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Off the Beaten Path on Vancouver Island: A Travel Guide

Have you always longed to disconnect from daily life and lose yourself on a peaceful, restorative trip to Vancouver Island?

As a leader in immersive multi-day tours of British Columbia, Mosaic Earth Travel specializes in off-the-beaten-path adventures that connect travellers with the rich cultures and lush nature of Canada's West Coast.

And one of our favourite places to explore with visitors to BC is Vancouver Island, especially the lesser-known places you don’t always find in guidebooks.

If you’re looking for travel inspiration, we’ve put together this guide to show you how rewarding it is to get off the beaten path on Vancouver Island.

For more information about any of our adventure tours and retreats in BC, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Mosaic Earth guests enjoying sunset from the deck of locally-owned B&B in Alert Bay, North Vancouver Island. Photo by Josh McGarel.

Enjoying the sunset from our B&B after a day of adventures.

An Introduction to Vancouver Island

If you’re not from the southern region of British Columbia, you may not be overly familiar with Vancouver Island. With this in mind, let’s get to know this region a little bit better before we showcase the best it has to offer.

The first thing you should know about Vancouver Island is its size. At 460 km (286 miles) long, it’s the largest island on the Pacific coast of North America, over five times the size of Prince Edward Island — and that’s a province!

With so much ground to cover, many visitors to Vancouver Island, especially those coming for the first time, see little more than the highlights in the south.

Southern Vancouver Island does have a lot to offer — including the largest city on the Island and BC’s capital city, Victoria, as well as Tofino, a picturesque coastal town known for its stunning beaches and surf culture.

However, it’s in Northern Vancouver Island that you can truly get off the beaten track, away from the crowds, and out into some of Western Canada’s most breathtaking scenery. This region is home to the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw First Nations who also offer a range of immersive Indigenous cultural experiences.

We love this part of Vancouver Island so much that we have made it a staple of our BC self-guided tours and small-group guided tours in British Columbia.

Mosaic Earth group tour visiting San Josef Bay, Cape Scott Provincial Park in northern Vancouver Island with a local guide. Photo by Josh McGarel.

Our group exploring the sandy beaches of San Josef Bay with a local guide.

How to Get Off the Beaten Path on Vancouver Island

The journey to Vancouver Island typically begins with a ferry from Vancouver (Horseshoe Bay and Tsawwassen) to either Nanaimo or Victoria.

Mosaic Earth van getting off the beaten path on Quadra Island, off of Vancouver Island near Campbell River. Photo by Josh McGarel.

The ferry journey can take between 90 minutes to two hours, depending on your preferred route, and is a scenic trip onto itself.

For our own tours on the island, such as the North Island In-Depth Guided Tour, we advise taking the short flight from Vancouver International Airport to Campbell River with Pacific Coastal Airlines. This option saves you time, allowing you to spend longer in the seclusion of Northern Vancouver Island.

Once you’re on the road, the main north-south thoroughfare on Vancouver Island is Highway 19, extending from Nanaimo to the northernmost town of Port Hardy. Those looking to escape on a wellness break or tranquil road trip will find all the best spots scattered within easy reach of this road.

Visit Campbell River, the Salmon Capital of the World

Campbell River is one of the larger communities on Vancouver Island and a gateway to the open expanses of the north. Here, things start to get wilder.

You can enjoy bear viewing and whale watching tours led by local naturalist and Indigenous guides that bring you closer to jaw-dropping wildlife while learning about the history of the land.

A trip to Elk Falls Provincial Park, with its network of trails through old growth forest and roaring waterfall viewed from a suspension bridge, is an absolute must.

The streams and rivers here are home to all five species of salmon, making it a great place for salmon spotting, eagle viewing, and fishing.

Embrace First Nations Culture in Alert Bay

The north of Vancouver Island is rich in Indigenous culture, and Alert Bay - home to 'Na̱mǥis First Nation - is the cultural mecca of the region.

While all of our tours on the North Island visit Alert Bay, if you’re looking for a more immersive experience check out our Cultures of the North Island Tour in BC — a fascinating opportunity to connect more deeply with First Nation history and communities along the way.

Here we visit the U'Mista Cultural Centre and view the renowned Potlatch Collection, before enjoying a performance by the T’sasala Cultural Group Dancers in the ‘Na̱mǥis Traditional Big House. Our groups also have the chance to learn cedar weaving from local Indigenous leaders.

Alongside the rich cultural offerings in Alert Bay, its location on a small island brings ample opportunities to immerse in the famous British Columbia wilderness.

Go Sea Kayaking in Telegraph Cove

Once the communications hub of the North Island, followed by a fishing and cannery village, Telegraph Cove is a must-stop on your trip to this region. This photogenic village has a wonderful boardwalk to stroll along, past many of the historic houses and shops, not to mention a Whale Museum that is well worth a visit.

After sightseeing, our favourite thing to do in Telegraph Cove is joining a full-day sea kayak excursion led by an expert local guide.

These mindful adventures offer peace in the quiet surroundings of Johnstone Strait’s many coves and channels. All the while, you can keep an eye out for sightings of sea lions, orca, humpback whales, and other iconic BC wildlife.

Mosaic Earth Travel sea kayaking in Telegraph Cove, North Vancouver Island. Photo by Josh McGarel.

Experience Whale Watching from Port Hardy

At the end of Highway 19 sits the town of Port Hardy - the edge of Northern Vancouver Island’s lush coastal wilderness.

This is an ecologically rich, rugged, resilient place where you can hike secluded trails, walk on expansive beaches, or paddle out at sea.

The First Nations-owned Kwa’Lilas Hotel is our favourite place to rest in Port Hardy. Here you’ll enjoy authentic Indigenous cuisine, beautiful art, and cultural activities.

For a deeper insight into our mindful cultural experiences, read our previous blog: Close to Home: A Cultural Journey to Northern Vancouver Island.

Whale-watching in the Western Queen Charlotte Strait is another experience you can’t miss when in Port Hardy. With very little boat traffic in this area, you’ll feel as though it’s just you and the whales in the open ocean. Here you have the chance to see the Northern Resident Killer Whales (orca), along with humpback whales, sea otters, sea lions, and seabirds.

Journey to San Josef Bay in Cape Scott Provincial Park

Spanning the north-western tip of Vancouver Island, Cape Scott Provincial Park is a natural treasure that is a joy to explore.

The best access is via San Josef Bay where day-trippers can enjoy a truly unique coastal experience.

After a short hike through old-growth forest, the trails open onto a spectacular white sand beach. Coupled with its jagged, rocky coastline, unique caves and sea stacks, and unmatched views of the Pacific Ocean, this part of the Island is a wilder, more rugged version of Tofino in the south.

Given the seclusion of this area, you’ll likely only share this experience with a handful of other people. It doesn’t get more off the beaten path than that.

Mosaic Earth guests walking the sandy beach of San Josef Bay, Cape Scott Provincial Park on northern Vancouver Island, with sea stacks and other geological features. Photo by Josh McGarel.

Join Our Tours for an Authentic North Vancouver Island Experience

We hope this blog has inspired you to explore the awe-inspiring landscapes and welcoming communities in the north of Vancouver Island.

Browse our full range of immersive experiences in rural British Columbia and find out how you can connect with the wilds of Western Canada.

For more information about any of our self-guided tours, guided tours, or wellness retreats, please feel free to contact us.


Photos by Josh McGarel

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