Easy Access to Wilderness on Vancouver Island, B.C.


by Allen Cox


From hiking through ancient old-growth forests and exploring sea caves, to kayaking and watching birds and wildlife, travel writer Allen Cox discusses the wilderness adventures one can experience on British Columbia’s beautiful and remote Vancouver Island, on Big Blend Radio.


Being thirty feet from a grizzly with nothing separating us but air and a bit of scrubby undergrowth is a sure recipe for an adrenaline spike. I feel my heart quicken, but I don’t move a muscle. Bolting would send a clear message that I am prey. I watch the bear―a young male, judging by his relatively small stature, but he’s well on his way to his 500-pound adulthood―and I can’t help thinking how magnificent. He lumbers past, fur soaked from his latest plunge into the river for salmon. My companions crouch frozen in place beside me, as instructed by our guide Tim McGrady, grizzly guru and general manager of Farewell Harbour Lodge on Berry Island, British Columbia.


The wildlife program offered at Farewell Harbour Lodge―a tiny pocket of civilization in the remote and sparsely populated Broughton Archipelago between north Vancouver Island and the mainland―often includes close encounters. In a single half-day excursion, we observe grizzlies, black bear, humpback whales, orcas, sea lions, bald eagles and porpoises. I joke that we’ve spotted everything but a unicorn.

Why Vancouver Island and the Inside Passage?
On Vancouver Island, one doesn’t have to travel far to reach wilderness. Cities and small towns up and down the island give travelers access to lodging, dining and other attractions, all relatively close to wild regions, allowing the best of both worlds.

Vancouver Island and the Inside Passage is a land of dramatic mountains, open ocean and protected seas, old-growth forests and caves―a 290-mile-long microcosm of every environmental feature that defines the beauty of the Pacific Northwest. It’s a haven for wildlife, where they still thrive in pristine, often untouched places, whether on land or in the ocean.

First Nations heritage is an integral part of the culture of the region. Those exploring Vancouver Island and the Inside Passage have access to cultural centers and First Nations communities where they can enrich their experience by learning about the traditions, history and contemporary culture of the First Nations peoples.

  • Ancient cedar on San Josef Bay hike and Aurora Explorer gets a waterfall shower, credit Allen Cox
    Ancient cedar on San Josef Bay hike and Aurora Explorer gets a waterfall shower, credit Allen Cox

The Lay of the Land and the Water
Many travelers think of Victoria when they think of Vancouver Island. Victoria (B.C.’s capital city) anchors Vancouver Island’s southern tip and is the most visited spot on the island. It’s a graceful, traveler-friendly mix of old-world traditions and a contemporary vibe, and it makes a perfect launch pad for exploring the island.

Vancouver Island can be divided into chunks for ease of grasping the lay of the land. The southern part of the island is home to Victoria and the surrounding communities. Along the eastern shore, several seaside and farming communities, such as Nanaimo, Courtenay and Campbell River, offer plenty of attractions and lodging. The West Coast, home to Pacific Rim National Park and the popular communities of Tofino and Ucluelet, is a hub of outdoor action, such as surfing and deep-sea fishing, and offers easy access to pristine wilderness areas. The North Island (north of Campbell River) is the least discovered of Vancouver Island’s regions and offers endless opportunities for outdoor adventure and wildlife viewing. Two island regions off Vancouver Island’s east coast―Desolation Sound and Broughton Archipelago―are destinations with unmatched scenery and abundant wildlife.

Ah, Wilderness!
My idea of a wilderness adventure is wilderness by day and dinner, wine, a hot shower and a comfy bed at night. With the close proximity of civilization and wilderness on Vancouver Island and the Inside Passage, excursions are easily pared down to day trips without sacrificing the authenticity or quality of the experience. It’s simply about visiting wild places and respectfully observing the inhabitants there. The activity level can be easy, moderate or strenuous, based on the adventurer’s ability; one doesn’t have to be an athlete to enjoy wild places and wildlife.

Loosely defined, wilderness travel is an experience that takes you away from civilization. It opens a portal to a wild world and gives us permission to enter and observe. It is transformative and can be habit forming. And a few rules apply: respect, leave no trace, safety first.

For wilderness excursions that involve unfamiliar territory or activities that could be unsafe if carelessly undertaken, I prefer an expert guide familiar with the terrain, the wildlife and the potential risks. Guides like Tim McGrady of Farewell Harbour Lodge have both the knowledge and the people skills to make sure guests have the best experience possible and return unharmed.

Vancouver Island has no shortage of options for those wanting a taste of the raw nature of the Pacific Northwest. No need to scale a mountain or trek for a week over an arduous trail (although those options are available). Instead, travelers can get a taste of wilderness with ease, with the right excursions and guides. Here are a few that have all the right ingredients: professional guides, ease of access and locations that offer spectacular scenery and wildlife.

  • A week-long cruise aboard Marine Link Cruise’s 12-passenger, working cargo-delivery vessel, M.V. Aurora Explorer, in Desolation Sound or Broughton Archipelago, allows access to waterways, islands and fjords that are otherwise inaccessible except by private boat or seaplane. Marveling at snow-capped mountains dropping to the sea, spotting bears and sea lions on shore (and if you’re lucky a pod of orcas) and watching the crew load and unload cargo at logging camps and other outposts are the main attractions. They sail out of Campbell River, a 3.5-hour drive north of Victoria. http://www.marinelinktours.com/

  • Farewell Harbour Lodge is a remote wilderness resort on Berry Island in the Broughton Archipelago that caters to wildlife watchers. Guests are in good hands with naturalist guides familiar with the region and its wildlife. Here, the main attractions are grizzly bears and whales. Accommodations are cozy, the meals healthy and well-prepared and the staff welcoming and informative. Water taxi service from Alder Bay (about 20 minutes south of Port McNeill on north Vancouver Island) is included. https://www.farewellharbour.com

  • Hundreds of miles of caves lie beneath Vancouver Island, presenting an adventure for those curious about this subterranean wilderness. Horne Lake Caves, located a short drive inland from the island’s eastern shore, provides an excellent opportunity to learn about and explore this fragile ecosystem with a qualified caving guide. https://hornelake.com

  • At Tofino, on Vancouver Island’s wild west coast, visitors can paddle with a guide from T’ashii Paddle School in a traditional dugout canoe and hike through old-growth rainforest to experience the wilderness from a First Nations perspective. https://tofinopaddle.com

  • The northwest coast of Vancouver Island is one of the least visited places on the island, not because it lacks beauty, but because it is so remote. But visitors to the north-island city of Port Hardy can easily access this wild coast with guides from Cove Adventure Tours. Old-growth rainforests, isolated beaches, sea stacks and caves await those willing to explore this pristine corner of the island. https://www.coveadventuretours.com

When You Go
Getting to Vancouver Island from Seattle is easy by boat via Clipper Vacations or by seaplane on Kenmore Air, from Port Angeles (Washington) on Black Ball Ferry Line, and from Vancouver on B.C. Ferries or Harbour Air.

Plenty of lodging is available in Victoria to suit every budget; recommended hotels are the Fairmont Empress and the Magnolia Hotel & Spa. In Tofino, on the west coast, recommended lodging is The Wickaninnish Inn. In Courtenay, on the eastern shore, recommended lodging is Old House Hotel & Spa. In Port Hardy, on the north island, recommended lodging is Kwa’Lilas Hotel , a First Nations property.

More information and planning tips for travel to Vancouver Island can be found at Destination B.C.’s website, https://www.hellobc.com

Allen Cox is editor in chief at Northwest Travel & Life magazine, a freelance travel writer and author of two guidebooks on day hiking.  He serves as chair of the Travel & Words Conference, an annual travel writers conference held in the Pacific Northwest, and is vice president of International Food, Wine and Travel Writers Association. Allen believes everyone should be able to enjoy the outdoors and that adventure travel should not be reserved for mountain climbers or marathon runners. One of his favorite travel-writing topics is adventure travel that is accessible to people who do not wish to or are unable to engage in strenuous or extreme physical activity.

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