Tranquil and bucolic, Denman Island and Hornby Island sit just off the east coast of Vancouver Island. Denman Island is the larger of the two, known for its pastoral farmlands and its population of talented artisans.
Separated from Vancouver Island by narrow Baynes Sound, Denman Island is fertile, low-lying and lush. Its beautiful sandstone and gravel shores teem with life: oysters, rock crabs, clams, eagles, seabirds and black-tailed deer.
Denman was once known as Punchlatt Island, and the Inner Island, by the Puntledge First Nations who set up summer camps on the island, gathering clams and berries, and fishing and hunting. Deer were caught by herding them into the water where hunters waited in canoes.
The first European settlement on Denman Island was in 1874. The island was named after Rear Admiral Joseph Denman, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Station, 1864-6. The island was allegedly nicknamed “Little Orkney” by the settlers who came from the Orkney Islands, an archipelago on the northern tip of Scotland.
These Gulf Islands are a holdover from a distant time when the entire Strait of Georgia was filled with sand. In more recent geological times, glaciation gouged out the trench that is now filled with seawater.
Because of certain inhibiting conditions – lack of water and garbage facilities, as well as tinder-dry forests in summer months – many islands have no public campgrounds. In most places, private accommodation must be arranged. In summer, reservations are highly recommended. However, there are public campgrounds on Denman Island.
The islands have attractive parks – especially for picnickers – located where you can take best advantage of the seaside environment. Whether you’re on Denman Island just for the day or have made arrangements for private overnight accommodation, you’ll want to head for these parks to complement your visit.
BC Ferries operates a vehicle and passenger scheduled ferry service from Buckley Bay to Denman Island. Daily 15-minute ferry rides land visitors on Denman Island, where the friendly village features a turn-of-the-century grocery store and a co-operative showcase for local arts and crafts. From Denman Island you can take a connecting ferry to nearby Hornby Island.
Cycling: Since many roads are paved and traffic is light, cycling is an ideal way to get around – scooter rentals are also available.
Stroll down a country lane, bask in the unspoiled countryside of woods and wildflowers or explore hidden coves along the sunny coastline.
The Denman Island Art Gallery is located above the Denman Island Senior’s Hall, and opens its doors for a lively series of summer art exhibitions.
On the long weekend in May, embark on the popular self-guided pottery tour and discover the heart of rural Denman life through ceramic works of art.
The Home and Garden Tour is Denman Island’s most popular tourism event! Don’t miss this once a year opportunity to visit some of the West Coast’s most inspirational properties.
Windy Marsh Farm is a wonderful produce stand located on the route from Fillongley to Boyle Point Provincial Park where you will find a great selection or organic fruits and vegetables along with a quaint gallery of folk art at “Artwork on Old Things”.
Fishing: Denman Island offers good salmon fishing, particularly of the south end of the island. Chickadee and Graham Lakes offer good trout fishing.
Fillongley Provincial Park, on Lambert Channel, has 10 campsites and is not particularly large, so it fills up quickly in July and August. There is no telling in advance whether you’ll find room here. The campground is located in a forested setting on the east side of the island, about 2.5 miles (4 km) from the ferry dock to Vancouver Island. Although the campsites are tightly packed together with only concrete dividers to separate them, the sand and pebble beach that fronts the park is spacious and provides ample opportunity for exploring and, in season, hunting for shellfish for dinner.
Boyle Point Provincial Park: A forested trail leads through Boyle Point Regional Park at the south end of East Road on Denman Island. Although not a lengthy walk, this 1-mile (1.6 km across) excursion will give your legs a good workout, and you will be rewarded at the end of the trail with views of Hornby Island (the ferry from Gravelly Bay on Denman to Shingle Bay on Hornby is a short distance north of the park) as well as the strategically located lighthouse on Chrome Island just offshore. Cliffs precipitously drop off below the lookout at trail’s end, and you may not be tempted to follow a rough route down to the shoreline. One noticeable difference between the waters of the north and south ends of Denman is the presence of sea urchins around Boyle Point, but not at Longbeak Point and the waters around Sandy Island Marine Provincial Park.
Canoeing & Kayaking: There are several places around the northern straits where an open canoe is just as handy as a kayak to reach one of the Marine Provincial parks. For example, you can paddle from Denman Island to nearby Sandy Island Marine Provincial Park. On a calm day it is possible to launch from the wharf at Buckley Bay on Vancouver Island, cross Baynes Sound to the west side of Denman, and then make your way north to the park.
You can reduce your paddling time by taking the 10-minute ferry ride to Denman, then launching from there. Paddling distance from Denman’s ferry dock to Sandy Island is about 6 miles (10 km); half that if you launch from the public beach access farther north on Denman. To reach this location, follow Northwest Road to Gladstone Way, and park at the west end of Gladstone. A trail winds a short distance to the beach. If the tide is out you’ll have to carry your canoe or kayak over oyster-encrusted rocks to reach the ocean. Wear beach shoes and tread carefully to avoid damaging the shellfish. The park is less than a 2-mile (3-km) paddle from here.
Wildlife: As you make your way you may well be accompanied by seals, dolphins, or loons. Tall blue herons stand posted like sentries on the rocky outcroppings exposed at low tide. A long spit of land – Longbeak Point – curves out from Denman towards Sandy Island and provides a calming breakwater. As soon as you set foot on Sandy Island and a clam kneecaps you with a jet of seawater, you’ll experience the magic of the place. Underfoot, small mussels the colour of lapis lazuli keep company with bleached geoduck, scallop, and oyster shells. Black and white sand dollars, enough to retire the national debt, stand banked up against the rest. Shorebirds in the hundreds work the waters for their meals. At low tide, deer emerge from nearby Denman’s forests to nibble at moss growing on fallen logs, occasionally crossing between the two islands. As you explore Sandy Island, you’ll see matted evidence of deer beds in the long grass. In the evening the lights of Comox and Courtenay twinkle over on Vancouver Island, and overhead, as the last light fades from the peaks of the Vancouver Island Mountains, the stars begin to appear like popcorn, first one, then another, and finally a barrage from the Milky Way as it spreads out like sea foam.
Sandy Island Marine Provincial Park is located so close to the north end of Denman Island that at low tide you can wade to the park from the tip of Longbeak Point. At the centre of Sandy Island (or Tree Island on some maps) a mighty stand of Douglas fir shelters a small number of rustic campsites. Bring your own water and cookstove as fires are not allowed. When you sleep, cushioned by the soft sand, you’ll enjoy a contentment known by those adventurers who, having made the effort, find safe haven in nature.
From Denman, cross to nearby Hornby Island, with its gorgeous white sandy beaches – go hiking, kayaking, cycling or scuba diving. Travellers wishing to visit Hornby Island must first take the ferry to Denman Island and cross the island to Gravelly Bay. A second ferry to Hornby Island makes the short crossing between Gravelly Bay on Denman and Shingle Spit on Hornby Island.
Every island is invested with magic. Those who visit Hornby Island have really bought into the dream, as it takes two ferries to reach. Once there, head for the picnic grounds at Tribune Bay Provincial Park or Helliwell Provincial Park. The latter sits on a headland forested with a beautiful stand of old-growth Douglas fir. If you arrive here in spring you’ll be treated to a dazzling wildflower display. The rewards of visiting later in summer are the huckleberries and dark blue salal berries that cloak the hillside above the beach. Tribune Bay boasts eroded hoodoo formations and a sandy beach that vies with any in the Gulf Islands as the most ideal place to frolic and swim. Owing to the low elevation of most Gulf and Discovery Islands, walking routes are neither lengthy nor challenging. Some of the best trails are on Hornby Island and lead around Helliwell Provincial Park. A 3-mile (5-km) loop trail follows the bluffs that rise above the beach and lead through open fields and stands of magnificent old-growth Douglas fir. One of the best times to be here is in late April and early May, when wildflowers carpet the hillside above the beach.
Island Hopping: Travelling between the Southern Gulf Islands and Northern Gulf Islands can be accomplished in small hops. Each of these islands is a world unto itself, each with its own history, culture and colourful characters – each island deserves at least a day or two for exploring.