The Island Highway (Highway 19) runs beside the open water of the Strait of Georgia, from Nanaimo in the south through the Comox Valley, north to Campbell River and terminates in the town of Port Hardy in North Vancouver Island.
As you drive the Island Highway, it’s always a treat to look across the Strait of Georgia at landmarks on the mainland as the spires of the Coast Mountains rise on the eastern horizon.
One such scenic view is the profile of the Howe Sound Crest as revealed when you look back towards the city of Vancouver from Parksville. The farther north you head towards Courtenay and Campbell River, however, the more the peaks and glaciers of Vancouver Island’s ranges, principally the imposing Comox Glacier, Forbidden Plateau, and Mount Washington, rise in the west and vie for equal attention.
As the highway winds past well-kept farms, this is a serenely rural part of the journey. Flowers abound in the gardens that front many of the homes along the way. Small rivers such as the Little Qualicum and the Englishman, as well as mightier ones such as the Puntledge and the Campbell, empty into the strait. From the highway you catch glimpses of quiet green forest settings on the banks that line each river’s course. Come late summer, these streams teem with spawning salmon.
From Nanaimo north to Parksville, the eastern coastline of Vancouver Island softens considerably. There are no islands along this stretch to interrupt the views across the Strait of Georgia to the snow-covered peaks of the Coast Mountains as they rise above the Sunshine Coast.
Qualicum Beach, about 7.5 miles (12 km) north of Parksville beside Hwy 19A, gently spreads in front of one of the most pleasant small towns on east side of Vancouver Island. Pause here at any of the numerous beachside pullouts and smell the salt air intermingled with the perfume from the many private and public floral displays. From this point on, the pace of Vancouver Island slackens noticeably. Not that the southern portion is any more hurried, it’s just that there are more people and more congestion. From here north, there is less traffic, and what habitation there is clings to a narrow coastal plain beside the ocean.
Offshore to the east of Parksville lies Lasqueti Island, the first of several northern Gulf Islands that you catch glimpses of as the Island Highway heads north towards Courtenay and Campbell River. Farther off in the distance is the dark profile of Texada Island. Other islands closer at hand are Denman Island and Hornby Island south of Courtenay, and Quadra Island across Discovery Passage from Campbell River.
For much of the way between Courtenay and Campbell River the Island Highway runs beside Qualicum Bay, an area rich in seafood. Pullouts beside the road give easy access to the bay’s sand and pebble beaches. At several places you can buy fresh seafood, brought to the docks daily from local waters.Take your time as you meander through this laid-back region. Its rhythms are subtle, but with gentle probing they reveal themselves, showing greater complexity than first meets the eye.
The northern portion of Highway 19 runs from Campbell River to Port Hardy and Cape Scott, including access to Alert Bay, Telegraph Cove, Brooks Peninsula / Muquin Provincial Park, and Cape Scott Provincial Park. As 97 percent of the population lives on the southern half of Vancouver Island, outdoor recreationists in search of solitude come north.
Much of Vancouver Island once looked as the north still does today. Thanks to recent government protection, some of the remaining wilderness, such as Brooks Peninsula, a stubby, 8.5-mile-long (14-km) projection on the northwest coast of the island, has been preserved. Other places, such as the most northerly tip of the island, are sheltered by the elements from the preying eye of industry. Cape Scott Provincial Park is one of the wildest, windiest, most woebegone locales in the province for human habitation. Journeying to either Brooks Peninsula or Cape Scott is only for those whose mettle has been tested by repeated exposure to the bellows and blast-furnace of nature in the raw.
Gentler conditions prevail in the sheltered waters of Johnstone Strait, where the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations are the traditional gatekeepers. To experience a tranquillity that passes all description, paddle these waters where whales rub and salmon run in summer months.
Circle Tours: See the best of BC when you embark upon one of the many circle tours that take in Vancouver Island, the Discovery Coast, and the Sunshine Coast. The coastal tours involve exciting road and ferry trips on BC Ferries, and scenic highways flank the coast, taking you through charming beachside communities, rolling farmlands and majestic mountain ranges. Check out the Sunshine Coast and Vancouver Island Circle Tour, and other Circle Tours in British Columbia.
Location: The new Island Highway (Highway 19) has superseded the old Island highway (Highway 19A) as the way to move quickly between Nanaimo and Campbell River. Parksville, 23 miles (37 km) north of Nanaimo’s Departure Bay ferry, lies just east of the new Island Highway. For those wishing to make time, the new four-lane route will be a blessing.
For those wishing to take their time, this will mean fewer cars tailgating along the scenic ocean drive. Highways 19 and 19A link Parksville with southern Vancouver Island. Highway 4 links Parksville with Port Alberni, and with Tofino and Ucluelet on the west side of Vancouver Island. Campbell River may also be reached by BC Ferries from Quathiaski Cove on Quadra Island, a 10-minute ride.
Approaching from the north, Highway 19 links Campbell River with the northern half of Vancouver Island. The top half of 280-mile-long (450-km) Vancouver Island is served by a maze of logging roads and Highway 19 (North Island Highway), which links Campbell River with Port Hardy, the southern terminus of BC Ferries’ Inside Passage and Discovery Coast routes. BC Ferries links the north and central coasts (Prince Rupert and Bella Coola, respectively) with Vancouver Island at Port Hardy.
The following towns are located on or near the Island Highway:
Nanaimo, Lantzville, Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Qualicum Bay, Bowser, Deep Bay, Fanny Bay, Buckley Bay, Union Bay, Royston, Courtenay, Comox, Comox Valley, Merville, Black Creek, Campbell River, Woss, Telegraph Cove, Port McNeill, and Port Hardy.