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.Read More
The most accessible of the park’s components, Long Beach is just what it says: a long tract of wild, windswept sand and rocky points stretching for about 30km south from Tofino to Ucluelet. Around 19km can be hiked unbroken from Schooner Bay in the west to Half Moon Bay in the east. The snow-covered peaks of the Mackenzie Range provide a scenic backdrop, while behind the beach lies a thick, lush canopy of coastal rainforest. The white-packed sand itself is the sort of primal seascape that is all but extinct in much of the world, scattered with beautiful, sea-sculpted driftwood, smashed by surf, broken by crags and dotted with islets and rock pools oozing with marine life.
Long Beach, while a distinct beach in itself, also rather loosely refers to several other beaches to either side, the relative merits of which are outlined opposite. If you haven’t done so already, driving Hwy-4 along the beach area is the best time to call in at the Pacific Rim National Park Visitor Centre.
Long Beach is noted for its wildlife, the BC coastline reputedly having more marine species than any other temperate area in the world. As well as the smaller stuff in tidal pools – starfish, anemones, snails, sponges and more – there are large mammals like whales and sea lions, in addition to thousands of migrating birds (especially in Oct & Nov), notably pintails, mallards, black brants and Canada geese. Better weather brings out lots of beachcombers (Japanese glass fishing floats are highly coveted), clam diggers, anglers, surfers, canoeists, windsurfers and divers, though the water is usually too cold to venture in without a wet suit, and rip currents and rogue lumps of driftwood crashed around by the waves can make swimming dangerous. And finally, resist the temptation to pick up shells as souvenirs – it’s against park regulations.
As this is a national park, some of Long Beach and its flanking stretches of coastline have been very slightly tamed for human consumption, but in a most discreet and tasteful manner. The best way to get a taste of the area is to walk the beaches or forested shorelines themselves – there are plenty of hidden coves – or to follow any of nine very easy and well-maintained hiking trails.
Located 8km south of the main Hwy-4 Port Alberni junction, UCLUELET means “People of the Sheltered Bay”, from the aboriginal word ucluth – “wind blowing in from the bay”. It was named by the Nuu-chah-nulth, who lived here for centuries before the arrival of whites who came to exploit some of the world’s richest fishing grounds immediately offshore. Today the port is still the third largest in BC by volume of fish landed, a trade that gives the town a slightly dispersed appearance and an industrial fringe, and makes it less appealing than Tofino, if nonetheless a popular base for anglers, whale-watchers, watersports enthusiasts and visitors headed for Long Beach to the north.
The nearest trails are at Terrace Beach, east of the town off Peninsula Road before the lighthouse. A longer and more coherent hike, the Wild Pacific Trail, stretches 14km and links with Halfmoon Bay near Florencia Bay and Long Beach in the national park. The trail starts at the end of Coast Guard Drive, passing the nearby Amphitrite Point Lighthouse (which has great views of the sea and is perfect for storm-watching) and the He-Tin-Kis Park, where a boardwalk enables you to complete this first section as a loop.
The West Coast Trail
The West Coast Trail
One of North America’s classic walks, the West Coast Trail (WCT) starts 5km south of Bamfield and traverses exceptional coastal scenery for 75km to Port Renfrew. It’s no stroll, and though very popular it still requires experience of longer walks, proper equipment and a fair degree of fitness (and numbers are strictly limited). Still, many people do the first easy stage as a day-trip from Bamfield. Reckon on six to eight days for the full trip; carry all your own food and be prepared for rain, treacherous stretches, thick soaking forest and almost utter isolation.
Mariners long ago dubbed this area of coastline the “graveyard of the Pacific”, and when the SS Valencia went down with nearly all hands here (a few of the crew survived) in 1906 the government was persuaded that constructing a trail would at least give stranded sailors a chance to walk to safety along the coast. The path followed a basic telegraph route that linked Victoria with outlying towns and lighthouses, and was kept open by linesmen and lighthouse keepers until the 1960s, when it fell into disrepair. Early backpackers reblazed the old trail, which now passes through the land of the Huu-ay-aht First Nation around Bamfield, Ditidaht First Nation country in the trail’s middle section and ends in Pacheedaht First Nation land near Port Renfrew.
Weather is a key factor in planning any trip; the trail is only open May to September, July and August being the driest months; during that period it’s patrolled by wardens, and locals are on hand to ferry you (for a fee) across some of the wider rivers en route.
Whale-watching in Pacific Rim National Park
Whale-watching in Pacific Rim National Park
The Pacific Rim National Park is one of the world’s best areas for whale-watching, thanks to its location on the main migration routes, food-rich waters and numerous sheltered bays. It’s easy to find a boat going out from Tofino, Ucluelet or Bamfield, most charging around $60–80 a head for the trip depending on duration (usually 2–3hr).
Even if you don’t take a boat trip, you stand a chance of seeing whales from the coast as they dive, when you can locate their tails, or during fluking, when the animals surface and “blow” three or four times.