Vancouver Island, located off the southwest coast of Canada, is full of adventure and natural beauty. There are several different areas you can explore, but one of our all-time favourites is the drive between Nanaimo and Tofino. Here, you will find magical lakes, old-growth forests, one-of-a-kind waterfalls, and incredible hiking accessible for the majority of the year.
Vancouver Island is known for its mild climate, gorgeous landscapes, and thriving arts community. This little slice of paradise offers a variety of different activities, shops, restaurants, and natural attractions. In this blog post, I will outline all of the best stops on the drive from Nanaimo to Tofino and why I think you’ll love them, too.
The drive from Nanaimo to Tofino is scenic on its own. When you add in all of the incredible stops along the way, though, it becomes one of the best road trips on Vancouver Island. Many of these destinations are located a short walk from the highway making them easily accessible and reasonably quick to visit.
As far as time goes for this journey, I think one day in each direction is perfect. We spent one day making stops on the way out to Tofino, a few days in Tofino, and another day stopping on the way back. The plethora of natural wonders and scenic viewpoints are an excellent way to break up the drive.
In total, the drive only takes 3 hours each way, but don’t let that fool you. You can certainly fill up 2 whole days or more depending on what you choose to do.
With that in mind, here are all of the can’t miss stops on a road trip from Nanaimo to Tofino.
Little Mountain Lookout
First up, you do not want to miss Little Mountain Lookout located on the perimeter of Parksville. You can either hike the 4.2km & 118m of elevation, or you can choose to drive to the top. Once you reach the summit, you will be greeted with incredible views of the forest and surrounding mountain ranges.
There are several viewpoints along the ridge at the top, so you are almost guaranteed to find a secluded little area to claim as yours for an hour or so. If you’re interested in a beautiful spot to eat a packed breakfast with a view—you just found it.
Little Qualicum Falls
This gorgeous destination on Vancouver Island includes a couple of impressive waterfalls cascading down into a rocky gorge. In total, the trail is only about 2.9km with 66m of elevation gain. It winds past both waterfalls and along the river, offering fantastic scenery the entire time.
The falls, lake swimming, and picnic facilities make Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park a popular family recreation destination and an excellent place to stop along the way. It can get busy in the afternoons so I would suggest choosing it as a morning adventure.
This crystal clear lake is one of the most serene places to stop for a swim on the drive from Nanaimo to Tofino. The surrounding forest is largely undeveloped making it a spacious and scenic rest area. If you have time, bring your towel and a book down to the beach and enjoy the sunshine!
For my more adventurous friends, the old, now abandoned, Port Alberni railway line runs along the North shore including a gorgeous old railway trestle bridge. Cameron Lake is also a popular place to fish for Brown Trout which were introduced into the lake in the 1930s.
Cathedral Grove is the rare and endangered remnant of an ancient Douglas fir ecosystem on the west side of Cameron Lake. Some of the largest trees are over 800 years old and 250 feet tall with a circumference of nearly 30 feet.
This mystical grove was named because of the “cathedral-like” appearance of the trees as you walk through. There are two loops here, one on each side of the highway, that take around 15 minutes each to explore. They have recently redone the wooden boardwalk, adding to the beauty and helping to preserve the forest further.
Hole in The Wall
This stunning, straight out of a magazine landmark once served as a shortcut for a water reservoir which supplied Port Alberni. Today, it is a popular photo spot located just before Port Alberni. The easy 1-kilometre trail makes the Hole in The Wall a must-stop destination on your road trip from Nanaimo to Tofino.
Port Alberni is a charming little city located about one-third of the way between Nanaimo and Tofino. Known as the salmon capital of the world and one of the World Fishing Network’s “Ultimate Fishing Towns”, this is a great place to stop for a day or two if you are interested in casting a line.
On top of that, Port Alberni has great restaurants, scenic pathways, a stunning river, and unique sights. One of my personal favourites is the Kitsuksis Train Trestle. A short 2.7km walk will bring you along the river, past a series of small waterfalls, and to this historic bridge.
Port Alberni Restaurant Recommendations: Pescadores Bistro, The Clam Bucket, Little Bavaria Restaurant, and All Mex’d Up.
Taylor River Rest Area
Taylor river rest area is located just off the highway about halfway into the drive. Upon arriving, you will surely be blown away by the emerald water and exquisitely calm section of the river. Here, you can go for a swim, jump off the rope swing, or even float around on a stand-up paddle board!
Before arriving in Tofino, you have the option to make a slight detour and visit the smaller and sleepier town of Ucluelet.
Now I’m not going to make a habit of telling you what to do, but trust me, you do not want to miss this stop!
With 1 main road and a population of under 2,000 people, you may be wondering why I have commandeered your trip to take you on this detour. Well, what I haven’t filled you in on yet is the fact that Ucluelet is on a small peninsula with one of the most spectacular shorelines I have ever seen.
In particular, I’m referring to the Wild Pacific Trail.
The Wild Pacific Trail is a path that follows the Pacific Ocean coastline in Ucluelet and offers non-stop phenomenal views. The Brown’s Beach section that surrounds this fishing village is about 8.8 kilometres long. The trail is fairly flat with different entrances around the town so you can choose to do sections of it or the entire thing.
Some other notable places in Ucluelet are Piña Styles Clothing Boutique, The Blue Room West Coast Bistro, Zoey’s Bakery & Cafe, The Foggy Bean Coffee Roasters, Ukee Scoops Ice Cream, and West Coast Salty Buns.
BUDGET TIP: Ucluelet is only a 40-minute drive from Tofino and has more affordable accommodation options. If you are looking for a place to stay, this is a fantastic choice as many of the beaches and hikes in the area are between the two towns.
The Rainforest Hiking Trail
The Rainforest Hiking Trail is an easy and beautiful stroll along a well-maintained boardwalk. Perfect for a quick pit stop or an afternoon walk, the 731 stairs will leave you in awe of the massive trees and the lush old-growth forests. There are two loops, one on each side of the highway, that are 1-2km in length and well worth the journey.
Long Beach is one of Tofino’s most popular surfing destinations because of the consistent surf. If you want to give it a shot, you can either book a lesson (most depart from Tofino) or bring your own board and catch some waves.
If you’re after a low key afternoon or you would prefer to be a spectator, that works too! Bring a book and a drink, find a secluded place to lay down your towel, and spend a few hours enjoying the sunshine. As the name suggests, this beach covers plenty of real estate, offering ample space to spread out.
Cox Bay Lookout
Cox Bay Lookout is my all time favourite hike in this area. Good news, too, it’s not terribly difficult and the payoff is extraordinary! If you are passing through on a nice day, make sure to find the unmarked trailhead on the south end of Cox Bay Beach.
At 2.6 kilometres and 115 m of elevation, this hike brings you up to an incredible lookout over the coast and sandy beach below. While the ground can be slippery and the trail is a bit overgrown, this hike is a can’t miss place to stop on the way from Nanaimo to Tofino.
This small and stunning district on the West shore of Vancouver Island is your final destination! Famous for the year-round surfing, gorgeous coastlines, and out-of-this-world fish tacos, you will quickly fall in love with this little slice of paradise.