Family Road Trip - Vancouver Island Road Trip

An Unforgettable Vancouver Island Road Trip Adventure

When embarking on a road trip to Vancouver Island, you will pass through charming towns, beaches, waterfalls, natural environments, and unique attractions.

While Vancouver Island may appear small on a map, it is actually the largest Pacific Island outside of New Zealand and has so much to explore!

Vancouver Island is located 60 miles west of Downtown Vancouver and can easily be combined with visiting Vancouver in a Day if you have a little extra time for your vacation.

Some of the major areas you must visit on a Vancouver Island Vacation are Campbell River, Tofino, Port Hardy, Port Alberni, Elk Falls Provincial Park, East Sooke Regional Park, and Butchart Gardens.

Canada Family Road Trip planning tips

Vancouver Island, once seen as a retirement location, has diversified its appeal to a much younger crowd due to its milder climate, upcoming art and food scene, and a University.

Vancouver Island is becoming a foodie paradise and offers some of the freshest seafood from the Pacific (oysters, crab, fish and chips), as well as Asian-inspired influenced food (sushi). But don’t worry; they still have Canadian staples like poutine (cheese curds, gravy, and fries), bacon, and Canadian beavertails (dessert pastry).

Along the Vancouver Island Road Trip, Vancouver Island is full of scenic views, such as ancient forests, wildlife, rugged coastlines, and picturesque small villages.

Here’s an Vancouver Island Road Trip Itinerary that will give you a taste of what a Vancouver Island road trip could entail:

How To Get To Vancouver Island

Vancouver has multiple transportation options, including ferry, plane, seaplane, bus, or car. You will want to consider factors such as time, cost, schedules, availability, and convenience when choosing how to reach Vancouver Island.

Vancouver Island By Ferry

BC Ferries operates multiple routes from Vancouver to Vancouver Island.  The most popular route is from Tsawwassen (near Vancouver) to Swartz Bay (near Victoria). This ferry journey takes approximately 1.5 to 2 hours.

You can also take the ferries from Horseshoe Bay (near Vancouver) to Departure Bay in Nanaimo and from Tsawwassen to Duke Point in Nanaimo. You can find some great package deals for accommodations and the ferry on the BC Ferries Website.

a ferry to Vancouver island

If traveling from Washington State, USA: You can take The Washington State Ferries seasonal service from Anacortes, Washington, to Sidney (near Victoria) on Vancouver Island. The crossing time is around 2 to 3 hours.

** Any Vehicle, including RVs up to 20 feet, pay the same standard rate of $63.85 (2023), and an extra length is charged per foot at a rate of $7.25 (2023)

Vancouver Island By Road

Car: If you are already in the Vancouver area you can simply take the Tsawwassen ferry to Swartz Bay or take the Ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo.

Bus: Several bus companies offer services from Vancouver and other mainland cities to various destinations on Vancouver Island and include a ride on the ferry in the bus fare cost.

Vancouver Island By Plane:

Vancouver Island has three small airports, including Victoria International Airport (the biggest of the three), which offers international and domestic flights. Nanaimo and Comox Valley Airports only have domestic flights.

If you have money to spare, you can also consider chartering a seaplane that has multiple locations to land on Vancouver Island.

Vancouver Island By Foot

Vancouver Island is one of the easiest places to travel without a car as it offers multiple bus routes once you arrive on the island. BC Ferries offers low rates for passengers starting at $18.50 each way for adults and $9.25 for children under 11 years old (2023).

Getting Around Vancouver Island

The inner harbor of Victoria can easily be explored on foot or by renting a bicycle due to its compact size. Victoria has more cycling routes than any other Canadian City, and you can easily explore the main areas of Victoria, nearby beaches, and even bike to nearby attractions like Butchart Gardens.

If you are looking to see more of the island than just Victoria, you will want to either rent a car in Vancouver and drive it across on the ferry, or rent a car at Victoria International Airport.

You should note, however, that parking rates at hotels on the island are very high. If you are looking for accommodations and a vehicle then consider renting an RV from JustGo Camper Van Rentals or Far Out Wilderness

You can also take the Island Link Bus that connects foot passengers at the following four terminals: Departure Bay, Little River, Buckley Bay, and Campbell River, to provide connecting bus transportation between there and the Horseshoe Bay Ferry Terminal.

Best Time to Plan Your Visit

The best time to explore the things to do on Vancouver Island depends on your interests and preferences, so the best time to go is subjective to the traveler. Vancouver Island is known for having a mild coastal climate with distinct seasons affecting the activities available.

Here’s an overview of what the different seasons are like on Vancouver Island:

Summer (June to August): This is the peak tourist season as the weather is warm and ideal for outdoor activities like visiting the beach, hiking, water sports such as kayaking and surfing, and wildlife viewing. You will need to book accommodations and activities far ahead of time if you visit during peak season.

Fall (September to November): Vancouver Island offers beautiful autumn foliage, which is perfect for a scenic drive and hiking. However, as the weather becomes cooler, there are fewer outdoor activities offered. During the fall months when the Pacific Salmon Run occurs so while this time attracts fewer tourists, you will find lots of fishing and outdoor enthusiasts visiting the area.

Winter (December to February): During the winter months, Vancouver Island experiences warmer weather than Eastern parts of Canada; however, it is also very rainy and wet. If you are looking to do any storm watching along the coastline or winter sports like skiing and snowboarding, then winter is the ideal time to visit. The mountainous areas like Mount Washington receive a fair amount of snowfall.

Spring (March to May): Spring on Vancouver Island is a time of warmer temperatures, a return of wildlife, and blooming flowers. There are fewer tourists during this time, so accommodations are easier to secure, and you can still enjoy outdoor activities like bird watching, hiking, and visiting the island’s gardens.

How Many Days Do You Need

The distance from around Vancouver Island is approximately 290 miles from North to South (466 kilometres). To complete a full loop of Vancouver Island along Highway 19 (the main highway that circles the Island) known as the Island Highway, will take approximately 9-10 hours without stopping for any sights.

Driving around Vancouver Island can take longer depending on traffic and road conditions but estimates driving from Victoria to Port Hardy (northernmost point), then returning to Victoria.

Most travellers choose to take a more relaxed itinerary and take their time and spend up to 7 days enjoying the journey and all the attractions and scenic spots that the island has to offer.

Roadtrippers should plan their trip based on interests and activities they want to visit, allowing extra time in between to explore hidden gems and unplanned stops to enjoy the natural beauty of the island truly. If you have extra days to spare, there are lots of wildlife viewing opportunities on Vancouver Island that you can’t find anywhere else.

Day Trip to Vancouver Island

To determine how much you can see in just one day, knowing the distances will help you plan your itinerary of attractions and accommodations. The island is 500 km long and 100 km wide, so seeing it all in one day is impossible.

However, visiting Victoria is a great day trip option from Vancouver. When planning your stops, consider 3-4 hours of the day will be lost to transportation between Vancouver and Victoria.

If you only have one day, you will want to explore the following attractions in Victoria:

Start the day by grabbing breakfast at Crust Bakery in Victoria. They open at 8 am and serve lots of breakfast options, coffee, tea, and baked goods.

Explore Victoria Old Town

Victoria is very walkable, so you can explore the downtown core and check out the cool architectural buildings, and you may even choose to take a free guided tour of the British Columbia Parliament buildings.

CA Vancouver Island Road Trip - Victoria Old Town

Victoria Old Town has three districts that have unique buildings to check out: China Town, the old commercial district, and the Inner Harbor, which has buildings from the gold rush and is located along the waterfront.

Join a walking tour or explore on your own, but grab a free map outlining all the historic buildings from the visitor center.

Enjoy High Tea at The Empress Hotel

If you enjoy tea and have time, you may partake in High Tea at the Fairmont Empress Hotel, a historic icon of Victoria that serves over 21 different teas in its Lobby Lounge. The tea is accompanied by scones that are made with locally sourced ingredients such as strawberry jam and lavender.

CA Vancouver Island Road Trip - Fairmont Empress hotel

Interestingly, The Empress serves more tea in the summer than most hotels in London, England, so make sure you make a reservation ahead of time.

Visit Beacon Hill Park

Kids will enjoy Beacon Hill Park as it has a petting zoo and two different playgrounds. Beacon Hill Park has multiple hiking trails and gardens to walk, beautiful views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and is home to the world’s tallest free-standing Totem pole.

Fisherman’s Wharf

Check out the floating restaurants, unique shops, and beautiful houseboats in this unique and fun neighbourhood located 10 minutes from Victoria.

Sunset in the Inner Harbour

Finish off the day by enjoying the Sunset at a location within the Inner Harbour before heading back on the ferry to Vancouver. You can either choose a waterfront cafe or a grassy spot on the lawn of the Parliament buildings, which would be great for a dinner picnic.

Longer Vancouver Island Itinerary

You will need so much longer than a day to scratch the surface when it comes to exploring Vancouver Island. So it’s time to grab some wheels and set off for a week exploring the best of Vancouver Island, BC.

DriveDistanceEstimated Drive TimeWhere to Stay
Vancouver to Victoria71 miles (115 kms)3 hours 24 minutesVictoria
Victoria to Cowichan Valley59 miles (95 kms) 1 hour 50 minutesCowichan Valley
Cowichan Valley to Nanaimo45 miles (72 kms)1 hour 27 minutesNanaimo
Nanaimo to Tofino203 miles (327 kms)5 hours 24 minutesTofino
Tofino to Campbell River149 miles (240 kms)4 hoursCampbell River
Campbell River to Port Alberni83 miles (133 kms)2 hours 34 minutesPort Alberni
Estimates only; times will vary based on traffic and road conditions

Day 1 – Victoria

Check out our suggestions for spending the day in Victoria above to see the best places you don’t want to miss in the capital of British Columbia, Victoria.

CA Vancouver Island Road Trip -  Victoria

Where to Stay in Victoria: Fairmont Empress (Luxury), Oswego or Royal Scot Hotel & Suites (Moderate), or Red Lion Inn & Suites (Budget)

Day 2 – Cowichan Valley

Cowichan Valley is known for its beautiful natural surroundings, as the Cowichan River is perfect for swimming, paddling, fishing, and tubing. Head to Mount Tzouhalem and enjoy the panoramic views of the valley as you hike or mountain bike.

Don’t forget to check out the historic wooden railway trestle known as Kinsol Trestle, which makes for an easy walk. This is only one of 8 unique trestles located in Cowichan Valley.

CA Vancouver Island Road Trip -  Cowichan Valley

If you want to know more about the history and culture of the area, then visit the city of Duncan, known as the “City of Totems,” and learn more about the impressive collection of totem poles. Head to the Cowichan Valley Museum afterward to learn more through interactive exhibits and artifacts.

The Cowichan Valley is known for its local agricultural ingredients as well as wineries. Choose a winery to visit and enjoy some local wine samples; many of the wineries also have family-friendly activities such as picnic areas, petting zoos, and playgrounds. There are many farms where you can pick fresh fruit or enjoy farm-to-table meals.

Where to Stay in Cowichan Valley: Oceanfront Suites at Cowichan Bay (Luxury), Raven Point Inn (Budget)

Day 3 – Nanaimo

Nanaimo is a city with various activities to enjoy, including cultural, outdoor and culinary experiences that the whole family will enjoy. Named after the iconic Nanaimo Bar, a delicious Canadian dessert, you will want to check out a variety of bakeries and cafes to try the unique variations offered.

CA Vancouver Island Road Trip -  Nanaimo

Another perfect place to explore as you walk or ride along the waterfront promenade is at Maffeo Sutton Park, and enjoy the Harbourfront Walkway Art Gallery and harbor views. The sandy beach at Westwood Lake is perfect for sand castle building, paddle boarding, and swimming.

Another unique outdoor feature is you can snorkel or scuba dive at Nanaimo’s artificial reef, which was created by sinking a decommissioned navy ship.

Explore the boutiques, art galleries, historic buildings, and restaurants as you stroll through Downtown Nanaimo along Commercial Street. You will also want to check out Bastion, the historic wooden tower that offers a cannon firing ceremony during the summer months and offers information about the history of the Old City Quarter.

Where to Stay in Nanaimo: Courtyard by Marriott Nanaimo (Luxury), Coast Bastion Hotel (Moderate), The Surf Lodge and Pub (Budget)

Day 4 – Tofino

Tofino is known for its beautiful beaches and water activities, including surfing, kayaking, and paddleboarding. You can learn more about surf culture by renting a board and trying it out yourself after a lesson from an instructor at local beaches like Cox Bay or Chesterman Beach. Tofino is also a popular destination for sport fishing of salmon or halibut.

CA Vancouver Island Road Trip - Clayoquot Sound

Clayoquot Sound is the perfect location with calm waters to enjoy paddleboarding and looking for local marine wildlife as you paddle through protected inlets and enjoy coastal views.

Enjoy a rainforest walk as you stroll through Tofino Botanical Gardens, which spans over 12 acres showcasing local flora and fauna. The Gardens also has a variety of trails that take you through forests, meadows, and along the shoreline. A unique feature to visit is the outdoor art gallery that features sculptures and structures embedded into the natural surroundings.

Lastly, find a comfortable spot on the beach, have a picnic, and enjoy the vibrant colors as the sun sets over the waters of Tofino.

Where to Stay in Tofino: Long Beach Lodge Resort (Luxury), Hotel Zed Tofino (Moderate), or Whaler’s on the Point Guest House (Budget)

Day 5 – Campbell River

Campbell River is known as the Salmon Capital of the World, so you will want to book a charter fishing trip or head to a local pier like the Discovery Pier. The Discovery Pier is a wooden walkway that extends into the ocean and is perfect for marine life sightings as well as trying fishing or crabbing off the pier.

CA Vancouver Island Road Trip -  Campbell River

Visit one of the two magnificent Provincial Parks in the area that offers unique terrain to explore and beautiful waterfalls. Elk Falls Provincial Park allows you to enjoy hiking through lush forests that lead you across suspension bridges until you reach the magnificent cascading waterfall into the canyon below. Salmon lovers can also take a tour of the nearby Quinsam Hatchery.

Strathcona Provincial Park is the oldest provincial park in British Columbia and is home to Della Falls, one of Canada’s highest waterfalls.

Where to Stay in Campbell River: Château Riverside Boutique Hotel (Moderate-Luxury), Harbourside Inn (Budget)

Day 6 – Port Alberni

Port Alberni is an area of Vancouver Island that is rich in history and has some unique places to visit to learn more about the heritage of the area. The Alberni Valley Museum will teach visitors about First Nations culture, maritime history, and the history of the logging industry.

Learn more about the logging history by visiting the old logging grounds and touring the steam-powered McLean Mill.

CA Vancouver Island Road Trip -  Port Alberni

Enjoy a scenic journey through the forests of the Alberni Valley, passing by lakes, rivers, and old logging camps as you ride the Alberni Pacific Railway steam train. Learn more about the Martin Mars Water Bomber Base to understand how firefighters use bombers.

Spend time learning about local marine life and shipwrecks at the Maritime Discovery Centre. Lastly, enjoy the local seafood cuisine, as you can enjoy fresh salmon, halibut, and shellfish.

Where to Stay in Port Alberni: Best Western Plus Barclay Hotel (Moderate), Swept Away Inn (Budget)

A Shorter Vancouver Island Itinerary With Kids

If you’re looking for a shorter itinerary and travelling with kids, you will want a mix of educational, outdoor, and indoor activities. Here’s our suggested 3-4 day Vancouver Island itinerary.

Some highlights that kids will enjoy on Vancouver Island are The Royal BC Museum, walking the Fisherman’s Wharf in Victoria, shopping for souvenirs and ice cream on Government Street, visiting Beacon Hill, and exploring Miniature World, which has a variety of miniature displays which are all located in Victoria.

On Day 2, drive 2 hours from Victoria to Parksville and explore the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre to see local animals like eagles, owls, and bears in a rehabilitation facility. Then spend the afternoon at Rathtrevor Beach and enjoy the shallow waters and sandy beach as kids enjoy the tide pools.

Once you’re tired of the beach, head to the Butterfly World and Gardens, allowing parents to relax in peaceful gardens while kids get up close with butterflies.

On Day 3, explore the town of Tofino and enjoy the sandy beaches and tide pools at Chesterman Beach or Long Beach. If you’re looking to try out beginner surfing lessons on gentle waves, then you want to visit Cox Bay. Tofino is also a great place to get up close to marine life by booking a whale-watching tour where you may see orcas, gray whales, humpback whales, seals, sea otters, and many more seabirds along your tour.

An active option is to take a rainforest walk along the easy boardwalk path in Pacific Rim National Park. End your trip with some relaxation at Hot Springs Cove, as after you hike through the rainforest, you will be rewarded with warm natural pools for swimming.

Make your way back to Victoria to end your trip!

Please note that we have included a variety of suggestions for you to pick and choose from depending on your family’s interests.

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