Vancouver Island is well known for its epic waves and beaches, perfect for any surf-enthusiast.
Most Canadian adventurers looking for good surf immediately think of Tofino, a small, yet beautiful district off Canada’s West Coast. It is a 4-hour drive from Victoria, along a winding road that’s often under construction. However, there are some incredible alternative options even closer to Victoria, featuring beaches along Southern Vancouver Island that are less known and much more secluded.
The main highways up the west coast of the island offer incredible scenery, filled with trees and life nourished by the mild temperatures and damp weather. The summers are warm and bright, while the colder winters offer intense rain to add to the luscious, dazzling vegetation. We recommend exploring the island thoroughly, making multiple stops along the way visiting campgrounds, cafes, and (of course), many beaches.
Like all the other astonishing places worth visiting, Vancouver Island has minimal cell service once you leave the urban areas. On the southern part of the island, you’ll start losing signal once you pass Sooke. While perfect for those looking to explore off-grid, this can make the trip challenging for new explorers or first-time visitors. On our most recent visit to the island, we relied heavily on our Strigo mobile satellite service to check the weather, get updates on the surf forecast, and even meet up with other vanlifers or friends. The device won’t work while you are driving but if you pull over in a cleared area, away from houses, trees, etc. you’ll have some success as Strigo coverage is really reliable all over the province!
When you open the Strigo device, it automatically finds the satellite position and tells you which direction to point the device. For example, it may tell you to point it SE at an elevation of 34 degrees for best service. Thankfully, the device does have about 30 degrees of wiggle room to still connect if you’re pointing it slightly wrong. We’d recommend trying to aim it as precisely as possible to get the optimal signal! We also found that putting our phone in low data mode helped, and making calls over Facebook and WhatsApp worked best. Most importantly, this device gives you access to use GPS or to access useful information about a certain location. This is especially useful if you are new to the area or get lost on your adventure! And now, we’re ready to hit the road!
Note: Please research and respect the local COVID-19 rules in the area before you visit.
About an hour west of Victoria on Highway 14, you’ll run into the municipality of Sooke, a small district of just over 13,000 residents. The village has a relaxed vibe with some of the mildest climate conditions in western Canada. You will surely enjoy yourself if you take the time to stop and explore, especially the East Sooke Regional Park. For a more laid back experience, drive through some of the local vineyards, or even stop for a tasting. The drive down to the point of Sooke is beautiful and well worth the extra time. We highly recommend the detour!
This is also where we would suggest stocking up on groceries and finishing up any errands you need to make. If you need to fill up your water tank or bottles, try the Petro-Canada gas station. They have a tap near the pumps, and a sink accessible inside the store. As you continue northwest, there won’t be many stores or resources, only more secluded cabins and back roads. Prepare to also lose cell phone signal around this time, too!
After passing Sooke, it is worth noting that the road becomes a bit bumpier and more narrow with less ability to pass. The foggy weather can also make this more challenging, so be sure to take it slow! This specific portion of the drive is heavily populated with giant trees, which is a good sign for vanlifers – hello, logging roads! This makes finding overnight parking in the area a bit easier, as you can simply pull off and find primitive camping. There are many wild campsites on most of the online resources many of us use but don’t be afraid to be brave and find your own original site as well! You’ll also find many provincial parks with great campgrounds that are fairly cheap. In the winter they are even cheaper but you won’t have access to water or dumping stations.
As you continue on your journey past Sooke, you’ll come to a great place to grab a bite to eat, Stoked Wood Fired Pizzeria and Market. Whether you stop for a delicious meal on your way up the coast or on your way back home, we cannot recommend it enough.
Jordan River is located approximately 61 kilometers northwest of Victoria, halfway between Sooke and Port Renfrew. The 1.5-hour drive runs along Highway 14, hugging the coastline for a beautiful road- trip view. One of the most important notes for the area is the epic Jordan River Regional Park Campground, available to the public year-round. All sites are self-contained but the property offers toilets, picnic tables, garbage service, and individual fire rings. The location of the sites is perfect, right near the surf break (winter swells are best here) with a beautiful ocean-front view, right from your individual site. It is even budget-friendly, costing only $15/night during the on-season and $10/night off-season!
This settlement is home to an adorable, small cafe called Cold Shoulder Cafe. We always make sure to stop for coffee in the morning so we can enjoy it along our drive.
While Jordan River is beautiful and filled with great views, the surf has to be big to make it worth the time in the water, since this tiny logging community is located on a straight. The great thing about Vancouver Island though is that if the surf isn’t good where you are, you can just continue onto the next town and check out the beaches. After Jordan River, the straight opens up to the ocean so the waves can only get better the more northwest you head.
French Beach Provincial Park
Heading west from Jordan River, you’ll run into French Beach Provincial Park. Here you’ll find a campground that is open year-round, costing only $13/night in the winter. It is also worth taking a pit stop at China Beach, another straight along the coast. It is a dog-friendly beach that is great for taking a walk along the water and enjoying ocean scenery.
As you continue your loop, just 30 minutes past Jordan River sits Sombrio Beach. The small beach is a 2-hour drive from Victoria and is an absolute must-see. Our favorite part of Sombrio Beach is Emerald Canyon full of ferns and abundant trees, with a beautiful waterfall as its final destination. Pro tip: do this hike during low tide for the best experience!
Although the road won’t require 4×4 to explore, it still is a bit rough. We wouldn’t recommend exploring down to Sombrio Beach in a big RV or too small of a car. With the rougher road, it’s also important to be extra cautious when it is rainy. Make sure your cabinets are securely locked before continuing!
This was one area throughout our road trip where it wasn’t as easy to use our satellite service, simply due to the large trees. We weren’t able to connect but thankfully, this is also one of the very few areas throughout the island that you may be able to find cell signal. If you head up the big hill from Sombrio Beach, there is a big open space with a rest area. Sometimes, a little bit of network can be found here (even US signal!) so if you need to connect for any reason, you can do so with a beautiful viewpoint too.
24 kilometers past Sombrio beach is Port Renfrew, a small community that is home to The Pacheedaht First Nation. It is the kind of town that should be experienced on foot, passing Renfrew Pub – Wild, nice restaurants, and a cute bakery. There is also Government Wharf that is highly recommended to walk along to fully experience this area. If you’re looking to fill up your water tanks, the General Store has tap water available.
Just 2.5 kilometers past Port Renfrew you’ll see a sign that says “Juan de Fuca Provincial Park,” where you can explore Botanical Beach.
Juan de Fuca Provincial Park
Throughout the island runs the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, a 47-kilometer wilderness hiking trail filled with captivating greenery. Different parts of this trail can be enjoyed for short, day hikes thanks to the various parking lots along its length. Most of the lots are just half a kilometer out from the beach, so you can easily enjoy a brief stroll and then spend the rest of your time in the sand. Additionally, the trail is also created for tent camping along its entirety for a multi-day adventurous trek. It even continues all the way to the furthest point of the island!
Botanical Beach is known for intertidal marine, covered in active crystal blue tide pools. This tide pool wonderland can be experienced thoroughly during low tide, as you can reach them by walking along the rocks near the water. The walk from the parking lot to the tip of the peninsula and back is just 2.5 kilometers round trip. Along this short trail, you’ll view a variety of trees, including cedar, spruce, and hemlock. These trees aren’t quite like anything else we’ve seen before, with their branches twisting and turning in curious shapes to create groves of massive old-growth trees.
Nearby Port Renfrew you’ll also find Avatar Grove. The road to get there is a little rough but even with a low clearance vehicle you’ll make it if you drive slowly. Once you’re there you’ll be able to walk the Upper Grove with giant cedars, and you’ll get to see the gnarliest trees in Canada! The Lower Grove is also really beautiful. If you want to explore further down this dirt road, you can look for the Big Lonely Doug, the biggest tree of the island, which is a strong symbol in the area. To get there, keep driving about 10 minutes past Avatar Grove. Keep your right, follow the Tree. Once you’ve passed a narrow wooden bridge, you might have to park your van as the hill gets pretty steep. You’re almost there, just a 10 minute walk!
Lake Cowichan – Duncan
If you don’t want to go back along the same route you came from, it is worth it to take the little detour through Lake Cowichan. From Port Renfrew, there is the main road that goes inland to Lake Cowichan, about 1 hour away. If you choose this route and it is your first time on the island, we definitely recommend doing this drive during daylight. The island is well known for intense fog, especially during the winter, and is alive with plenty of wildlife. This hour drive is also filled with enchanting creeks and gorgeous viewpoints.
Nearing the end, the loop continues on to the town of Duncan, 45 minutes further east. Cowichan Bay is also nearby, with great camping, perfect for your last destination on Vancouver Island. Search your online resources and apps for some epic campsites in this area! The possibilities are endless. A friendly reminder to please be extremely respectful when visiting any new areas, especially near local residents’ homes. It can be appealing to pull off for an easy site in town but there is plenty of open land and logging roads you can take advantage of instead. It is a privilege that we get to explore and experience these places and it is extraordinarily important to show respect and appreciation.
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