Are you looking for a great Vancouver Island road trip idea? Explore the road less travelled and head towards the scenic and culturally rich towns of Vancouver Island North.
Known locally as the Island Highway, Highway 19 is the main thoroughfare that connects the communities of Vancouver Island North with Nanaimo, plus many towns in between. The route between Nanaimo and Port Hardy (the furthest north you can drive on the Island) is approximately 390 km. So while you can definitely do the trip in one day, it is always recommended to take it slow in order to enjoy all the sights.
We already have several articles that showcase the various activities to see and do in and around Nanaimo, Oceanside (Nanoose Bay – to just north of Qualicum Beach), and the Comox Valley. So with hopes of not repeating ourselves too much, this article showcases the must-see highlights of a Vancouver Island road trip starting in Campbell River.
If you need some guidance for the top things to see before reaching Campbell River, please search the extensive list of articles under the following categories:
As well, if you wish to read more about a certain area below, each location mentioned will have links to further information.
Vancouver Island North Must See’s
Campbell River Area
Elk Falls Suspension Bridge
The thundering waterfall, as well as the newly built (2015) suspension bridge over Elk Falls Canyon, makes this area in Campbell River a sought after location.
Crossing the bridge provides access to an incredible view of the falls. For those who would rather not make the crossing, however, there is a viewing platform located just before the bridge.
The Elk Falls Provincial Park is only 3 km from the Elk Falls Day use area and is considered one of Vancouver Island’s best campground accommodations. There’s an extensive 6 km trail system within the Park, which is home to the only significant stand of old-growth Douglas fir north of MacMillan Provincial Park (Cathedral Grove).
For more information and/or to make camping reservations, please visit the government website for Elk Falls Provincial Park.
Travel north from Downtown Campbell River to the intersection of highway 19a and highway 19. Continue to proceed Northwest on highway 28 towards Gold River. Travel approximately 4.5 kilometres to the top of the big hill (called General Hill).
At the top of General Hill on the right-hand side of highway 28, you will see a directional sign to Elk Falls Provincial Park and the BC Hydro Interpretative Centre, turn right there. Once in the parking area, there is excellent signage to direct you the to the suspension bridge.
If you are looking for a place to truly unwind, and get away from it all, Strathcona Park is the destination for you.
The quietness, fresh air, and breathtaking views of lakes, mountains, and an overabundance of waterfalls will recharge your soul like no other place. With no cell coverage, no WiFi, and the only amenity being pit toilets, you are quite literally leaving the rest of the world behind.
Strathcona Park is the oldest Provincial Park in BC, and with over 250,000 hectares to explore, it is also Vancouver Island’s largest. The area provides you with a vast array of hiking and walking trails of varying difficulties.
For an in-depth look at everything this beautiful area has to offer, read our article on Strathcona Park.
The main access to the centre of Strathcona Park is via Highway 28 which connects Campbell River with Gold River. Follow Highway 19 to Campbell River, then follow Highway 28 west for 48 km. Highway 28 passes through the northern section of the park and provides access to Buttle Lake. Gas and services are not available between Campbell River and Gold River.
Vancouver Island North
The stretch of Highway 19 that extends from Campbell River to Port Hardy is named the North Island Route. This section of paved, double lane highway is particularly scenic, offering views of jagged mountain peaks, expansive forest and frequent wildlife sightings. The highway is well maintained and motorhome friendly.
Make a pitstop in the small village of Woss, and explore a historic retired steam engine.
The old No. 113 was once part of Woss’ longest running logging railway service in North America. It now sits at the end of Englewood Drive for us to view and climb aboard.
Take the main road off the highway when you see the sign for Woss, and follow it until you cross the railway tracks. The engine will be on your left-hand side.
Little Huson Caves
Located within the Regional District of Mount Waddington, Little Huson Caves offers us a small, yet spectacular, taste of the karst topography found on the island.
The parks is centred around Atluck Creek Canyon, which is an area of breathtaking natural beauty. There are a number of amazing karst features to view and explore, as well as 15 known caves.
One of the best features of this park is the fact you don’t have to go underground (unless you want to) to experience and view these natural phenomena.
To learn more about this incredible area, and how to get there, please read our subsequent article on Little Huson Caves.
From the Island Highway (Hwy 19), take the Zeballos turn-off just north of Woss onto a gravel logging road.
Keep a close watch and follow the signs directing you down a series of gravel roads (for approximately 9 kilometres) to Little Huson Caves Regional Park.
The route is a little convoluted, so take notice of where you are going and pay close attention to the signs. It is good to note that the very first sign says, “Huston Caves” (with a ‘t’), but it is the correct one!
Please be mindful, the road is quite rough. While it doesn’t require 4-wheel drive, good tires (and lots of gas) are in order. It is definitely recommended that you drive slowly to avoid a flat tire.
There is absolutely no cell coverage in the area, so extra precautions are necessary!
This postcard-ready boardwalk community is nestled at the northern end of Johnstone Strait. From its preserved historic multicoloured buildings on stilts to the picture perfect ocean views, Telegraph Cove remains an iconic eco-tourism destination on Vancouver Island.
During the summer, this snug little community bustles with travellers eager to view whales, catch fish, camp and kayak along the sheltered waters and secluded inlets. With its many eco-tours, it’s a village that offers a great selection of truly magnificent adventures and activities one can partake in.
For an in-depth look at the best things to see and do while in the area (plus where to stay), please read the following article:
From Woss, follow Hwy 19 North. Turn right onto Beaver Cover Road. Turn left onto Telegraph Cove Road. Follow the road into the village.
Port McNeill is a proud forestry community. So it makes sense that while there one can view the world’s largest burls (there are two!).
The world’s second largest burl (formerly the largest burl) was cut from the base of a 351-year-old Sitka Spruce tree in 1976. This burl weighs an estimated 22 tons and measures 13.7 meters in circumference. At the time of its discovery, it was the largest burl. However, it was displaced from its position by a new discovery in 2005.
It’s located in a not so blatant area in the centre of town and protected by trees, bushes and a structure (in what looks like an abandoned parking lot). Please note, the signpost near the burl hasn’t been updated and still says “the world’s largest burl”.
The largest of the two burls was carved off a tall Sitka Spruce tree near Holberg on northern Vancouver Island in 2005. It is 6 meters tall, 6 meters in diameter, and weighs in at an estimated 30 tons. This one is located just out of town, off of SW Main Road (off of Hwy 19 N).
Port McNeill is also a gateway to two fascinating northern islands one must explore (see below). So once you’ve viewed the world’s largest burls, head towards the BC Ferries terminal in the harbour and get yourself to Malcolm Island and Alert Bay!
This is a place where Orcas go to rub up against the smooth pebbled beach, and where humans go to create lasting memories.
While relatively small in size (24 km long and 3 km wide at its narrowest point) and with a population of only 684 (2016), Malcolm Island offers much to its visitors. You will find breathtaking scenery, great outdoor experiences, ample wildlife viewing opportunities, and a fascinating history.
Malcolm Island is linked by a 25-minute ferry ride from the Port McNeill harbour.
The Ferry service runs 7 days a week between Port McNeill, Sointula, and Alert Bay.
It’s a bit of a convoluted schedule, so make sure you check the BC Ferries’ website for updates before you go.
To discover more about this beautiful location, please read all about Malcolm Island here:
Alert Bay (Cormorant Island)
Explore this busy working coastal town that proudly celebrates its First Nations and Pioneer heritage. From the world-renowned U’mista Cultural Centre to the world’s tallest totem pole, Alert Bay is known internationally as a centre for First Nations Culture. And if you ask me, it’s a must-see stop on any Vancouver Island North road trip!
Cormorant Island, home of Alert Bay, is linked by a 35-minute ferry ride from Port McNeil.
The Tri-Island Ferry service runs 7 days a week between Port McNeill, Sointula, and Alert Bay.
See the ‘Malcolm Island’ section above for ferry service information.
For the best things to see and do while in Alert Bay, please read this article:
Port Hardy serves as a gateway to many outdoor activities, including fishing, world-class scuba diving, caving, kayaking, boating, hiking, and nature viewing.
Top things to do in Port Hardy
- Stroll the miles of sand or build sandcastles on Storey’s Beach
- Explore the tidal pools in Hardy Bay at low tide
- Walk the seawall of Hardy Bay and read the interpretive signage along the way
- Visit Fort Rupert and view the totems and big house
- Follow the old growth nature trail along the Quatse River and Estuary Loop
- Take a guided tour of the fish hatchery and view world-class exhibits and interactive displays
- Dive at Bear Cove – a haven for marine life!
- Go on a guided fishing charter and try catching the ‘big one’
- Indulge in candied smoked salmon made by famous locals ‘Hardy Buoys Smoked Fish’.
- Head to the Port Hardy Museum for a history lesson
- Storm watch at the Blow Hole at Thomas Point
What are your favourite sights or things to do while visiting Vancouver Island North? Let us know in the comments below.
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