In the decades before the Pacific Rim National Park was born in 1970, this moss-laden landscape of mist and surf was a little-known outpost, a world apart. If adventurers managed to coax a vehicle across the tortuous road that led west from Port Alberni to the isolated ports of Tofino and Ucluelet, finding a bed was a simple matter at one of the few local inns. The alternative was constructing a driftwood shelter on one of the fabulous beaches nearby.
One million visitors a year now make this same journey on black-topped highway 4 (Pacific Rim Highway) to experience the romantic isolation of the region. It’s a tribute to the scale of this environment that so many travellers can be absorbed into it and still leave it so (apparently) empty. The open ocean stretches off unbroken and vacant, while the elemental forces at play here – the winds and the tide, the sun and the rain – excite within visitors a deep-seated resonance, a sense of belonging to this place.
Undoubtedly, the same chaos that reigns in winter during gale-force storms mimics, on a microcosmic scale at least, the fury of the Big Bang. And on eternal summer evenings, when a magenta sunset ignites the ocean’s summer evenings, there’s a peace so prevalent that you could almost bottle it and call it salvation. Take your pick of moods; they’re both soul-satisfying.
Just west of Parksville on the east coast of Vancouver Island, Highway 4 begins to wind across the island to Port Alberni, Ucluelet and Tofino, all three of which are sheltered harbours. Port Alberni sits at the head of Alberni Inlet, a long indentation that reaches so far inland that it comes within 50 km of Parksville.
Although the island is only about 100 km wide at this point, allow 2 to 3 hours to make the journey. The road must make its way around and over several natural obstacles, such as Sproat Lake and the rugged Vancouver Island Mountains, and is only two lanes wide for most of the distance. During stormy months, the section between Sproat Lake and the west coast can be extremely wet, so much so that your windshield wipers will have to work overtime to keep up with the deluge. Sometimes it’s better to just pull over to wait for the lashing to abate. We know it rains a lot on this coast – that’s why the forests are so magnificent and the trees so impressive!
Once on the west side of the island, Highway 4 divides and runs 8 km south to Ucluelet and 34 km north to Tofino. This route connects visitors with the three major components of the Pacific Rim National Park: The West Coast Trail’s northern terminus near Bamfield, the Broken Group Islands in Barkley Sound, and the Long Beach Unit of bays and beaches between Tofino and Ucluelet. Although the West Coast Trail and the Broken Group Islands are remote and wild, the long Beach Unit is readily accessible by road and much more welcoming to visitors.