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Tofino storm watching: How to enjoy Mother Nature’s fury

Brrr… It’s cold and rainy out there – and you’re wondering if there are any good things to do on Vancouver Island in winter.

Well, a wise person once said: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear.” Or something like that…

Now, the winter weather on the west coast of Vancouver Island is wild. Really, really wild.

But that’s actually a good thing. Really! ‘Coz this is the season for Tofino storm watching! If you have the right gear…

So throw on a rain slicker and let’s find out how to enjoy some wicked Tofino storms!

Tofino storm watching: A woman in red jacket photographs the waves.
When the weather’s bad, don’t fight it, embrace it in Tofino!

Tofino storm watching

Where is Tofino exactly?

Tofino is a charming boho-chic town in British Columbia on Vancouver Island’s west coast.

A popular place to go in Canada for a holiday, Tofino is located on the northern edge of the Long Beach section of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, one of the most beautiful Canadian national parks.

Tofino in summer
Tofino is a delightful resort town on Vancouver Island, popular for sea kayaking, hiking and, in winter, storm watching

Tofino also sits smack against the Pacific Ocean.

If you look at a map, you’ll see that there’s nothing but water in front of Tofino, nothing but ocean between there and Japan.

In winter, the storms generally start in the Aleutian Islands in the Bering Sea by Alaska, intensifying as they blow in across the Pacific Ocean.

There’s beauty in the fury of the waves

Because Tofino is so exposed, the storms are quite ferocious by the time they hit Tofino, fueled by winds building up over that huge swath of ocean.

We’re talking rain that lashes you from the side.

Gigantic frothy surf. Gales that howl and rattle windows. Ocean swells 20 feet high.

And monster rogue waves that, if you’re not careful, can sweep you out to a furious sea and your watery death.

It’s one big, bad spectacle of nature.

Tofino storm watching
Whoa! This surf looks pretty wicked

Back in the hippie days before the late 1990s, people used to think that the best time to go to Tofino was in summer (i.e., during good weather). How silly of them.

But then visitors started trickling in to witness the wild west coast’s bad weather. And they were hooked!

Storm watching in Tofino became a “thing” – and now it’s very popular in winter.

In fact, people come from around the world to watch winter storms batter the coast and its untamed but beautiful beaches.

We live in Victoria on Vancouver Island (and before that, we lived in Vancouver). So it’s been easy for us to visit Tofino many, many times.

We’ve experienced several different sides of Tofino, in all weather conditions – and we can vouch that it’s a great place for storm watchers to get their fix of bad weather!

Tofino storm watching season

Two photographers in yellow rainslickers on the beach in Tofino taking pictures of the waves
Two determined photographers brave the elements

The storm season in Tofino generally starts at the beginning of November and lasts until late February.

It’s possible, though, to have an early storm or two in late October. Early March could see a late storm as well.

But, as we discovered on one trip, there are no guarantees.

We once visited in February for a spot of Tofino storm watching – only to be greeted with brilliant sunshine, cobalt skies and T-shirt temps.

We couldn’t figure out if we were lucky or unlucky!

Usually, however, the average daytime winter temperature hovers around the low 40s F (4 to 6 C).

It’s gray and rainy much of the time, with occasional bursts of sunshine.

And typically during the Tofino storm season, you can expect 10 to 15 storms a month. Sometimes, the number of Pacific storms is as high as 20 a month.

But, as was true for us that one occasion, you never really know how the weather is going to play out.

One thing you can count on is that the weather in Tofino is variable in the winter months.

If you go with the expectation that the weather could be a bit of this and bit of that, you won’t be disappointed.

And if the sun shines, maybe soaking up some sun on the beach isn’t such a bad Tofino activity to enjoy instead.

It’s not always terrible in winter on the Tofino beaches – sometimes it’s just a “normal” winter’s day!

Best storm watching Tofino

These are the best places in Tofino to watch a Pacific storm:

Long Beach:

The most famous beach in Tofino, Long Beach is the longest and widest beach on Vancouver Island, stretching for 10 miles (16 km) in Pacific Rim National Park.

It’s one of our favorite places in the Tofino area for experiencing the fury of Mother Nature as she unleashes her storm power.

You can walk on packed sand for miles, watching the huge waves and moody skies change color from silver to gun-metal gray.

When there’s a bad (good?) storm, you can feel the wind almost push you over. Just look at the bent and dwarfed trees fringing the beach – strong winds and the pruning effect of salt spray have turned them into Bonsai-looking specimens.

Wickaninnish Beach:

Wickaninnish Beach is at the southern end of Long Beach.

Its Kwisitis Visitor Center overlooks the beach – the deck there offers spectacular views of the bay and the thundering winter waves.

Chesterman Beach:

Two Wickaninnish Inn deckchairs, perfectly placed for watching the waves on Chesterman Beach
Two Wickaninnish Inn deckchairs, perfectly placed for watching the waves on Chesterman Beach

The closest beach to the town of Tofino, Chesterman Beach gets some of the biggest swells in winter.

In particular, giant waves pummel the rocky outcropping in front of the Wickaninnish Inn, one of Tofino’s best hotels for storm watching (covered below).

Cox Bay Beach:

Another one of the best spots for taking in the wild winter storms is Cox Bay Beach, a little further south of Chesterman Beach.

It can be hit with leviathan waves as high as 40 feet (12 meters)!

Staying safe when watching storms in Tofino

It’s thrilling to experience Tofino’s gale force winds and huge winter waves.

But it can also be dangerous if you aren’t careful.

Check the tides before you venture out onto the beach. You don’t want to be caught when the tide is rolling in, bringing with it large logs and driftwood that could knock you over.

Yellow safety sign warns of hazardous waves in Tofino
Do heed the safety signs!

And don’t stand on tidal rocks.

They’re slippery, for one.

The waves are also unpredictable, and you never know when a big one will wash up and sweep you off your feet. Getting that great photo isn’t worth a dunk in the frigid ocean.

The birth of storm watching in Tofino, BC

Waves crashing in front of the Wickanninish Inn, one of the premier Tofino accommodations

Charles McDiarmid, managing director at the renowned Wickaninnish Inn, is largely credited with enticing visitors to Tofino for winter storm watching.

Growing up, his storm-loving family loved to huddle in the family’s shake-and-shingle cabin at the ocean’s edge, and as a child, he loved braving the beach during storms.

His father, Dr. Howard McDiarmid (the area’s doctor from 1955 to 1969) dreamed of building a luxury lodge on the beach.

Charles, who has a hotel management degree from Cornell University, ultimately led the project. The resort was designed to watch storms in luxurious comfort.

And the Wick (as it’s affectionately called) opened its doors in 1996.

Storm watching at the Wickaninnish Inn

You’ll get pampered at the Wick!

Today, the Wickaninnish Inn is a renowned Relais & Chateaux property – and possibly the best place to stay in Tofino for storm watching.

Book into the Wick, and you discover shiny yellow Helly Hansen raincoats and umbrellas in your room for your use during your stay.

Complimentary rubber boots in your size can be picked up from the front desk for cruising the beach.

When you come in from the wailing wind and rain, there’s a drying unit where you can pop your gear to dry out.

We particularly love that the sound of the surf is piped into The Pointe Restaurant through a state-of-the-art sound system, which also boasts a 240-degree view of the Pacific.

The food is exceptional too.

Caviar or smoked mussels with turnip and green apple to start? Maybe grilled sablefish with mushroom-and-miso glaze or beef tenderloin with black truffle to follow?

Shrimp dish at The Point Restaurant, garnished with red flower petals
It doesn’t reallly matter what you order at The Point – it’s all scrumptious!

As well, bathtubs in the rooms have views of the beach and crashing waves outside.

And after getting blown away on your walk on the beach, what better way to revive than a treatment in the Ancient Cedars Spa!

A double treatment room has huge glass windows so you can watch the waves (if you open your eyes) as you’re getting massaged into blissful oblivion.

Hmmm… On second thought, yes, the Wick is the best Tofino hotel for storm watching in Tofino. (It’s the most deluxe and certainly the most expensive.)

Wickanninish Inn, Tofino: Check rates and availability

Do you love escaping to luxury wilderness lodges? Then check out our review of Nimmo Bay Resort in the “Great Bear Rainforest” (it’s a partner resort of the Wick’s)

Other best Tofino hotels for storm watching

Since the Wick opened, several other fine lodges have also opened their doors to visitors, offering Vancouver Island storm watching packages.

Long Beach Lodge Resort:

Oceanview room at Long Beach Lodge
Long Beach Lodge is another fine place to stay in Tofino for awesome storm watching

Take Long Beach Lodge Resort.

Its beach out front (Cox Beach) is completely exposed to the open Pacific.

And it’s a great place to bundle up into rain gear and go lean into the wind – knowing you can chase that with a glass of wine or brandy by the roaring fire in the lodge’s Great Room.

We stayed in a 2-bedroom rainforest cottage. They don’t have ocean views, but they compensate with a full kitchen, gas fireplace and private outdoor hot tub.

If you want the full-on oceanview experience without rolling out of your bed, then book one of the oceanview guest rooms, which are located in the main lodge.

Long Beach Lodge Resort: Check rates and availability

Pacific Sands Beach Resort:

A hot tub suite overlooking the ocean at Pacific Sands Beach Resort
A hot tub suite at Pacific Sands Beach Resort – pretty dreamy…

Another one of the best Tofino resorts to watch the raging ocean is Pacific Sands Beach Resort, also on Cox Bay.

It’s the only resort in Tofino with ocean views and kitchens in all rooms. Some suites have hot tubs too.

So if you want beachfront awesomeness in a suite or house – with a cozy gas fireplace, big picture windows looking out to the ocean and a kitchen to whip up your own hot cocoa for sipping while taking in the views – then Pacific Sands is your happy place.

Pacific Sands Beach Resort: Check rates and availability

Middle Beach Lodge:

A Middle Beach Lodge room
A Middle Beach Lodge room

Perched on 40 acres of wilderness on a peninsula jutting out into the sea, Middle Beach Lodge is also one of the top Tofino storm watching hotels.

Accommodations are in a mix of rustic-chic cabins, forest treehouses and lodge rooms.

The ocean views vary, so ask about this if you want prime digs for storm watching from the comfort of your room.

Middle Beach Lodge, Tofino: Check rates and availability

Ocean Village Resort:

Ocean Village has cute barrel-shaped cedar cabins on MacKenzie Beach.
Ocean Village has cute cabins on MacKenzie Beach

Counting your pennies? You can enjoy a front row storm-watching seat for a lot less dough at Ocean Village Resort.

Set on MacKenzie Beach, it offers barrel-shaped cedar cabins with kitchens.

(We stayed at this funky Tofino resort for a few nights on our honeymoon; the family-owned place still reels in excellent reviews on TripAdvisor.)

Ocean Village, Tofino: Check rates and availability

Black Rock Oceanfront Resort:

Black Rock Oceanfront Resort in Ucluelet
We enjoyed staying at Black Rock Oceanfront Resort in Ucluelet

There’s also great storm watching in Ucluelet. This former fishing village is Tofino’s less glam baby sister, about 25 miles (40 km) south on the Pacific coast.

One of the best hotels for storm watching here is Black Rock Oceanfront Resort.

Its Currents restaurant juts right out on the rocky headlands, with soaring glass windows on three sides for prime up-close-and-personal storm watching.

Black Rock Oceanfront Resort: Check rates and availability

More epic things to do in Tofino in winter

Of course, storm watching is just one of the things to do in Tofino in the winter months.

There’s also rainforest hiking, surfing (yep, surfing!), soaking in the natural hot springs of Hot Springs Cove and more.

From March to October, you can also go whale watching. In summer and early fall, you can add bear watching to the mix.

How to get to Tofino

Part of Tofino’s charm is that it’s so secluded.

It requires a bit of an effort to get there. It’s a 3- to 4-hour drive across Vancouver Island, along Highway 4 from Nanaimo.

To get to Nanaimo from Vancouver, you take BC Ferries from the Horseshoe Bay terminal in West Vancouver (sailing time of 1 hour and 40 minutes).

To get to Nanaimo from Victoria, drive north up Highway 1 (about a 2-hour drive).

Coming from Vancouver and visiting Victoria too? Here’s our complete guide to taking the ferry from Vancouver to Victoria.

That’s a wrap for the best storm watching in Tofino

As you can see, there’s no such thing as bad weather on Vancouver Island. Only storm watching.

So when the weather’s stormy, make the best of it, and get thee to Tofino!

It’s one of the wildest Vancouver Island getaways. Guaranteed. Unless, of course, the sun pokes its head out instead.

Experience more of British Columbia!

Read our posts on:

Vancouver | It’s a lovely ride bicycling around Stanley Park!

Parksville area | From swimming at warm shallow beaches to caving to spying the goats on the roof, you’ll love these crazy fun things to do in Parksville and Qualicum Beach.

Victoria | Lace up your sneakers and check out these easy scenic walks in Victoria.

Ready to book your trip?

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Photo credits: 5, 10, 22 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 3 Pacific Sands Beach Resort | 4, 6, 9, 11 Wickaninnish Inn | 7 Tourism Tofino | Other hotel photos courtesy of the respective Tofino accommodations


About the authors:

Janice and George Mucalov

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George are the publishers of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents.

Find destination guides, global food-and-wine stories, luxury hotel reviews, articles on cultural explorations and soft adventure trips, cruise reviews and information, insanely useful travel tips and more!

Leigh McAdam

Tuesday 29th of January 2013

I love Tofino though I've only visited between the months of May & November. I'd actually like to come in March when the whales are supposed to be in abundance and catch some of these mega waves.

Janice and George

Tuesday 29th of January 2013

The Pacific Rim Whale Festival is March 16 to 24 this year. You're more likely to catch the huge waves in the really stormy winter season though. Guess it's a toss-up: storm watching in winter or whale watching in spring. And then there's the summer for beach walks and kayaking and enjoying the sunshine. But, as you know, Tofino is beautiful whenever you go!

Charu

Saturday 24th of November 2012

Not sure if this is my cup of tea but I'd love to watch the storms from inside! Beautiful photos.

Sophie

Thursday 8th of November 2012

Well, I'm Norwegian, so I'd probably feel right at home here. The expression about no bad weather even rhymes in the local language here. The inn sounds fabulous, as does storm watching.