How would you like to kayak with orcas (killer whales)?
What about swimming at warm shallow beaches or an easy forest hike to a beautiful thundering waterfall?
If you’re nodding enthusiastically, then you’ll love visiting Vancouver Island in western Canada!
Although we’ve lived on Vancouver Island (in Victoria) for almost five years now, we’ve never driven the whole length of the island – until our Vancouver Island road trip this summer.
Vancouver Island road trip
The largest island off the west coast of Canada, Vancouver Island (in the province of British Columbia) is no mere speck of an island.
It’s bigger than all the Hawaiian islands combined, roughly the same size as Belgium.
From the bottom to the top, it stretches 290 miles (about 466 km).
Of course, you can drive this distance in one day.
But then you’d miss out on enjoying all the wonderful attractions and natural beauty that the island is known for – from its seaside beaches, lakes and wilderness rainforests to its quaint artsy towns.
Indeed, you’ll be spoiled for choice, as there are so many places to go on Vancouver Island!
Driving the “Island Highway”
The “Island Highway” – a name given to a series of connecting island highways – follows the eastern coastline of Vancouver Island from Victoria (and Sooke) at the bottom of the island to Port Hardy at the top.
Technically, the section between Victoria and Nanaimo is the multi-lane Highway 1 (Trans-Canada Highway). At Nanaimo, it becomes Highway 19.
When you hit Parksville, the road splits into two highways for the section to Campbell River – Highway 19A and Highway 19.
Highway 19A (the “Old Island Highway”) is the more scenic ocean-side route – and we’d recommend you take this highway.
The main road (faster route) is Highway 19, called the Inland Island Highway.
From Campbell River to Port Hardy, the Island Highway is Highway 19, a two-lane highway.
The total distance from Victoria to Port Hardy is 307+ miles (495 km). Driving Vancouver Island on the Island Highway is a glorious drive!
And you’ll love all the fun activities you can do along the way (a road trip planner keeps everything handy in one place).
Vancouver Island road trip map
Have a look at this map we created on Google for the stops on this Vancouver Island road trip itinerary.
This would make a good Vancouver Island 1-week itinerary. For example, you could stay 3 nights in Victoria, 2 nights in Parksville and 2 nights in Telegraph Cove.
Depending on how much time you have, you can adapt this itinerary to spend more or less time in various places.
Here, then, are some of the best places to visit on Vancouver Island when driving from the bottom of the island all the way to the top:
Oh, Victoria! Our home now for almost five years.
Victoria sits at the southern tip of Vancouver Island. The capital of the province of British Columbia, it will likely be your first stop (and where you’ll start your road trip).
Voted one of the “Top 10 Cities in North America” by Travel + Leisure, it’s a seaside city with an historic British flavor and loads of natural scenic beauty.
We love that Victoria is very walkable, with lots of waterfront and other easy pretty walks.
Particularly special? Strolling Victoria’s gardens, like Butchart Gardens, Beacon Hill Park and the romantic Abkhazi Garden.
To discover BC’s history, we have a superb museum, the Royal BC Museum, with a huge IMAX theater. After touring the museum, be sure to walk across the road for a closer look at BC’s splendid Parliament Buildings, built in 1893 in a Renaissance and Romanesque style.
Victoria has great beaches too for picnics, stand-up paddleboarding and just kicking back and enjoying the warmth of the sun.
And if you book a whale watching tour between March and October, chances are excellent you’ll see humpback whales. For sure, you’ll see sea lions and bald eagles and probably dolphins too.
Indeed, there are so many interesting things to do in Victoria that you’ll have to budget your time wisely.
Otherwise, you might be tempted to forget the rest of your Vancouver Island itinerary and just stay put in Victoria!
Parksville and Qualicum Beach
Now that you’ve torn yourself away from Victoria, turn your sights to Parksville and Qualicum Beach.
Located a 2-hour drive north from Victoria, these two delightful resort towns (about a 10-minute drive apart from each other) are known for their sprawling sandy beaches.
The Parksville and Qualicum Beach area is a popular spot for a summer vacation for British Columbians and Albertans. As a young family, we used to holiday in Parksville – our son loved the warm shallow beaches.
Besides the beaches, though, there are lots of other fun attractions in Parksville and Qualicum Beach, making it worth your time to stop here and explore.
Feeling adventurous? Book a cave tour at Horne Lake Caves.
Maybe play a round of golf (take your pick of seven courses within a 30-minute drive of each other).
Also check out the local farmers’ markets and watch cheesemakers turn out artisan cheeses at Morningstar Farm.
A few miles west of Qualicum Beach, on Highway 4A, you come to the quirky community of Coombs.
And a stop here is a must! Because this is where you see the “goats on the roof.”
Goats on a roof? Indeed!
Coombs is famous as the place where a Norwegian family built a small country market more than 40 years ago. They put a trip of goats on the sod roof to mow the grass and entertain passers-by.
That country market grew in size and reputation. And now it’s a major Vancouver Island visitor attraction.
Apart from seeing goats grazing on the roof, the Old Country Market is now home to a much-expanded food market.
Maybe pick up fresh-baked goodies or artisan sausages?
Shops also sell interesting imported gifts, souvenirs, surf boards, household items and garden accessories.
The ice-cream parlor always draws in those with a sweet tooth (as does the doughnut shack).
And there’s a lovely Italian trattoria where you can eat outside on a leafy terrace.
Campbell River is just over an hour’s drive from Qualicum Beach.
Dubbed the “Salmon Capital of the World,” Campbell River is a top destination for salmon fishing. Many fishers have caught salmon bigger than 30 lbs (13 kg).
It’s easy to hire a fishing guide and go out for a half day or more.
Or walk out on the Discovery Pier in downtown Campbell River to toss a line into the water.
The 600-ft (183-meter) pier has picnic tables, benches, built-in rod holders, fish cleaning tables and pretty well everything else you need for some recreational fishing fun.
A concession stand sells ice-cream and rents fishing rods in summer.
If you have a hankering for a fresh salmon or halibut meal, head to Dockside Fish and Chips – their fish is the freshest!
The Museum at Campbell River is also worth a visit to learn about the history of the area and see indigenous items. You can walk through reproductions of a 19th century log cabin and a floathouse to learn how early settlers lived.
Elk Falls Provincial Park
With a thundering waterfall and sky-high suspension bridge, Elk Falls Provincial Park is a popular destination.
Located just a few minutes’ drive from Campbell River, the park offers several trails and viewpoints (download a PDF of the park map).
Suspension bridge and Elk Falls:
If you just want to cross the suspension bridge and see the 90-foot (27-meter) Elk Falls, you can do an easy, leisurely 30-minute walk (there and back).
From the parking lot, the trail starts out relatively flat, then crosses over a road and metal bridge.
Taking the Millenium Trail through a forest of towering Douglas firs and cedars, you follow the signs for Elk Falls.
A set of sturdy zig-zagging metal stairs takes you down to a viewpoint overlooking the falls.
Go back up the stairs to cross the actual metal suspension bridge, built in 2015.
Strung 210 feet (64 meters) high above Campbell River, the bridge gives you bird’s eye views of the plunging Elk Falls and river water as it rushes through the canyon below.
Safely designed, the wire sides of the bridge are so high, however, that it’s hard to take good photos of the falls from the bridge (we even found it tricky poking our small GoPro through the wire holes).
At the end of the bridge, there’s a platform where you can see the falls from the side.
Loop trail to Deer Falls:
For more views (and a bit more exercise), retrace your steps and follow the signs for Deer Falls.
You end up doing an easy loop trail – through an old-growth forest of ancient trees – which takes you along the edge of the river and to a great viewing platform.
The whole hike – including the suspension bridge, falls and loop trail – takes about an hour.
Don’t worry about getting lost. The area is well sign-posted, with markers at every trail junction.
There’s also a visitor center at the parking lot if you want to learn more about other trails or the salmon that spawn in Campbell River.
From Campbell River going north, the Island Highway narrows to two lanes, one lane going each way.
There’s less traffic, and it’s basically a straight-through 127-mile (204-km) drive past trees, trees and more trees to Telegraph Cove (2 hours and 30 minutes).
Indeed, it wasn’t until the 1970s that a highway extended beyond Campbell River to the northern part of Vancouver Island.
Telegraph Cove itself is located on the Johnstone Strait, near Robson Bight, which is famous for its orca-rubbing beaches.
It’s one of the last boardwalk settlements left on Vancouver Island; the historic cabins and buildings are now part of Telegraph Cove Resort.
We stayed in one of the boardwalk cabins – simple but charming! – and enjoyed some of the adventurous things to do in Telegraph Cove.
Kayaking with orca whales, fishing, whale watching, hiking and boat trips to view grizzly bears in the wild forage for food and fish for salmon.
The small community of Port McNeill is a 30-minute drive from Telegraph Cove.
A logging and mill town, it’s more of a departure point for multi-day kayaking tours and other outdoor adventures.
The ferry to Alert Bay on Cormorant Island also leaves from Port McNeill – Alert Bay is known for its eco-tourism, orca watching and First Nations culture.
For us, Port McNeill was the jumping off point for Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort, a member of National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World.
Staying at this intimate and secluded eco-chic lodge is the Canadian equivalent of going on safari in Africa.
Wildlife? Check – we saw black bears, dolphins and bald eagles.
Adventure? Oh yes – we kayaked, went SUP boarding and hiked.
Amazing food and wine? We’re still trying to lose some of the pounds we gained.
Port Hardy and beyond
The final stretch of a Vancouver Island road trip from the bottom to the top is a 25-mile (40-km) drive to Port Hardy.
Port Hardy, the largest community in northern Vancouver Island, marks the end of the Island Highway.
The main reason for visiting Port Hardy is to catch the ferry for the “Inside Passage” voyage to Prince Rupert or for the “Discovery Coast Passage.”
Adventurous hikers can also ditch their cars to backpack two wildly scenic trails in Cape Scott Provincial Park – the challenging 27-mile (43-km) North Coast Trail and the 11-mile (18-km) Cape Scott Trail.
Where to stay on this Vancouver Island road trip
See our reviews of 7 of the best luxury hotels in Victoria.
If you’d like to stay in a house or suite instead, see our reviews of 5 charming Victoria Airbnbs.
Parksville and Qualicum Beach:
Just outside of Parksville, Tigh-Na-Mara Seaside Resort is spread out in the forest on the shores of Rathtrevor Beach.
It has a mix of log cabins (with kitchens) and seaview suites, spa, restaurant, swimming pool and other amenities.
Right in the heart of Parksville, overlooking Parksville Beach, the Beach Club Resort has more modern condo-style accommodations, plus an oceanfront restaurant with patio.
Located on the waterfront in downtown Campbell River, the 58-room Comfort Inn & Suites is a new modern hotel, walking distance to shops and restaurants.
Telegraph Cove Resort is a funky mix of historic wooden cottages (that can sleep from 2 to 10), lodge rooms, dockside suites and a campground with full hookup for RVs. There’s also an onsite restaurant and activity tour operators.
A boat transfer from Port McNeill takes you to the exclusive Nimmo Bay Wilderness Resort.
A remote hideaway in the “Great Bear Rainforest,” it features 9 two-bedroom cabins, a fabulous restaurant and lounge, spa, outdoor hot tubs by a cascading waterfall and a unique “floating” sauna.
How to get to Vancouver Island
If you’re coming by car from the BC mainland, you’ll need to take the ferry from Vancouver to Victoria. The most popular route is from the Tsawwassen ferry terminal in Vancouver to Victoria’s Swartz Bay ferry terminal.
Alternatively, you can take BC Ferries from West Vancouver’s Horseshoe Bay terminal to Nanaimo and start your road trip from there. (But unless you drive down from Nanaimo to Victoria, you’d miss out on seeing our lovely city.)
When is the best time to visit Vancouver Island?
You don’t really want to visit Vancouver Island from November to March.
This is the coldest time of the year and also the wettest. All that rain is what makes the island so lush – and nurtures our temperate rainforests.
But it also makes for a soggy holiday.
This Vancouver Island road trip itinerary is best between May and October:
The peak summer months on the island are July and August.
You’ll get the most sunshine and the warmest weather in high summer. This time is also the busiest, though, so you’ll need to plan ahead and book accommodation in advance.
The shoulder season months of June and September are lovely months.
We especially like early September on Vancouver Island.
The summer rush has slowed. But you still get endless days of sunshine and the lakes (and Parksville beaches) are still warm for swimming.
Here are a couple of good pins
Photo credits: 6, 14 to 18, 20, 22 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 7 Visit Parksville Qualicum Beach | 8 Morningstar Farm | 9 to 11 Coombs Country Market | 13 Destination Campbell River | 23 Nimmo Bay Resort | 26 Fairmont Empress | 27 Beach Club Resort | 19, 22, 28 Telegraph Cove Resort