food truck - they are known for their fish and chips.
Day 9: Porpoise Bay to Bellingham (115 miles, 4 hours)
It’s about a half hour drive from your camp at Porpoise Bay to the last ferry of your journey, which sails from Langdale to Horseshoe Bay. If you have extra time before the ferry, take a stroll around Gibsons for some coffee and window shop at the art galleries.
After landing in Horseshoe Bay, detour into the mountains just north of Vancouver. Test your nerves by crossing the Capilano Suspension Bridge, a 450-foot long bridge suspended 230 feet over the Capilano River. It’s awe-inspiring! After you cross back over the bridge, head 5 minutes further up the road to the Grouse Mountain Skyride. Ride the gondola to the top for commanding views of Vancouver and the surrounding areas, and enjoy a short hike around the summit.
With freshly minted adventures, get your passports ready, because now it’s time to cross back into the U.S. Navigate to the Peace Arch border crossing (you can check wait times here), and once back in the States, head to Larrabee State Park, just south of Bellingham. Bellingham is a great college town if you’re looking for a beer or a bite to eat before you head into camp.
Day 10: Bellingham to Seattle (80 miles, 2 hours)
You’ve reached the last leg of your journey! From camp, make your way back to Peace Vans in Seattle. You’ll already have the border crossing behind you. If you’re looking for one last good breakfast on the road, check out the Old Town Cafe in Bellingham. They serve up speciality omelettes, tofu scrambles, french toast, hot cakes, and breakfast sandwiches - you won’t be disappointed!