Cathedral Grove - Vancouver Island, BC
British Columbia’s majestic coast still contains countless inaccessible wonders that are as remarkable and unique as the rest of the province. Luckily, adventurers seeking to see all that British Columbia has to offer can board a ferry during the summer months and see a coastline so remote, it’s called the Discovery Coast Passage. This circle tour will take roughly 7 to 9 days and includes a total 1400 km (870mi) of driving and 16 hours of sailing.
• Start in Vancouver and take BC Ferries to Nanaimo from Horseshoe Bay (about 90 minutes).
• From Nanaimo head north to Port Hardy (390km / 242mi) and take BC ferries through the discovery passage to Bella Coola (15 hours).
• Once at Bella Coola, head west on Highway 20 until you reach Williams Lake (450km / 280mi), and then head south on the Alaska Highway 97.
• Reach the junction of Alaska Highway 97 and Highway 99 ( 206km / 128mi) and head southwest on Highway 99 until you reach West Vancouver (354km / 220mi).
Start your journey at the Horseshoe Bay Ferry Terminal and take the 40 min sailing across the Straight of Georgia to Nanaimo. The City of Nanaimo is home to parks and trails, heritage buildings, quaint shops, ocean scenery, and fine dining. Every day in the summer, the Noon Gun is fired at the historic Bastion, marking a past of colorful colonial control.
From Nanaimo, head north on Highway 19 390km (242mi) to the city of Port Hardy, Vancouver Island’s gateway to the Inside Passage. On the way, you’ll pass by Parksville and Qualicum Beach. Parksville, 37 km (23 miles) north of Nanaimo, has been a tourist hotspot for decades, drawing hoards of visitors with spectacular scenery and the warmest saltwater on Vancouver Island. Just 12km (7.5mi) up the road and overlooking the magnificent coastline along the Strait of Georgia, Qualicum Beach is a place with legendary hospitality and a magnificent coastal landscape. Collectively, Parksville and Qualicum Beach have grown to become a major tourist attraction jointly referred to as Oceanside. Here you’ll find a world-renowned beach that stretches an incredible 70km (43mi). Visitors are quick to try sea kayaking or sailing in these pristine waters, but locals will tell you that the real attractions are salmon fishing and scuba diving – Jacques Cousteau called Oceanside the second-best cold-water-diving destination in the world. At low tide the ocean retreats leaving behind hundreds of meters of tidal pools and smooth sand. Armed with pail and shovel, kids and parents alike can spend hours digging and exploring the seafloor.
If you’re looking for freshwater relaxation, then head 14km (9mi) southwest from Parksville to Englishman River Falls Provincial Park. The park features two breathtaking waterfalls that empty into narrow rock canyons. At the base of the lower falls is a deep pool perfect for swimming. With large day-use areas and campground accommodations, families and nature lovers are in pure paradise amongst the park’s river-skirting trails and old-growth forests.
Comox, a 72km (45mi) drive north on Highway 19A, is an incredible urban centre surrounded by recreational getaways. The snow-capped mountains, plunging valleys, and salty waters embody limitless recreational opportunities for adventurers. Hiking and fishing are the most popular activities, but visitors can also relax and take in the unique shops, art shows, and theatrical performances.
Travel up the Island on Highway 19 just 7km (4mi) to the city of Courtenay, the access point to Strathcona Provincial Park. This park almost stretches across the whole of Vancouver Island. Within its boundaries are Mt. Golden Hinde, home of the island’s tallest peak and Della Falls – Canada’s highest waterfall. Neither of these attractions are easy day trips; however, Forbidden Plateau is easily accessed and provides some of the province’s most outstanding alpine hiking trails.
Campbell River, a 60 km (37mi) drive from Courtenay, is an outdoor recreation paradise. Visitors come here to experience the eco-tourism adventures on and off the water. Fishing, particularly salmon fishing, attracts many to the waters in this area.
An alternate, more leisurely drive with stunning scenery and picturesque coves, is the Oceanside Route (Highway 19A) from Parksville up to Campbell River.
From Campbell River drive north 200km (124mi) along Highway 19 to the scenic waterfront town of Port McNeill. The area around this small community is teeming with all kinds of wildlife. Eagles, sandpipers, and herons fish along the shores while sea lions, porpoises, and whales frolic in the waters.
Next, you will arrive in the fishing community of Port Hardy just 44km (27mi) away. This region has much to offer in the way of outdoor recreation. Boating, diving, caving as well as fishing attract many to visit. Port Hardy is also proud of its First Nations heritage and art galleries and totems can be found throughout this small seaside town.
Port Hardy is the gateway to the Discovery Coast and is the departure point for BC Ferries sailing to Bella Coola. Along the 13-hour trip, you enter some of British Columbia’s most serene and beautiful scenery. The ferry trip runs from June to September. The Discovery Coast Passage remains largely undiscovered and enveloped in its own blanket of silence. But those who take the time to explore these waterways are handsomely rewarded with breathtaking landscapes and unmatched serenity.
Hidden between the deep inland fjords of British Columbia’s Discovery Coast is the picturesque town of Bella Coola. Hikers have an abundance of spectacular hiking trails to choose from that radiate from Bella Coola and into the surrounding Coast Mountains. Although the town is small, with less than 1,000 residents, it has a big heart. Travelers always feel at home in this quiet and historic town. More than one-third of the people here are descendants of the Nuxalk-Carriers, a First Nations group whose art and petroglyphs can be seen throughout the surrounding area.
The first major settlement you’ll encounter is Hagensborg, just 20km (13mi) west of Bella Coola on Highway 20. This small town still retains many traits of its Norwegian descendants, who first put down roots in the 1890s. Like Bella Coola, Hagensborg is located in the Bella Coola Valley. This scenic valley is accessed primarily Via Highway 20, which crosses the Coast Mountains and Chilcotin Plateau. Historically, this route was used as a trading corridor between Native groups of the Central Coast and Central Interior. Nowadays, the highway is the major transport route for lumber, fish, and produce.
The drive west to Williams Lake follows scenic Highway 20 for 450km (280mi). There’s a 43km (27mi) stretch of road east of Hagensborg that is notorious for its sharp hairpin turns, narrow roads, multiple switchbacks, and a very steep 18% grade in certain places.
As you drive through Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, you will enter one of British Columbia’s most isolated parks. Outdoor recreationists have an endless choice of activities, from boating, fishing, and hunting to camping and hiking. However, those staying in the park overnight should be aware there are no park personnel in the immediate area.
Highway 20 continues east through many small towns and communities, which each have something different to offer. Attractions typically include fishing, camping, and horseback riding in the summer and cross-country skiing during the winter. Numerous parks and lakes are accessible by secondary roads off Highway 20, however, 4-wheel drive is often necessary for these rugged roads.
With a population of some 11,000 people, Williams Lake is the largest city in the Cariboo Chicotin Region. During the Gold Rush, Williams Lake was overlooked by settlers in favour of 150 Mile House, but the city kept alive by being a major cattle shipping centre. Today, the town has kept its frontier feel and commemorates its heritage with the Williams Lake Stampede, which began in 1919.
Williams Lake is also the centre from which outdoor adventures start – fishing at over 4,500 lakes, skiing and snowmobiling in the winter, hiking in the summer. From here highways lead in all directions. To the north is Prince George; to the west is the Pacific Ocean; to the east is Gold Rush Country; and to the south is the Okanagan and Metro Vancouver.
From this point, the Circle Tour takes you south on Highway 97 on the famed Gold Rush Trail. At the turn of the century, trappers, miners, and prospectors eager to make their fortune ventured north through the Fraser Valley. On leaving Williams Lake the first community you come to is 150 Mile house just 25km (16mi) away.
The highway will take you 88km (55mi) to Lac la Hache. When a fur trader dropped his axe into a remote Cariboo lake here, he probably never suspected that it would be the basis for the name of Lac la Hache. “The Longest Town in the Cariboo” stretches along much of the 18 km (11 mi) lake shore. The lake is well known for its kokanee fishing as well as its trophy size lake trout. During the summer months, the area attracts anglers, boaters, swimmers, and water skiers. Many resorts, offering camping and cabins, are located on the lake shore, as well as a provincial campground. Close by, Timothy Lake is a popular holiday destination. In the winter, Mt. Timothy offers downhill skiing, and the area is a favorite for snowmobiling, cross-country skiing, and ice fishing. The town of Lac la Hache offers full services, including an excellent fly and tackle shop.
Just 20km (12.4mi) away is the town of 100 Mile House. This small community dates back to the early pioneer era when it was called Bridge Creek, a rest stop on the fur trade route north. Its name comes from the gold rush days when a stagecoach stop was set up to refresh travelers 100 miles from Mile 0 at Lillooet. Although the original roadhouse is no longer standing, the area remains an important service centre for the South Cariboo and remains a welcome stop for travelers on Cariboo Highway 97. Visitors come here to experience the outdoors in all its glory. Fishing, camping, wildlife and bird watching, horseback riding, hiking and biking, as well as hundreds of miles of some of the world’s finest cross country ski trails attract people to come here each year.
Continuing south for 48km (30mi) you’ll find one of the first stopping points on the historic Cariboo Wagon Road, which was built in the 1860s. 70 Mile House marks the turnoff point to the Green Lake/Watch Lake Recreational Area. This popular recreational area is home to a thriving wildlife population that includes osprey, eagles, loons, and a variety of ducks. If you love to play in the water, then this is an area worth visiting. There are some 18 public access points to Green Lake for swimmers, boaters, windsurfers, and water-skiers. In the winter, ice climbers flock to nearby Marble Canyon Provincial Park. A General Store and Gas Bar, along with restaurants and accommodations are available throughout the 70 Mile area.
Continue west until you find the turnoff to Highway 99. The road winds 133km (83mi) to a small town situated on the banks of the mighty Fraser River, the town of Lillooet. At one time Lillooet was the largest settlement in British Columbia. Its importance is evident in the Mile 0 Cairn which marks the beginning of the famous Cariboo Wagon Road. The cairn was used as a base measure for all the mile posts to the north; i.e. 83 Mile, 100 Mile House, and 150 Mile House.
Visit the historical Hangman’s Tree that was used as a gallows for the administration of justice more than 100 years ago, when the law in these parts was handled by Sir Mathew Baillie Begbie. Legend has it that a total of eight lawbreakers swung from the tree. If you don’t think the walk is worthy of the story, it is certainly worthy of the view.
On your way south on Highway 99, you will drive along the banks of the mighty Fraser River and see a wonderful display of nature’s beauty and awe-inspiring sights, from roaring river canyons to majestic mountains. Some 99 km (60 mi) from Lillooet is the town of Pemberton offering visitors an array of outdoor activities including mountain biking, hiking, golf, berry picking, water sports and so much more.
Just 32km (20mi) south on Highway 99 is Canada’s most famous ski resort, Whistler Mountain. The year-round destination of Whistler offers endless activities, fine dining, vibrant nightlife, eclectic boutiques, revitalizing spas, and luxurious hotels. Whistler Village blends the charm of an alpine village with the amenities of an urban centre. With spectacular alpine bowls, endless terrain, deep powder, moguls, cruisers and glades, it’s no wonder Whistler continues to receive accolades as an award-winning resort. Whistler‘s natural playground makes it easy to understand why it was selected, along with Vancouver, to host the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.
On you way south from Whistler visit Garibaldi Provincial Park. The park’s rich geological history, diverse vegetation, snow-capped mountains, iridescent waters, abundant wildlife, and scenic vistas all contribute to the area’s immense beauty. The park is located in the heart of the Coast Mountains, just an hour’s drive north of Vancouver. Offering over 90km (56mi) of established hiking trails, Garibaldi Park is a favorite year round destination for outdoors enthusiasts.
Continuing south on the Sea to Sky Highway 99 for 60km (37mi) from Whistler is Squamish. It’s not at all surprising that Squamish, at the head of Howe Sound and just 45 km (27 mi) north of Horseshoe Bay, is one of Canada’s top 10 recreational destinations. Squamish means “Mother of the Wind” in Coast Salish, and bountiful breezes have seen windsurfers clocked at more than 60km/h (36 mph). No wonder Squamish is recognized as one of the best windsurfing destinations in Canada. It’s also hugely popular with rock climbers, sky divers, hikers, and birdwatchers. Squamish also offers excellent restaurants, galleries, and shops and all nestled below snow-tipped Mount Garibaldi.
To complete your circle tour, continue 102km (63mi) south and you will arrive in Vancouver once again.