Over one million people visit the West Coast of Vancouver Island each year. And if you are driving, you have to travel the approximate 207 km from Nanaimo to Tofino.
It makes me wonder how many of those tourists take the time to stop and see the sights during their travels. Perhaps they are unaware there are a variety of things to see and do along the way!
This road trip itinerary showcases all the spectacular attractions available to you while on route from Nanaimo to Tofino (the most popular West Coast destination).
Top Things to See and Do while on Route from Nanaimo to Tofino
If you were to drive the approximate 200 km’s straight through from Nanaimo to Tofino, it would take approximately 3 hours.
But why rush?
Stopping along the way ensures you will see some of the best attractions Vancouver Island has to offer.
Besides, it should always be about the journey, not just the destination.
The Harbour City (Nanaimo)
Sights, shopping and food, oh my…
Start your trip off with an invigorating walk. There are so many great ones in and around Harbour City. To get you off on the right foot (so to speak), make sure to check out the Top 10 Nanaimo Walks.
If you are looking for a bit of a unique adventure while in Nanaimo, take the foot passenger ferry from Maffeo Sutton Park and spend a few hours on Newcastle Island.
Newcastle Island is a Provincial Park located in Nanaimo’s harbour, and only accessible by boat. Once you arrive you are free to explore. Walk or bike the trails, beach comb, swim or kayak around the island (you must bring your own kayaks), and/or grab a bite to eat at the tea house. Camping is also available.
More information, including ferry schedules and cost, can be found on this Newcastle Island website.
People are usually pretty impressed with the quality and quantity of the stores Nanaimo has to offer, considering the size of the city.
For brand names, your best bet is Woodgrove Centre. Here you will find stores like Sephora, Eddie Bauer, Gap, Lush, RW & CO, and more.
For something a little more boutique-ish (is that even a word?), head to the Old City Quarter in downtown Nanaimo. Here you will find a diverse collection of independent stores.
Perhaps the food on the ferry didn’t hit the spot (it happens to the best of us), and you are in need of some good grub. Well, you are in luck, for Nanaimo has many delicious restaurant options. Here are a few of my favourites:
- For sushi try – Umai Sushi – this is my go-to when in need of a quick lunch. Their pre-made trays are always fresh, and most definitely delicious. Try the Candy Yam Roll…you won’t be disappointed. This restaurant also has the option of table service.
- For Vietnamese – Saigon Kitchen – The spring rolls are a must!
- For pub fare – Brown’s Social House – this is elevated pub fare, meaning it is beyond just burgers and beer. The Cowboy or Cowgirl salad is oh so good!
Parksville & Qualicum Beach
Best known for its beaches, attractions, and resorts…
If you are looking for calm, warm ocean waters, and miles of beach to play on, Parksville is the place to be. Grab a kite for some fantastic flying, or a sand bucket and shovel and start building. Need to burn off some steam? These beaches also offer play-parks, a waterpark and outdoor fitness options. For more information about these great beaches, read the article entitled: The Main Attraction of Parksville.
Considering the end destination of this road trip is Tofino (where beaches are aplenty) you might be more interested in checking out a few attractions that have nothing to do with sand.
Well, you are in luck! Parksville and Qualicum Beach just happen to have a few other notable options.
- Spend some time playing golf – mini-golf that is! Parksville has two wonderful courses to choose from. Read more about Parksville’s Mini-Golf Attractions here.
- If you are looking to do more than just putting, the region of Parksville and Qualicum Beach has six golf courses all within 30 minutes of each other. You can find out all about these golf courses by visiting the Visitor’s Info website.
- Milner Gardens (in Qualicum Beach) offers 70 acres of unspoiled natural beauty. Meander through old Douglas Firs and woodland gardens lined with rhododendrons, and end the afternoon with High Tea while ogling the panoramic ocean views.
- Sample some locally made cheese and wine at Little Qualicum Cheeseworks and Mooberry Winery. They produce a great selection of hand-crafted cheeses, as well as award-winning fruit wines (I highly recommend the Pear or Blackberry wines). While you are there, take a self-guided tour through Morningside Farm to see the animals at work and play.
There are plenty!
Whether you are looking for luxury accommodations or somewhere to park your RV, you won’t be disappointed with the selection in the Parksville and Qualicum region (otherwise known as Oceanside).
Best Camping Spots
- Rathtrevor Provincial Park is a highly sought-after campground located on Rathtrevor Beach in Parksville.
- Parks Sands Beach Resort is a family-friendly RV Park & Campground located on Parksville’s Community Beach (right next to the water and play park).
- Riverside Resort & Campground is located in Qualicum Beach. This resort features two outdoor pools, a giant waterslide, and mini-golf.
- Tigh-Na-Mara Seaside Spa Resort was voted the #1 Spa in Canada (the Grotto Mineral Pool is truly amazing). This oceanfront resort offers rustic charm on the edge of Rathtrevor Beach in Parksville.
- Madrona Beach Resort offers fully equipped, family-friendly, oceanfront vacation rental units on Rathtrevor Beach
- The Beach Club Resort offers the most luxurious hotel rooms in Parksville, steps from the Parksville Beach Boardwalk.
- The Crown Mansion Boutique Hotel & Villas is a restored 1914 boutique hotel rich in tradition and history. It is located next to the Qualicum Heritage Forest (an old-growth forest) and adjacent to Qualicum Beach Golf Course.
Coombs & Errington
A little bit of country charm…
Just outside of Parksville lies the small communities of Errington (closer to Parksville) and Coombs (closer to Qualicum). Both have attractions one should not miss.
Top Things to do in Errington
- The North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre is a great place to learn about a variety of local animals including Raptors (eagles, owls, hawks, falcons, etc.) and black bears. This rustic park-like setting is also home to a beautiful new Wildlife Garden full of colour, birds, bees and dragonflies.
- Englishman River Falls Provincial Park features not only a great campground but two beautiful waterfalls to view as well. Even if you aren’t interested in camping, make sure to stop and take the short walk to the falls.
Top Things to do in Coombs
- Coombs Old Country Market is totally worth the detour! They sell a huge selection of international foods, imported gifts, in-store baked goods, and delicious ice-cream…but, the most famous part of this quirky market is the goats on the roof.
- Butterfly World & Gardens allows you to stroll among hundreds of free-flying butterflies, tropical birds and hummingbirds. There are also turtles, giant koi fish, a bird aviary, big bug jungle and a variety of gardens.
- Hamilton Hobby Farm is home to a myriad of animals to enjoy, including horses, goats, potbelly pigs, chickens and ducks. They also offer hay rides and pony rides.
Between Coombs and Port Alberni (the next town you come to) there are three worthwhile stops.
#1: Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park
For some fantastic waterfall scenery, a stop at Little Qualicum Falls is a must! An easy 3km walk from the day-use area follows the loop trail where you will have a full view of both the lower and upper waterfalls. For more information and a glimpse of what you might expect to see, please read the article on Little Qualicum Falls.
#2: Cathedral Grove
When you come to a mass congestion of cars along Highway #4 you know you will have arrived at Cathedral Grove. Located in MacMillan Provincial Park, Cathedral Grove is one of the most easily accessible stands of old growth forest on Vancouver Island. Trails on either side of the highway lead visitors through paths lined with giant Douglas Fir trees, some of which are over 800 years old.
#3: Hole in the Wall
Just before you enter the town of Port Alberni (and right across the street from Coombs Country Candy) there will be a hidden trail that leads down to something remarkable. A 15-minute hike from the trailhead takes you to a large hole. Years ago this hole was blasted through a massive wall of volcanic shale and now leaves us with a unique structure to marvel at. For more information and images of what you can expect to see, read the article entitled, Hidden Gems of Vancouver Island.
Surrounded by mountains, lakes, streams, and of course the ocean, Port Alberni is known for its incredible scenery, but it’s also rich in history.
Top Things to Do in Port Alberni
- McLean Mill Historic Site – this national historic site commemorates the history of logging and sawmilling in British Columbia. The sawmill has been rebuilt to operate as it did in 1965 and is the only commercial steam-operated sawmill in Canada.
- Ride the Steam Train – Take a 35-minute ride in a completely restored 1929 Baldwin locomotive. Depart from the city of Port Alberni, ride through the surrounding forests, and disembark at the McLean Mill Historic Site before your return trip.
- Harbour Quay (5440 Argyle Street) – The Harbour Quay is an eclectic group of shops and eateries (I highly recommend the freshly made doughnuts at The Donut Shop). You will also find a children’s play park and the clock tour, which when climbed offers panoramic views of the Alberni Inlet.
*More Roadside Attractions*
After leaving Port Alberni, the road changes from the Alberni Hwy to the Pacific Rim Hwy. The approximately 90-minute drive from Port Alberni to the Tofino junction is a long winding road, with many hairpin turns. As I have a weak stomach and get car sick far too easily, stopping along the way is an absolute must. One of our favourite places to pull over for a breather is at Wally Creek.
Wally Creek can be found via a pull-out on the right-hand side of the highway (when coming from Port Alberni). You will see a group of many large rocks, small pools (which are popular swimming spots in the summer), and a gathering of people.
Things to look for while at Wally Creek:
- The ‘locks of love’
- The many tadpoles swimming in the pools of water
- The roaring creek (head downstream for the best views)
- The stunning scenery
Kennedy Lake Provincial Park is also a great place to stop. This is Vancouver Island’s biggest lake and it’s a popular spot for fresh-water swimming, fishing, kayaking and windsurfing.
If you keep your eyes peeled, you may get lucky and spot some local wildlife while on route from Nanaimo to Tofino. Black bears, as well as deer, can often be seen foraging on the side of the highway.
You have Arrived!
When you come to the T-intersection of the Pacific Rim Hwy, you are almost there. Turning left at the junction takes you to Ucluelet while turning right you are Tofino bound. Both destinations offer unique experiences that one should not miss out on. If you need help deciding which way to turn, there is a Visitor Info Centre on your right-hand side. A recommended stop, especially if this is your first visit.
Alas, if you have already chosen your destination and are looking for the inside scoop, you can read about the best things to see and do in the area by clicking on this article:
Are you planning on staying on the West Coast? Check out our top accommodation recommendations for the area:
For Vacation Rentals, check out this list:
Best West Coast Vacation Rentals
Have I missed any of your favourite stops on the road trip from Nanaimo to Tofino? Let me know in the comments below.
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Great article! Canada and Vancouver Island specifically is on my bucket list! This road trip sounds like a fantastic trip! Can’t wait to check it out. You included so many interesting things to check out.
Oh, I do hope you make it here one day. It’s truly a spectacular place.
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Great food in Nanaimo
At Original Joe’s!!
You know, it’s one of the few places I haven’t tried yet. I will definitely have to do so soon!