BC's Wild West Coast: Bamfield, Ucluelet, and Tofino

Story & photos © Editor

The West Coast of Vancouver Island has its own unique ecosystem. The trees are shorter and sturdier than their interior cousins because the wind is harsher, and the rain and storms more violent during winter months. It is a rugged albeit beautiful part of British Columbia and the seas are extremely hazardous.


Most of the West Coast is accessed only by logging roads, boats or plane, except for Port Renfrew on the southern part of The Island, and the area known as Long Beach or the Pacific Rim National Park located mid-Island with two charming and friendly towns at each end, Ucluelet at the southern tip, and Tofino sitting right at the northern edge of a peninsular.


On the south-side of Barkley Sound sits the tiny village of Bamfield, population 251, many of these are marine biologists (Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre). Yet before the arrival of the Europeans, the Nuu-chah-nulth population is estimated to have been between 3000 and 5000 in the area. Village sites, middens, fish traps, culturally modified trees, lookouts and fallen long-houses remain as part of that cultural heritage.


Bamfield was a fishing port, with some logging outfits from the 1880s until recent times. It is now more diverse with sport fishing lodges, Native camp-grounds (highly recommended), and other tourist businesses. It is also the northern terminus of the West Coast Trail, built in 1907 to help rescue shipwrecked sailors. It was fittingly called ‘The Graveyard of the Pacific' because so many ships went down along the rocky shores from Port Renfrew to Bamfield. Bamfield is reached only by logging roads from either Port Alberni or Lake Cowichan, or by boat or air.



Ucluelet was a Nuu-chah-nulth village before the arrival of the European trading ships back in the 1790s. South of it is Barkley Sound, an absolutely fantastic bay with scores of little islands, called The Broken Islands, and it has become a favourite spot for kayakers and scuba divers. The fishing is good and there are charter boats taking visitors fishing or whale watching for Grays, Humpbacks, and Orca whales. There’s surfboard and kayak rental outlets, campgrounds, resorts and many neat B &Bs. The town is set between the ocean and an inlet, so the views are inspiring, and all kinds of sea-birds add visual and aural tones.


The Wild Pacific Trail has seven hiking trails divided into three sections, where you can see and feel the glory and fury of the Pacific Ocean, walk through old forests with mosses dangling from branches, photograph huge nurse-logs and other flora rarely seen elsewhere.



The Pacific Rim National Park, which includes the 12 mile Long Beach (see top photo), was created in 1971, but has become quite expensive. It costs $7.50/day just to park at a beach, although they call it a permit. Our recommendation is that this park be given to the Nuu-chah-nulth as they have been living there for at least 5,000 years, and we'd rather get ripped off by them than Parks Canada.


For campers willing to rough it there are still some Forest Service camps at Kennedy Lake, and one at Torquat Bay (above), which charges a minimal $12/night and is in the Broken Islands group. Back in the early 2000s the Campbell government stopped funding Forest Services campgrounds, which were free, and often the best places to camp if you didn't mind driving for miles on logging roads to get to them.


Tofino Inlet was named in 1792 after  Don Vincente Tofino, a hydrographer on the Galiano and Valdes expeditions. Whereas Ucluelet is the gateway to the Broken Islands, from Tofino you can kayak, sail or fly to the various islands in Clayoquot Sound, now a world UNESCO biosphere reserve, which includes Meares, Vargos and Flores Islands, and other wilderness retreats. We have the First Nation Nuu-Chah-Nulth people, various environmental groups and individuals, some of whom were jailed, to thank for preserving this area from clear-cutting back in the 1980s and 90s.


There are several marine parks in the vicinity including Hotspring Cove, which lies in the Maquinna Marine Park on the mainland to the north of Tofino. There you can see the real majesty of what it was like before the arrival of Europeans, as much is still mostly forested. You'll see First Nations villages with their traditional long houses at places such as Meares Island, and a lot of nature. In Tofino, the Lighthouse Trail is an awe-inspiring trek for hikers which starts at Tonquin Park and runs along the outer coast to the sandy beaches, such as MacKenzie, further south.


The West Coast is one of the best areas in British Columbia to go whale watching. Even if you don't see whales, there's sea lions, elephant seals and other marine life that you will see, and you will also witness the great amount of ocean flora that you rarely see anywhere else but the West Coast.


The Pacific Rim Whale Festival is a series of public events and festivities for the whole family that takes place in March and April. The Pacific Rim National Park, Tofino and Ucluelet celebrate the return of Gray Whales during their annual spring migration. And they are seen other times of the year too, although not as predictably as in the spring.

There's one caveat about the West Coast that you need to know. While it might be 35 degrees C in Port Alberni, the last town you drive through on your way west, it can be several degrees colder on the coast, so take jackets and sweaters even in the summer.


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