Beaches and Picnic Spots on Vancouver Island
Qualicum Beach, about 7.5 miles (12 km) north of Parksville beside Hwy 19A, gently spreads in front of one of the most pleasant small towns on east side 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. From this point northwards, the pace of Vancouver Island slackens noticeably. Not that the southern portion is any more hurried, it’s just that there are more people and more congestion. From here north, there is less traffic, and what habitation there is clings to a narrow coastal plain beside the ocean.
Spider Lake Provincial Park is a small lake located 5 miles (8 km) west of Hwy 19A near Horne Lake. There is a lovely stretch of beach beside the warm, clear waters of the lake, on which no motorized boats are allowed. If you’re looking for a respite from travel, spend an hour or two picnicking here at any time year-round; take a dip in summer and toss in a hook if you like smallmouth bass. The lake is indented by a number of bays, particularly at its north end, which makes for quiet exploring in a canoe or rowboat.
The beaches around Comox are usually overlooked by visitors, which is a shame. Take the time to drive east of Hwy 19 as it passes through Courtenay and follow the signs to the BC Ferries terminal in Comox. Miles of sandy shore lead off both north and south of the quiet little coastal town, whose charm has not been overwhelmed by either the nearby Canadian Forces Air Base or the more recent influx of arrivals that south Vancouver Island has experienced.
Kye Bay, 3 miles (5 km) north of Comox off Lazo Road, has a long, sandy beach, as does Goose Spit Regional Park, which noses out into Comox Harbour at the west end of Hawkins Road. Kin Beach Park on Kilmorley Road south of the ferry terminal is a good spot to pass time if you’re waiting for a sailing. Texada Island’s dark form lies in the strait directly east of Comox, while Denman Island lies to the south.
A broad stretch of sandy beach stands revealed at low tide in Seal Bay Regional Park on Bates Rd. Also called Xwee Xwhya Lug, a place with an atmosphere of serenity, by the Comox Native Band, a 0.6-mile (1-km) walk from the parking area through a forested ravine leads to this wide beach. The Comox Valley Ground Search and Rescue Association publishes a detailed map of the Comox Valley that provides invaluable assistance in finding all of these beaches. It is available throughout the Comox Valley.
As you pass through Campbell River, it’s hard not to notice strollers and cyclists meandering along Oyster Bay Shoreline Regional Park, a shoreline bike-and-walking trail with gravel beaches and great views across to Quadra Island. Pulverized oyster shells speckle the gravel with a bright, white hue. The trail winds for much of the distance from the town’s southern perimeter to the central harbour, passing the new museum on the hillside above the beach. The occasional picnic table and park bench invite travellers to pull over and join the fun.
As you make your way across the island to the west coast, Hwy 4 passes beside a number of fine locations for picnicking and swimming. You’ll find both at the Cameron Lake and Beaufort provincial picnic grounds adjacent to the campground in Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park. Picnic tables are arranged beside the beach. Strong winds blow here in the afternoon, which attracts windsurfers but definitely deters those in small boats.
You can spend days walking the beaches between Ucluelet and Tofino, and in the process discover why some folks spend their whole lives caught up in the surf and tidal rhythms here. Radar Beach, Long Beach, Combers Beach, and Wickaninnish Beach run successively from north to south and stretch for 15.5 miles (25 km) between Cox and Quisitas Points. Together they comprise the Long Beach Unit of beaches. Radar Beach is rugged and puts up a fight when pummelled by the surf. Exercise great caution within range of the surf anywhere on these beaches.
If you only have a short amount of time, head directly to Long Beach, the most easily accessible and also the longest – 6 miles (10 km) long! Depending on the season and the height of the swells in Wickaninnish Bay, not to mention the thickness of the mist, you may see surfers, sea kayakers, cyclists, kite flyers, hackey-sackers, disc tossers, swimmers, joggers, and walkers at play on the hard-packed sand. The scene here is as alive as you want to make it, and there’s room to spare. Something about the enormity of Long Beach just makes you goofy. Take Hwy 4 north towards Tofino. The highway runs beside the beach – you’ll recognize it on sight. There is parking on the south end at Green Point Campground, as well as at the north end of Long Beach. The short trail that leads from the parking lot at Green Point passes a long row of picnic tables sheltered by the salal and stunted Sitka spruce, and deposits visitors at the halfway point on Wickaninnish Bay. To the north are Radar Beach and Long Beach; to the south are Combers Beach and Wickaninnish Beach.
Rocky headlands bookend Wickaninnish Bay, but south and north of it are four equally beautiful sandy expanses, each with a variation on the overall mood of isolation that characterizes these ‘outside’ waters. Wreck Beach on Florencia Bay is 3 miles (5 km) long and lies at the south end of the Long Beach Unit. It’s easily reached from Hwy 4, 3 miles (5 km) north of the Tofino-Ucluelet Junction. Turn west onto Long Beach Road, then south at the first fork. The Wickaninnish Bay Interpretive Centre lies nearby at the end of Long Beach Road.
Cox Bay, Chesterman, and MacKenzie Beaches lie to the north of the Long Beach Unit, between the northern boundary of Pacific Rim National Park and Tofino. There’s public access to each of them, though you’ll have to do some backroad driving to find it. A small park on Mackenzie Beach is a good place to begin. Take Mackenzie Beach Road west of Hwy 4 (Pacific Rim Hwy) and watch for a small roadside parking area and picnic table at the end of the road. Chesterman Beach is reached via Lynn Rd, which loops west from Hwy 4. Cox Bay Beach is reached by following the road to the Pacific Sands Resort west of Hwy 4.
Ucluelet has two beaches in particular that welcome picnickers. A trail leads from Bay St to Big Beach. You’ll find picnic tables near the trailhead and then a lengthy walk to the beach. A much shorter approach leads through He-Tin-Kis Park to Terrace Beach near the Amphitrite Point lighthouse at the south end of Peninsula Road. Ahous Beach on Vargas Island, north of Tofino, is now part of a new provincial park. To reach it you must either paddle to the sheltered east side of the island and walk across to it on an old telegraph trail, or brave the swells and head right for the beach itself on the exposed west side of the island.
Once on the beach you’ll be able to explore for hours. Small coves filled with blue mussel shells brighten the scene at Ahous Beach. Two small islands offshore stand landlocked to Vargas at low tide and have done battle with the elements for thousands of years; they are windshaped into the appearance of gladiator helmets. An intertidal lagoon fills and empties throughout the day. Depending on the height of the tide, you can cross the mouth of the lagoon to explore farther north along the beach. Be cautious so that your return won’t be blocked by high water.
If there’s one landscape most associated with oceans, it’s beaches. Finding the best ones along the southwestern coast is not difficult, as almost all of them have been protected as provincial parks. Beginning at French Beach, a necklace of sites is strung north to Port Renfrew, where the most fabulous of all – Botanical Beach – is located. Although they are situated within a fairly narrow range, each one has its own personality.
French Beach Provincial Park, about 14 miles (22 km) west of Sooke, is more protected than the rest from the full force of the ocean by the Olympic Peninsula, on the south side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It’s also the easiest to reach. You can drive to within a short distance of the beach here, whereas a 10- to 45-minute walk is required to reach the other beaches, depending on the location. A wide swath of lawn fronts this pea-gravel beach where you can picnic, swim, beachcomb, and watch for wildlife. Above all, your attention will be drawn to the pulse of the waves as they break, race up the beach, and grab some gravel to take back with them. The stirring sound of the wind in the trees high above tells you that you’ve left the inner coast behind.
The hillsides above most beaches here plunge down San Juan Ridge. In Juan de Fuca Provincial Park the trails to China Beach and Mystic Beach are surprisingly steep, whereas those to Sandcut Beach, Sombrio Beach, and Botanical Beach are gentler. Once you reach these beaches, however, it’s as if you’ve suddenly been let in on the action hidden behind the scenes in nearby Victoria. Even at the busiest times you’ll have plenty of beach to yourself, though you might be surprised to find how calm the ocean can get for weeks at a time in summer. These are the long, lazy, endless days when the Pacific itself becomes laid-back. It becomes so relaxed that even the signposts take a break.
Although you’ll find the approaches to China Beach and Botanical Beach well marked off Hwy 14, others such as Sandcut, Mystic, and Sombrio may be more elusive. Sandcut is 1.2 miles (2 km) south of Jordan River; Mystic is just north of China Beach, and the turnoff for Sombrio is just north of Loss Creek Provincial Park. With the exception of Sombrio Beach, which has its own parking lot downhill from Hwy 14, park beside the highway and follow the trail to the beach.
If you have time to visit only one beach, Sombrio is a standout. A rough road leads downhill from Hwy 14, 11 miles (18 km) south of Port Renfrew, to an open parking space. A well-worn trail leads to the beach in 5 minutes. Until recently, a community of squatters lived here, as this is one of the few beaches where freshwater is guaranteed year-round. You’ll have to cross Sombrio Creek and pass through a salal hedge to reach the fine gravel beach. Driftwood is in plentiful supply for use as backrests, picnic tables, and temporary shelters.
A steep trail leads to Mystic Beach, rougher than the one to nearby China Beach but just as enchanting. Plan on 15 minutes to walk to each. Part of the charm of visiting these beaches is admiring the rain forest that thrives in this moist climate. Thick moss coats the forest floor, while wispy strands of Spanish moss trail from the trunks and limbs of second-growth Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and western red cedar. Salal, Oregon grape, and evergreen huckleberries form much of the underbrush, while in damp areas a variety of ferns adds to the riot of growth that feeds on the nutrient-rich ocean air. Aptly named Mystic Beach conjures an image of foggy mornings, paisley sunsets, and reverberating surf. You’ll find that and more here, including twin caves at the north end of the beach that are neat to explore at low tide, along with broad, flat, multihued rock outcroppings covered with a zillion green life forms.
One of the best views anywhere on southern Vancouver Island of the Olympic Mountains occurs along Hwy 14 almost 5 miles (8 km) west of China Beach Provincial Park. To get maximum enjoyment, head a short distance uphill on one of the logging roads that lead off the highway in this vicinity. In a clear-cut, there’s nothing to block your view.
The easiest beach to reach by far is that at Jordan River (or River Jordan, as shown on some maps), a small settlement between French Beach and China Beach, and home of the West Coast Surfing Association (also called the Jordan River Surf Club). Hwy 14 makes one of its only approaches to the ocean here before beginning to climb San Juan Ridge once more. You’ll find picnic tables here at a small recreation site.
One of the glorious things about the Victoria region is that you can picnic here year-round, something that much of the rest of the province (and rest of the country!) has always envied. Each season has its unique character, and life is always assuming new forms. Spring and fall migrations of birds and fish animate the landscape. Evergreen forests brighten a winter landscape that otherwise lies unveiled once deciduous trees drop their summer foliage. Even snow makes the occasional appearance, though it rarely remains for long. Summer droughts and winter rains determine the songs sung by rivers and creeks.
Without doubt, Sidney Spit on Sidney Island, part of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, has the finest beaches of any park in the Victoria region. The hitch is that visiting this park requires a boat ride from the town of Sidney. Ferry service to Sidney Island runs during summer months; otherwise, you must make your own arrangements to get here. The trip takes 15 minutes one way. There is a charge for adults, with reduced rates for seniors and children ages 12 years and under. Ferry service begins at 9am on weekdays and 10am on weekends. The boat holds 35 passengers and leaves from the Sidney Marina just north of the Beacon St dock.
Island View Beach Regional Park is located on the east side of the Saanich Peninsula in North Saanich. Follow Island View Road east from Hwy 17 a short distance to this gentle cobble- and driftwood-strewn beach. Good views of James and Sidney Islands, and beyond to Mount Baker, make this a pleasant, no-charge alternative to taking the ferry to Sidney Spit. An unbroken string of small islands seem to fold into each other offshore. If you get bored watching the action from the shore, there’s wildlife viewing in the open fields behind the beach. The best access to the beach is at the entrance to the park and from the parking lot on the north side of an adjacent private RV park. (Note: The entire beach is public.) Locals use the beach area north of the park fronting Indian reserve land for discreet, clothing-optional tanning. The beach leads a long way north to the tip of Cordova Point.
Several picnic tables stand beneath the spreading trees next to Eagle Beach in Elk/Beaver Lake Regional Park, but visitors will find the sound of traffic on nearby Hwy 17 hard to ignore. A stand of tall Douglas firs shelters North Beach and the beach around Cowquitz Creek at the south end of nearby Beaver Lake from traffic. Picnicking here is much more pleasant. The turnoff from Hwy 17 to Beaver Lake is well marked.
Coles Bay Regional Park, a small park on Saanich Inlet, has a rough, barnacle-covered rock beach typical of the peninsula’s west side. Bring along a pair of beach shoes to best enjoy the environment. The water in this deep fjord is always invigorating. The park is located on Inverness Road off Ardmore Drive, a short distance west of Hwy 17A (West Saanich Road).
Three small lakes dot the slopes of Mount Work Regional Park. Depending on your mood, the weather, and the season, freshen up in Durrance or Pease Lake on the north side of the park once you’ve completed the hike to the top of the mountain, or just relax at lakeside and enjoy the woodland ambience. Fork Lake lies at the south end of the hiking trail to the summit of Mount Work. To reach Durrance Lake, take Wallace Dr west of Hwy 17A, then follow Willis Point Road until the lake appears on its north side. Pease Lake is a short distance father west. Follow Willis Point Road to Ross Durrance Road and head south to the lake. Fork Lake is reached by following Millstream Road north of Hwy 1 west of Victoria, then turning northeast on Munnis Road.
Thetis Lake Regional Park lies on the west side of Victoria, about 7 miles (12 km) from the city centre in View Royal. Sandy beaches front the park’s two heavily indented lakes, which are connected by a thin canal. If you have a canoe or kayak, you can reach some of the more remote beaches; otherwise, enjoy yourself within an easy walk of the parking lot. To reach Thetis Lake, head west of Victoria on Hwy 1 and watch for signs that point the way north of the highway to the park. Note: Although several hiking trails originate from Thetis Lake Road, the beach is reached by following West Park Lane, about 6 miles (10 km) from the city centre.
Witty’s Lagoon Regional Park west of Victoria offers yet another perspective on the coastline. A long swath of sandy beach curves gently along Strait of Juan de Fuca, protecting a crucial marshland from the full force of waves and wind. Find a sturdy piece of driftwood and shelter from the constant breeze, which even in summer has a fresh edge to it. From this vantage point, you can look across the strait to the towering heights of the Olympic Mountains in Washington and its signature glaciated formation, Hurricane Ridge. The shallow beach makes for a pleasant warm-water swim after the tide rises over sun-heated rocks. There are several entrances to the park. For quick access to the beach, take Hwy 14 west of Victoria, then turn south on Metchosin Road. The well-marked trailhead at Sitting Woman Falls is located opposite the Metchosin Golf Course. Allow 10 to 15 minutes to walk from the parking lot to the beach.
Sooke Potholes Provincial Park is located north of Hwy 14 and just east of Sooke. The Galloping Goose Trail runs past this small day-use park. Swimming in the potholes that have been carved in the sandstone in the Sooke River provides ideal refreshment on hot summer days. This site has been luring picnickers from the Victoria region for years, so don’t be surprised by the controlled mayhem when you arrive. Picnic tables line the river next to the parking area, and the potholes are just steps beyond.
Beaches and Picnic Spots on the Southern Gulf Islands
As you explore from island to island, you’ll find dozens of small beaches along the convoluted shorelines. While all shoreline is public land in British Columbia, not all of it is easily reached, nor does much of it provide a pleasant place to relax while watching the ebb and flow of the tides. Here’s a sampling of some of the best and most readily accessible places in the Southern Gulf Islands.
One of the prettiest beaches on all the islands is at Ruckle Provincial Park on Saltspring Island. A trail leads down to the secluded beach from the nearby campground. It’s easy to imagine generations of island families making their way here on hot summer days when the Ruckle farm was in full swing. A tall forest surmounts the beach, much of it sturdy first-growth Douglas fir, but there are also a number of hardwood species planted by the Ruckles that are a delight come fall. This beach is a wonderful refuge from the outside world, a place to find a sturdy piece of driftwood for a backrest and relax.
Drummond Park at the head of nearby Fulford Harbour has a more exposed pebble beach to explore. Look for the ancient pictograph image carved in the face of one of the larger boulders on the beach. Although the wooded setting at Weston Lake, about 2 miles (3 km) north of Fulford Harbour, is less picturesque than by the ocean, there is a sandy beach here where you can enjoy a freshwater swim.
One of the best beaches on the Pender Islands is at Mortimer Spit, close to the canal between the two islands. A snout of sand where you’ll find plenty of room and few visitors to share the beach with juts out into Navy Channel. A more popular spot is just north at Hamilton Beach at Port Browning. You’ll find a more festive atmosphere here in summer with a pub, marina, cafe, and picnic tables beside the beach. On the far shore, visible from Hamilton, is a sandy strip of beach at Razor Point. Take Bedwell Bay Road south from the ferry dock at Otter Bay to reach Hamilton Beach. Follow Razor Point Road east of Port Browning to find the small beach on the point.
If you take the time to travel to the very end of South Pender Island, you’ll find the small beach park at Gowlland Point Park, the prettiest of all the beaches on the two Penders. A pebble beach slopes down to an indented shoreline. During winter storms, which pound this exposed coast with regularity, the ocean moves the cobblestones around with percussive effect. From the beach, you look due south into the San Juan Islands, west across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Hurricane Ridge on Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula and east to Saturna Island’s Monarch Head, with Mount Baker rising above the mainland. To reach the park from the ferry dock, follow Bedwell Bay, Canal, Spalding, and finally Gowlland Point Road to its southern terminus. If you want solitude, this is where to find it.
Much of the beach at Miners Bay on Mayne Island is composed of a gently sloping shelf of smooth rock. At low tide much of this table rock is revealed and makes for interesting exploration. Miners Bay is the commercial hub of Mayne Island and is anchored by the historic Springwater Lodge. Make your way from the ferry dock along Village Bay Road, an easy walk or bike ride. A beautiful sand-and-pebble beach is located on Mayne Island’s east side at Campbell Bay. The trail leading down to the beach is not well marked but isn’t difficult to locate. Follow Georgina Point Road east of Miners Bay to its junction with Waugh Road. Head south on Waugh, and as the road rounds Campbell Bay, watch for a shady trail that runs down the embankment to the ocean below. An overhanging forest shades the beach, providing a cool place to relax out of the sun. Big pieces of driftwood sit mired in the sand, ready to prop you up to enjoy the view as you look due east across the strait towards Vancouver.
Beaches and Picnic Spots on the Discovery Islands
Even though there are no public campgrounds on some islands, there are attractive parks especially for picnickers, located where you can take best advantage of the seaside environment. Whether you’re on the island just for the day or have made arrangements for private overnight accommodation, you’ll want to head for these places to complement your visit.
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.
You’ll get to tour Quadra Island on the way to your picnic in Rebecca Spit Marine Provincial Park. The park lies on the east side of the island at sheltered Drew Harbour, almost 6 miles (9 km) from the ferry landing at Quathiaski Cove. There are more picnic tables here than on any other island, and a prettier sandy beach than almost anywhere else on Quadra. Anglers launch from the ramp here, and it’s a good place to pick up word on the health of fish stocks.
Cortes Island is blessed with both a provincial campground at Smelt Bay and a sublime picnic and fishing location at Mansons Landing Marine Provincial Park. If they aren’t biting in the saltchuk (‘chuk’ is a Native word for water) just turn your attention to the fish in Hague Lake, a freshwater lake located within the park, a rarity in the Marine Provincial park system. A wide, sandy beach beckons to those who just wish to spread a blanket beside a driftwood backrest and dig into the cooler.
For those who journey the length of Lasqueti Island, there’s picnicking and swimming at Squitty Bay Provincial Park, 9 miles (15 km) south of the ferry dock at False Bay. You’ll be ready to drink from the freshwater pump by the time you arrive here. Picnic tables are arrayed among the spray-shaped forest of Douglas fir and strawberry arbutus (madrona). This idyllic location overlooks two narrow coves where the water is clear, green, and warm in summer months. A portion of the park is fenced off to protect it from the feral sheep that graze all over the island. Years ago, a small meadow was cleared above the beach at Squitty Bay, where there are still signs of a old orchard.
Without doubt, the best beaches in the entire inland sea are found on Savary Island offshore from Lund on the Sunshine Coast. Unfortunately, few visitors travelling without a boat will get the opportunity to stroll them. Savary is not serviced by public ferry so transportation is limited to water taxi or airplane. If you do have a boat, kayak, or canoe, the First or Second Beaches on the island’s north side are the easiest to reach. It’s debatable which side of the snout-shaped island has the best beaches – when you’re in heaven, it doesn’t matter which side of the street you walk on.