Vancouver Island Stories and Tips

Wild Pacific: The Long Beach, Tofino and Ucluelet

The Little Beach in Ucluelet at dusk Photo, Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Vancouver Island is the westernmost part of Canada, and on Vancouver Island it's the west coast that is famous for its unique natural environment and associated outdoor pursuits.

Originally, most of the island was covered in forest, bust as it has been intensively logged for over a hundred of years, there are only relatively small vestiges of this original forest left. Some of it has been preserved as part of the Pacific Rim National Park, which incorporates incredible old-growth temperate rainforest, beaches, rock formations, caves and sea stacks, streams and waterfalls.

The Park is divided into three separate units. The West Coast Trail is a 75 km hiking trail accessible only on foot or (in an emergency by boat, starting at Pachena Bay south of Bamfield). This is a gruelling seven day hike, with limited access points and a lot of rough, wet and muddy terrain. The Broken Group Islands form archipelago of over hundred islands scattered throughout Barkley Sound between Ucluelet and Bamfield and is only accessible by boat, with some local operators offering kayak drop-offs. The most popular, accessible and the smallest of the Pacific Rim National Park units is the Long Beach, located between Ucluelet and Tofino,. Despite its name the Long Beach incorporates significant areas of coastal forest in addition to the sandy sea shore. Ucluelet and Tofino are themselves not parts of the national park, but both form convenient launching points for exploring the Long Beach (Ucluelet has also a choice of boat trips to the Barkley Sound & the Broken Group Islands).

The whole of the Long Beach and surrounding areas are an excellent location for many outdoor activities.

Surfing is among the big ones, especially in Tofino which is definitely a bit of a cult surfing destination, with a correspondingly relaxed and slightly New-Agey vibe and plenty of beach-bum culture in evidence). Sea kayaking is also common, particularly in the islands of the Barkley Sound. Sunbathing or swimming are not really a serious option, as the area has a huge rainfall and rather low summer temperatures (around 15C), while water never gets warm enough for swimming; but diving in the Long Beach resorts is excellent and by some considered to be the best in the world.

Hiking is deservedly popular, with numerous short trials accessible from the road in the Long Beach area of the national park, while Ucluelet has its own (and still growing) walking path under the name of Wild Pacific Trail, incorporating sections of the forest, rocky cliffs and beach.

Fishing cabins and resorts are present in many locations, especially in Ucluelet, while among the most common and most advertised local attractions are whale and other wildlife watching boat trips. There are many operators, usually running covered boat and zodiac (rigid hull inflatable) trips, charging around 100 CAD per adult plus minus 10% and various amounts for children. The area is known for frequent whale sightings, being on the migratory route of grey whales (these are most often seen in the spring) as well as having some resident local greys, humpbacks and an occasional orca. Some companies offer "guaranteed sightings" which sadly doesn't mean your money back if you don't see a whale, but rather a possibility of going on another trip for free. If your chosen tour operator offers such guarantee, make an effort to go on a trip earlier during your stay so you can go again if you don't see any whales on the first trip. There are also bear watching trips as well as tours that combine marine life watching with a hike on land, for example the Hot Springs trip from Tofino.

But perhaps the best thing to do when in the area is beach-combing. A gentle hike combined with a wildlife safari and a treasure hunt, a not-too-serious beach-combing expedition shows the endless fascination that the liminal space between the land and the ocean holds for human beings. Its hard to imagine a more overtly boring and actually fascinating activity than walking along a beach in a pounding surf, soles polished by the fine sand, feet caressed by the water (even when cold it's strangely pleasurable), iodine rich salt spray filling the lungs with joy, eyes shifting from the sand underneath (was this a piece of eight shining under that clump of seaweed?) to the sky (is it brightening up, perhaps?).

The Pacific beaches of the west coast of Vancouver Island are great for such aimless beach wanderings. There are living ecosystems to explore, with numerous shells and species of algae washed out onto the shore, and birds soaring above. There is lots of driftwood, mostly from logging operations, but some naturally produced, large and small pieces bleached and polished by the sea to a smooth perfection, convoluted, organic forms surreal like Jean Arp sculptures.

Storm watching has became a recognised activity in the recent years (whatever next?) and winter beaches of Tofino and Ucluelet are a fabulous location to indulge. The Pacific, in its raw strength, is pretty impressive even when relatively calm and I can just imagine how awe inspiring the power of a real storm here must be.

Anybody looking to stay in the Long Beach area would need to choose between Tofino and Ucluelet (although there is no reason not to split the stay between both places).

Tofino is prettier and located at the very north-western edge of the area accessible by road. The sandy beaches are closer to Tofino, as are the Hot Springs and other locations of the Clayoquot Sound. The village itself is more beach-bum, surfer kind of place, more overtly touristy, with every single shop front and business devoted to tourist trade.

Ucluelet seems a slightly more real place, although it's also very touristy. It's further from the vast surfing beaches (but it's all within a 20 minutes' drive anyway) but closer to fishing and kayaking areas of the Barkley Sound. It is also slightly cheaper as far as accommodation goes and has more hiking featuring rocky cliffs.

I personally liked Ucluelet more, though how much of it was to do with the fact that we had slightly better weather there than in Tofino is hard to say. Tofino does seem to have certain magical quality of its very own, which is still there despite totally relentless exploitation by the tourist industry.

All in all, some tourist traps are tourist traps for a reason: Tofino and Ucluelet form a prime example of that - unless you can reach some of the boat-only locations, one of these villages is pretty much unmissable in any Vancouver Island trip. Go on, dip your feet in the Pacific.

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