The Sea to Sky Highway (Highway 99) is often touted as being 'the most beautiful drive in Canada'. Having been on many breathtaking drives the length and breadth of the country, we just had to see if the Sea to Sky lived up to its reputation. Simply put, it did. It really, really did. Although, we only had time to drive this highway in one day, we've included 'pro tips' for those want to experience the drive at a slower pace.
The first stretch of the Sea to Sky Highway is nothing short of majestic and it's clear to see how to highway gets it's name. Driving north, you are lashed by the powerful, restless Pacific Ocean to your left and mountains so tall their peaks disappear into the sky to your right. It's easy to talk for hours about the visual beauty of the area, the blending of blue water, green trees and cold grey rock. Just be sure, however, to roll down your windows and enjoy the smell of the sea air from one side and fresh forest musk to the other.
Without a doubt, one of the single most beautiful views from a highway in the world. The Tantalus lookout refers specifically to a stop 15-20 minutes further down the Sea to Sky from Squamish, however there are several places along the route to take in the beautiful snow capped peaks. The Tantalus range are full of beautiful contradictions. They feel although they are right in your face, dwarfing you, despite being so far in the distance. Their cold snow adorned summits glistening away in the 30 degree summer sun. Nothing about the mountains seems to make sense, yet at the same time they make perfect sense in all their perfection.
Pro tip: Make sure not to pass this up on your Sea to Sky itinerary. When approaching from the Squamish side, be sure to slow down as the actual entrance to the lookout is some distance before what google maps tells you and there isn't a place to turn around for a long time!
Bears in Whistler!
Onwards to Lillooet
Lillooet and the drive to Kamloops
As we wanted to make the trip back to Kamloops in one day, we decided it wouldn't be possible to stop off at every scenic location, however below is a list of places we have heard great things about and will be sure to see next time.
In this post, the second of our two part guide to a budget road trip on Vancouver island, we cover the Tofino and Ucluelet leg of our journey. Click here for the first part, detailing Victoria and things to do on the drive to Tofino.
Town of Ucluelet
Finally we stopped into the town of Ucluelet to check into our hotel, which turned out to be more like a motel, which for the price was just fine. Ucluelet is vastly cheaper to stay in than the more hipster central Tofino. Although our main activity of the trip was in Tofino, it made more financial sense to stay and eat in Ucluelet and then drive to Tofino than it did to stay there. We found that many of the eateries in the town close fairly early, which at the time seemed disappointing, but we ended up eating at the pub, Eagle's Nest, just a hundred feet from our accommodation which overlooked the harbour. Eating locally caught fish and chips, watching eagles soaring and seals frolicking in the water was a great way to rest after an amazing day of road-tripping. The place we stayed at was the Island West resort, expect a 'rustic' experience, but as only a place to rest your head for a night or two between adventures, it was just fine.
DAY 3 - Bears and beaches at Pacific Rim National Reserve
Much like the first and second days on the island, we arose very early on day three and made our way to the beautiful little town of Tofino. En route to the town, we noticed a black bear and her cub rummaging through the foliage near the road. As such we stopped some distance away and took some pictures with our telephoto lens. Canada Parks has a strict set of guidelines about how close you are allowed to be with wildlife such as bears, cougars, wolves, moose and so on. Perhaps the most important of these being that you are not to leave your vehicle as this can startle animals and cause distress. Instead invest in a budget lens so you can get great pictures without distracting them.
Thanks to the early hour (6am) we were the only ones on the road and were able to stop for a while and watch the bears going about their morning routine. We couldn't stop for long however as we had booked with Ocean Outfitters for an adventure to hot springs cove. This was our only "splurge" on the trip and I can't tell you enough how amazing this excursion was! If you decide to take a boat to the hot springs, the single most important piece of advice would be to get the 7am boat. Being the first to the cove made it so magical, this coupled with the small size of the hot springs made it essential. We had roughly an hour on our own (with the 5 others from our boat) and I can't imagine how disappointing it would have been to arrive and see people already in the springs. The hot springs tour is available year round and you can enjoy extra savings by going in the off season (winter).
As we arrived at Ocean Outfitters, I was overjoyed to find they offered tea and coffee (essential for a 6am start). Once the rest of our group had arrived, we were given a quick safety demonstration and within minutes of me finishing my tea we were on the boat. The boat journey not only served as a means to get to the gorgeous hot springs, but they also allocated time on the way to watch for whales and the legendary sea wolves that live on the islands en route. An added bonus of booking with Ocean Outfitters as opposed to another operator in Tofino is that they carbon offset their trips, and they are the same price as competitors, perfect!
A while passed again as we made our way north to the hot springs before again the drumming of the engine became quiet and we approached slowly a huge exposed rock in the middle of the water. Not long after the boat stopped, we were hit with an extreme stench, something like rotting fish but different. Then I noticed the rock was home to dozens of sea lions. While the telephoto lens wasn't essential, as the sea lions could be seen clearly without, using it as binoculars really came in handy. We could make out the dominant male, the bull, proudly protecting his herd of fragrant females. Watching the sea lions, in such sheer number was brilliant and something I certainly hadn't expected from our journey.
We visited in June, however if you were to visit a month or two earlier, your chances of seeing the iconic humpbacks shooting up from the water in all their glory would be much higher. Although it would be worth mentioning, you would likely sacrifice the hot temperatures to some degree.
At the end of the boardwalk trail, you will notice a washroom to your left, changing rooms and a viewing deck ahead and the hot springs themselves down and to the right. There are only two changing rooms, so unless you want to change in the washrooms, being some of the first of your group to arrive prevents waiting in line to change, and subsequently eating away at your time in the springs.
To help you prepare for your trip to the hot springs, below is a list of things you will need:
After getting changed, leave your bags and shoes under the bench in the changing area and head down to the springs!
The hot springs themselves are like nothing I have ever seen before in my entire life. There are essentially three sections to the springs, the first being a smallish pool being fed by a mini waterfall. The first pool is by far the hottest. No matter how many times I read this or was told by our guide, I still wasn't prepared for just how hot the first pool was and it took some time for my body to adjust to the heat, even as someone who enjoys a scolding hot bath or shower! The second pool is the easiest to spend time in, being the largest and slightly cooler than the first. The third pool of the hot springs was the smallest and the coolest of all. We made the mistake of leaving the hot springs at the end of the third pool to then walk around to the first again, don't bother doing this, as its only slippery jagged rocks without anything to see. If you need to go back to the changing rooms or a different pool, go back the way you came.
As there was two of us, I decided to take my phone down to the pools so we could take pictures of one another. I could see this being a little more tricky with one person as you need both hands at times to climb around the pools, but by that time you may likely be close enough to your party on the boat to ask them to take a picture or two with your phone.
Laying back in the hot springs, gazing over to the rainforest canopy and listening to the waves crashing to the rocks just meters away was more relaxing than any spa. You will have about an hour on your own until the next boat of people arrive, which honestly is about the most comfortable amount of time you can spend in the hot waters. After getting changed and heading slowly back down the boardwalk, we stopped off at the raised viewing platform for a while to eat our lunch.
Although we weren't scheduled to leave the island for another 5 or 10 minutes, as our entire party was at the boat and our guide had finished swimming and fishing in the harbour, we left a little early and started the hour and a half boat ride back. Again we stopped several times heading towards Tofino, first so our guide could teach us a little about the negative effects of the salmon farms located in the area and then later again as we came across a raft of sea otters (see photo earlier in post). Seeing the families of otters lovingly holding each others hands as they floated together in the ocean was a perfect way to finish our ocean excursion!
Walking around Tofino is a beautiful and budget friendly way to spend an afternoon. The town itself is gorgeous with a mix of west coast charm and small fishing town. There are a number of parks and viewpoints to see, all within walking distance of each other. We purchased food from the grocery store in Ucluelet and had a relaxing picnic.
Leaving Tofino as soon as we arrived back on Terra Firma, we made a quick stop off at Long Beach just outside of Tofino. As the name suggests, the beach goes on for as far as the eye can see in both directions. The part that impressed me most however was how the beach had a mysterious haze just above the waterfront which seemed to get further away as you approached it. It's a well known surfers paradise and we spent maybe half an hour wandering along the shore watching them before continuing our journey onward, this time to Nanaimo. The Rainforest Walk in Pacific Rim was highly recommended to us but unfortunately we did not have time to do the hike! Something to consider if you plan to visit Tofino.
Please note: to stop in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve we needed to have a Parks Canada pass. If you are travelling to more than one Canadian NP or for an extended period of time within the park (more than a week), the cheapest pass is the Discovery Pass. This can be used for 12 months of unlimited entry into some of Canada's most famous parks, such as Banff and Yoho. We purchased ours right before the new year (December 2018) and got an extra 20% off.
As mentioned before, there are frequent road closures between Port Alberni and Tofino, as such we spent half an hour at Kennedy Lake so we only had to wait in construction traffic for maybe 20 minutes (not that we're complaining!). Make sure you check closure times before making travel plans. The itself was gorgeous (see photo below) and we went for a quick swim in the summer heat while others relaxed on the beach.
By the time we arrived into Nanaimo, it was getting a little later in the afternoon and as such decided to relax at the airbnb and only venture out for dinner. The airbnb's in Nanaimo are some of the cheapest on the entire island and we would strongly recommend you take advantage of this in planning your trip. We stayed in a beautiful house in a quiet neighbourhood with a really accommodating Chinese couple. Which was HALF the price of the 'rustic' motel back in Ucluelet, which is a little horrifying. The couple recommended a local sushi restaurant Nori, which just so happens to be widely considered the best sushi in the whole of Canada. We arrived without a reservation and managed luckily to be seated, however I would recommend calling ahead of time to book. Even with a tag as lofty as theirs, the prices were really reasonable and service was fast.
Getting to the Island itself is no doubt going to be the single most expensive part of the adventure for most budget visitors. As our trip was going to start in the provincial capital of Victoria, we decided we would catch the ferry from Tsawwassen (try saying that three times quickly!) to Victoria. The price for one regular sized car and two adults was about $90 one way ($57 for the car, $17 for each adult). Its worth mentioning here that the terminal will only accept cash or credit payments but fortunately has an ATM machine on site which will charge you a small fortune to withdraw from, make sure you have cash handy beforehand if you intend to pay this way. We departed the ferry terminal at 8:00 am and arrived into the Victoria terminal at about 9:30 am. The drive from the terminal to Victoria proper is about half an hour, dependent on traffic of course.
Our first stop on the Victoria leg of our trip was to meet up with a lifelong friend of Caitlin's, Amy, the founder of AimOutside, an organisation promoting outdoors adventure as a way to inspire mental well-being. This is actually our second visit to Victoria and we will provide an in-depth guide for the city in a future post. On this trip in particular we decided to buy a day pass for the city transit ($5) and head downtown. Amy had arranged for us to explore the city on E-Bikes. As both Caitlin and I seldom ride bicycles, at first we were a little nervous as we sat on the bus heading to Ocean River Sports, the rental company. Reassuring us that Victoria is one of the few cities in North America that is designed with bikes and biker safety in mind, something that became more evident as we got closer to the downtown heart of the city, with bike lanes on every single street and many of which guarded by a curb.
As we arrived at Ocean River Sports the three E-bikes we were to take out were sat proudly by the door, waiting for us to hop on. The bikes had a real unique look to them, totally different to what I was expecting. The saddle positioned low on the bike, reminiscent of the Chopper motorcycles of the 1950s, with wide handlebars and beautiful dark leather masking where the battery and motor sits in the frame. Even as someone with no real interest in bikes or motorbikes, I could really appreciate the design of these E-bikes was incredibly excited to 'cooly' tour the city on them.
The staff at Ocean River were very helpful in giving us all the information we needed for our two hour e-bike excursion and gave us a run down of what signals to make so cars and pedestrians know what we were about to do. Fortunately the store sits adjacent to a fairly large parking lot and we were able to cycle up and down it to get comfortable with the controls of the throttle as well as the surprising weight of the e-bike itself. After maybe 5 minutes of getting used to the vehicles, we got onto the streets of Victoria (bike lanes of course!) our first stop? Beacon Hill Park.
The park was only a 7 or 8 minute bike ride from the rental store (go back east on Pandora then south on Douglas). Beacon Hill is a must see in Victoria in our opinion. Waterways crossed by Victorian bridges run throughout the park and its diverse array of trees, shrubbery and flowers feel a million miles away from the busy streets by parliament building just a mile away. As we ventured deeper into the park, watching squirrels rushing around serenaded by all manner of bird songs, we arrived at Beacon Hill Childrens Farm (don't worry, as far as we know it doesn't farm children). While Amy waited with our bikes by the entrance of the petting zoo, we spent a few minutes in the company of at least 30 goat kids who were more than happy to indulge in some head rubs. Even if renting e-bikes around the city isn't on your itinerary, be sure to spend an hour or two relaxing in Beacon Hill Park, if the weather is just right, you won't find a better place to chill out in Victoria.
After our slow exploration of Beacon Hill Park, we decided to take the Dallas road trail which runs on the coastal edge of the park. The trail is utterly breathtaking and on a hot day as ours was, provides a welcome sea breeze. Although bikes are not allowed on some parts of the trail, the road running parallel to it isn't overly busy and in all honesty, even if an area of the trail isn't bike friendly, if no one is on it, common sense insists on using it anyway. The views of the vast and harsh pacific ocean from the trail are unforgettable and fortunately there are several places you can stop and take a while to fully appreciate them. Perhaps the two best, in our experience, are Clover point and Trafalgar park. Sitting on the rocks at Trafalgar park as the pacific breeze caresses your cheeks feels like such a uniquely Victoria experience. Luckily for us, as we rested a while at Trafalgar park, a tour bus guide on his break inquired about our E-bikes and then proceeded to give us a run down of the history of the area, notably that it was home to much of the cities early Chinese population and to this day is the site of a Chinese cemetery.
Returned to downtown and had lunch at local favourite: The Drake
After stopping at several viewing points on the coastal trails around Victoria, we decided it was time to head back to the downtown, return our Chopper-esque E-bikes and recharge with some lunch. Similar to the journey to pacific trails a few hours earlier, the ride back to rental shop again was an easy one, thanks to Victoria's bike friendly infrastructure. Just a short walk from Ocean River Sports is The Drake, a gorgeous pub with a wide array of craft beers and a fancy but inexpensive menu. The pub also boasts a private outdoor seating area, however after spending a few hours in the sun on our bikes, we opted to take respite from it as we ate and drank.
Goldstream Provincial Park
After returning to our friends house for a while to recuperate on a very busy morning, we headed towards the majestic Goldstream Provincial Park. With the trail head located only a little more than half an hour away from Victoria, it is one of the most accessible provincial parks on the Island, yet even though we visited in the height of summer we didn't find it to be particularly busy. Day hiking is free within the park and park staff gave us a trail map to help us choose a hike. On our previous trip to Victoria, we also visited this provincial park and followed a totally different trail complete with trestle bridges and a second Niagara Falls. On this this visit we decided to follow the Goldstream Falls trail.
The hike to Goldstream Falls was a very easy one, with minimal elevations and a clear and well maintained trail to follow. The provincial park is full of stunning old growth (Forest never cleared or felled), as such, walking amongst the gargantuan trees made us feel like we had stepped into another world entirely. Even the strong summer sun struggled to break through the thick rainforest canopy, what little rays could breach it lit the trail up as if it were straight from a fairly tale of old.
As the trail runs parallel to the river, there are many occasions where it is possible to climb down and sit beside the water. Some of the trails down to the river are a little steep, so if you encounter one you don't feel comfortable scaling wait for an easier one further along the trail. As a true reminder to the fact Vancouver Island is a rain forest, ferns sit to the floor as if a thick green carpet. Difficult as it was, we forced ourselves to stop gawping and snapping hundreds of pictures by the river and continued down the trail towards the waterfall at its end. You will hear the falls some time before you are able to see them, which only adds to the excitement of what it to come. The hardest part of the hike is descending the staircase that takes you down to the waterfall, however it couldn't be more worth it. The waterfalls beauty doesn't lie so much in its height or its width but the force at which it shoots from the fern lined rock edge into the pristine pool at its base. We sat for some time on our own on the rocks not far from its base. The climate sitting in the basin by falls is totally different from the trail, at least several degrees cooler which is totally welcome relief after tackling the imposing stairs prior. The trail itself is linear, and as such you will take the same route back that you came on.
Our second day on Vancouver Island started bright and early, getting up to leave at 6:00 am. Our first destination of the day would be Cameron Lake and the fabled Cathedral Grove, a 2 and a half hour drive at the very least. Caitlin knew that stops on the way to Cathedral Grove were few and far between, and as such we filled our gas tank in Victoria and stocked up on food for breakfast and lunch the night before.
As a result no doubt of leaving so early in the morning, the drive to Cameron Lake and Cathedral Grove was an easy one, not really encountering too much traffic en route. We arrived at Cameron Lake at around 8:30am, although the parking area was right around a bend and would be very easy to miss. Be sure to not be driving too quickly when the lake appears to your right next to the road so you don't miss it! The parking area provided an outhouse, which after a large tea and no prior stops, was much needed to say the least! Cameron lake is as serene as it was vast, its surface unbroken throughout, save for the occasional fish diving into the air to catch its breakfast. Again thanks to the early time of arrival, the lake wasn't busy at all, the only other person around was an old fisherman who afforded us a polite smile as we passed by. We thoroughly recommend stopping off at Cameron Lake on your journey through Vancouver Island, the untouched natural beauty of the lake as well as the dense forest surrounding it really sets the tone for the rest of the Island.
Continuing only a few minutes on from the Cameron Lake stop you will find yourself entering Macmillan Provincial Park, home of the world renowned Cathedral Grove. The parking for the park lines both sides of the road, yet we only hiked around the left side of the Grove. Even at just before 9am, the road had begun to get busy, so be careful crossing the road if you decide to explore both halves of the park. Exploring Goldstream just the day before, we assumed we had seen most of what an old growth rainforest had to offer, we were very wrong.
Ancient Petroglyphs (Sproat Lake)
Not a long drive from Port Alberni, we stopped off at Sproat lake to take a look at their famous petroglyths. As the road to our final destination of the day, Ucluelet and Tofino experiences frequent scheduled closures thanks to rock blasting, we decided stopping at Sproat Lake would be the perfect way to spend an hour, much better than the alternative of being stuck in the car in a row of traffic (in the 30+ heat!). The petroglyphs can be enjoyed by standing on a floating viewing platform on the lake. Initially, thanks to the glaring midday sun, the images were hard to make out, but once our eyes adjusted, the animals on display became clear. After some research online, we learned the age of the images are undetermined with some estimates putting them at a maximum of 3000 years old. Stopping at Sproat lake is great way to pass the time if you happen to travel at a time you would end up stuck at temporary road closure. Here is an article detailing when you can expect the road to be shut.
The drive from Port Alberni to Tofino is a beautiful one that should be driven slowly to fully appreciate the sights around you. On your right after a while you will come across a pull out, full of hippie camper vans and people swimming among the rocks. This is Wally Creek (below), considered by those who know about it to be a secret. It isn't a secret, nor is it worth stopping at, unless you enjoy a small creek full of people and the stench of cannabis. Instead, skip this 'secret' and continue down the road for a few hundred meters and pull off into the small layby and head down into the rocky area where a waterfall meets a narrow rocky valley. We were the only people here (presumably because its harder to get to) and enjoyed the amazing views in peace. The climb down to the rocks is a little tricky, but simply being careful is enough to nullify any risk. If you brought mosquito spray with you on your trip, which you really should have, put some on at the car before heading down as there were a few black flies that were interested in us. Had we have had any sandwiches with us, this would have been a perfect place for a quick picnic, just be sure to take everything you brought back up with you!
Vancouver Island is truly a magical place to visit, and in our opinion fully merits the reputation of being one of the beautiful places to visit in North America. As a result of the island providing so much that deserves mentioning, our guide to roadtripping from Victoria to Tofino is in two parts. Check out Part 2 here, which details our time in and around the town of Tofino as well as our breathtaking visit to Hot Springs Cove.