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So, you want to visit Tofino? As the jewel in Vancouver Island’s crown, visiting this laid-back surf town is one of my favorite things to do in BC!
It’s quite hard to reach, though, hidden away on the wild west coast of Vancouver Island. In fact, the easiest and best way to get here is on a road trip from Nanaimo. That way, you have the freedom to stop off where and when you want on this scenic 207 km (129 mile) route.
It’s quite a short drive if you were to do it without stops (which we DON’T recommend doing) – at around 3-hours-long but there’s a surprising amount of awesome stops along the way, from an unusual market where goats graze on the roof to one of the best surf beaches in the country! That’s why we recommend two days for this popular road trip.
I’ve actually done this drive so many times that I’ve lost count, which is why I’m well-equipped to tell you about the best stops on the drive between Nanaimo and Tofino. In this blog post, you’ll read about 13 of the best stops between the two popular destinations as well as some other important tips to know before you go!
- 1. Nanaimo
- 2. Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park
- 3. Parksville
- 4. Qualicum Beach
- 5. Coombs
- 6. Little Qualicum Falls
- 7. Cathedral Grove
- 8. Port Alberni
- 9. Sproat Lake
- 10. WestCoast WILD Zipline
- 11. Kennedy Lake Provincial Park
- 12. Long Beach
- 13. Cox Bay Beach
- 14. Tofino
About the Drive from Nanaimo to Tofino
The drive from Nanaimo to Tofino is one of the most scenic drives in BC, taking in the best of Vancouver Island. This road trip will take just under 3 hours without stops. But not stopping on this 207 km (129 miles) stretch of Highway 4 would be such a shame because there’s so much to see! From Parksville, one of the most popular beach destinations on the island, to the lesser-known Kennedy Lake Provincial Park and everything in between.
We recommend allowing two days for this epic road trip, spending the night at either the Grotto Spa at Tigh-Na-Mara in Parksville (find out exactly why below) or Qualicum Beach! That way, you won’t feel rushed and can truly savor the many scenic sights (13 to be exact) along the way. Two days will enable you to stop at all the places I’ve listed below!
There are a couple of things to note before you start this road trip:
- If you plan to do this road trip in the winter, you won’t need winter tires, unlike other parts of BC. That’s because the weather in this part of Vancouver Island is much more temperate.
- In the summer, you should prepare for traffic along the way as it’s the busiest season.
- Also, parking can sometimes be a problem at popular attractions like Qualicum Falls and the Goats on the Roof market. So our advice for the busy summer months is to get on the road early in the morning.
Something else you’ll need to consider when planning your road trip is the highway closures. Highway 4 is the only way in or out of Tofino. A section of the highway near Kennedy Hill (about 14 km/8.5 miles northeast of the Tofino-Ucluelet junction) is undergoing some major upgrades.
While the work is ongoing, the highway alternates between single-lane traffic or being completely closed for hours. When we visited Tofino, the highway was closed from 11 am to 3 pm! Planning ahead is essential as you don’t want to be stuck waiting for the highway to re-open, especially if you have a ferry to catch (on your return journey). You can find the most up-to-date closure information here.
The BEST Stops on the Drive from Nanaimo to Tofino
Like most people, you’ll likely start your Nanaimo to Tofino road trip at the Nanaimo Duke Point Ferry Terminal, having got the ferry over with your car (or campervan) from Vancouver.
Related Read: Check out all the ways you can get from Vancouver to Tofino, in our ultimate guide!
From the ferry terminal, it’s a 20-minute drive into Nanaimo. I recommend spending a few hours here and having a meal if time allows. The first thing you should do in Nanaimo is wander the historic Old City Quarter filled with ancient buildings (some are as old as 250 years), quirky small businesses, and the can’t-miss-it Nanaimo Courthouse! If all that wandering has your belly rumbling, be sure to pop into Real Food for the best BLT I’ve ever had – actually, it’s a BLT-G (a BLT with guacamole!).
Another great option for food is the Dinghy Dock Pub on Protection Island. This floating restaurant offers a fantastic view of Nanaimo and has a casual atmosphere. We loved their fish tacos! To get to Protection Island, you can either take the ferry or rent a kayak.
After some food, head just out of town to Petroglyph Park, which I believe to be one of the coolest things to do in Nanaimo. The Petroglyphs (or carvings) here are over 1,000 years old!
Before hitting the road to your next stop, be sure to try a nanaimo bar. This classic chocolatey dessert was created in Nanaimo (hence the name) and has three layers, including a base of crumbled wafer, nuts, and coconut, custard icing, and a chocolate ganache on top.
Top tip – Try the peanut butter crunch nanaimo bar at Hearthstone Artisan Bakery – it’s the best one in the city, in my opinion. Grab one to eat there and another for the car journey!
Where to stay in Nanaimo
Before you hit the road, you may want to consider spending a night or two in Nanaimo. After all, there are so many things to do in this coastal city! Below are three of our favorite hotels in Nanaimo.
If you’re on a budget, we recommend the Painted Turtle Guest House. This no-frills option may not have TVs or phones in the rooms, but the beds are comfy and the prices are great!
If you are looking for something mid-range, The Spot is a great place to stay that was just renovated in 2022. This hotel has the typical amenities of a mid-range hotel like included WiFi and TVs in all of the rooms.
For a luxury option, check out Coast Bastion Hotel. This clean and modern hotel has all of the in-room amenities you could want, such as a fridge (which is great when on a road trip and traveling with food!). The location is stellar – right downtown and about 3 km (2 miles) from the ferry terminal.
2. Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park
Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park is only a 30-minute drive from Nanaimo, and it makes for a beautiful spot to stop for a short while and stretch your legs or if you need a bathroom break.
The provincial park is home to HUGE old-growth trees, which are truly breathtaking to see in person. If you want to get a head-start on the beach atmosphere awaiting you in Tofino, Rathtrevor Beach is a large, flat, sandy beach perfect for a stroll.
The beach is 5 km (3 miles) long at low tide, and what’s cool is that the tidal pools here are exposed at low tide. If you’re traveling with kids, they’re sure to love looking for crabs and tiny fish in these pools.
Rathtrvor Beach is also the perfect spot to have a picnic on a sunny day. You can also camp in the park overnight if you book in advance on the BC Parks website.
Keeping with the beachy theme, your next stop – Parksville – is a popular beach destination with Vancouver Island locals. There are countless beaches to explore here, heaps of hiking trails for all abilities, and a surprisingly great foodie scene.
Yep, in Parksville, foodies will be spoiled with the delicious local ingredients served in the area’s restaurants as well as the many markets and food festivals throughout the year.
But, one of the best things to do in Parksville involves spending the night here at Grotto Spa at Tigh-Na-Mara, to be precise. The Sip & Dine experience was one of the best things we did on our Nanaimo to Tofino road trip. Allow me to explain – this package involves sitting down to an impressive 17-course tapas-style tasting menu in your robe (the restaurant here has a robe-only dress code). So, you’re sure to feel super-relaxed dining here.
If you’re tight on time and don’t have room in your itinerary to spend the night in Parksville, then a good idea is to spend a short and sweet hour here walking the Parksville Waterfront Walkway. This walkway boasts stunning coastal and mountain views and is a good place to stretch your legs and break up the journey.
Another favorite Parksville activity of ours involves driving up to Little Mountain Lookout. This winding scenic drive takes you to the top of a mountain, from where you can enjoy sweeping views of the surrounding valley.
4. Qualicum Beach
This lesser-known little town might be slightly out of the way, but I think it’s well worth visiting for some lunch with a view. Qualicum Beach is right at the foot of Mount Arrowsmith – one of the tallest mountains in the region.
Qualicum Beach is filled with artisans and artists and has a super-welcoming vibe! There are a ton of little shops to meander through. If you happen to be there when the Qualicum Beach Farmers Market is taking place (every Saturday from 8:30 am – 12 pm all year round), check out all the local vendors.
If you’re making a pit stop for lunch in Qualicum Beach, we have two recommendations: Q Burger was voted one of the best burgers in Canada, and we can see why! This place has many different burger options, from classic burgers to more imaginative ones. The burgers we had were incredible, so you can’t go wrong getting anything off the menu.
If you’re not much of a burger person, we recommend stopping in at De L’ile Bakery and Cafe. This place has the most incredible pastries, and I recommend stocking up and getting some for the road before you leave! The coffee is great too. This cafe is really popular with the locals in Qualicum Beach, so be sure to get there early before everything is sold out. Trust us – you want to get to these pastries before they are gone.
Where to stay in Qualicum Beach
For a budget-friendly option, look into Laurel’s Cottage by Elevate Rooms. This cozy little bed and breakfast is right in downtown Qualicum Beach and includes breakfast!
If you want to spend a little bit more to stay in a lovely hotel, Crown Mansion Boutique Hotel & Villas is a great option. This hotel is about 600 yards from the beach and has a beautiful garden. Some of the rooms even have ocean-view balconies!
The option that we always choose to stay in is Qualicum Beach Inn. This hotel is larger than the other two options, so it has great amenities like a pool and gym. This hotel is in a great location too, just across from the beach.
Now for a quirky but very famous stop on the road between Nanaimo and Tofino – the Old Country Market. It’s known to almost everyone as the “Goats on the Roof Farm” because, yep, you guessed right, there are actually goats to be seen on the roof of this marketplace.
The goats graze on the grass roof, and it’s such a memorable sight to see. In fact, you may have already noticed the yellow and black “Goats on the Roof” car bumper stickers on your drive so far – it’s such a beloved spot with locals!
The market itself is the perfect place to stock up on snacks and food items, and they also sell a wide variety of homemade goods, such as hand-painted tiles and ceramic dishware. While if you’re a candle lover (like me), you can check out the wide range of beautiful pillar candles on sale for the bargain price of $5 CAD each.
If you don’t have time to stop at the market, be sure to pull into the parking lot so that you can take a few pictures of the goats before continuing on your drive.
6. Little Qualicum Falls
As you get close to the halfway point of the drive from Nanaimo to Tofino, stop at Little Qualicum Falls. To me, there’s nothing quite like chasing some waterfalls on a road trip!
The provincial park borders the southern shore of Cameron Lake, and the Little Qualicum River runs right through a rocky gorge within the park. The waterfalls here are impressive as they pour off the rocky gorge surrounded by a forest, and it’s like a postcard that’s come to life!
You can hike the trails to see a stunning waterfall cascading into a pristine pool. I recommend venturing a bit further along the forested paths to explore the upper and lower portions of the waterfall. This hike is fairly easy, and I’d plan for around 45 minutes to complete the 3-kilometer (1.8-mile) return trail.
7. Cathedral Grove
If you’re a movie buff (a Star Wars fan, to be specific), you’ll love the next stop – Cathedral Grove. It was actually a filming location for scenes from Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi.
This majestic old-growth forest is located within MacMillan Provincial Park, about a 10-minute drive from the previous stop – Little Qualicum Falls.
This area of towering Douglas fir trees can be easy to miss if you don’t know where to look. Honestly, it just looks like a rest stop on the side of the highway. But for those in the know, this is one of the best places to visit in BC. If possible, I recommend spending an hour or two here. There are well-maintained walking trails on both sides of the highway, and if you’re traveling with small kids no need to worry, there are even stroller-friendly boardwalks here.
My favorite trail here is the Big Tree Trail which starts on the south side of the highway; this short trail is just 500 meters long, and along the way, you’ll see the largest tree in the area. Measuring a whopping 30 feet (9 meters) in circumference, it’s a sight to behold. You’ll also spy groves of Western red cedar along this trail.
And the best part – Cathedral Grove is free to visit!
Related Read: Cathedral Grove is also a must-stop if you’re planning a road trip from Victoria to Tofino!
8. Port Alberni
Port Alberni is the last town you’ll pass through before reaching Tofino, so it’s a good place to stop for fuel or a snack.
There’s no shortage of things to do in Port Alberni if you have enough time (FYI we recommend spending a few hours here). When we’re hungry, we always head to the Harbor Quay to eat at its cute waterfront restaurants.
Port Alberni is known as the salmon capital of the world, so if you’re on the hunt for some good seafood, you’re in the right place! The Starboard Grill is one restaurant that we stop in whenever we are in Port Alberni – everything we have had on the menu so far has been great, but the salmon chowder is one that we love and order every time we go now.
Once you’ve eaten, go for a wander around the harbor. This is the center of a fishing town like Port Alberni, and there’s always something interesting to do. On a sunny day, the harbor is such a relaxing place to stretch your legs before hitting the road again. For families, there’s the Waterfront Park and Playground, or climb up the iconic Waterfront Clocktower for the best view.
If you’re feeling like a bit more physical exercise than that, you can hike out to the Hole in the Wall! Many people who make the Tofino road trip will hike out for a photo at the huge hole that was carved into a wall of rock for a pipeline. The hole now has a small waterfall that runs through it and is an essential Vancouver Island road trip photo.
9. Sproat Lake
A 17-minute drive (14 km/8.7 miles) from Port Alberni is the huge Sproat Lake. It’s 37 square kilometers (14 square miles) and boasts a whopping 320 km (200 miles) of lakeshore which means plenty of beaches to relax on! It’s so scenic here, with the entire lake lined with lush green forest!
The best thing about Sproat Lake is how clear the water is here – it’s SO clear that you can see 30 feet beneath you! In the summer, it’s a popular swimming spot as it’s pretty warm (warmer than other BC lakes, at least), and you’ll also see lots of people fishing here and even some adventurous folk trying out water skiing!
You can see petroglyphs (aka ancient rock carvings) here, too. To reach them, follow the trail on the east side of Sproat Lake. It’s a short, well-marked trail and leads to a viewing platform where you can get up close to these carvings, or K’ak’awin as they’re also known. These petroglyphs are considered one of the best examples of prehistoric petroglyphs in all of BC!
You can also camp here, and the fees are very affordable at $13 CAD nightly per party in the winter and $25 CAD per party in the summer.
10. WestCoast WILD Zipline
If you know us, you know we never miss an opportunity to go ziplining! For an epic road trip pitstop, West Coast WILD Adventures offers tours that will have you soaring through the forest canopy in the wild Kennedy River Canyon.
To get here, continue along the Pacific Rim Highway, about 45 minutes west of Port Alberni. The tours here are offered four times daily during the ziplining season of March to October.
Get geared up to fly above steep canyons over six different platforms. Along the way, our guides taught us a lot about the valley’s history. Speaking of the guides, they were super conscientious, checking our gear and telling us fun facts about the area. We didn’t have any time to be worried about the height!
Tours cost $130 CAD per person for a 90-minute guided zipline adventure. You’ll have an absolute blast – the guides make this experience so much fun!
Related Read: For more high-flying fun, ziplining is one of the best tours in Whistler! (Seriously, the ziplines in Whistler are epic).
11. Kennedy Lake Provincial Park
You’re now on the homestretch into Tofino! On the last section of the highway into the town, you’ll come to Kennedy Lake Provincial Park. It’s the largest freshwater lake on Vancouver Island and is popular in the summer, especially with locals who come to swim in its clear water.
So, if you plan to do this Nanaimo to Tofino road trip in the summer, be sure to stop here for a refreshing swim. It’s also a great picnic spot no matter the season (provided it’s dry!). There’s a designated picnic area on the lake that has access to wheelchair-accessible pit toilets should you be in need of a bathroom break.
It’s worth noting that Kennedy Lake Provincial Park is for day use only, and no camping is permitted here.
Unfortunately, for hiking fans like myself, there are no designated trails in the park. Still, it’s a beautiful place to spend an hour or so with a picnic or chilling out on the beach. There is even a boat launch if you happen to be towing a boat along with you.
12. Long Beach
This is one of the main surf beaches around Tofino, and Long Beach is a must-visit. As the name suggests, this is a “long” beach, so there’s a ton of room. We didn’t find it got crowded – even during the peak summer season.
I’d say you want some surfing experience before trying to surf here. The rip can be dangerous, especially near Lovekin Rock. Cox Bay Beach (next on our list!) is a better bet if you’re just starting out or looking for lessons.
Even if you’re not into surfing, this is a lovely beach for hanging out and relaxing. There are rocks that you can climb on and tide pools to explore, and it’s also so nice to just walk along and soak up the views.
This really is an idyllic spot for a beach day in Tofino! It’s stunning on a sunny day with the sun sparkling off the water, but the misty, rainy days have their own magic to them … plus you’ll basically have the beach to yourself those days!
13. Cox Bay Beach
If we had to narrow it down to just one place to go surfing in Tofino, we’d pick Cox Bay Beach. It’s where most Tofino Surf Competitions are held, and it’s ideal for both beginners and pros.
If you need to sharpen your surf skills with some lessons or simply need to rent a board, there are a few rental shops and surf schools nearby. Prices vary, but we rented our surfboards and wetsuits from Surf Grove Campground for $55 CAD each for a 24-hour rental.
Besides surfing, another popular thing to do here is to hike up to Cox Bay Lookout, which boasts arguably the best view in Tofino. It’s a short trail, but be prepared – there’s a 20-minute section that’s super-steep that’s sure to get your heart pumping! Therefore, we recommend a reasonable level of fitness for this hike. However, your hard work will be worth it once you reach the lookout point. Here, you can soak in the views of Cox Bay Beach and the mountains in the distance.
The trail starts from the left end of the beach (if you’re facing the ocean). You can take any of the trails here (there’s a handful to choose from), but they all lead to the same viewpoint. It’s worth noting that these trails will be quite muddy and slippery after rain.
The parking lot on the beach’s northern end has showers and washrooms. Further down the beach is a second parking lot with more spaces. You don’t need a Parks Pass here, but you will need to pay a small fee for parking.
Related Read: If you’re craving more beach days once you’re back on the mainland, drop into some of Vancouver’s best beaches!
And you’ve reached your final destination! As you drive into Tofino, you can probably already feel the magic of this place. We recommend dropping your car off at your accommodation and stretching your legs by walking around the town and beaches.
There are a ton of little shops to explore in Tofino. If you’re a tad tired and need a caffeine pick-me-up, we recommend popping into Rhino Coffee House or Tofino Coffee Roasting Company if you make it before 3 pm. We always grab a bag of the medium roast espresso “Old Growth” from Tofino Coffee Roasting Company whenever we are in town, as it’s so delicious!
If you want the quintessential Tofino Beach experience, head to Chesterman Beach. Whenever a Tofino local says they are going to the beach, this is surely where they are headed. This beach was rated one of the best beaches in the world for good reason! The sand is soft, and the waves are plentiful. You will have to pay for parking at the beach, but it is so worth it!
We recommend making a reservation at Wolf in the Fog, an AMAZING upscale restaurant in Tofino. Shelter Restaurant is our personal favorite, but unfortunately, the restaurant burned down in December of 2022. If they have rebuilt by the time you visit, make a dinner reservation!
The one place you simply cannot miss is Tacofino – a little taco truck that everyone stops by at least once while in Tofino! There are other Tacofino locations on Vancouver Island and in Vancouver (including one of the best restaurants in Gastown, Vancouver), but this is the original – complete with the Tofino vibe.
For drinks to celebrate the end of your road trip, stop at Tofino Brewing Company. We recommend getting a flight of beers so that you can sample some different options. There isn’t food at the brewery, but a little food truck is set up beside the brewery if you get hungry.
Where to Stay in Tofino
Now that you’ve arrived in Tofino, it’s time to find a place to stay so you can enjoy this little piece of Vancouver Island. Luckily there are plenty of choices so you can spend as long as you like discovering all its hidden gems.
Cox Bay Beach Resort – $$$
Right on one of the most beautiful beaches in Tofino, Cox Bay Beach Resort is all about location, location, location! You can easily slip out of your room and be on the beach in seconds to go surfing or just sit on the sand soaking in the view.
Best Western Plus Tin Wis Resort – $$
Just off the Pacific Rim Highway and overlooking the Pacific Ocean, you’ll find the Best Western Plus Tin Wis Resort. It’s located right on MacKenzie Beach, so every room has a view of the water and you can hear the waves from your balcony.
The MAQ Hotel – $
In the heart of Tofino and close to the harbor, The MAQ Hotel has newly renovated rooms with ocean views. The rooms are small but cozy and the location places you close to restaurants, shops, and activities around Tofino.
Renting a Car in British Columbia
If you’re arriving in British Columbia via plane, then I can’t recommend getting a rental car enough. British Columbia is a large province and traveling between the best places to visit in BC requires transport. Although you can use public transport on some occasions, this means your trip will not only require more time but more planning.
Car rental in Canada isn’t relatively cheap, but it’s not that expensive either, especially if you get a budget car. The cheapest car with a pick-up and drop-off in different locations is around $100 CAD per day. The price does vary though, depending on the time of year. For car rentals, I use the website Discover Cars. It’s a search engine with lots of deals with good customer service. In fact, I’ve used Discover Cars all over the world, including in Chile, New Zealand, and Australia.
Another popular option is to rent a campervan or motorhome (only for the brave in winter.) Using Motorhome Republic, you can search hundreds of deals across multiple companies to pick a great vehicle and the cheapest price. Having a motorhome is a stunning way to see Canada, and using crown land and campsites, you can often camp for free or very cheap in the most beautiful places imaginable!
Thanks for reading!
I hope this blog post has helped you decide what stops to make on the breathtaking drive between Nanaimo and Tofino. Honestly, as you drive, you’ll be mouthing “wow” to yourself every couple of minutes – it’s that pretty! Take your time, and above all, have fun!
If you’re headed to BC soon, be sure to check out our other Vancouver Island blogs or some of our articles detailing travel in British Columbia. We have lots of ideas of places to see and things to do – no matter what season you visit.
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COMPLETE Guide to Visiting Lake Cowichan +17 Things to do!