One million visitors a year make the journey west from Parksville on Highway 4 (Pacific Rim Highway) to experience the romantic isolation of the Pacific Rim and Long Beach region. It’s a tribute to the scale of this environment that so many travellers can be absorbed into it and still leave it so (apparently) empty. The open ocean stretches off unbroken and vacant, while the elemental forces at play here – the winds and tides, the sun and rain – excite within visitors a deep-seated resonance, a sense of belonging to this place.
The magnificent Pacific Rim National Park is the only national park on Vancouver Island, providing protection for substantial rain forests and an amazing marine environment. The full force of the mighty Pacific Ocean mercilessly pounds the constantly changing shores of this rugged coastline. This territory has a significant history, having been inhabited by the Nuu-chah-nulth people for thousands of years.
A rich natural heritage evolved as Vancouver Island became isolated from the mainland, retaining a great diversity of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish species. This unique park encompasses a total area of 49,962 hectares of land and ocean in three separate geographic units – Long Beach, the Broken Group Islands and the West Coast Trail. Features of the park include long sandy beaches, an island archipelago, old-growth coastal temperate rainforest and significant Nuu-chah-nulth archaeological sites.
You can spend days walking the beaches between Tofino and Ucluelet, and in the process discover why some folks spend their whole lives caught up in the surf and tidal rhythms here. Radar Beach, Long Beach, Combers Beach, and Wickaninnish Beach run successively from north to south and stretch for 15.5 miles (25 km) between Cox and Quisitas Points. Together they comprise the Long Beach Unit of beaches, and the most visited portion of the park. Despite its popularity, Long Beach remains a magical place of sand and surf, sea lions and starfish.
Radar Beach is rugged and puts up a fight when pummelled by the surf. Exercise great caution within range of the surf anywhere on these beaches. If you only have a short amount of time, head directly to Long Beach, the most easily accessible and also the longest – 6 miles (10 km) long! Depending on the season and the height of the swells in Wickaninnish Bay, not to mention the thickness of the mist, you may see surfers, sea kayakers, cyclists, kite flyers, hackey-sackers, disc tossers, swimmers, joggers, and walkers at play on the hard-packed sand. The scene here is as alive as you want to make it, and there’s room to spare. Something about the enormity of Long Beach just makes you goofy. Take Hwy 4 north towards Tofino. The highway runs beside the beach – you’ll recognize Long Beach on sight.
There is parking on the south end at Green Point Campground, as well as at the north end of Long Beach. The short trail that leads from the parking lot at Green Point passes a long row of picnic tables sheltered by the salal and stunted Sitka spruce, and deposits visitors at the halfway point on Wickaninnish Bay. To the north are Radar Beach and Long Beach; to the south are Combers Beach and Wickaninnish Beach.
Rocky headlands bookend Wickaninnish Bay, but south and north of it are four equally beautiful sandy expanses, each with a variation on the overall mood of isolation that characterizes these ‘outside’ waters. Wreck Beach on Florencia Bay is 3 miles (5 km) long and lies at the south end of the Long Beach Unit. It’s easily reached from Hwy 4, 3 miles (5 km) north of the Tofino-Ucluelet Junction. Turn west onto Long Beach Road, then south at the first fork. The Wickaninnish Bay Interpretive Centre lies nearby at the end of Long Beach Road.
Cox Bay, Chesterman Beach, and MacKenzie Beach lie to the north of the Long Beach Unit, between the northern boundary of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and Tofino. There’s public access to each of them, though you’ll have to do some backroad driving to find it. A small park on Mackenzie Beach is a good place to begin. Take Mackenzie Beach Road west of Hwy 4 (Pacific Rim Hwy) and watch for a small roadside parking area and picnic table at the end of the road. Chesterman Beach is reached via Lynn Road, which loops west from Hwy 4. The public access to Cox Bay Beach is via Maltby Road through Pacific Rim Campground.
Location: Long Beach is located between the villages of Tofino and Ucluelet, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. The Long Beach unit is the most accessible and most developed component of the Pacific Rim National Park. The West Coast is accessed by travelling west on Pacific Rim Highway 4 from Parksville.
Surfing/Windsurfing: Because of its wide expanse and western exposure, Long Beach is the beach of choice for freewheeling, Maui-style windsurfing when the ocean gets riled. There are only two locations on Vancouver Island where you’ll find a surfing community. Jordan River on (South Island) is one, and Tofino the other. A small but dedicated group of aficionados lives here year-round, while another coterie safaris over as often as possible, particularly in winter months when storm season produces the best peeling surf. As the ocean temperature here hovers at a constant, chilly 42-44 deg F (6-7 deg C) year-round, it hardly matters what month it is: it’s the waves that count. Tofino does boast the highest annual mean temperature in Canada (coincidentally, the same as the water temperature), which may help remove some of the sting if you think about it hard enough while you’re paddling out to catch one more wave.
Long Beach boasts the only Surf Camp of its kind in Canada, providing popular adult camps, youth camps, and daily surfing lessons. The camp provides an intense concentration of surfing each day to teach the strategies and techniques of surfing at any level. Students who are already well versed in the knowledge of the ocean and are interested in advanced surfing can improve their skills here. All equipment is provided, including longboards, shortboards, wetsuits and booties, but students are welcome to bring their own boards and equipment if they desire. All ages of campers are welcome from children to adults, and also parents accompanying their children as a family vacation.
You can also learn to surf at Canada’s only all-women surf school, where highly trained instructors introduce women of all ages and abilities to surfing in a safe, fun, and supportive environment. No previous surfing experience is required, but all students should be able to swim and feel comfortable in the water. Weekend Clinics, Weekday Clinics and Intermediate Level Clinics offer daily and private lessons, including Mother & Daughter Camps and Teen Camps. See Premier Listings below for links to companies providing surfing instruction. In Tofino you can rent boards (surf and body styles) and wet suits. They’ll also fill you in on local etiquette when joining the manners-conscious lineup offshore.
Kayaking and Boating: As intimidating as the ocean can be at Long Beach, there are wonderfully long, calm days in summer when boaters and paddlers can safely enjoy an excursion offshore. A boat launch is located beside the parking lot at the north end of Long Beach beside Hwy 4. Boating and paddling in the nearby waters of Clayoquot Sound is one of the most rewarding ways to experience this environment. Depending on your skill level, you can either plan a trip on your own or join up with one of the tour operators that use Tofino as their base. Day trips close to Tofino include Meares, Stubbs, Wickaninnish, and Vargas Islands, all within sight of the federal dock in Tofino.
Camping: Parks Canada maintains campgrounds in the Pacific Rim National Park for both those who wish a formal site and those who wish to make contact with the wilderness. At the Green Point Campground on Long Beach, about 6 miles (10 km) north of the Tofino-Ucluelet junction on Hwy 4, you’ll find vehicle/tent sites and walk-in sites on the beach, sheltered by thick stands of salal. Parks Canada also runs an information service located in the park.
Hiking: Many of the trails in Pacific Rim National Park provide short, easygoing walks. The Wickaninnish Trail (easy; 6 miles/10 km return) involves a much longer excursion between the beaches on Wickaninnish and Florencia Bays. It begins beside the Wickaninnish Centre and follows the same route as the South Beach Trail, before striking off on its own towards Florencia Bay. This is one of the best rain-forest trails in the park. Numerous short trails lead through the salal and Sitka spruce forest and along the beaches of the park. Some of the trails follow pathways that have been tunnelled through the overhanging salal; others follow wooden boardwalks.
During the rainy season, take extra care when walking on slippery wooden surfaces. Many of the trails lead through interpretive zones where plaques describe the biodiversity in the surrounding rain forest. From mid-March to September, park naturalists are on hand at the Wickaninnish Interpretive Centre to answer questions and lead tours. In the off-season, take one of the self-guided trails such as the Shoreline Bog Trail (0.5-mile/0.8-km loop), the Rain Forest Trail (two 0.6-mile/1-km loops), and the Spruce Fringe Trail (1-mile/1.5-km loop).
The Wild Pacific Trail in Ucluelet skirts the rugged cliffs and shoreline of the westcoast of Vancouver Island. Overlooking Barkley Sound and the Broken Group Islands to the east and the open Pacific Ocean to the south and west, it offers spectacular shoreline panoramas and seaward vistas through ancient cedar and spruce-framed viewing platforms constructed on the best headlands along the route.
The first segment of the trail is a 30-45 minute loop off Peninsula Road, using the adjoining He-Tin-Kis Park boardwalk, and passing Amphitrite Point Lighthouse. The trailhead for the main part of the trail is at Terrace Beach, with the trail hugging the coastline all the way to Halfmoon Bay in Pacific Rim National Park.
Kwisitis Visitor Centre, formerly the Wickaninnish Interpretive Centre, showcases the rich natural and cultural heritage of the Pacific Rim region. It is the main interpretive facility in the Pacific Rim National Park, visited by approximately 100,000 visitors per year. The centre is located along Wickaninnish Beach, at the end of Wick Road, 3.5 km from Highway 4. It is open daily from mid-March to mid-October.
Wildlife: One of the joys of visiting Pacific Rim National Park is participating in a grey whale observation tour led by a park naturalist. Start at the Wickaninnish Interpretive Centre, located beside a lengthy stretch of windswept and surf-pounded beach on Combers Beach on Wickaninnish Bay. The entrance is well marked adjacent to Hwy 4 at the end of Long Beach Road. You’ll find telescopes mounted on an observation deck at the centre, plus numerous displays inside that introduce visitors to the geographical and natural history of the Pacific Northwest. Numerous privately led whale-watching expeditions set forth from Tofino daily.
The Krummholz Tunnel leading down to Combers Beach is created when windborne salt and sand kill branch buds and shear off the seaward tips of the trees, thereby stunting growth and pruning the trees into a tight wedge. Common in windy seashore environments, the Sitka Spruce trees behind this living windbreak are able to grow tall and straight. Inside the krummholz tunnel, the dense tree canopy blocks the light so few plants can grow on the forest floor. Krummholz is German for “crooked wood”.
Golf: The Long Beach Golf Course, on the Pacific Rim Highway between Ucluelet and Tofino, is surrounded by the ancient rainforest of the Pacific Rim National Park, one of the most scenic golf courses in BC. The 9-hole championship course is also known to be one of the most challenging courses on Vancouver Island. Vancouver Island Golf Vacations.