Nanaimo has a port that connects with Vancouver, making it a perfect gateway to Vancouver Island. And the best part is that one of the most epic road trips in Canada leads along Highway 4 from Nanaimo to Tofino.
This Vancouver Island road trip will take you to picture-perfect fishing villages, misty rainforest, wide sandy beaches for as far as you can see, and Pacific Rim National Park.
The cherry on top is Tofino, a charming town and a base for sea kayaking, surfing and whale watching on Clayoquot Sound.
Not to mention passing through Cathedral Grove, with some of Canada’s oldest and most giant trees.
And I’m only getting started. Vancouver Island is a place to be if you love adventure and nature.
We had the pleasure of cruising in a vintage Chevy van through this awe-inspiring and misty mountain scenery, and in this guide, we’ll share with you the best stops along the way you shouldn’t miss.
How to Get to Vancouver Island
BC Ferries provides frequent, year-round passenger and vehicle service to Vancouver Island.
You can make a reservation upfront which might be a good idea, especially during the busy summer season. This way, you’re sure to secure your spot.
- From Vancouver
Regular ferries depart from Horseshoe Bay (a 25-minute drive from downtown Vancouver) to Nanaimo Departure Bay, 3 km (2 miles) north of Nanaimo.
The ride takes 1h 40 minutes, so starting your day early will give you more time to enjoy your Tofino drive. The first ferry departs at 6:25 am.
- From Victoria
Tofino is 314 km (195 miles) from Victoria, about a four- or five-hour drive.
If you’re coming from Vancouver or Victoria by ferry to Nanaimo, head north to Parksville via the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1) and the Island Highway (Highway 19).
From there, pick up Highway 4, which crosses the island from Parksville to Port Alberni, Ucluelet, and Tofino.
If you really don’t want to drive, you can travel by bus. However, you’ll miss out on many Vancouver Island highlights.
Vancouver Island Connector is the bus company that connects Victoria and Nanaimo to Ucluelet and Tofino. In the summer months, Tofino free shuttle services are available in the Tofino area. BC Transit provides city bus service in several Vancouver Island communities.
Flying to Vancouver Island is also an option, although a lot more expensive.
The major airports on Vancouver Island are:
- Victoria International Airport (YYJ)
- Nanaimo Airport (YCD)
- Comox Valley Airport (YQQ)
You can also fly into the tiny Tofino-Ucluelet Airport (YAZ) from Vancouver year-round and from Victoria from May through October.
Renting a Car in BC
To make the most of your road trip and explore Vancouver Island well, you really need a car.
You can rent a car either in Vancouver or directly on Vancouver Island.
When it comes to renting a car for your Nanaimo to Tofino road trip, you have several options.
Discover Cars offer convenient rental services that allow you to rent a car online.
You might pick up some good deals on Turo, where you can rent a car directly from private owners. It’s somewhat of an Airbnb of car rentals.
The vans tend to vanish quickly in the summer. Although a day rate for renting a van might be higher than a standard SUV, you might save a lot more on accommodation.
You might be interested:
What Are the Best Months to Go to Tofino?
July and August are, not surprisingly, the peak tourist months in Tofino. That’s when Vancouver Island’s weather is delightful, and all that hiking, camping, kayaking, and outdoor fun is at its best.
If you prefer to avoid the crowds and don’t mind a bit of rain, travel in late Fall or early Spring.
We drove from Nanaimo to Tofino in September, which was a great time to visit. The island wasn’t too crowded, and the weather was still pleasant. Fall is also the best time of year for surfing in Tofino!
April is a prime month for whale watching on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
Spring is when thousands of gray whales swim by the coast on their way to Alaska and when the Pacific Rim Whale Festival takes place. Humpback whales can be spotted in Tofino between June and September.
Wintertime is ideal if you’re after storm-watching in Tofino or Ucluelet.
Top Roadtrip Stops From Nanaimo to Tofino
- Rathtrevor Beach
- Goats on the Roof / Coombs Old Country Market
- Little Qualicum Falls
- Cameron Lake
- Cathedral Grove
- Hole In The Wall Waterfall
- Port Alberni
- Sproat Lake Petroglyphs
- Taylor River Rest Area
- Wally Creek
- WestCoast WILD Zipline
- Kennedy Lake Provincial Park
- Ancient Cedars Loop Trail (detour)
- Wild Pacific Trail – Lighthouse Loop (detour)
- Ucluelet (detour)
- Long Beach
After getting off the ferry in Nanaimo, head north for about 30 minutes along Highway 19 to Parksville.
Take a stroll on the sandy beach and explore the forested hiking trails of Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park.
This park has a 347-hectare coastline just south of the town center, making for a pleasant, quick stop.
If you travel with kids, check out Riptide Lagoon near the park entrance for a round of mini golf and other fun games.
In summer, the sand sculpting competition and beach fest takes place in Parksville, so don’t miss out if you’re in the area around that time.
2.Goats on the Roof
It’s time to enjoy a bite to eat or have an ice cream break at the Coombs Old Country Market, about 15 km (9 miles) west of Parksville.
It’s also a great place to stock up on your picnic supplies.
There are many picnic hot spots along the route from Nanaimo to Tofino, but more on that later.
Inside the market is a selection of goodies of epic proportions – a bakery, a deli, a restaurant, an ice cream stand, plenty of island-made produce and interesting European imports.
Behind the main building are rows of artsy shops selling everything from pottery to jewelry and kites.
The name Goats on the Roof is not just symbolic, the market has real goats grazing on the roof. I mean, how cool is that!
So don’t forget to bring your camera to snap funky photos with goats.
3.Little Qualicum Falls
You’ll find Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park 10 kilometers (6 miles) west of Coombs.
The park’s main loop trail leads alongside the babbling Little Qualicum River to the upper and lower falls.
It’s a fairly easy hike, definitely worth the stop.
The scenery with stunning waterfalls is unbeatable, and the trails are in great condition.
In case you’d like to stay here overnight, there is also a campground in the park.
Cameron Lake is a large, deep-green body of water just outside the Little Qualicum Provincial Park boundary.
It’s enveloped by hills from each side with many sheltered spots under the trees.
Beaufort Picnic Site at the lake is a perfect picnic spot on the highway between Nanaimo and Tofino.
So you might put those snacks from Old Country Market to good use.
The lake water is calm and serene. You can dip your feet or go kayaking.
Just west of Cameron Lake, Highway 4 leads to one of Vancouver Island’s top tourist attractions, Cathedral Grove.
It’s the most outstanding and easily accessible old growth forest on the island.
Standing below the giant Douglas fir, western redcedar, western hemlock and grand fir trees will make your jaw drop.
Douglas fir trees and cedars up to 4.5 meters in diameter are estimated to be 800 years old.
They’re the oldest and tallest trees not only in British Columbia but in the entire country.
This majestic 15-hectare forest is part of MacMillan Provincial Park.
6.Hole In The Wall Waterfall
Hole in the Wall is an amazing spot to visit and a nice short walk just outside the town of Port Alberni.
Finding parking in the area can be a bit challenging.
You can either pull on the side of the highway or park at the Coombs Country Candy Store across the highway, so be cautious when crossing the road.
The Hole in the Wall in Port Alberni is a unique man-made phenomenon.
Years ago, this hole was drilled through the solid rock for an old pipeline.
The pipeline has since been removed and left behind a beautiful photogenic oasis in the woods where the creek flows through the hole.
You might even swim in the natural pool below with crystal clear water to cool down on a hot sunny day.
It may be a bit tricky to find but well worth the effort! At times, the path and rocks can get quite slippery, so wear proper shoes.
Highway 4 west from Port Alberni to Tofino winds through an unspoiled wilderness, and you won’t find a gas station or store for at least a couple of hours.
Therefore, It’s a good place to get fuel, any camping/road trip supplies or food items.
Port Alberni is a lumber town and busy fishing port. If you don’t mind a short detour and have a bit of extra time, the most picturesque area of Port Alberni is Alberni Harbour Quay.
There are several restaurant options here.
Stroll the promenade and climb the Waterfront Clocktower for nice views.
8.Sproat Lake Petroglyphs
Sproat Lake is a scenic resort near Port Alberni with miles of shoreline popular for swimming.
In summer, it’s a paradise for water sports, boating and camping. There are many beautiful bungalows and cottages on the lake shore.
Keep an eye out for two gigantic vintage forest fire-fighting water bombers based on the lake.
To get to the petroglyphs, follow a trail from the parking lot adjacent to the lower campground until you reach a floating dock facing the rock carvings. Petroglyphs are believed to be carved by First Nations people.
The walking trail to get there is mostly flat and less than 1km long.
The carvings are thousands of years old and believed to represent real and mythical creatures, such as bottom fish, killer whales or sea snakes.
9.Taylor River Rest Area
Taylor River is not just your ordinary rest area with picnic tables and washrooms.
What makes this place special is a stunning turquoise natural swimming pool with crystal clear water.
It’s a super inviting place to take a swim. It even has a rope swing if you want to jump straight in.
If you keep driving further down the road, you’ll stumble across another Vancouver Island gem, Wally Creek.
The creek is a popular stop right on the side of the road. Some easy paths lead you down to the blue-green water and breathtaking views.
You can stretch your legs or take a dip to cool off.
There’s even an adorable chain fence (Love Lock Fence) where you can leave locks with your loved one.
Wally Creek is well worth the stop on your road trip from Nanaimo to Tofino.
11.WestCoast WILD Zipline
Another great stop on your way to Tofino is WestCoast Wild Zipline.
Enjoy a thrilling 90 min experience with six zip line segments through the canyon.
The experience includes a short cultural and natural introduction to the First Nations and the trees in the area.
Westcoast Wild also offers other activities, such as paddling on Kennedy River and float plane scenic tours if you feel adventurous.
12.Kennedy Lake Provincial Park
Kennedy Lake Provincial Park might be another great place to stop on Highway 4 for a quick picnic or a stroll on the lake beach.
It’s an ideal spot for swimming, paddling, fishing and camping.
The lake shores are almost entirely undeveloped, and the water is pristine with a mountain backdrop.
If you’re traveling in a van, there are a few free spots to park overnight along Kennedy Lake.
13.Ancient Cedars Loop Trail (Detour)
The Ancient Cedars Loop is an easy stop along the Peninsula Hwy near Ucluelet.
The Ancient Cedars Loop takes only about 15 mins to complete, and it is manageable for average hikers.
If you want to enjoy the coastal scenery, the loop links up with the Wild Pacific Trail – Lighthouse Loop and Rocky Bluffs along the coast.
If you pair it with Wild Pacific Trail, it will add an extra 45mins to your walk.
Huge ancient cedar trees make this a memorable walk if you love the old-growth forest setting. The trail has good signage.
14.Wild Pacific Trail – Lighthouse Loop (Detour)
The Wild Pacific Trail is a stunning network of pathways that run along the rugged coastline of Ucluelet.
Picture breathtaking Pacific Ocean views, golden sand beaches, and opportunities to see local wildlife such as seals, sea lions, whales, and bald eagles.
The Lighthouse loop is the best part of the Wild Pacific Trail leading to a lighthouse. There are many benches along the trail to take in the views.
The entire trail is about 3km long and takes around 45 minutes to complete. It’s one of the top walks in the area. The trail is open year-round.
Ucluelet has a wonderfully scenic location between the ocean and a protected bay.
Like Tofino, this oceanside town offers beaches, kayaking and whale watching but with a more laid-back vibe.
Drive through town to reach He-tin-kis Park.
If you travel with kids, they’ll love Ucluelet Aquarium on the waterfront promenade.
Long Beach is one of the most stunning beaches on Vancouver Island.
It’s the largest and longest beach in Pacific Rim National Park, hence the name.
You can walk for hours at low tide on the white sand covered in twisted driftwood and shells.
The waves are ideal for surfing. It’s also a perfect place to soak up the sun or catch the sunset before you head to your accommodation.
You can access the beach at many places, but first check out the Kwisitis Visitor Centre, which overlooks the entire beach.
Here you can learn about the natural and human history of both the park and the ocean through exhibits and pretty hand-painted murals.
The area also has countless trails, such as Bog Trail or Rainforest Trail.
And finally, you’ve reached Tofino! This charming and quirky town is home to amazing beaches, rugged coastlines and temperate rainforests. It’s perfect for surfers and nature lovers.
You can enjoy whale watching, surfing, kayaking, and hikes.
Tofino has many restaurants and cafes to spoil your taste buds. Some of them even have ocean views.
Our favorite places to have breakfast are Tofitian or Driftwood Cafe.
A fun activity is to take a boat tour to Hotsprings Cove. Hot water comes straight from the ground and then drops down through a series of natural pools facing the ocean.
There are many popular beaches in Tofino, such as Chesterman Beach, MacKenzie and Cox. They are all spectacular.
For the best views, go for a hike to Cox Bay Lookout Point.
As per accommodation, Tofino offers many luxurious beachfront resorts. One of the most popular ones in the area are Pacific Sands Beach Resort, Ocean Village Resort and Long Beach Lodge Resort.
If you’re looking for more budget-friendly options, you can consider campgrounds or house sitting.
House sitting is taking care of someone’s house and pets while they’re away in exchange for free accommodation.
You might luck out and find some options available for house sitting in Tofino. Victoria would probably have more options, though.
Nanaimo to Tofino FAQ
What is the road like from Nanaimo to Tofino?
The road from Nanaimo to Tofino is a well-maintained highway but quite a curving route. The best part is the wild scenery along the way, passing picturesque lakes, old-growth forests, sandy beaches and misty mountains. If you plan to travel here in winter, make sure to check the road conditions.
Are 2 nights in Tofino enough?
You can squeeze a lot into two nights in Tofino without feeling rushed. However, if you intend to surf, you might want to stay for at least three days. Consider whale watching and a hot spring tour if you have extra time.
How long does it take to drive from Nanaimo to Tofino?
The drive between Nanaimo and Tofino takes about 2 hours and 50 minutes. Although the driving distance is only 217km, with so many epic stops along the way, you might want to plan for a full-day road trip.
Can you swim in the ocean in Tofino?
July and August are the warmest months for swimming. The ocean water temperature generally ranges between 7 and 15 degrees Celsius, so wearing a wetsuit is advisable.
Should you stay in Tofino or Ucluelet?
You can’t go wrong with either Tofino or Ucluelet. Tofino is a more popular destination, while Ucluelet has a less touristy atmosphere, making it slightly cheaper and quieter. Tofino is known for its luxurious beachfront bungalows and resorts. The dining scene is also more exciting in Tofino.
What time of year are whales in Tofino?
Early spring is a prime month for whale watching in Tofino. That’s when thousands of gray whales swim by the west coast of Vancouver Island on their way to Alaska and when the Pacific Rim Whale Festival takes place. Humpback whales can be spotted in Tofino between June and September.