In the decades before 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 sister 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.
Just west of Parksville on the east coast of Vancouver Island, the Pacific Rim Highway (Highway 4) begins to wind across the spine of the Vancouver Island Mountains to Port Alberni and the open ocean at Ucluelet and Tofino, all three of which are sheltered harbours. This is the route to the Pacific Rim National Park.
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 tides, the sun and 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 serene surface, 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.
Port Alberni sits at the head of the Alberni Inlet, a long indentation that reaches so far inland that it comes within 30 miles (50 km) of Parksville on the east coast of Vancouver Island. Although the island is only about 60 miles (100 km) wide at this point, allow two to three 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. Passing lanes help, but patience is the key to a safe journey. 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 just to pull over and wait for the lashing to abate.
Location: Parksville is about 22 miles (35 km) north of Nanaimo’s Departure Bay ferry terminal, which links Vancouver Island with Horseshoe Bay on the Lower Mainland. Highways 19A and Island Highway 19 link Parksville with northern Vancouver Island. Two branches of Pacific Rim Highway 4 lead west from the east coast of Vancouver Island. One from Parksville (Craig’s Crossing on the town’s south side) and the other from Qualicum Beach just to the north of Parksville. Both branches unite after a short distance and run for about 90 miles (140 km) to both Ucluelet and Tofino.
Along the way, the Pacific Rim Highway passes through Port Alberni, about 30 miles (50 km) west of Parksville. Once on the west side of the island, Highway 4 (Pacific Rim Highway) divides and runs 5 miles (8 km) south to Ucluelet and 21 miles (34 km) north to Tofino. This route connects visitors with the three major components of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve: the West Coast Trail’s northern terminus near Bamfield, the Broken Group Island in Barkely 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. A park-use fee is in effect for visitors to the Long Beach Unit from mid-March to mid-October.
View map of the area
The following towns are located on or near Pacific Rim Highway 4 (east to west)
Bordered by ocean and sheltered by mountains, Parksville is a very popular for summer family vacations. Mild winters allow the leisurely exploration of tidal sand flats, coastal wildlife viewing and invigorating golf year-round. The central location of Parksville makes this oceanside playground a convenient base from which to enjoy all your vacation activities on Vancouver Island. Highway 4 starts in Parksville and heads west across Vancouver Island to Port Alberni, Tofino and Ucluelet.
Qualicum Beach gently spreads in front of one of the most pleasant small towns on the east coast of Vancouver Island. Pause here at any of the numerous beachside pullouts and smell the salt air intermingled with the perfume from the many private and public floral displays.
Located in the Arrowsmith Coombs Country region of Oceanside, in the shadow of Vancouver Island’s mountain spine, the tiny village of Errington was named after a small village in England’s Northumberland County. Now home to an eclectic assortment of farmers, artists and craftspeople, Errington is also the gateway to the Englishman River Falls in the magnificent Englishman River Falls Provincial Park.
Located in the Arrowsmith Coombs Country region of Oceanside, Coombs is a popular stopping point for tourists on the way to Tofino, Ucluelet and the Pacific Rim Park on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The little village of Coombs is dotted with several heritage buildings, small gift and craft shops, antique stores, and is known for the family of goats nimbly grazing on the grass rooftop of the Coombs Old Country Market.
Port Alberni is nestled in the Alberni Valley at the head of Alberni Inlet, the longest inlet on Vancouver Island. Port Alberni is considered a major tourist hub, situated as it is on the fringe of the island’s wilderness in surroundings that include mountains, pristine lakes, surging rivers filled with salmon and trout, and rain forests of giant trees towering more than 200 feet into the sky.
Sproat Lake is located on the south side of Highway 4 just west of Port Alberni. Vacation homes and holiday cottages dot the shoreline, but the majority of the foreshore is uninhabited and lined by beaches and Douglas fir forest. Sproat Lake is noted for its warm water and is favoured for fishing, swimming, water skiing and windsurfing. In the summer, this popular family camping destination can be buzzing with boaters and anglers.
An ancient settlement on the northern edge of Barkley Sound, Ucluelet takes its name from the Nuu-chah-nulth phrase, Yu-clutl-ahts, the people with a good landing place for canoes. Ucluelet is situated in the Long Beach unit of Pacific Rim National Park, located between the villages of Tofino and Ucluelet – the most accessible and most developed component of the Pacific Rim National Park.
Tofino is a pretty fishing village at the tip of Esowista Peninsula near the entrance to Clayoquot Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Tofino is a rapidly growing tourist centre for Long Beach and other Pacific Rim destinations. Once a timber and fishing town, Tofino has become a favoured destination for travellers from around the world.
Ucluelet CampgroundUcluelet Campground
Ucluelet Campground is located in the historical fishing village of Ucluelet, at the southern edge of the Pacific Rim National Park. The private campground offers 125 sites for tents, trailers and RVs, some with beautiful harbour and mountain views. Amenities include full-service, partial-hookup and no-service sites, clean shower and washroom facilities, fire rings, picnic tables, and water stations.