If you like gazing at rugged mountains while being surrounded by endless lakes and an absurd amount of flowing waterfalls, a road trip through Vancouver Island’s midsection should be at the top of your bucket list.
After spending an amazing few months exploring the mecca of outdoor living in Campbell River, British Columbia, we teamed up with Destination Campbell River to shine a light on some more remote and majorly underrated spots within a few hours drive from the city. If you’re looking for clothes shopping and staying at Best Westerns then this definitely isn’t the trip for you but if you’re game to soak in a ton of unspoiled nature and get a little muddy along the way then read on!
To make sure that you hit all the good spots, we’ve put together an easy to follow list of the highlights from Campbell River through Strathcona Provincial Park to Gold River and from Gold River to Tahsis. We did the trip over the course of 3 days but there are lots of opportunities for longer hikes and more camping to make this a week-long trip.
START: CAMPBELL RIVER
Gear up with supplies for cooking and top up all your vehicle’s fluids because services are very limited once you leave town. You also most likely won’t have cell service once you get 15-20 minutes in on the Gold River Highway (Hwy 28) so make sure you’ve got all your emails answered and accommodation arrangements (if need be) made before setting out; a Backroads Mapbook or offline map on your phone will also come in handy if you decide to veer off the main highway at all (which, needless to say, you always should).
ELK FALLS PROVINCIAL PARK
Just a few minutes after leaving town, you’ll enter into Elk Falls Provincial Park which has some great walking trails, camping and a super cool suspension bridge. The falls themselves are a short walk from the park’s entrance and can be especially epic when the nearby hydroelectric dam is open, pushing massive amounts of water down the river. Entry to the park is free and the paid campground is open year-round.
STRATHCONA PARK LODGE
With the drop in cell service and the lack of folks around, you wouldn’t expect to find a beautifully-crafted lodge hidden along a winding highway but yet, Strathcona Park Lodge exists. This lodge is rich in logging history and serves as a meeting point for outdoor adventure enthusiasts and those looking to learn more about the area. The lodge hosts everything from camps for kids to romantic getaways for couples looking to do something a little different. The lodge works hard to promote sustainable and eco-friendly living where no TV, Internet or grid-connected electricity is to be found. Almost all of the food served in the dining hall, The Whale Room, is sourced from local farmers and fishers who are passionate about promoting a healthy and conscious lifestyle for those working and visiting.
The cabins are cozy yet modern and boast some amazing views of the mountains that hug Upper Campbell Lake. Whether you’re keen to take a kayak out for a paddle or a bike out for a ride, Strathcona Park Lodge is a great spot to really immerse yourself in Vancouver Island’s picturesque beauty.
STRATHCONA PROVINCIAL PARK: ENTRANCE
It’s obligatory to snap a photo with the huge elk marking the entrance to Strathcona Provincial Park. There are outhouses and trash cans here that make it a good pit stop before heading deeper into the park. We even took a walk down to the water for a taste of some of the amazing views to come. Similar to Elk Falls, it’s completely free to enter and explore Strathcona, but there are fees if you choose to camp at one of the park’s campgrounds or require a permit for backcountry exploring.
STRATHCONA PROVINCIAL PARK: BUTTLE LAKE
At this point, you’ll want to veer off of Hwy 28 and head down Westmin Mines Road to drive along the shores of Buttle Lake. Although it may seem like Upper Campbell Lake is the main drag, it is actually a man-made lake created after the construction of the Strathcona Dam in the 1950s. Buttle Lake, on the other hand, has always existed naturally but had way lower water levels before the construction of the dam and consequently, was much smaller. When water levels are low, you can see several tree stumps on the muddy shore which are some of the few remaining traces of the forest that used to stand tall pre-hydroelectric dam. Now, Buttle Lake is a popular spot for boating, swimming and fishing and has two vehicle-accessible campgrounds. We didn’t camp here but we’ve heard that Ralph River on the south shore of the lake is definitely worth checking out.
STRATHCONA PROVINCIAL PARK: LUPIN FALLS
A short hike takes you up to a real-life enchanted forest where you’ll be surrounded by masses of old growth cedar trees blanketed in lavish green moss. Once you reach the waterfall, take a minute to soak in all the beauty surrounding you and don’t hold back from climbing up to the higher viewing area. If you’ve got an imagination, you could almost trick yourself into thinking that the tall, skinny waterfall is actually warm water and Lupin Falls would feel like a tropical oasis.
STRATHCONA PROVINCIAL PARK: KARST CREEK
Personally, when I think of sinkholes I think of seemingly bottomless cenotes in Mexico and had no idea that dissolved limestone – called karst – could create underground tunnels and a whole network of creeks below the earth’s surface – and all of this in Canada to boot! Karst Creek is a 2km trail that opens up to a “disappearing” creek, a waterfall and of course, a sinkhole. There is one section of the trail that involves crossing a riverbed that is obviously advisable to do only when the water levels are low. We did the trail in March and this section was almost completely dry.
STRATHCONA PROVINCIAL PARK: LOWER MYRA FALLS
If Strathcona Provincial Park has ever been on your radar, it’s probably because of Lower Myra Falls. A gorgeous limestone-carved waterfall flows freely into pools of vibrant, turquoise waters that look like a paradise out of the Caribbean. It’s a steep 15 minute walk down to the falls where you can get up close and personal with the colourful water and even cool off in it if you’re feeling brave. Needless to say, be very cautious because the rocks can be super slippery and the water flows pretty rapidly. If you’re planning a longer trip, the 6km hike to Upper Myra Falls sounds like a pretty great way to spend an afternoon.
STRATHCONA PROVINCIAL PARK: LADY FALLS
Once you’ve hit Myra Falls, you’ll need to head back on Westmin Mines Road in order to link back up with Hwy 28 and continue west. Reaching the end of Strathcona Provincial Park, the last stop to make is at Lady Falls. A popular spot due to its brisk 900m jaunt from the highway, Lady Falls are a lot more aggressive than the name may lead you to believe. Similar to Elk Falls, the roaring cascade will surround you in a cool mist that would make for the perfect way to refresh yourself on a hot day.
Because we were on a shorter trip, we stuck to mostly shorter trails and tried to jam a lot into one day. The next time we go, we definitely want to work in having the time to do the Elk River Trail and Bedwell Lake Trail because they look incredible. It’s also important to note that this is only uncovering the Buttle Lake portion of the park – there is also the Forbidden Plateau zone that’s reached from Mt. Washington and would make for its own multi-day trip.
After a long day of trails and waterfalls, we continued on the final stretch of the Gold River Highway (Hwy 28) to you guessed it, Gold River. Instead of turning into town, we headed 20 minutes north to Muchalat Lake where we’d camp for the night. This BC Recreation Area is an absolute gem; it’s $15/night to camp from May-September but free in the off-season. There are several campsites and a big boat launch and wharf that would make any afternoon on the water a blast. The views of the mountains are absolutely spectacular and make for a pretty humbling experience as you stand surrounded by old growth forest. We were lucky to only have one or two other campers there but I’d imagine this spot would be pretty popular in the summer months.
VILLAGE OF GOLD RIVER
The Village of Gold River is a small community of only 1200 people that’s nestled amongst mountains, forest and a plethora of lakes and rivers. Aside from a couple gas stations and Fields, a general store, there isn’t much to the village since more and more people have been migrating to Campbell River and elsewhere after the closure of the pulp mill in the late 1990s left the town without many employment opportunities. Those that did stay have established a beautiful community surrounded by nature that is an extraordinary launching point for many hikes and outdoor adventure opportunities. Do yourself a favour and stop in at Clayworks Café for a coffee and sandwich while getting a chance to admire the handcrafted pottery made by the local artisan couple that runs the café. Again, our short visit meant that we didn’t have as much time as we’d like to explore the whole area but the next time we’re back, the first thing we’re going to do is the Antler Lake Trail. It only takes about an hour roundtrip and is a local favourite; as Neil, one of the owners of Clayworks said, “it would be a shame to come to Gold River and not do the trail.”
Although it’s pretty much in the direct centre of Vancouver Island, a 15 minute drive to the end of Hwy 28 opens up to an inlet with stunning mountain views and salty ocean air. At the edge of this inlet, you’ll find the dock to board the MV Uchuck III for an ocean cruise on a historic ship and the dock to board one of Air Nootka’s floatplanes. We were lucky enough to join Scott, Air Nootka’s pilot extraordinaire, on a scenic mail route and discover some remote communities on the shores of Vancouver Island’s west coast that are unreachable by road. The mail flight is a two hour journey around the area called Nootka Sound, which looks like a rugged landscape out of a movie set in the Polynesian Islands or somewhere else that is definitely not the Canada that we’ve seen anywhere else.
The waters are crystal clear and painted with a gradient of light turquoise to deep, jewel-toned blue and wash up onto white, sandy beaches lined with coniferous trees. Scott gave us a rundown on the rich First Nations history of the area and let us in on all the best surfing and hiking spots. We made two stops in Kyuquot and Zeballos to deliver mail and medical supplies after flying over a herring spawn and getting a bird’s eye view of grey whales heading in for a snack. A flight with Air Nootka is a popular voyage for hiking enthusiasts looking to embark on the Nootka Trail, a 37 km hike around Nootka Island that’s guaranteed to be rich in wildlife, scenery and more than a few challenging obstacles. The beauty of this trail truly lies in its remoteness and solitude with how few people you will encounter along the way. Flights with Air Nootka have a variety of destination and pricing options and are best to be booked in advance.
After departing the Village of Gold River, you’ll start your 64 km journey on the Tree to Sea Drive to Tahsis. There are several viewpoints and landmarks along the way so we’ve included some of our favourites. The first stop is Cala Falls, a glorious waterfall fed from Big Baldy Mountain that’s easy to admire right from the road. The falls are only about 10 km away from Gold River and set a precursor for the outstanding amount of waterfalls you’ll continue to see along the way.
Yes, you read that right – caves! The Upana Caves are a series of limestone and marble caves carved out by the Upana River. There are five caves to explore ranging from still-being-able-to-see-the-light-of-day to some pretty dark, tight squeezes. We visited at the beginning of spring so there was still a lot of snow and ice on the ground because the elevation is quite high but we still managed to do a little spelunking – don’t worry, we didn’t know what that word meant either until we tried our hand at exploring the caves and learned that “spelunking” is the correct term for this. It goes without saying that you must be extremely careful and mindful of your footing with the slippery rocks and jagged overhangs. We particularly liked the Resurgence Cave because it was the least claustrophobic and had some really impressive rock formations. The caves are completely free to explore and are a must-see if exploring the Gold River area.
British Columbia and the mid-Island region in particular are full of amazing camping opportunities in places that almost don’t even seem real. After a 40 minute detour off the main road, we came upon our new favourite campsite – ever. Cougar Creek is a provincial recreation area perched on one of the most serene and picturesque inlets that the Island has to offer. Similar to Muchalat Lake, there is a fee to camp here during the summer months but it is free in the off-season. In late March we had the entire place to ourselves and couldn’t have asked for a more spectacular spot to spend a night. The campground is a popular destination for anglers, which was made clear by the huge dock lined with fish cleaning tables and the endless waters that surrounded it. Truthfully, we had to remind ourselves that we weren’t in New Zealand as we watched the clouds clear to uncover everything from lush green mountains to rocky, snow-capped peaks. A visit to Cougar Creek is probably the most worthy detour you’ll ever make.
MOUTCHA + HEAD BAY
As you continue along the Tree to Sea Drive, the winding dirt roads and steep hills will open up to glimpses of breath-taking unspoiled nature and if you’re lucky, some pretty spectacular wildlife viewing. Just before Moutcha Bay, we got to watch a family of elk cross a riverbed while eagles flew majestically over our heads. Once you reach Moutcha and Head Bay, you’ll admire a perfectly still body of water with vibrant reflections of the peaceful trees and mountains that line the shore.
THREE SISTERS WATERFALL
This waterfall is epic – three parallel streams of crisp mountain water flow down the side of a rocky façade that looks like something out of National Geographic. The pullout for the lookout point isn’t very big but these tall waterfalls will be in view for a good portion of this section of the drive.
This one is a bit of a sad stop. The President’s Tree or “The Big Tree” was preserved during the logging of the area done to make the road to Tahsis, which used to only be reachable by boat or plane. Dedicated to Jack Christiensen, President of the Tahsis Company, this 300+ year old Douglas Fir served as a welcome home marker to those en route to Tahsis. Sadly, the mammoth of a tree fell down last year in a storm and now remains fallen on the side of the road.
Leiner River is a recreation area 5 minutes outside of the Village of Tahsis that is a popular destination for swimming, hiking and camping. The campground is free to access all year round and makes for a great spot to do some tricks on the rope swing that hangs over the river. The area is very rainforest-y and links up with the Leiner River Trail. Be extra cautious of wildlife because cougars seem to enjoy this place just as much as humans.
VILLAGE OF TAHSIS
If you thought Gold River was a small community, wait until you get to Tahsis. A small fishing-oriented village of 300 people hugs the shore of the Tahsis Inlet. Yet another striking mountain view welcomes you as you roam the cherry blossom-lined streets (in the spring at least!). There is only one store in the entire village, conveniently called Tahsis Supermarket, which serves as a grocery/liquor/general store complete with a restaurant up front. We had some dynamite fish and chips and a BLT at the restaurant while chatting with some locals about the area. Seeing as we’re travelling in a van, they were quick to inform us of the recreation centre that is free to use and has a swimming pool, sauna and even a bowling alley! For a small town, at least they’ve got their priorities covered. Being the shoulder season, we were the only tourists around but the village seems to liven up in the summer months when anglers and outdoor explorers from the US and Canada come to visit. The Westview Marina opens up in April-May with mooring, an inn and a waterfront restaurant serving up local food and beer. Just like Gold River, the population has decreased drastically since the closure of the mill in the late 90s but the village is rebranding itself as an outdoor adventure hotspot in an absolutely gorgeous location.
Well, there you have it; an amazing journey around some of Vancouver Island’s most beautiful yet far too often overlooked locations that make for an awesome outdoorsy trip. Most people visiting – or even living on – Vancouver Island generally spend most of their time on the southern half and maybe make the pilgrimage to Tofino. The south Island is lovely but if you’re headed this way, a trip up north of the Alberni Highway 4 is where all the true gems are. Take our word for it and ditch your list of popular spots and make the expedition to the heart of Vancouver Island!