The Pacific Rim Highway in Vancouver, BC is an otherworldly drive. From ancient rainforests to angry seas, you’ll find plenty of nature to keep your eyes and body moving. Whether you want to hike, access scenic pull-offs, surf, or dine well, you’ll find so much to do on this trail that you may need to extend your trip.
Before you embark on your scenic drive and take in all of nature in its glory, turn left onto Alberni Highway from the Pacific Rim Highway and explore the Coombs Old Country Market. You can’t miss this old world market since you’ll most likely see their goats grazing on the market’s roof. If you can make it past the goats, inside the market you’ll find international food, wooden toys, baked goods, and even ice cream. If you want to just grab a quick bite to each, check out their take-out Mexican cantina, Taqueria.
On the road again, but you’ll be stopping pretty shortly: in 18 km (11 mi) to be exact. Cathedral Grove in MacMilan Provincial Park has some of the tallest, and probably oldest Douglas fir trees as many are up to 800 years old. This ancient forest is vibrant with spectacular greens and moist air. The park offers several trails that are pretty short, making it an easy stop to squeeze in some nature before hitting the road again.
While you’re in Port Alberni, take a hike along the banks of Rogers Creek to see a massive man-made hole in a cliff. This “nature” oddity was created in as a shortcut for the city’s water line. Wooden signs guide you to the hole-in-the-wall and it should only take about 15 minutes to hike it. You’ll probably hear it before you actually see it, as the hole allows the river water to cascade over rocks forming a small waterfall.
After all that hiking, you may be tempted to stop again, which is why Bare Bones Fish & Chips is conveniently close by in Port Alberni. Get your cod, salmon, or halibut any way you like it, but it should probably be beer battered and fried (it is called Fish & Chips for a reason). Even if you aren’t big into fish, this is a must stop since the restaurant is located in a decommissioned wooden church.
Travelling just a few miles further up the highway, you’ll arrive at Giant Cedar Trail. This trail is a great place to hike if you want to really get back to nature, as the trails are left more in their natural form. If you stick to the loop on the trail, it won’t take you long - which is good because you may spend a lot of time staring up at the gigantic cedars. This is also an extremely easy trail for any hiking skill level and its dog-friendly. If you can, make it down to the riverbank while exploring the area to view the Kennedy River again.
You can’t do a coastal drive and not stop at a lighthouse, and since the Amphitrite Lighthouse in Ucluelet, is the only lighthouse that you can get to by car be prepared to make a pit stop. The actual lighthouse itself is closed to the public, but by accessing the Wild Pacific Trail that loops by this lighthouse you can get a great look at it during your coastal hike. The lighthouse is a formidable structure as gale-force winds, tidal waves, and being in a tsunami zone threaten to rip it to shreds.
If you want to see more ancient trees, stop at the Ancient Cedars Loop on the Wild Pacific Trail in Ucluelet. This 15-minute walk is packed with lots to see - like Sitka spruces, western hemlock, and the giant red cedars. But don’t go too deep into the woods just yet, you’ll want to also hike the Rocky Bluff trail to see the coastal shoreline. Be on the lookout for sea lion pool behind a barrier reef of the trail. Just be sure to stay on the trail, as the Pacific Ocean holds no mercy against the rocks on the shoreline.
If you want to see the longest sand dune in Vancouver, then you’ll want to make a stop at Long Beach. Possibly one of the most magical beaches, the sand dunes here will make you feel like you’re walking in the most remote place on Earth. And, it stretches for miles - so you can get some serious walking in. This beach is also a great place to spot Gray and Humpback whales, in case you’re feeling lonely. Powerful tides change the shape of this beach daily, so no two experiences here are ever the same.
In Tofino, make a stop at the Schooner Cove Hiking Trail for a rainforest to ocean trail experience. This trail is another quick one, coming in at 2 km (roughly 1.2 mi) in length. You’ll begin in the lush rainforest on a gravel path that quickly turns to forest floor covered in green moss. Stairs and boardwalks will lead you throughout the terrain, crossing over a few creeks. You’ll even cross through a valley by way of more steps and continue through the last bit of the rainforest trail until you arrive at a flat boardwalk that will lead you to the coast. You’ll probably hear the roar of the Pacific Ocean before your eyes have the chance to see it.
If you’re ready to do some surfing, or just watch, Cox Bay is a must stop. Home to most of the surf competitions in this area, Cox Bay is a surfing haven. For you non-surfers, there’s still plenty of beach to explore and relax on. During low tide, this is a great spot to see all kinds of marine life - like sea stars, sand dollars, and barnacles.
Yes, there’s a lot going on at the Wickaninnish Inn - whether you want to dine there, stay there, drink there, have a spa day, or even watch some wood carving; you can do it all. The Point Restaurant at Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino is fine dining right on the shoreline. Watch the surf roll in with a 240-degree view of the Pacific Ocean. If you want to stay a little longer, book a room at the Wickaninnish Inn (especially if you’ve helped yourself to the Pointe’s wine menu). The rooms capture nature’s beauty with warm wood and beautiful views of the ocean and Chesterman Beach. On-site, walk to the Carving Shed to watch woodworkers at work.
For a more relaxed beach adventure, head to Mackenzie Beach. This part of the coastline is protected by large tidal rocks, keeping the wind low and allowing for calmer waters. This spot is popular for families due to its swim-ability and it also has an entrance ramp allowing access for all. Since you’ll find calmer waters here, this is a great spot to try some stand-up paddle boarding or kayaking.
You’ll want to recount all that you’ve seen on the Pacific Highway, which is always best said over a beer or two. Head to Tofino Brewing Company for some local brews. You’ll definitely want to try the Kelp Stout, as it’s brewed with sustainably-harvested kelp. Plus, how many people do you know that have had kelp in their beer? The brewery is part industrial, part nature which gives a nice warm but modern vibe to the joint.
Located in Maquinna Marine Provincial Park, the Hot Springs Cove is definitely a retreat for some. It does require taking a water taxi service, but the payoff is worth it to lounge in water that’s upwards of 50 degrees Celsius. This spot is located on a major geological fault, allowing for the ocean water to be pulled into the earth and heated. You’ll access these natural hot springs by way of well-maintained boardwalk and stairs. You’ve hiked a lot - your muscles need it.
Summer will be more crowded, but many things close during the winter, so try to aim your visit for a time during the warmer months that isn't around a popular holiday weekend. Tofino and Pacific Rim National Park are popular destinations around long weekends in the summer, for obvious reasons!
Banner Photo Credit: via Flickr/Kyla Duhamel