The Pacific Coast Highway. Red Rock Country. Route 66. Road trips are about as American as apple pie but, here in Canada, we have our own epic drives.
And the journey from Nanaimo to Tofino is one of them.
To be honest, I hadn’t even heard of Tofino, a town of only 2,000 people on Vancouver Island, until several years ago after a couple friends returned from British Columbia in a state of rapture.
With its mystical and moody beaches, Tofino is a natural paradise in itself, but it would be worth the visit simply for the drive on the winding road past ancient rainforests, rivers and a dramatic mountain range of snow-capped peaks.
The drive from Nanaimo to Tofino will take 2.5-3 hours but it would be wise to give yourself five. This glorious road trip is not to be rushed – you’ll want to make multiple stops along the way to explore, worship the rugged beauty, snap photos and simply reflect on your place in this vast world.
BC’s Big Tree Heritage: Cathedral Grove
Hit the road from Nanaimo and, after just 15 minutes on Highway 4, make your first stop at Cathedral Grove in MacMillan Provincial Park.
Do not skip this. If you do, you’ll miss a national treasure and one of the few places in the world where you can humbly stand next to some of the tallest, mightiest Douglas fir trees on earth. This lush, ancient forest is part of a rare ecosystem with trees up to 800 years old.
The trails are short, but your walk through them shouldn’t be. Look up. Remember this moment. As you stand before these moss-covered giants, you’ll feel the hushed but powerful life force under your feet and around you. Take long, deep breaths of the moist air because, chances are, you may never be nourished with this rainforest scent again.
The south loop displays the most colossal Douglas fir trees, the largest measuring an astounding 76 metres in height and 9 metres in circumference! In the northern loop, you’ll find time-worn Western red cedars on the edge of Cameron Lake.
This is one special place.
The Pacific Rim Highway
Continue along Highway 4 until you reach the fishing town of Port Alberni, a recommended stop for snacks, a restroom break or to fill up on gas.
From here, Highway 4 becomes the Pacific Rim Highway. What follows is a challenging (or titillating?) 90-minute drive on a single-lane, twisting road with hairpin turns. There are magnificent sights along the way – do stop at each one. The final destination of Tofino is the reward, but remember: so too is the journey. Inspired by the surrounding lakes, and mountains standing sky-high and dignified, you’ll be washed over with a sense of peace and deep reverence for a natural world so many of us forget exists.
Absorb the views of Kennedy Lake against a mountain backdrop…
… or rest on the rocks on the edge of Kennedy River to the sound of a gushing waterfall.
There’s even a dark beauty on the Pacific Rim Highway under the gloom of grey clouds, which can be just as soothing as the west-coast sunshine.
If you’re lucky, the skies will open up on your return journey, giving you the opportunity to experience both moods. If time allows, you may even want to consider retracing the route – or part of it – from Tofino on a clearer day.
Once you pass Ucluelet (a wonderful destination in itself that should be included in your itinerary), you’ll want to check out at least one of the several beaches from there to Tofino. So breathtaking they are that I’ve devoted an entire post about their mystical and rugged beauty.
Special thanks to my friend, travel partner and all-around good sport, Jas, for standing in as my subject in some of the above photos. (We photographers can be a demanding bunch!)
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What You Should Know:
- From Vancouver, you first have to make your way to Nanaimo by ferry with BC Ferries. The easiest route is from Vancouver’s Horseshoe Bay terminal (accessible by taxi or bus from the downtown core) to Nanaimo’s Departure Bay.
- The Budget car rental office is located in downtown Nanaimo but near the Departure Bay terminal. For convenience, Budget offers a complimentary shuttle service to/from their office.
- An alternative method of travel from Vancouver to Tofino is by jet or seaplane but it’s more costly (and unsuitable for claustrophobes like me), although views of the coastline are undoubtedly spectacular from the air. You also have the option of renting a car upon arrival at Tofino airport, but know that a car rental from Nanaimo is substantially more economical.
- The winding and sometimes narrow Pacific Rim Highway between Port Alberni and Tofino is challenging but manageable (if I found it tolerable – even enjoyable at times – after an eight-year hiatus from driving, surely you’ll be fine too). The obvious rules apply: exercise patience, drive slowly (even more so in the rain) and avoid driving at night. Do make use of the pullouts on the highway to allow traffic to pass from behind.
Disclosures: I received a media discount for my Budget car rental from Nanaimo. I also earn a small commission from Booking.com if you click on their link and make a reservation through their site (at no cost to you). Thank you for your support!