Tofino, British Columbia: A Drive To The End Of The Road
I woke up to a sunrise peeking out over the mountains – there’s a reason I will wake up at 2AM to catch a flight. After dozing off in an uncomfortable aisle seat, you’re rewarded with a view like that! I’m on my second airplane this morning, making my way to Tofino. People say it’s Canada’s surfer town; a little piece of paradise tucked away at the very Western point of Canada. The End of The Road, it’s been called. It’s a place that I’ve hoped to visit for the last few summers and now, it’s time.
People talk about great American road trips but they must not have experienced our own wild road trips here in Canada. A stretch of highway winds for miles, past ethereal lakes nestled in snow-capped mountains and thick stretches of ancient rainforests. The fog was settled low over the mountains, casting a mysterious haze over us through the whole journey. I’ve driven along zig-zagging Caribbean coastlines, past elephants in the jungle of Northern Thailand and down the Amalfi Coast of Italy and yet the trip between Nanaimo and Tofino stands as one of the most beautiful drives I have ever experienced.
It’s a journey in itself to get there and after two flights and landing in Nanaimo, the opposite side of Vancouver Island, I finally met up with my friend who joined me for the trip. Always resourceful, she’d found us a free ride into town with a man who told us all about his world travels. Our digs for the next four days was a two-in-one van: rental car and accommodation all in one, from Van Ventures. Apart from the missing rear view mirror, it was absolutely perfect! Cushy seats that folded down, a surprisingly comfortable mattress to lay on top and all the blankets needed to keep toasty warm, it was our home for our Tofino journey.
What could have been a quick three hour drive turned into a road trip of over five hours – we couldn’t resist stopping at every little spot along the way that caught our eye. If you find yourself visiting Tofino and opt for the road trip route, I highly suggest stopping anywhere and everywhere you want. After all, getting there is half the fun!
The first scene is straight out of The Hobbit: goats roaming the grassy rooftop at Coombs Old Country Market. Directly on our route, it was a fun little stop on our list of things to do along the way. After a quick bite to eat and our fill of goat photos, we were back on the road. You’ll notice a change in the scenery when you reach Cathedral Grove in MacMillan Provincial Park. The trees are larger, taller, stronger – their presence is demanding, captivating and soothing all at once and make up an area of giant Douglas Firs that have been around for over a thousand years. These trees hold sacred meaning to the Indigenous communities around the area and are an inspiration to anyone who pauses to wander through them.
Parked at the side of the highway, you can make your way around the wooden boardwalk that weaves through the endangered trees, taking in the beams of sunlight that shine through the canopy and marveling at the blanket of moss that protects them. At 250 ft. high and 29 ft. around, the largest of the Douglas Firs are a true testament to the power of nature and their ability not only to survive but thrive throughout time.
For the rest of the drive you can choose to stop in a few of the towns along the way, like Port Alberni or Ucluelet. Since we spent so long at our first few stops, we decided to power through and drive straight into Tofino after our visit to Cathedral Grove (and an impromptu stop for some wine tasting). Despite the constant drizzle of rain during our entire trip, there were people with surfboards everywhere we looked – strapped to the top of their vehicles or hooked beneath their arms as they bike to the nearest beach. It’s a surfer’s paradise and one of the few Canadian spots known for great waves and a relaxed, nature-inspired culture that is hard to beat. Not to mention, you can get the greatest vegan tacos and burritos from the Tacofino food truck.
Now, I know that cloudy days and rain dampened sand isn’t the first thing that pops into your mind when you think of a beach vacation but my one and only plan for Tofino was to spend as much time as humanly possible on the beach and by the ocean. Besides, if there’s anywhere that can turn a gloomy day into a surprisingly beautiful one, it’s British Columbia’s west coast. The choppy waves, pine needle trees and rugged coastline create a beautiful backdrop against the cloud covered sky and we got used to settling ourselves in the sand with our mittens and soul-warming burritos in tow, admiring the view as we beach hopped for the next few days.
As much fun as the surfers looked like they were having, we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to take the plunge into the icy water. Feeling our toes go numb from walking in the shallow water on the shore (and nearly ending up chest deep after wading out a little too far) was enough for us! Instead, we spent our time walking the beaches from one end to the other, taking random forest trails to get a better view and spending hours scrambling over rocks in search of starfish.
If chilly days on the beach don’t make your heart skip a beat, there’s plenty more to do in Tofino. There are day trips out to beautiful natural hot springs, tours to witness some of the wild bears as well as kayaking and other water sports. You can also opt to jump in a small boat to go search for grey whales (and orcas if the season is right!), like we did. After spending a few hours boating over the rough water, we finally spotted a lone grey whale playing in some shallow water. I’m always a bit weary of any form of animal tourism but I was completely happy with how our guide worked. We were the only small boat in the area and our guide gave the whale plenty of space (despite some other passengers voicing their disappointment that we couldn’t get closer) so not to cause the whale any stress. Instead, the whale spent the next hour or so playing in the water, diving deep into the water below before poking his head out of the water to say hello. After a while, we reluctantly had to say goodbye (I could have sat and watched him all day!) and head back to town to warm up with a hot latte from one of the many adorable coffee shops.
Four days in this little seaside town wasn’t even close to enough and I can’t wait to have the chance to make it back again – only next time it will hopefully be for an entire summer.