Road Trip: Whistler to Tofino
It's something of a right of passage to make a trip out to the gorgeous Vancouver Island during your time in Whistler. Ancient rainforest carpets the rugged coastline of the island - which is surrounded by an archipelago that is home to one of the richest ecosystems in the world. Bear watching, whale watching, fishing, hiking, golfing, hot springs bathing or simply strolling on the beach... there is something for everyone on the island.
Setting off from Whistler, drive south on Highway 99 for 100km (1.25 hours in good traffic) to Horseshoe Bay Terminal, where you will board the ferry to Nanaimo. Ferries run from 6am-10pm and are pretty punctual. You can book the ferry in advance to guarantee your spot, as long as you're there 30 minutes before departure. The ferry takes 1 hour 45 minutes to Nanaimo where you will offload and begin your drive across the island to Tofino!
Far and away the cheapest way to do Tofino is camping. One of the best value for money campgrounds is the Bella Pacifica on Mackenzie Beach. Walking distance to town, with great facilities and unbeatable beachfront location - for just $49/night in peak season! Other options are Long Beach Campground at $40/night or the cute Surf Junction Campground out in Ucluelet (Tofino's neighbouring town) at $42/night. Most of these places offer glamping/cabin upgrades if you're feeling like spending a little more for luxury, but split between 3 or 4 they're a steal! There are a few rebel spots for free car camping, and if you're lucky enough to be in the know, make sure you practice Leave No Trace and be Bear Smart! You cannot camp on beaches or in car parks (they are locked at night).
HOTELS & AIRBNBS
There are some fabulous hidden gems in Tofino and Ucluelet if you're wanting some home comforts on a budget. We have listed some of our favourites below.
Terrace Beach Resort - The Captain's Quarters Cabin in Ucluelet is gorgeous and very reasonably priced if you are a group of 4-6 sharing the cost... did anyone say ocean view private hot tub?
Wild Pacific Lodge - This 70’s style surf cabin is roomy, homey, and sleeps 11!
The Funky Purple Cabin - This private, central, funky studio suite is perfect for 2.
The Blue Tiny House - This private cabin with 1/2 bath & kitchenette is perfectly situated and very cozy.
Portofino - A modern all-in-one studio with slightly more upmarket feel.
The Stargazer Loft - Gorgeous, one of a kind glass-roofed loft in secluded Cox Bay.
BEAR & WHALE WATCHING
Taking a wildlife viewing tour is a must during your time in Tofino. You could spot a black bear digging for crabs or a whale breaching just metres away, all from the safety and tranquility of your boat. Let one of Tofino's expert guides navigate you through the calm waters of the Clayoquot Sound searching for humpbacks, orcas (killer whales), sea lions, sea otters, bald eagles, bears and more... and the scenery ain't bad either!
We took a bear viewing tour with Jamie's Whaling Station and had a fantastic experience start to finish! After a hot cup of tea, we dressed up in our protective gear and boarded the open air zodiac vessel. We then spent the afternoon zipping around, feeling the sun on our faces and wind in our hair, spotting every kind of wildlife. There's nothing quite like the hush that falls over the boat when the captain cuts the engine and you quietly drift past a bear on the shore. We can certainly recommend them for a small and intimate experience. Other companies include: The Whale Centre, Adventure Tofino, Browning Pass Charters, Clayoquot Connections, Ocean Outfitters, Remote Passages and West Coast Aquatic Seafaris.
SURFING & BEACHES
The unofficial surf capital of Canada, Tofino has been a hot spot for committed cold-water surfers for some time. It has no shortage of gorgeous beaches, so whether you're searching for waves or just wanting to feel the sand beneath your toes, the opportunities are endless. There are calm, sheltered beaches such as Mackenzie Beach and Schooner Cove that are perfect for a secluded walk, sunbathing or taking a SUP out.
There are also plenty of surfing beaches such as Cox Bay and Chesterman Beach. For walking, Long Beach boasts 16km of beautiful soft sand with piles of driftwood lining the shore. You could walk for an hour without seeing another person. Be sure to look out for whales in the distance! If you want to try your hand at riding the waves, take a surf lesson with Pacific Surf Co,Westside Surf or Surf Sister.
KAYAKING & FISHING
Kayaking allows you to gain a whole new perspective for Clayoquot Sound. Slow down and glide through the myriad of inlets surrounding Tofino that are otherwise inaccessible by boat. Tofino is home to experienced and professional guides who will tell you old fishing tales, as well as teach you all about rainforest ecology, local wildlife, the cultural and historical significance of the First Nation peoples (Nuu-chah-nulth). Check out Paddle West, Remote Passages or Tofino Sea Kayaking.
Fancy catching dinner? Tofino has a multitude of sustainable fishing opportunities almost year-round. Just off the harbour lies the continental shelf which hosts the largest annual salmon migration on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Aspiring anglers of all abilities can get out on the water, learn about the local ecosystem and hopefully come home with fresh seafood! Check out Tofino Fish Guides or Clayoquot Ventures for your charter options.
HOT SPRINGS & AIR TOURS
If you have the time and the means, we would absolutely recommend taking in the spectacular aerial views of Clayoquot Sound from the skies. Atleo Air offer different flights depending on your budget and preference, ranging from private 20 minute scenic flights to longer tours that incorporate landing on a pristine mountain lake for a picnic lunch stop! Prices for a private charter start from $60 per person (+ tax).
Seaplane is also the quickest way to access Hot Springs Cove, one of Tofino's most popular day trips. This remote, beautiful and natural hot spring sits hidden 27 nautical miles north of Tofino, with access required by boat or plane. When you arrive, you'll take a 30 minute 'hike' along a beautiful cedar boardwalk through old growth rainforest. At the end, you will be rewarded with a dip in one of the many natural geothermal hot spring pools, a stunning waterfall and a spectacular view of the ocean.
It's easy to explore the pristine temperate rainforest and stunning beaches surrounding Tofino on foot. However, if you're used to Whistler's hikes, you'll consider them more of a 'walk'. There are eight trails within the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.
One of our favourites is the secluded trail to Schooner Cove. It leads you through lush rainforest and over gentle streams before opening up at a spectacular hidden cove. More adventurous hikers should check out Lone Cone, a steep but rewarding trail offering panoramic views of Tofino (boat access required for the trailhead). Another poorly kept secret is the hike to the Canso Plane Crash site, where (after getting some muddy feet) you will come across a surprisingly intact Canso 11007 that crashed in 1945. A good resource to learn more about all of Tofino's hiking opportunities is the Tofino Trails site.
Food... the real reason we travel. For such a small town, Tofino has some fantastic food options, so we'll narrow it down to our favourites. For casual street food on par with the food trucks of Vancouver, check out Tacofino. They serve up legendary mexican-style tacos, burritos and gringas in the back of the parking lot that hosts Tofitian, Live To Surf and Wildside Grill (who serve the best Fish 'n' Chips in town). Call ahead to shorten your queue time. For evening dining, we love The Wolf in the Fog, who serve up exquisite dishes made of locally foraged and caught food. It feels high-end whilst also retaining laid-back charm. For simple, fresh comfort food (and great coffee), check out Shed. Fancy some Asian cuisine? There's Kuma, who have great belly-warming Japanese dishes. Traditional Neapolitan wood-fired pizzas are on offer at Basic Goodness. Finally, one of Tofino's most popular restaurants known for its crowd-pleasing and versatile dishes is SoBo (save some room for the key lime pie!).
If you're looking for crazy nightlife à la Gastown, you may have to lower your expectations a little. However, this sleepy little surf town still has a delightful drinking culture. Your first stop should be Tofino Brewing Co, a couple of minutes from town by bicycle, to try some of their wonderful beers. If you're feeling adventurous, try the Cosmic Wave Douple IPA - a hoppy delight at a whopping 9%. For relaxed pub vibes, gather round the horseshoe shaped bar at The Hatch and sit shoulder to shoulder with locals and tourists alike. For a high-end, relaxed vibes, check out the Ice House Oyster Bar. Have a cocktail and look on as fishermen unload their catch on the dock & fill up on ice for the next haul!
THINGS TO REMEMBER
Wolves, bears, cougars and lots of other wildlife live in the forest around Tofino. Stay Bear Smart!
Beach fires are permitted only at MacKenzie Beach and Chesterman Beach, and you must fully extinguish them when you're finished.
Bring a towel or two, sand gets everywhere!
Clean, fresh drinking water is one of Tofino’s greatest and surprisingly limited natural resources. Please practice water conservation during your visit by: turning off the tap when brushing your teeth, taking a short shower instead of a bath, flushing the toilet only when necessary and making sure taps are fully off after use. Thank you!
Tofino is in the Coastal Temperate Rainforest, and it rains a lot! Make sure you pack adequate waterproof clothing, as even in the middle of August you can get caught in an unexpected deluge.
Tofino is in the traditional territory of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation. This is a First Nations town, therefore we recommend reading up or visiting one of the local museums to learn about their culture.