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This area of colossal trees is easy to miss – at first it just looks like a rest stop on the side of the highway. But for those who are in the know, this refuge of towering trees is one of the top places to visit in BC. It’s a spot where you can wander around and really get a taste of what Vancouver Island has to offer.
Whether you’re a nature photographer or just a nature lover, we highly recommend checking out Cathedral Grove. It is well-loved by both Vancouver Islanders and tourists, and it is one of the best places to see ancient Vancouver Island trees!
Of course, before you visit, there’s a lot you need to know. In this blog, we answer the 13 most common questions about visiting Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island!
1. About Cathedral Grove
Cathedral Grove is one of the best places on Vancouver Island to see old-growth Douglas Fir trees. The trees there are several hundred years old, with some of them as old as 800 years old! Douglas Fir trees can live to be older than 1,000 years, which we think is pretty incredible.
If you’re a Star Wars fan, you definitely have to add this place to your list! George Lucas shot scenes from Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi in Cathedral Grove, and we can see why. The Grove was used as the backdrop for Endor, which is the planet that the Ewoks live on.
Cathedral Grove has the perfect mystical vibe for the forest scenes in Return of the Jedi. When you’re walking through, it can sometimes feel like you’re on another planet. The trees are mind-bendingly huge! And there seems to be a magic about the grove when you’re inside of it.
A little lesser-known fact about Cathedral Grove is that there are many Culturally Modified Trees, or CMTs. These are living trees that were used by Indigenous peoples in cultural and practical ways. The bark of Western Red Cedar trees was, and still is, used by First Nations people to make things like clothing, baskets, and blankets.
If you keep an eye out, you can notice CMTs in the stands of cedar trees on the north side of the grove. Just look for cedars where large sections of bark have been removed. The trees are able to heal themselves, which looks like the outer bark creating a lip on either side of the modified area. These CMTs are amazing evidence of the ways that Indigenous communities lived in tandem with the forests in this area for thousands of years. CMTs are considered to be archeological artifacts, which is so cool!
You might notice some trails closed for maintenance when you visit, likely due to windstorms. Cathedral Grove has sustained damage from windstorms over the years, most notably in a storm in 1997. However, this provides the opportunity to see the way that the grove naturally regenerates. You can spot many “nurse logs”, which are trees that have fallen and provide the seeds of life for the next generation of trees.
There are many nurse logs that have other trees growing out of them, which is a beautiful reminder of the circle of life. We loved seeing these trees that were almost a thousand years old, nestled in with tiny baby trees, just starting out their life cycle.
2. Where is Cathedral Grove?
Cathedral Grove is part of MacMillan Provincial Park, in between the Port Alberni and Parksville areas. It’s a great place to stop to break up a long road trip, but also is beautiful enough to be a destination in itself.
Lots of island locals make sure to make a pit stop at the grove on road trips from Victoria to Tofino or Ucluelet because no matter how many times you go, it never fails to take your breath away. It’s also worth scheduling a visit here if you’re making the trip from Vancouver to Tofino.
The drive is just over two hours from both Victoria and Tofino, making it the perfect halfway point between the two popular destinations. If you are heading to Cathedral Grove from Nanaimo, it usually takes just under an hour to get there.
If you are heading out to Cathedral Grove, we recommend making a stop about 15 minutes away in the town of Coombs. You can shop at the market and see the famous Goats on the Roof Farm near Qualicum Beach!
If you search for Cathedral Grove in Google Maps, it may come up as MacMillan Provincial Park – don’t worry! This will lead you right to the parking lot of Cathedral Grove. If you’re someone who prefers to use a more specific location (we totally get it), you can search for “452 Alberni Highway, Nanaimo, BC”. Once you arrive, you can park on either side of the highway for access to the trails.
3. Is it free to visit Cathedral Grove?
Yes, it is free to visit Cathedral Grove, which makes this such a great free activity if you’re looking to connect with the Pacific Northwest nature.
There is a box to put donations in if you feel inclined to help the BC parks conservation efforts here and in other parks on the island. Donations help with things like maintaining trails and revegetation projects.
Related read: Another free activity we love is wandering the art galleries on Salt Spring Island, BC!
4. Is there parking at Cathedral Grove?
There is a parking lot on either side of the highway with entrances to Cathedral Grove. Regardless of which direction you come from, you will round a bend before reaching the parking lots. There are yellow “slow” signs, which indicate that you are just about there and the speed limit drops to 60 km/hr (37 mph).
You can pull off to either side. We recommend starting with the southern trail, as the giant Douglas Firs on the “Big Tree Trail” are an epic introduction to Cathedral Grove. Both parking lots are free to park in.
The parking lots can fill up very quickly, especially during the summer months. Aim to get there as early as possible in order to get parking and avoid crowds. The parking lots are not that big, there are only spots for about 30 cars on either side of the highway.
5. When is the best time to visit Cathedral Grove?
Cathedral Grove is amazing any time of year!
In the summer, we recommend going early in the morning to avoid the crowds (and to be able to snag a parking spot – the parking lots can fill up during peak times.) There are parking lots on both the north and south sides of the highway, each with access to different trails.
Aside from having a less crowded experience in the park, there is something breathtaking about the way that the early morning sunlight filters through the trees. The sounds of the highway are dampened by the forest, making it almost feel like a walking meditation. Cathedral Grove is one of the most magical and peaceful places on the island, in our opinion!
Even if it happens to be raining when you stop by, it will still be worth it for those classic rainy day vibes. If you’re visiting in the winter and happen to be here during a light snowfall, you’re in luck. Cathedral Grove right after a fresh snowfall is incredibly dreamy!
The only time that you may not be able to visit the grove is during high winds. Cathedral Grove is sometimes closed on very windy days, as there is a risk that trees can fall in the winds.
Related read: Don’t let rainy days dampen your exploring, these rainy day activities in Vancouver will keep you busy until the sun comes out again!
6. What other facilities will you find at Cathedral Grove?
On both sides of the highway, you can find parking lots that have pit toilets and information signs. The trails are wheelchair accessible and are a combination of trails and boardwalks.
There is cell service at Cathedral Grove, but it’s not very strong, and some providers may not get any at all.
7. How long are the hiking trails through Cathedral Grove?
On both the north and south sides, the trails around the park are around 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) each.
On the southern side, you will find the giant Douglas Fir trees. This is where you’ll see on the map the Big Tree Trail. Completing this short walk is a must, as it’s where you’ll find the largest tree in Cathedral Grove.
On the northern side, there are lots of beautiful Western Red Cedars. These trees smell absolutely amazing, especially in the rain (so don’t fret if it happens to be drizzling when you’re passing through!).
If you are into nature photography, this place will be a haven! The lighting is always so moody, and the enormous trees surrounded by ferns and other plants make the perfect subjects. We recommend bringing along your wide-angle lens to be able to capture as much of the trees as possible! For more tips, check out our guide to taking the best travel photos.
Since there are trails located on both sides of the highway, you’ll often see people running across the highway – be sure to keep an eye out when driving through. Also, be careful when crossing the highway yourself, as some drivers don’t realize there is a park there and sometimes come ripping around the bend.
Related read: For more amazing Vancouver Island hikes, check out the Cowichan Valley Trail near Lake Cowichan!
8. Where is the largest tree in Cathedral Grove?
The largest tree in Cathedral Grove is the Giant Douglas Fir. This tree is absolutely massive – it is 250 feet (76 meters) tall and has a circumference of 29 feet (8.8 meters)!
I promise you, you will feel teeny tiny if you stand beside it. It is located on the Big Tree Trail, which is on the south side of the highway. If you stand below the tree and, with a wide-angle lens, get someone to take a photo looking up, you get such a cool photo!
To date, this is the largest tree I have seen, but it’s not even the largest in Canada. In fact, the largest tree in Canada is located on Vancouver Island and is called the Cheewhat Giant.
9. How long do you need to explore Cathedral Grove?
You could spend a short pit stop wandering quickly around the trails, but we think that the perfect amount of time is 1 to 2 hours.
This will allow you to be able to check out both the north and south trails on either side of the highway, without feeling too rushed. There is a lot of beauty to marvel at, so try to carve out some time in your day to do so!
Related read: After a couple hours exploring, you’ll still have lots of time to check out the activities in Parksville, BC!
10. What are the best tours to Cathedral Grove?
There are a couple of great tour options that include Cathedral Grove if you’re looking for transportation and a couple of other cool stops along the way.
The nice thing about both of these tours is that they are led by knowledgeable guides who can give you a ton of information about the grove. Being that many of these trees are over 800 years old, they have seen a lot! It is so cool to get to learn from the guides about the history of the grove – it really adds to the experience.
Cathedral Grove Rainforest and Coombs Adventure (From Victoria)
This private nature tour leaving from Victoria can accommodate up to eight people and features Englishman River Falls, Little Qualicum Falls, Coombs, and of course, Cathedral Grove. All of these destinations are perfect for getting a taste of Vancouver Island’s natural wonders.
This tour allows you to hike at your own pace, and they even give you the option of extending the 20-30 minute hike at Little Qualicum Falls into an hour hike to allow you to see both the upper and lower falls. We would recommend doing this if you’re up for the longer hike! The falls are worth seeing, and any hiking on Vancouver Island is guaranteed to be stunning.
This tour is a full day and they offer pick-up and drop-off at your hotel, so you don’t have to stress about finding a meeting place in the morning! You can book this entire tour online for $850 CAD per group. While it may not be ideal for a couple, if you have more people it definitely makes it worth it (especially considering how expensive the gas is on Vancouver Island)!
Cathedral Grove and Little Qualicum Falls Nature Tour (From Nanaimo)
This tour company from Nanaimo offers a tour to Cathedral Grove, Little Qualicum Falls, and Coombs. This is a half-day tour (five hours), and is the perfect way to check these three places off of your bucket list! There is hiking involved, so make sure you lace up those hiking shoes. The tour is $80 CAD per person and the group sizes are small – eleven people at most, which means that you’ll be able to ask your tour guide any questions you have about the destinations.
Related read: For more tour ideas like whalewatching, scenic flights and seeing real-life castles, check out all the fun things to do in Victoria!
11. Are dogs allowed at Cathedral Grove?
Dogs are allowed in Cathedral Grove, so they can get out of the car and stretch their legs too!
Dogs do have to be on a leash at all times when in the park, as it is a sensitive area where there is a lot of ecological restoration taking place. You also have to make sure to pick up after your dogs while visiting the grove. There are garbage cans located in both parking lots if you need them.
12. Where can you stay near Cathedral Grove?
There are a variety of places to stay around Cathedral Grove whether you are looking to camp nearby or stay elsewhere on Vancouver Island. These are our top picks so you have plenty of choices!
Close to Cathedral Grove
Loon Lake Campground
Loon Lake Campground has some great little campsites, and the lake itself is beautiful! This campground is only ten minutes from Cathedral Grove.
Camping on Vancouver Island tends to book up quickly for the summer, so it’s best to book as far in advance as possible in order to ensure that there is a spot for you when you would like to go. Bookings for Loon Lake usually open in February for the upcoming summer. The cost to stay at the campground is between $25-$50 CAD per person, depending on the size of your party and which campsite you choose.
Cameron Lake Resort
Cameron Lake Resort is only a seven-minute drive from Cathedral Grove, so it makes a perfect home base for exploring the area. The resort is a long-term RV resort, so you have to reserve an RV spot for the whole summer.
But once you see the lake, you may want to stay even longer. Cameron Lake is absolutely stunning. It is surrounded by mountains and makes a great place to go kayaking or boating. There is even a boat launch at the resort! The seasonal rates start at $4,000 CAD.
Best Western Plus Barclay Hotel
The Best Western Plus Barclay Hotel is just under a 20-minute drive from the grove. The nice thing about staying in a chain like this is that they are consistent, so you always know what you’re going to get. After exploring Cathedral Grove, you can go swimming in the large outdoor pool! Check availability and book a room online here.
If you’re looking for something a little more affordable and homey feeling than the Best Western, the Hummingbird Guesthouse is the one we would go with! The property is beautiful, with lots of flower gardens and bird feeders for hummingbirds (they really live up to the name!).
This guest house is a 20-minute drive from Cathedral Grove, and it is also close to Sproat Lake, so you can head there for a swim! Check what rooms are available and book in at the Hummingbird Guesthouse here.
The Tide’s Inn
Less than 30 minutes from Cathedral Grove, The Tide’s Inn offers budget-friendly yet comfortable accommodations. This motel actually has a huge mini-golf course on-site and you get free unlimited mini-golf if you stay here (perfect for families!). It is also located within walking distance of the beach. Book a room at The Tide’s Inn here.
The Beach Club Resort by Bellstar
Also under a 30-minute drive away, The Beach Club Resort by Bellstar offers a little bit of luxury on Vancouver Island. This gorgeous hotel is located right on the beach, and some of the rooms even have balconies with an ocean view! The resort also features a large indoor swimming pool and hot tub as well as an on-site restaurant right next to the beach – perfect for sunset cocktails. Treat yourself to a stay here by booking a room online.
Qualicum Beach Inn
Our favorite hotel in Qualicum Beach is also only 20 minutes from Cathedral Grove! The Qualicum Beach Inn is a large hotel with an indoor pool, hot tub, sauna, and gym. This hotel is also located right across from the beach! Have your own beachy Vancouver Island escape by booking a room online.
Laurel’s Cottage by Elevate Rooms
For a comfortable stay at an affordable price, Laurel’s Cottage by Elevate Rooms is perfect. Located in the heart of Qualicum Beach downtown and a quick drive to Cathedral Grove and other nearby attractions, this small bed and breakfast is cozy and convenient. The price is right too since your daily room fee also includes a delicious breakfast! Check availability and book a stay here online.
13. Is Cathedral Grove worth visiting?
We think Cathedral Grove is a must-see if you’re exploring Vancouver Island! We couldn’t imagine a more beautiful place to take a break during a road trip, but we also think that Cathedral Grove is worth making the trip just to see it.
We were both amazed when we stepped onto the trails and were surrounded by ancient gargantuan trees. If you are a nature lover, this is really the place for you.
Cathedral Grove is the perfect place to disconnect for a couple of hours and really take in the infamous beauty of the Pacific Northwest. Regardless of when you go, we guarantee that it will be beautiful.
Thanks for reading!
Hopefully, these tips for exploring Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island have been helpful! This is such a magical place that we hope you enjoy walking through as much as we did.
For more Vancouver Island and BC adventures, check out our blogs about British Columbia. After living and touring extensively around here, we have tons of ideas to help you discover this beautiful part of Canada. If you have any questions, feel free to leave us a comment below!