Named by officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company for the cold and briny saltwater springs on the north end of the island, Saltspring Island in British Columbia is the largest, most populated, and most visited of the Southern BC Gulf Islands. The setting is West Coast Canadian; forested islands, wide meadows and beautiful landscapes surrounded by emerald ocean and wonderful vistas.
Saltspring Island has long been a seasonal home of the Coast Salish First Nations, with evidence suggesting that permanent settlements on the south coast of the island – where the Tsawout Band Reserve is located today – existed for centuries prior to the arrival of Europeans and European settlements. The Wsanec people of the Saanich Peninsula and the Cowichan people from the Cowichan Valley frequented the island’s shores and harvested its resources.
The island was explored by the Spanish and British in the 1700s, and settled in the 1850s by early pioneers who had abandoned their Fraser River gold rush hopes.
A group of 9 Negro slaves, who had purchased their liberty in the United States, arrived at Vesuvius in 1857. Further black settlers, mainly from California, were followed by European immigrants from Portugal and Scandinavia, and British and Hawaiian (Kanakas) settlers originally recruited by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Early island pioneers lived under the constant threat of attack by hostile natives.
In 1859, Captain Richards named the highest peak Mount Baynes, in honour of Rear Admiral Baynes who was in command of the Pacific Station at the time. He also named the island Admiral Island, but islanders continued to use the name Saltspring Island, which became the official name of the island in 1905. The township of Saltspring was incorporated in 1873, but strong anti-government sentiment by island residents resulted in the reversal of the incorporation by the BC Legislature ten years later.
Is the island named Saltspring or Salt Spring? The Oxford Dictionary of Canadian Place Names indicates it was called Salt Spring Island by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the early 1800s. In 1910 the name was changed to Saltspring by the Geographic Board of Canada (now the Geographical Names Board of Canada), which often fused multiple-word place names. So, officially it is one word, but local usage tends to prefer two words, although it is not unanimous. Canada Post accepts both spellings of the name.
The year-round residents of Saltspring Island include an eclectic mix of artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs. Many vacationers come to Saltspring simply to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere and soak in the quiet island lifestyle and spirit. If you raise an issue or express an opinion, expect a lively debate from the locals.
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Saltspring Island is the most densely populated of the Gulf Islands and is also home to the biggest Gulf Island provincial campground, Ruckle Provincial Park. The island’s shoreline is varied and beautiful, offering rocky shores, tidal pools to explore, shell beaches for beachcombing, and a wide variety of sandy beaches. Of the 22 ocean beaches, 4 are designated for swimming.
The island has over 200 farms and is known for its sheep-raising; be sure to tour the rolling pastures on the north end (visit in the spring, and you’ll never order rack of lamb again). Saltspring is also known as a centre for arts and crafts, and has an impressive selection of shops, restaurants and tourist accommodations. While a few of Saltspring’s attractions can be seen in a whirlwind two-hour drive, a thorough exploration of Saltspring could take weeks. Allow at least a full day or more…the serene island offers a tranquil respite for solace-seeking travellers.
Saltspring Island was engaged in one of BC’s most high-profile environmental wars between local residents and the Texada Land Corporation. In late 1999 the private logging company purchased 10 percent of Saltspring Island and promptly proceeded to log it. Efforts to raise funds and support included the publication of Preserve & Protect 2001, a tasteful best-selling calendar featuring nude photographs of 35 island woman.
The rugged and mountainous southern end of the island is dominated by Mount Tuam and Mount Bruce, separated from the equally mountainous mid-island region by the Fulford Valley, located between Fulford Harbour and Burgoyne Bay. The north end of the island has a lower elevation, with rolling pastures, deciduous forests and the majority of residential developments, mainly around the village of Ganges.
The local economy is service-oriented and heavily reliant upon the tourist industry, with a high level of services on the island, concentrated mostly in Ganges. Saltspring offers hotels and motels, a large number of resorts, and many bed & breakfasts and self-contained cottages and suites. There may well be more B&Bs per capita on Saltspring than anywhere else in Canada.
Farming is important on the island, which bills itself as the Organic Gardening Capital of Canada, and local farmers and growers form the backbone of the popular Saltspring Market. Farming includes sheep and lamb products, poultry, llamas, cheese, fruit orchards, and certified organic growers.
Saltspring is 17 miles (27 km) long and 9 miles (14 km) wide, with 83 miles (133 km) of shoreline (182 square kilometres). The island attracts visitors and prospective residents with its mild climate and annual sunshine in excess of 2,000 hours.
Today, the cost of property on Saltspring Island is amongst the highest in Canada, an indication of the popularity of this lovely, trippy, safe and secluded island. Vast tracts of protected land and strict building restrictions have also increased property prices, with limits imposed on development and population density. Land use on the island is governed by the Islands Trust, which aims to preserve and protect the unique qualities of the Gulf Islands. Popular with retirees who like the openness and sense of community on the island, the median age of Saltspring is more than 9 years older than the BC average.
A public bus transit system covers the main routes on Saltspring Island, and the Ganges Faerie MiniShuttle service operates between the ferry terminals (Fulford, Long Harbour, Vesuvius) and Ganges, Ruckle Park, and Fernwood. Visitors can also hire a taxi or rent a car, motorbike, scooter or even a bicycle to take in some of the breathtaking views to be seen on Saltspring Island. Cycling is popular, but most roads are narrow and none have shoulders.
Location: Saltspring Island is located in the sheltered waters of the Southern Gulf Islands of British Columbia, off the west coast of Canada. Because of its close proximity to Vancouver Island, Saltspring is the most accessible of the Gulf chain of islands, with the most frequent ferry sailings on three routes to three ferry terminals. BC Ferries links Fulford Harbour with Swartz Bay (near Sidney), and also links Vesuvius to Crofton on Vancouver Island. There’s a BC Ferries dock in nearby Long Harbour with links to both Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island and Tsawwassen on the BC mainland. Floatplanes also link the village of Ganges to Vancouver and Seattle.
Ganges: On Saltspring, all roads lead to the village of Ganges, in mid island, the biggest town in the Gulf Islands. There are more shops, services, amenities, restaurants, and galleries (not to mention tourists and cars) crammed into Ganges than exist on any other Gulf Island. After browsing the galleries, walk down to the water for lunch. Ganges was named after HMS Ganges, the flagship of the Royal Navy’s Pacific Station between 1857 and 1860. Built in 1821, the Ganges was the last British sailing battleship commissioned for duty in foreign waters.
Fulford Village, at the southern end of the island, bustles with activity when the ferry arrives from Swartz Bay terminal on Vancouver Island. The decidedly laid-back atmosphere of Fulford Village, the historic Fulford Inn, the historic grocery store, the Mexican cafe, and the few crafts shops all combine to add to the unique character of Fulford Harbour and the Fulford Harbour Ferry Terminal. Visit the native artifacts museum housed in a beautiful log building.
Fulford Harbour was named after Captain John Fulford, commanding officer of the HMS Ganges, the flagship of the Royal Navy’s Pacific Station between 1857 and 1860. Built in 1821, the Ganges was the last British sailing battleship commissioned for duty in foreign waters. Charming Fulford Harbour provides temporary anchorage in the shallow waters at the head of the long inlet, a favourite destination among cruising boats.
Tiny Vesuvius Bay on the northwest side of Saltspring offers more studios, hiking trails, and spectacular sunsets! BC Ferries operates a ferry service from Vesuvius to Crofton on Vancouver Island. This is one of the few ferry docks where you can park your car in line and wander over to a pub (the Vesuvius Inn) and quaff a beer and enjoy the great view from the veranda while you wait for your ship to come in. A popular family beach is close to the facilities at Vesuvius Bay. Park on Langley Street, then go down a flight of stairs to the beach. Amateur geologists will find some deeply inclined rock strata to study, and warmer ocean waters make it a good spot for swimming. Vesuvius Bay was the home of the first settlers on Saltspring Island (1857), the nine American blacks who had purchased their freedom from slavery. Vesuvius is named after the Royal Navy’s paddle sloop Vesuvius, which did duty in the Black Sea during the Crimean War (1853-1856).
The fourth community on the island is Fernwood, facing Galiano Island on the northeast coast of Saltspring. Fernwood is a good launching spot for those wishing to cross Houston Passage to visit Wallace Island Marine Provincial Park in Trincomali Channel. Fernwood provides a government wharf at Fernwood Point off Walker Hook Road, and a boat launching ramp over tidal sand flats at Hudson Point, north of the Fernwood Dock off North Beach Road.
Saltspring Island Dollars: Saltspring Island even has its own currency! Saltspring Island Dollars are available on a one-to-one exchange with the Canadian Dollar and accepted on Saltspring on the same basis as the national currency. The goal of the local currency, which was introduced to the Island in September 2001, is to raise funds for worthwhile community projects while promoting local commerce and goodwill. Limited editions of Saltspring Island art are featured on the back of the notes, which help to make the bills collectible after the two-year expiry date. The not-for-profit Saltspring Island Monetary Foundation facilitates the process of returning the proceeds of the venture back to the community. Legally considered gift certificates, the Saltspring Island Dollar is Canada’s only local legal-tender currency in circulation.
Salt Springs: The 14 salt springs located on private property on the north end of the island are the only springs in the Gulf Islands. The springs vary in size from one metre to 25 metres in diameter. View more information on the benefits of bathing in the Salt Spring Mineral Water.
Overlooking Fulford Harbour is the tiny stone Roman Catholic St. Paul’s Church, built between 1880 and 1883. The church can be viewed from the ferry when sailing into Fulford Harbour.
Saltspring Market: Head to the heart of Ganges every Saturday to see the wares and talents of the islanders on display at the local Saturday Market (April to October). The colourful event includes a variety of impromptu musical performances and the occasional theatrical or dance exhibition.
Farmer’s Market is a small market held on Tuesdays in the greenspace next to the United Church, between McPhillips and Hereford Avenues. Ganges is the largest bustling seaside village in the Gulf Islands, located 7.5 miles (12 km) north of Fulford Harbour.
Akerman Museum in the Fulford Valley houses artifacts of local history dating back hundreds of years. Thousands of items exhibit the native culture and pioneer history of Saltspring, a tribute to the early settlers of the island. The private museum is open to the public and well worth a visit.
Arts: Enjoy theatre and live entertainment throughout the year at the ArtSpring Theatre in Ganges, Saltspring Island’s premier venue for concerts, theatre, exhibitions and much more. Graffiti Theatre Company utilizes the talents of island artists whilst engaging theatre professionals from away to enrich and broaden their work.
Arts & Crafts: Saltspring is also known as a centre for arts and crafts. Many local artisans open their studios for tours, including spinners and weavers, sculptors and glass blowers, painters and potters. Studios showcase ceramics, woodcraft, jewellery, furniture, metal craft, stained glass, moulded candles, wool and fleece products, and many other unique island products. Pick up a Studio Tour Map from the Visitor Centre in Ganges. The unique tour is a self-guided visit to over 30 resident properties of artists and artisans, showcasing their individual talents and creations for your enjoyment and purchase.
Annual Events: One of the biggest events of the year is the annual Fall Fair, held on the third weekend of September just outside Ganges. The two-day fair attracts thousands of visitors who attend to see award-winning displays of fruit and vegetables, prize-winning livestock and riding exhibitions by local equestrians.
Be sure to stop by in July for the annual Saltspring Festival of the Arts, which presents a diverse and culturally rich program of talented performing artists. Other annual events include Fulford Days, the Apple Festival, the Guilds of Christmas, Saltspring Singers and Santa Ship in December.
Golf: Tee off on either of the island’s two golf courses. The challenging 9-hole Saltspring Island Golf Club on Lower Ganges Road welcomes the public and operates on a first-come-first-served basis. Ten minutes south of Ganges is the Blackburn Meadows Golf Club.
Kayaking: Exploring offshore waters by kayak is the best way to discover the islands, either on day trips, paddles to marine parks rich in bird and wildlife, or guided multi-day camping expeditions. Kayak rentals and daily lessons are available from the four organizations offering equipment. The landscaped Rotary Maritime Park, in downtown Ganges overlooking the harbour, has a small dock for kayak and dinghy launching. The wharf at Fulford Harbour is also a good spot to begin a kayaking trip.
Cycling is a wonderful way to travel the island roads and trails, taking you on a tour of natural beauty, leading you to hilltops for fabulous views and down to the beach for an afternoon swim. Cycling is popular, but most roads are narrow and none have shoulders.
Hanggliding and Paragliding: Mount Bruce (2,326 feet/709 metres) is the highest point on Saltspring and a popular launching spot for hang-gliders, who soar and glide over the Fulford Valley down below.
Hanggliding & Paragliding on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.
Boating & Sailing: Summer sees many cruising sailboats from the US, which usually stop in on their trip through the Gulf islands and the US San Juan Islands.
Boating, Sailing & Cruising around Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.
Camping: Ruckle Provincial Park offers the only public campground on Saltspring Island, and what a fabulous campground it is. Private campsites are located at Cedar Beach Resort and Mowhinna Creek Campground (links on this page).
Hiking is a major activity on Saltspring, with many mountain, beach, and park trails. The most challenging hiking in the Gulf Islands is found on the rough trails that lead to the tops of both Bruce Peak (2,326 feet/709 m) and Mount Tuam (1,975 feet/602 m), the tallest points of land on the Gulf Islands. Take Musgrave Road west from Fulford Harbour to reach both trailheads, though eventually by different routes. One leads north off Musgrave to Bruce, while another leads south to Tuam. You’ll find great views from both down onto the Saanich Inlet and Saanich Peninsula, and across Satellite Channel to Cowichan Bay. If you make this hike in summer, take plenty of drinking water with you as these open slopes are baked by the sun.
There are many other hiking trails on Saltspring Island. Ruckle Provincial Park boasts one of the best hikes on the island, with trails winding through old-growth forests of fir, hemlock, cedar and alder. Hope Hill offers 7 kilometres of trails through forests of fir and cedar, and great views over Fulford Harbour, southern Saltspring, the San Juan Islands and Washington’s Mount Baker.
Reginald Hill offers a shorter (1.5 km), but steeper hike through second-growth forest to splendid views over Fulford Harbour, Fulford Valley and beyond. Other short hikes can be found on 441-metre Mount Erskine (2.5 km), Duck Creek (1.5 km), and the 4-km round trip trail on Southey Point.
St. Mary Lake, near the north end of Saltspring Island, is an anomaly. There are few freshwater lakes on any of the islands and 8 on Saltspring, 5 of which have public beaches. St. Mary Lake is large enough to hold the rest of them put together. Stocked with trout and smallmouth bass, the lake is reached from a small beach and boat launch at the junction of Upper and Lower Ganges Roads and Vesuvius Bay Road. Powerboats are not permitted here, except those with electric motors.
Lakes: Although the wooded setting at Weston Lake, about 2 miles (3 km) north of Fulford Harbour, is less picturesque than oceanfront settings, there is a sandy beach here where you can enjoy a freshwater swim. Other lakes on Saltspring include Stowell Lake and Cusheon Lake. All three of these lakes provide excellent trout and bass fishing, and great warm, freshwater swimming.
Ruckle Provincial Park: Saltspring Island is home to the biggest Gulf Island provincial campground, at Ruckle Park, located 5.5 miles (9 km) northeast of Fulford Harbour. The park features easily reached campsites in a wooded setting overlooking Swanson Channel and one of the prettiest beaches on all the islands. A trail leads from the campground down to the secluded beach.
A tall forest surmounts the beach, much of it sturdy first-growth Douglas fir, but there are also a number of hardwood species planted by the Ruckles that are a delight come fall. The Ruckle family first homesteaded here over a century ago, and although they donated most of their property to the province in 1974, the Ruckles still raise sheep on private land at the entrance to the campground. Visitors are welcome to visit the grounds, where many old buildings have been restored. Private campsites are also located on Saint Mary Lake.
Burgoyne Bay Provincial Park near Fulford Harbour offers boating, horse riding, hiking, and mountain biking along park roads, and a government wharf provides kayak launching and limited boat mooring facilities.
Mount Maxwell’s Baynes Peak is crowned by a forest of mature grand fir and Garry oak. A provincial ecological reserve has been created here to protect the enclave and provide biologists an opportunity to study this vibrant ecosystem. Mount Maxwell Provincial Park, adjacent to Mount Maxwell Ecological Reserve, gives visitors the chance to stand on the top of Baynes Peak and enjoy the best views anywhere on the islands. Find a sheltered ledge and lean back to drink in all of this. Ravens ride the updrafts off the face of the mountain and rise and dive as they cavort with each other.
Mouat Regional Parkin Ganges is just a short walk uphill from the commercial heart of Saltspring and provides a relaxing break amongst its beautiful trees, streams and enormous ferns. Once a popular camping location, The Disc Golf course now occupies the old camping oval.
Just past Drummond Park is Mill Farm Regional Park, home to two endangered species of butterfly and three endangered plants; the phantom orchid, the yellow montane violet, and the scalepod.
Drummond Park at the head of nearby Fulford Harbour has a pebble beach to explore. Sit on one of the benches and watch the sea birds and marine life on the beach, or look for the ancient pictograph image of a seal carved on the face of one of the larger boulders on the beach. Ancient native middens can still be found at various locations along the shoreline.
Diving: Divers can explore sunken wrecks at Princess Margaret Marine Park (Gulf Islands NPR) on Portland Island, located between Saltspring Island and the Pender Islands. The marine park is also a favoured kayaking destination.
Island Hopping: Travelling between the Southern Gulf Islands and Northern Gulf Islands can be accomplished in small hops. Each of these islands is a world unto itself, each with its own history, culture and colourful characters – each island deserves at least a day or two for exploring.