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Plan Your Trip to Northern Vancouver Island

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Northern Vancouver Island

North of the Comox Valley, Vancouver Island changes. The highway narrows to two lanes, the trees grow taller, and the rivers are more plentiful. Up here, the towns are smaller and more spaced out. The wildlife is more prevalent and the beaches less crowded. For a west coast experience unlike anywhere else, this is the spot.

Fog rolling over the tree tops.

What to do on Northern Vancouver Island

From fishing and whale watching to hiking the seaside routes and exploring local First Nations culture, most activities on the north Island revolve around the ocean.

In Campbell River, scuba diving and salmon fishing compete for top draw. Nearby Johnstone Strait is renowned for its strong currents, and the lush underwater environment in these oxygenated waters attract divers from around the world. Orca sightings are common here, and the area is a kayaker’s utopia.

A person paddling into the waves of a surf board.

The village of Telegraph Cove was built as a frontier lumber mill in the 1920s; today the wooden boardwalks and buildings that line the protected cove operate as a resort, with former workers’ cabins and offices transformed into accommodation and restaurants. From here, Stubb’s Island Whale Watching tours depart for the nearby protected waters of the Broughton Archipelago, an area home to an abundance of marine mammals and seabirds. Orcas are most frequent, with humpback whales, Dall’s porpoises, and Pacific white-sided dolphins encountered regularly.

Two breaching whales.

In Port McNeill, First Nations-owned Seawolf Adventures offers daytrips to remote areas to view wildlife like grizzly bears and orcas. The U’Mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay celebrates the history, culture, and art of the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw First Nations. Don’t miss their collection of artifacts recovered after BC’s infamous Potlatch Ban.

The interior of the U'Mista Cultural Centre.

On the northern tip of the Island, Cape Scott Trail has been attracting intrepid hikers from around the globe for decades. It is a solid hike of close to  25 kilometres (15 miles), and most choose to camp for one or more nights. For adventurers who want more, the North Coast Trail is an extension of Cape Scott, offering over 40 kilometres (25 miles) of more advanced hiking terrain.

From nearby Port Hardy, the BC Ferries vessel Northern Expedition departs on a scenic 15-hour journey to Prince Rupert through the Inside Passage. The company offers other coastal routes that reach small communities on BC’s mid-central coast, as well as connections to Haida Gwaii.

Where to stay on Northern Vancouver Island

The communities on Northern Vancouver Island range from relatively small (Campbell River, 35,000 pop.) to extremely tiny (Sointula, 600 pop.). Accommodations vary accordingly, from Campbell River’s luxurious offshore fishing lodges and range of hotel options, to tiny bed and breakfasts in smaller communities. Kwa’lilas Hotel is a new option in Port Hardy, owned and operated by the Gwa’sala ‘Nakwaxda’xw Nations. The hotel and affiliated tour operators provide a glimpse into the arts, culture, and history of the local nations.

A child walking towards a small house.

Camping remains a popular alternative, particularly for remote coastal locations such as Cape Scott Provincial Park. In high season it can be difficult to find accommodation, so plan in advance or keep a spare tent and sleeping bag, just in case. RV camping is another option at properties such as Alder Bay RV Park and Marina south of Port McNeill.

How to get to Northern Vancouver Island

There are few airports on the northern tip of the Island, with daily scheduled flights between Vancouver and Campbell River and Vancouver and Port Hardy. Plan to fly into a small regional air strip in Campbell River, Port Hardy, or Port McNeill and rent a car for transportation ease.

Those who love a good road trip can fly into Vancouver, enjoy the BC Ferries voyage to Nanaimo’s Departure Bay or Duke Point, and then drive 2.5 hours to Campbell River. From Campbell River, it’s another 2.5 hours to Port Hardy.

A third option is to fly into Comox Airport and rent a vehicle, allowing you to skip the big city airport and the ferry ride.

A black bear coming out of a river.