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COMPLETE Guide to Visiting Duncan, BC + 15 Fun Things to do

COMPLETE Guide to Visiting Duncan, BC + 15 Fun Things to do

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Don’t be fooled by its size – Duncan, BC is a small place with lots going for it. While you’re exploring the best places to visit in British Columbia, this small historic city nestled in the Cowichan Valley is a great pick. Duncan and the beautiful surrounding area draw lots of visitors every year for a reason!  

Located pretty much smack in the middle of the drive between Nanaimo and Victoria, Duncan is a must-see on any trip to Vancouver Island. It’s one of our favorite places on the island and there’s a little something for everyone, like vineyard tours, hikes, historical walks, and year-round farmer’s markets. The weather in this region is also a major plus as you can enjoy year-round activities in a mild, warm climate. 

Whether you’re a nature lover or history buff, Duncan will welcome you in and share some of the natural beauty and charms that BC is known for.

Keep reading for our list of the best things to do in Duncan, from museums and markets to close encounters with raptors! This is your complete guide to visiting Duncan!

About Duncan, BC 

A group of Totem Poles in Duncan, BC
The city of Totems!

Known as the “City of Totems”, Duncan stands on Cowichan First Nation territory and is full of historical and cultural heritage.

Established in 1912 during the railway era, Duncan became an important hub for merchants and business people in the region. It was originally called Alderlea, but in 1886 when the railway was established crossing William Chalmers Duncan’s farmland, it became Duncan’s Crossing, and eventually was just referred to as Duncan.   

Today, it still serves as a hub for the 84,000 residents of the Cowichan Region, though the city of Duncan itself is only home to about 5,000 people.

Every year, thousands of visitors are drawn here to learn the history and experience the region’s abundant natural beauty and activities, like camping, kayaking, hiking, and whale watching.  

Related Read: If you visit Ucluelet, BC you can watch a local man carve totems and other artwork!

Getting to Duncan, BC

To get to Duncan from Vancouver, you can easily catch BC Ferries to Duke Point, Departure Bay, or Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island. Duke Point will get you the closest, as it’s only about a 50-kilometer (31-mile) drive south of Nanaimo with buses like Island Link operating as well.

Alternatively, you can hop on Harbour Air and fly from Vancouver Harbour into Maple Bay, only 9.3 km (5.8 miles) northeast of Duncan.  

The BEST Things to do in Duncan, BC 

1. See the Flight Show at Pacific Northwest Raptors 

A bald eagle at the Pacific Northwest Raptors show near Duncan, BC
It was really neat to see the eagle up close!
A bird with a trainer at the Pacific Northwest Raptors in Duncan, BC

Getting up close and personal with raptors never really crossed my mind, but this was an experience to remember! Pacific Northwest Raptors is a sanctuary dedicated to educating visitors on beautiful birds of prey, like falcons, eagles, and owls, as a way to increase awareness and conservation efforts. 

Their “Close” General Admission (Adults $22 CAD; Children $14 CAD; Under 3: Free) includes all-day admission and access to the flying demonstration. We opted for this and absolutely loved it! The birds swoop so low you feel like their wingtips might graze you! We spent about 45 minutes learning from biologists and trained handlers about these amazing animals, the threats they face, and how we can help. 

If you’re feeling brave, the “Closer” option (Adults $48 CAD; Children $36 CAD; Under 3: Free) adds the “Hawk Walk,” allowing a hawk to swoop down and land on your (gloved!) hand.

For the ultimate experience, the “Closest Encounter” (Adults $80 CAD; Children $65 CAD; Under 3: Free) includes all the above plus a 30-minute one-on-one encounter with the raptors.

If you’re searching for animal-centric Duncan activities, this one should top your list! They’re open 7 days a week, but opening times and flying demo times vary by season, so be sure to check before you go.

2. Check out the Duncan totem poles  

Worlds thickest totem pole in Duncan, BC
The world’s thickest totem!
The Duncan Totem Poles
It’s fun walking around town and seeing all the different totems.

Duncan isn’t nicknamed the “City of Totems” for no reason! You won’t spend more than 5 minutes here before noticing the beautiful, ornate totem poles all over the city.

An important part of First Nations culture in the Pacific Northwest, totems are a way of documenting stories, people, and historical events. It’s one of the top Duncan attractions for visitors who want to learn a bit of history while admiring the intricate artwork and beautiful colors.  

Just outside the Cowichan Valley Museum, you’ll spot little yellow footprints painted on the sidewalk that takes you on a self-guided tour of over 40 totems. There’s also a Totem Tour Walk interactive map, which we used, taking our time to stop and appreciate each one.

The detail in the artwork is incredible! Each is placarded with info about the totem and the carver and includes culturally significant animals like raven, bear, owl, and eagle. Duncan is also home to the world’s widest totem pole, a pretty impressive 6-foot (1.8 meter) diameter carving by artist Richard Hunt. 

Related read: Checking out the amazing totem poles is also one of the best activities to do in Vancouver’s Stanley Park!

3. Wander around downtown 

Bailey walks in downtown Duncan on Vancouver Island, Canada
Take a stroll and check out the town!

One of the best activities in Duncan for a low-key day is just wandering around downtown. It’s a super walkable city with lots of cool specialty shops and boutiques to check out.

We started by grabbing a coffee and a croissant at Duncan Garage Cafe & Bakery, then made our way over to Alvin’s Alley, a Duncan hidden gem. It kinda reminded us of old-school alleyways in Europe, with some awesome murals done by local artists for everyone to enjoy. 

I love thrifting so we visited a few shops like Eclectic Avenue Vintage Boutique, which has some beautiful clothing and jewelry – Dan had to just about drag me out of there! Toward the end of our walk, we spotted Rembrandt’s Chocolates and couldn’t resist a little sweet treat. We got a steal of a deal with 4 specialty chocolates for $5 CAD, all delicious, but the salted caramels won me over.  

Related Read: Wandering the cute downtown area is also one of the best things to do in Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island.

4. Visit the Cowichan Valley Museum & Archives  

Bailey looks at a display at the Cowichan Valley Museum & Archives in Duncan, BC
A display of an old store in the museum.
Daniel looks at a display at the Cowichan Valley Museum & Archives in Duncan, BC
Reading about the history of the area.

If you’re walking around downtown or doing the Totem Tour, you should toss the Cowichan Valley Museum & Archives into your itinerary.

It’s a pretty small museum that won’t take up much time, but it has some great information on Duncan and the surrounding area. We learned some tidbits about Duncan, including how it got its name and why it became an important city in the late 1800s.

The gallery also includes permanent exhibits on First Nations, early settlement, and even one of the famous Cowichan sweaters. The entry fee is by donation only, and they’re open Thursdays & Fridays 11 am – 4 pm. 

5. BC Forest Discovery Centre  

The train at the BC Forest Discovery Centre in Duncan, BC
The kids love it!

One of the top activities for nature and history lovers, the BC Forest Discovery Center is an open-air museum covering over 100 acres.

You can spend all day outside exploring the history of logging and forestry, but there’s an even cooler way to get around: by train!

And not just any train – they have vintage gas and steam locomotives you can ride over the Somenos Lake Trestle and around the property. We opted for the best of both worlds and took the train to the halfway point, then continued to walk around and explore.

Tickets and hours depend on the season, but they range from $16-$18 CAD for adults and $14-$16 CAD for kids – check here beforehand.  

6. Visit Salt Spring Island  

Bailey at the top of Mount Erskine Provincial Park on Salt Spring Island
Bailey at the top of Mount Erskine Provincial Park on Salt Spring Island

I’ve always heard amazing things about Salt Spring Island, so we jumped at the chance to hop over to the island well-known for super chill, boho vibes.

We left Duncan and drove about 20 minutes to Crofton, then hopped on BC Ferries for a short ride to Salt Spring (Adult tickets are $11.45 CAD return, or with a standard vehicle $45.05 CAD return plus the charge per person).

The ferry docks at Vesuvius Bay on the Northern tip, and we made our way down to the main town on Salt Spring, Ganges – one of the most adorable towns ever! It’s got sweet little cafes, restaurants, art galleries, and boutiques filled with local clothing and chic handmade jewelry.

Nearby dockside restaurant Tree House Cafe gave us fuel for the rest of the day, and we loved watching the busy seaplanes come and go. Tip – If you can, take a seaplane flight while in this part of BC, we loved our seaplane flight over Vancouver!

Since Salt Spring is pretty tiny (about 45 minutes to drive top to bottom), you can fit wandering around Ganges plus a few other activities into a day trip. We’d recommend spending a few days here to take it all in if you can – there are so many things to see, like small farms, wineries, lots of hiking options, and some seriously breathtaking scenery. 

There are a few hotels on Salt Spring, but the best ones book up quickly! Check availability for hotels here if you want to spend a night or two (and you should!)

7. Visit the Duncan Farmers Market/Old Farm Market 

Coffee and treats at the The Old Farm Market Coffee Shop in Duncan, BC
The cafe at the Old Farm Market is delicious!
Daniel shops at the The Old Farm Market in Duncan, BC
Shopping for some fresh produce!

One of our favorite places to find local goodies is the farmer’s market, and Duncan has 2 awesome ones to check out: The Duncan Farmer’s Market and The Old Farm Market.  

Every Saturday (9 am-2 pm from April- October or 10 am-2 pm from November-March), The Duncan Farmer’s Market shows off all kinds of stuff, from beeswax products and handmade soaps to fresh cheeses and small-batch wines. Grab a pick-me-up from one of the vendors (we picked Misty Ridge Coffee!) and get into the best market activity – sampling everything!  

If you can’t make it on a Saturday, The Old Farm Market is open every day from 8 am – 7 pm with loads of fresh fruit, veggies, and bread. They also have a cute cafe and an ice cream parlor for a cool treat! We also had some coffee and pastries, and I must say, they are some of the best on Vancouver Island!

8. Go wine tasting 

Daniel wine tasting in Duncan, BC
Sampling the local wine.
Wine tasting in Duncan, BC
Lots to taste!

Let’s be honest, I’m checking out wineries wherever we go, and Duncan was no exception! We didn’t have to search too hard – there are loads of Cowichan Valley wineries to choose from.

My top choice was Averill Creek Vineyard, which has great wine and stunning views over the Cowichan Valley. We hung out on the gorgeous terrace one afternoon and did the self-guided tasting for $10 CAD a person, but you can opt for the guided experience ($25 CAD) or the full package tour and tasting ($50 CAD). 

Blue Grouse Farms is another top choice with guided tastings of 5 wines for $10 CAD a person and an awesome “Lunch for Two” that includes the tasting and a charcuterie board. They have a total of 6 tasting experiences to pick from while you enjoy their beautiful grounds and views. 

Related read: Wine lovers can’t miss checking out the incredible Okanagan Valley. This area is one of the top fruit and wine producing region in the country!

9. Visit S’amunu/Somenos Conservation Area 

Bailey walks along a boardwalk in S'amunu Somenos Conservation Area
Keep an eye out for birds!

For a little fresh air and a quick walk, the S’amunu/Somenos Conservation Area is a great (free!) activity. It consists of a few trails around Duncan/Somenos Lake, but the Somenos Marsh Open Air Classroom is the closest.

The parking lot entrance is located a few minutes drive from downtown just off the Trans-Canada Highway (keep an eye out or you might pass it!).

Also called “Watt’s Walk,” the .8 km (.5 mile) trail is a great quick escape into nature, with tons of birds hanging around the marsh for you to check out. You can take a stroll on the boardwalk, hang out at the picnic tables, or walk up the viewing tower for a better view. There are information boards along the boardwalk about the birds you can see in the area, too.

10. Hand of Man Museum 

Bailey looks at a dinosaur display at the Hand of Man Museum in Duncan, BC
This is an interesting museum!

Open every day of the year from 10 am – 5 pm, the Hand of Man Museum is an awesome way to learn about natural history and culture through its extensive personal collection. It’s located in Maple Bay, which is about 9 km (5.5 miles) northeast of Duncan.

Artifacts range from fossils, mammoth tusks, and taxidermized critters to pottery, baskets, Indigenous carvings, and clothing. Your eyes will be so busy when you visit here!

They have an interactive iPad tour so you can be guided as you go and get information about the artifacts, and it’s definitely worth a visit (or two!) to really take it all in. There is no entry fee for this Duncan attraction but the (strongly) suggested donation is $20 CAD for adults and $10 CAD for kids. 

11. Art Mann Park  

View of the dock and water at Art Mann Park 
What a relaxing place!

About a 10-minute drive from downtown Duncan, Art Mann Park is located at the south end of Quamichan Lake and is another easy outdoor getaway.

It’s a family-friendly area with a playground, a small sandy beach, and a boat launch. We packed up a little picnic and hung out near the water’s edge, with some friendly geese coming to check us out!

A great stop if you wanna hang out, take a little stroll, or watch ducks and canoers paddle by on beautiful Quamichan Lake. 

12. Play golf  

Cowichan Golf Course in Duncan, BC
Play a round!

The weather in Cowichan Valley is perfect for lots of activities – including a round of golf or two! 

Cowichan Golf Club is a short drive away, just 7 km (4.4 miles) down the TransCanada Highway from downtown Duncan. They welcome visitors and have a few different Green Fees depending on the season, but they include some more budget-friendly summer options like their “After 6” $27 CAD rate or a round of 9-holes for $32 CAD.

Club rentals are $15 CAD for 9 holes and $23 CAD for 18 holes, and you can enjoy a cold beer and some casual food afterward at their restaurant – the Caddysnack.  

13. Visit Lake Cowichan  

Bailey walks along a dock at Lake Cowichan  
Lake Cowichan is just so beautiful!

About 29 km (18 miles) inland from Duncan, Lake Cowichan is a perfect spot for a day trip (or a multi-day getaway, if you can!). It has tons of parks along its shorelines, including trails, rec sites, and campgrounds.

One of the bigger parks in the area is Gordon Bay Provincial Park, which we thought was stunning! We enjoyed a sunny day swimming around in the clear blue waters surrounding the Gordon Bay Islands.  

On the way back, check out Cowichan River Provincial Park for activities ranging from canoeing, white-water kayaking, or a river tube tour! Cowichan River is a designated Heritage River, and it’s worth stopping in for a few hours to spend some time in this historically significant area. 

Related read: For a stunning lake view that’s among our favorites in the entire province, head to the Instagram-famous blue waters of Joffre Lakes, BC.

14. Check out the local breweries and/or distillery 

A beer at red Arrow Brewing in Duncan, BC
Photo credit: Red Arrow Brewing

After all that hiking and walking, one of the best things to do in Duncan is test out the craft beers!

Downtown Duncan fave Red Arrow Brewery has some awesome beers and ciders, including seasonal faves like Blackberry Lager (5.3%) or signature brews like Piggy Pale Ale (5%).

Just down the road, Small Block Brewing Co. is a comfy spot that whips up creative brews and ciders in small batches. Try their Hornet Blonde Ale (5%), malty Martin Marzen (6.5%), or fireweed honey beer – Barracuda (5%).

When you’re done, hop across the parking lot to Stillhead Distillery to try out some beautifully handcrafted small-batch spirits like whisky, gin, and vodka. We booked a 60-minute distillery tour and tasting for $20 CAD to see all the steps and work that goes into making their whisky, which was pretty cool! 

Related Read: There are also a few awesome breweries in Port Alberni, Vancouver Island to check out, too!

15. Go hiking  

Stoney Hill Trail Loop
Stoney Hill Trail Loop!

Cowichan Valley has loads of hiking trails, from casual walks to lengthier treks. Just 12 km (7.5 miles) from Duncan is Maple Mountain Forest Reserve with beautiful mixed-use moderate trails with mossy forest and stunning coastal views overlooking Sansun Narrows.

For an easier, equally-picturesque hike, check out Stoney Hill Trail Loop just south of Maple Mountain. It’s a gentle, well-marked 3.7-km (2.3-mile) trail popular with birders, runners, and hikers that leads to the bluffs for an awesome view over the water – keep an eye out for whales! 

Tourism Cowichan offers a few more options in the area, including family-friendly waterfall trails and easy lake loops. 

Related read: Keep the hiking adventures going by tackling one of these easy day hikes in Vancouver, BC!

Where to Eat in Duncan, BC 

A crepe from Ironworks Cafe and Creperie in Duncan, BC
These are so good!

Ironworks Cafe and Creperie  – A downtown go-to with delicious budget-friendly and filling savory ($16.50 CAD) and sweet ($12.50 CAD) crepes. Try something different like the creamy butter chicken crepe, or satisfy your sweet tooth with the amazing cinnamon bun crepe! They have a few vegan options, too.  

Alderlea Farm and Cafe – Super cute Alderlea Farm & Café is located just under 10 minutes southwest of Duncan. A family-owned spot with farm-to-table fresh ingredients, they have awesome wood-fired oven pizza ($22-24 CAD) and a juicy, organic grass-fed beef burger ($20 CAD). They’ve got some budget-friendly soup and sandwich deals for under $20 CAD too – try the chowder! 

The Old Firehouse Wine and Cocktail Bar – Offers awesome food and drinks in their chic, comfy downtown Duncan location. Sip on a Firehouse Maple Leaf or sample some local wines with delicious bites like pork belly tacos or a generous serving of fresh pasta made daily with seasonal ingredients. Smaller bites are between $12-24 CAD and entrees between $20-44 CAD.  

The Oak Taphouse – Located in NE Duncan, a great spot with an awesome outdoor patio for enjoying a few craft brews in the sunshine. They’ve got a gastro-pub vibe with locally sourced options like poke bowls, prime rib beef dip, and brisket sliders. Meals average around $20 CAD and they’ve got Tap-py hour from 3-6 pm daily for $2 CAD off beer, wine, and cider.  

Where to Stay in Duncan, BC

Oceanfront Suites at Cowichan Bay
Photo credit: Oceanfront Suites at Cowichan Bay

Now that you’re set to explore Duncan, it’s time to find a great place to stay! While you can make a day trip here from Nanaimo or Victoria, it’s really nice to settle into this area for a couple of days – even just a weekend.

Luckily there are lots of places to stay to fit a variety of budgets. There are a lot of cute guesthouses and B&Bs, which we recommend booking as soon as you know your travel dates as they fill up fast. These are our top picks!

Hummers Haven Bed and Breakfast – $

If the homemade pancakes aren’t enough to reel you in, the stunning garden on the property just outside Duncan (with lots of deer popping by!) will seal the deal. The rooms at Hummers Haven Bed and Breakfast are comfy and you’ll enjoy the private entrance and lots of room for parking. Plus the hosts who own this B&B are delightful, you might end up wanting to stay longer! Check availability and book your room for around $100 CAD a night here.

Best Western Cowichan Valley Inn – $$

Right off the highway, the Best Western Cowichan Valley Inn is an easy stop on your road trip. The rooms are a good size and you’ll get the quality and convenience you’d expect from a hotel chain. There’s an outdoor pool and a restaurant on-site and it’s close to attractions like the BC Forest Discovery Center. Rooms here start around $184 CAD. Plan your stay by booking a room online.

Oceanfront Suites at Cowichan Bay – $$$

Treat yourself to a luxurious stay at the Oceanfront Suites at Cowichan Bay, only 10 minutes from Duncan. It’s an all-suite hotel overlooking the water, so you’ll have plenty of space and a view! You can even hear the relaxing sound of the water from your room. Rooms here are more like tiny apartments and range from $250-350 CAD per night. Check availability and book your room with a view now!

Thanks for reading!

Bailey and Daniel take a selfie on Vancouver Island
Thanks for reading!

Whether Duncan, BC is a quick stop on your trip to Vancouver Island or a place you decide to stay awhile, there’s plenty here to keep you busy. It’s a place with a lot of charm and is surrounded by some pretty amazing scenery! I hope you have lots of ideas for your time here.

If you’re planning a trip to BC’s West Coast or have an epic Canadian road trip in the future, make sure to browse around our other blogs. We have tons of info to recommend the most scenic spots and hidden gems you might miss.

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26 BEST Things to do in Squamish, BC