10 Top-Rated Attractions on Vancouver Island
Vancouver Island, on Canada's extreme West Coast, is the largest island on the Pacific coast of North America. The mild coastal climate draws visitors here year round, and in winter, it's not uncommon to find surfers hitting the waves on the western shore while skiers hit the slopes in the interior. The landscape is one of mountains, lakes, rainforest, and rugged coastline, dotted with small towns and villages. In the south is Victoria, the picturesque capital city of British Columbia. Further north, particularly on the west side of the island are some lovely natural areas with great hiking, including the famous West Coast Trail.
See also: Where to Stay on Vancouver Island
1 Butchart Gardens
Butchart Gardens is one of the highlights of Vancouver Island, particularly for those with a keen interest in gardening. Set in an old quarry outside of Victoria, these fabulous gardens provide a year round opportunity to step into a peaceful natural setting with flowers, trees, pathways, and places to relax. Begun in 1904 by Jennie Butchart, the grounds are well established and beautifully laid out. In the evening, the gardens are illuminated with creative lighting. Displays change seasonally and are particularly lovely between spring and fall. At Christmas, the gardens are lit with a display of Christmas lights and decorations, and various festivities and activities are on offer, including ice skating in an outdoor rink.
2 Empress Hotel
Located on Victoria's beautiful Inner Harbour overlooking the water and moored boats is the historic Fairmont Empress Hotel. Built in 1908, this former Canadian Pacific Railway hotel has served visiting royalty throughout the decades and is a landmark building in the city. "High Tea" at the Empress has become a key tourist attraction in Victoria, where visitors can sip tea and enjoy sandwiches, scones, and desserts in a lovely old room filled with antique furnishings.
On the west side of Vancouver Island is the quaint little town of Tofino. This fishing village is also the main destination in the area for visitors coming to see Pacific Rim National Park. Approximately 42 kilometers north of Ucluelet, this is one of the oldest settlements on the West Coast, but has a uniquely remote feel. Despite its popularity, it has remained small and does not see large numbers of tourists. The town has surf shops, tourist oriented stores, restaurants, and hotels. Nearby, along the coast, are a number of small resorts with great views out over the ocean.
4 Pacific Rim National Park and Long Beach
Pacific Rim National Park covers a lush stretch of coast with beaches and rocky shoreline and is known for big waves, surfing, and beautiful sunsets. The most famous part of the park is the Long Beach section, which begins a few kilometers southeast of Tofino. Here, the beautiful, long sandy beaches are popular with surfers, beachcombers, and anyone who wants to get out and walk along the shore. Surfers can be seen here throughout the year, and whales can often be spotted off shore, especially in spring and autumn. Massive piles of driftwood testify to the violence of the ocean waves. Storm watching has become a popular activity in fall and winter when photographers and visitors come to Pacific Rim National Park to watch the huge waves crash against the shore.
5 West Coast Trail
The almost 75-kilometer-long West Coast Trail is one of Canada's most famous hiking trails, known for fabulous coastal scenery and treacherous conditions. Until the beginning of this century, Canada's stormy Pacific coast with its deceptive shallows and rocky headlands was known to sailors as the "graveyard of the Pacific". A great many ships were lost in storms and fog. To give survivors a means of escape from this otherwise impassably rocky coastline backed by impenetrable rain forest, a primitive trail was opened in 1906, following the route of the telegraph lines laid in 1890 between the various lighthouses. The trail eventually became obsolete but was discovered by backpackers in the 1960s. Now managed by Pacific Rim National Park, it is an extremely popular, although arduous hike across challenging terrain. The hike is open from May 1 to September 30, but the numbers of hikers is limited from June 14 to September 15. Hikers must make a reservation and should book well in advance.
The trail has very basic campsites, and hikers must carry all their supplies with them. The park offers detailed information for hikers who want to undertake this adventure.
6 Wild Pacific Trail (Ucluelet)
A wonderful way to experience some of Vancouver Island's most beautiful scenery without the treacherous ordeal of hiking the West Coast Trail, is to spend some time on the Wild Pacific Trail at Ucluelet. This trail system offers easy access to beautiful coastal areas with views of Barkley Sound and the Broken Group Islands. The trail has different sections that can be done independently of each other and vary from roughly 2.5 to eight kilometers. Sections include Lighthouse Loop, Big Beach, and Brown's Beach to Ancient Cedars. Scenery ranges from waves crashing on rugged rocky shoreline to sheltered coves. The Lighthouse Loop leads to the scenic Amphitrite Point with its lighthouse. It should be noted that visitors do not even need to complete these hikes to find beautiful views along the shoreline, and there are benches for resting and soaking up the scenery.
7 Cathedral Grove
In MacMillan Provincial Park, a stand of towering Douglas firs known as "Cathedral Grove" includes several trees between 600 and 800 years old. An easy walking trail winds through the grove past trees up to 75 meters tall with trunks as much as nine meters in circumference. Also in the park are old Western red cedar. The park has been undergoing restoration since a major wind storm in 1997, which took down many old trees. Visitors will see some of these huge trunks lying on the ground, which is also an impressive site. Beyond the park, the road continues westwards across the Beaufort Range to Mount Arrowsmith (1,806 meters).
8 Clayoquot Sound
Clayoquot Sound is a remote area, north-west of Tofino, with beautiful deep fiords, countless little islands, and one of the last surviving areas of temperate rainforest. It is a designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. A decision by the provincial government to allow clearance of half the remaining 3,500 square kilometers of virgin wilderness met with much resistance and protests, and led to the preservation of this special place. Today, this area is still difficult to access and much less visited by tourists than many other parts of Vancouver Island, but worth the trip for nature lovers.
9 Mount Washington Alpine Ski Resort
Mount Washington is Vancouver Island's premier family ski resort with year round activities. In winter, the hill offers a full range of ski runs and a terrain park, with more than 500 meters of elevation from base to top. There are also opportunities for cross country skiing, snowshoeing, tubing, and tobogganing. In summer, visitors can enjoy alpine hiking, with the help of the Mile High Scenic Chairlift Ride to the top of Mount Washington, or on the trails at the base.
10 Chemainus Wall Murals
Chemainus is known for its larger-than-life size murals that decorate the sides of buildings throughout the town. The images illustrate the history of the town and are painted by well-known artists. This is a big tourist draw for the community, but the Chemainus Theatre and the Chemainus Theatre Festival is also of interest, showcasing talent from across the province and Canada. From Duncan, follow TransCanada Highway 1 north for 16 kilometers to Chemainus.
Where to Stay on Vancouver Island for Sightseeing
We recommend these delightful hotels in Victoria, Tofino, and Nanaimo on Vancouver Island:
- Abigail's Hotel: affordable luxury in Victoria, old-world charm, sumptuous four-poster beds, clawfoot tubs, complimentary breakfast and appetizers.
- Best Western Plus Inner Harbour: mid-range rates, walking distance to Victoria attractions, friendly front desk staff, outdoor pool, complimentary hot breakfast.
- Best Western Northgate Inn: budget-friendly Nanaimo hotel, convenient location near shops and restaurants, on-site sauna and fitness center, continental breakfast included.
- Ocean Village Beach Resort: great-value beachfront cabins in Tofino, sparkling clean indoor pool and hot tub, spectacular natural setting.