When searching the web for things to do near “Coal Harbour”, Google always shares info about the downtown area of Vancouver. While a lovely big city spot, the Coal Harbour we are talking about is a northern Vancouver Island marine hub, and equally worth the visit.
It was my first time to this rural northern community, but it won’t be my last. We spent four nights in a quiet beach side campground that was so lovely, I probably could have been convinced to stay there all summer.
A Bit of History
The town has a LOT of history, but I’ll try to keep it brief for you.
In 1883 the discovery of coal in this northern section of Vancouver Island prompted a settlement and a mine was built. Unfortunately, the coal was of poor quality and both the mine and town consequently were abandoned two years later. The name, Coal Harbour, however stuck.
The area proved to be a key component to the development of the west coast. So the settlement was maintained and became a transportation hub to the small settlements on the west coast, as well as a fishing village.
In the 1940’s Coal Harour became an active RCAF sea-base and reconnaissance station with over 700 personnel. After World War II ended, many of the men stayed and opened up Vancouver Island’s largest whaling station. During its 19 years of operation (1948 – 1967) an estimated 4000 whales were slaughtered. When it finally shut down in 1967 as result of declining whale stock, it was the very last whaling station operating in North America.
A copper mine was established in 1970 and would eventually become the deepest open pit mine in the world. Operation continued until 1996 and the expansion of the town is what’s left in its present day state.
Today only 175 people call Coal Harbour home, and it remains a fishing and tourist hub to nearby hidden gems.
Things to See and Do
The history of Coal Harbour is prominent throughout the small town. Walk around and you’ll see old buildings full of character, some still lived in, others abandoned.
Your first stop, however, should be the museum.
Coal Harbour Museum
Signs in town lead you to an old hangar full of treasures. The first room of the small museum is dedicated to information about the whaling station. There’s even a 6m/20 ft jawbone of a blue whale, apparently the largest found in the world. (The jaw bone is located in the main hanger, as it’s too large to fit in a room).
In the second room you’ll find a HUGE collection of old chainsaws and some forestry artifacts.
The third room is dedicated to telephones of all kinds. My kids loved this room as they had never seen an antique rotary phone before. I enjoyed viewing the old wall phones from the early 1900s.
The fourth room has memorabilia from Coal Harbour’s days as an RCAF base. The piece de resistance, however, is the beautifully restored Fire Truck found at the back of the museum.
Ask the lovely owner, Joey, about anything you see in the museum and he’ll be happy to share a ton of interesting historic facts about Coal Harbour with you. And he’ll most likely share a few stories only locals know if you are willing to lend your ear for awhile.
Fishing (and Sight-Seeing)
If you have your own boat, Coal Harbour is a place you must visit. From the boat launch you have access to some of the best fishing (and crabbing) spots Vancouver Island offers.
My husband and son can spend dawn until dusk fishing. Unfortunately for them, my daughter and I can not. So when out on the water all together we find a happy medium…80% sightseeing, 20% fishing. 😉
Thankfully, this area is FULL of amazing scenery and wildlife, so there is always something to look at. Even while fishing.
Quatsino Sound is a prime spot to see sea otters. These adorable creatures don’t live anywhere else on Vancouver Island (the otters we have further south are all river otters). We saw so many while out boating and even came across a huge group of around 20 – 30 all swimming together. (It was a major highlight of the trip).
Fishing Lodges & Boat Rentals
For those that don’t own a boat, there currently aren’t any companies in Coal Harbour that do sight-seeing tours. There are however, a few great fishing lodges in Quatsino – who offer their guests this very thing.
Quatsino Lodge is the prime choice for incredible saltwater fishing, kayaking adventures, fantastic food, and friendly service. You can’t beat this beautiful remote spot.
The other is Kagoagh Lodge and Fishing Resort.
You also have the option of renting your own boat out of Port Hardy (only a 20 minute drive from Coal Harbour).
Camping & Cabins
Quatse River Regional Park – located right in Coal Harbour. (Please note: they have heavy restrictions right now due to Covid-19).
Port Hardy RV Resort & Cabins – also located on the Quatse River and closer to Port Hardy.
Ecoscapecabins – offer all the modern conveniences while maintaining the feeling of a private wilderness escape
As mentioned above, Port Hardy is less than a 20 minute drive from Coal Harbour. Port Hardy is a convenient place to stay for all of your Vancouver Island North adventures.
Here are a few hotel recommendations in the area:
Have you been to Vancouver Island’s Coal Harbour? Let us know about your experience in the comment section below.
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We visited Coal Harbour October 2022. Beautiful! Spent considerable time going through the museum. Met Einerson? ( is that correct?) , the “curator” and owner. He has an amazing collection of artifacts, books , models, etc. that comprise the history of Coal Harbour. He is 75 and doesn’t know what will become of the museum.
I would like to know more about him? Do you?
Yes, he’s a lovely gentleman full of wonderful information, but unfortunately, I don’t know any more about him.
I am an ecoRelations ambassador. My human lineage is Celtic, Jewish and Indigenous. My River is Lhtakoh, English name Fraser River in the unceded territory of the Lheidli T’enneh Nation, Prince George BC.
I recently moved to Coal Harbour for the winter of 2022. I am doing a deep listening project with Mother Ocean.
While I appreciate hearing the facts about the settler history of Coal Harbour it completely bypasses the much older Territorial history of the Quatsino Nation. A people who were removed from their ancestral village site and now live on a reserve behind the white settler village of Coal Harbour.
We now truly know that this white-washing of history is and never was remotely humane. And that each time we write or speak about a place without acknowledging the existence or prior territorial rights of an Indigenous Nation we perpetrate the ignorance and harm that continues to destroy indigenous peoples, their culture and our wider ecoCommunity on earth.
I write this not so you will feel guilty about your enjoyment of Coal Harbour but to invite you to consider making some inquiries with the Quatsino Nation and writing a piece about their history with this Land?
From the Water in me to the Water in you,
PS from my perspective digging the deepest into Mother Earth to pull out her copper is not really something I would want to share widely.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful response, Danielea. While writing this piece, I focussed my historic account on what one can learn from the small museum located in Coal Harbour. However, you are quite right, I should have included a much broader history and included that of the Quatsino Nation people. When I get a chance, I will do some further research and update the post accordingly.
I hitch hiked across Canada many times in my youth and one time I made it to North Vancouver Island. I stayed on and built a floathouse in Hardy Bay. I spent time in Coal Harbour as well. This was back in 1977-78. I stayed in a small row cabin ( a string of cabins that were built together with a shared veranda like a boardwalk). I believe they were cabins built for the people working the whaling processing plant that was closed but still standing at the time. There were two large whale bones at the entrance of the village. Beautiful and tranquil place back then. I remember lots of wildlife. Hundreds of bald eagles, sea otters every where, killer whales, king crab etc. I would love to revisit some day.
Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us! The two large whale bones are now located inside the Coal Harbour museum. And, thankfully, you can still see all the same magnificent wildlife today, that you saw in the late ’70s.
We have spent many years traveling to Port Hardy in all seasons, three years ago we decided to fish out of Coal Harbour. Somehow it calls us back everytime we are there. So much so that we have bought a home there and will live there permently.
It is a great little community- you can dock your boat for a reasonable fee at the marina, go out fishing in the am setting your traps as you go, fish for salmon, ling cod and halibut,come back in pulling traps on the way and be pretty much guaranteed a delicous supper. The people are friendly, the weather is great( in a rain forest kind of way), and the scenery is beautiful.
How wonderful! My husband’s dream is to retire in the North Island…especially because of the great fishing. Thank you for sharing your experience with us.
You’re wrong about the distribution of sea otters. They are now found along most of the west coast of Vancouver Island and are found along the northern portions of the east coast. They were reintroduced to the Kyuquot Sound area and have disseminated from north and south from there.
Thank you, David, for letting me know this! I am so happy to hear sea otters can now be found elsewhere on Vancouver Island. We do a lot of exploring by boat and have yet to come across any sea otters anywhere else (other than Winter Harbour/Coal Harbour/Quatsino), but I look forward to hopefully seeing them in other places now too.
Yes, and find ways to make their literal backyards more beautiful lol!
I’ve been going to Rupert Arm, for over 20 years. Coal Harbor is just around the corner. I usually spend summer there. I have met some amazing people there. As far away as New Zealand.
What a lovely spot to spend your summers! Thank you for sharing that with us.
Interesting how many little things there are to see right here in our own backyard, instead of going far to see them. Maybe Covid will get us to appreciate our piece of BC history like this. Thanks for this post. And others like it.
You’re welcome! And yes, I agree. Perhaps there’s a silver lining to all of this madness…maybe people will learn to appreciate their own backyard.