The “end of the pavement” is a wild 26-mile stretch of rainforest on the west coast of Vancouver Island, anchored by Ucluelet on Barkley Sound on one end and Tofino on Clayoquot Sound on the other. The main body of water is the open Pacific Ocean which creates changeable, tempestuous weather. In our four days there, we experienced sun, fog, drizzle, rain, heat and cold – sometimes all in one day.
Cautionary signs warn of unsupervised beaches, rogue waves, treacherous rip tides and dangerous swimming conditions.
It’s hard to imagine the danger when the waves roll in softly and the surface is like glass.
Clouds add drama, and the ocean looks a little less enticing for a swim.
Waves have kicked up a bit but these are still a pale shadow of what is to come a couple of months from now. From November to February tourists flock to the coast to watch huge gales blowing in from the Pacific. This stroke of marketing genius called “Storm Watch” has enticed full houses with reduced rates, gumboots and slickers and cozy fireplaces to return to after a chilly and drenching experience.
The “end of the pavement” used to be “the end of the dirt road” – a twisty dirt and gravel nail-biter of a logging road that would take two-and-a-half to three hours to drive from Port Alberni through the mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The remoteness attracted early pioneers, misfits, hermits and hippies. Rough-and tumble camps were set up right on the beach and rumour has it a young Margaret Sinclair (Justin Trudeau’s mother, and pre-Pierre) might have been one of the early beach campers. My own parents were among the intrepid tourists who braved that road, although they did not partake of the beach camp lifestyle.
By 1972, the road was paved and tourists began to arrive in numbers to visit the newly-opened Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. This shiny new road and the National Park helped to seal the fate of the beach camping and some of that local colour was lost.
The beaches and old-growth forest remain unchanged and that is still the main draw. We camped at Green Point Campground in the National Park and since we only booked in early June, we considered ourselves lucky to nab the last walk-in site. This campground is absolutely gorgeous, offering a delicious mix of large, private treed sites with the conveniences of plug-ins and hot showers. Sites are booked early, or as one woman noted, “it’s worse than trying to get concert tickets.”
Our site was one of 20 walk-ins – cars are left in the parking lot and wheelbarrows are available to lug your stuff to your site, about a two-minute walk in the woods. It worked out just fine, but now we know for the next time to plan a little further in advance.
This was our site – our tent tucked in between two huge stumps. We fell asleep listening to the ocean waves crashing on shore below us.
This area is home to a large population of bears, cougars and wolves. Just a few days ago a pack of wolves killed a local resident’s dog – a good reminder that we’re not hanging out in a city park.
Rules in the campground are strict – they ask for a “bare” campground – tent, camp chairs and lantern are the only things to be left unattended. Those choosing to ignore the rules are kicked out, so you can imagine our chagrin when we returned to our campsite to find a note letting us know our plastic water jug was a no-no.
The Park staffer was very understanding when I apologized. She told us they pride themselves on not having lost a bear (to being necessarily put down after becoming habituated and dangerous) in 18 years. She hauled out the evidence of what might happen when you leave out attractants.
Surfing is huge here and the beaches are long, so at least from our vantage point, there appeared to be room for everyone to take turns catching a wave, without the aggression that can mar some surfing areas.
They start ’em young here – this little girl was learning the basics from her dad, while her mother recorded the event from shore.
A group of surfers arriving, with a little boy doing what little boys do really well – running around with a stick.
Hiking is another huge attraction, with numerous trails to choose from. Our favourite is the Wild Pacific Trail, near Ucluelet. It can be walked in chunks or as a whole – about 8 km. in total – and much of it runs right along the ocean.
Every bend on the path brings another viewpoint that is slightly different.
A gnarly tree with unusual local fauna.
The Rainforest walks are located between Tofino and Ucluelet – 1-km. boardwalk loops on either side of the highway that feature old-growth trees, nurse trees, bogs and moss-draped branches. This is forest bathing in the truest sense of the word – we came out feeling disoriented and over-oxygenated.
The requisite tall-tree photo
We loved this part of the path – constructed from a fallen log.
Grice Bay was described to us as being a “hidden gem” – accessible by a scenic 10-minute drive from the highway to a sheltered tidal cove. It was a calm and peaceful switch from the spectacle of the Pacific, and we intended to have our picnic there but discovered piles of broken beer and liquor bottles littering the area, as well as an unpalatable smell. It may well be a local party hangout. The Park is so pristine and well-cared-for that this was unexpected and jarring.
We spent a bit of time in both towns, primarily to pick up a few groceries, access wifi or treat ourselves to a dinner out.
Tofino is the better-known of the two towns and has more amenities in the way of shops, restaurants and adventure tourism. The setting is lovely and compact, but the strains of tourism are starting to show – this is a destination that feels at capacity. We lived in Banff for two years and the crush of tourists clogging the streets, taking up every available parking spot and filling every restaurant seat grew very tiresome. I imagine Tofino locals must feel the same way after a while.
This woman, apparently unimpressed with the popularity of Tofino, has posted a warning sign to anyone who might consider blocking her driveway or trespassing on her property.
You can’t argue with the setting; hopefully the town can keep a bit of a leash on development, and not spoil the very elements that make this area so appealing.
Ucluelet seems to have a bit more of a local flavour – it has a good range of accommodations and tourist attractions, but is geared more to daily life.
In both towns and along the beach strip, accommodations are pricey. The crown jewel of this area is The Wickaninnish Inn, described as possessing “rustic elegance on nature’s edge.” Their spa has been voted by Travel & Leisure readers as being “the #1 Spa Worldwide.” This strikes me as being incredible – surely there is a spa in Bali or the Maldives or Mustique that competes? Spa prices are available upon discreet inquiry, but rooms during Summer Season run from $560 to $1800.
We mustered as much attitude as we could, decked out as we were in our campground finery, and walked through the lobby to the beach below. Nicely appointed, but not intimidatingly beautiful.
This is a particularly blessed part of British Columbia, and is our fourth trip out to the coast. Every time we come we always say the same thing, ” we should come here more often.”
This will be our last posting until the end of October. In the meantime, we will be housesitting, doing some family visits, and planning for our next big adventure.
We’ve bought a trailer, and are planning a seven-month trip through the Pacific Northwest and southwestern United States as well as two months in Baja.
Thanks for following us this summer and see you again in a couple of months.