The Pacific Rim National Park – the single best reason to visit Vancouver Island – is a magnificent amalgam of mountains, coastal rainforest, wild beaches and unkempt marine landscapes that stretches intermittently for 125km between the towns of Tofino in the north and Port Renfrew to the south. It divides into three distinct areas: Long Beach, which is the most popular; the Broken Group Islands, hundreds of islets only really accessible to sailors and canoeists; and the West Coast Trail, a tough but popular long-distance hike. The whole area has also become a magnet for surfing and whale-watching enthusiasts, and dozens of small companies run charters out from the main centres to view the migrating mammals. By taking the MV Frances Barkley from Port Alberni to Bamfield or Ucluelet and back, and combining this with shuttle buses or scheduled buses from Victoria, Port Alberni and Nanaimo, a wonderfully varied combination of itineraries is possible around the region.
Lying north of Long Beach, Tofino, once a fishing village, has been dramatically changed by tourism, but with its natural charm, scenic position and plentiful accommodation, it still makes the best base for general exploration. Ucluelet, 40km to the southeast, is comparatively less attractive, but almost equally geared to providing tours and accommodating the park’s 800,000 or so annual visitors. Bamfield, a tiny and picturesque community with a limited amount of in-demand accommodation, lies much farther southeast (it’s 190km from Ucluelet by road) and is known mainly as the northern trailhead of the West Coast Trail. Unless you fly in, you’ll enter the park on Hwy-4 from Port Alberni, which means the first part you’ll see is Long Beach, shadowed along its length to Tofino by Hwy-4. Note that the beautiful (105km) stretch of road from Port Alberni to the park’s visitor centre is not for the faint of heart – much of it is windy and adjoined by sheer drops. At “The Junction”, – where Hwy-4 forks east for Ucluelet and west for Tofino – you’ll find the park’s main information centre; the waterfront Kwisitis Visitor Centre is off Wick Road, accessed via Hwy-4, towards Tofino, after the junction (see Florencia Beach).
The weather on this part of the island has a well-deserved reputation for being appallingly wet, cold and windy – and that’s the good days (an average of 330cm of rain falls annually). So don’t count on doing much swimming or sunbathing (though surfing’s a possibility): think more in terms of spending your time admiring crashing Pacific breakers, hiking the backcountry and maybe doing some beachcombing. In the off-season, time your visit to coincide with the worst of the weather (Jan & Feb) – storm-watching has become a popular park pastime and rates for accommodation tend to be cheaper.