Vancouver Island: the wild, wild north

Vancouver Island is considered the largest island in the Pacific Ocean east of New Zealand. But the main part of population and tourists live in its southern and central parts. What about up north?

Friends and acquaintances could not answer my question, no one had actually been there much. And so we decided that there was something crazy, bears, and shamans roaming in the wild of Vancouver Island northern part, and we needed to get there right away. We took an extra two days of vacation to the long weekend in Tofino, planned the route, prepared dry rations and set off into the unknown.

Port Hardy, North Vancouver Island

Campbell River

We started to get used to the wild north gradually, making our first stop in Campbell River. The center of this town is quite civilized and developed: wide avenues, a shopping center, museums, a well-kept waterfront, homeless people with shopping carts… But the main local attraction is Elk Falls State Park.

Campbell River

Elk Falls Provincial Park

Lifehack: If you want to go to Elk Falls without the crowds, get there an hour and a half or two hours before closing time. At least at 6 p.m., the huge park parking lot was quite spacious. It is only a 15-20 minute walk to the waterfall and the suspension bridge. The trail is easy, no hiking boots and poles are needed.


In the park you find yourself in the arms of giant pines and firs. Since industrial logging began to flourish on the Island 150 years ago, it became quite difficult to find such an ancient forest here. Many of the trees are several hundred years old and look like something from a fairy tale!

elk falls park
elk falls park

Elk Falls itself is small (25 meters), but really beautiful! One of the highest pedestrian bridges in Canada (hanging 60 meters high) is suspended over its creek.

Elk Falls, Campbell River, Vancouver Island, suspension bridge
Elk Falls, Campbell River, Vancouver Island
Elk Falls, Campbell River, Vancouver Island

There are several lookouts in the park with a view of the canyon. I suggest going down Riverside or Old Growth Loop to the special observation deck by the creek. There you can get close to the water (be careful!) and trace its path all the way to the waterfall.

You can take Highway 28 to Strathcona Provincial Park, to beautiful hikes, lakes, and waterfalls (Lupin Falls, Lady Falls, Myra Falls)

Dockside Fish & Chips

In addition to the wonderful Elk Falls Park from Campbell River, I want to share my impressions of the local fish & chips. This dish, to be honest, I do not like and I order it only when I completely run out of other options. But since Campbell River is considered the “salmon capital of the world” and most of the cafes were closed because of the pandemic, we had to give the battered fish another chance.

Dockside Fish & Chips

The experiment was conducted at Dockside Fish & Chips and it went quite well. The fish chowder, salad, fries, fish and sauces were all fresh and delicious. If you want to try some of that Campbell River stuff, the fish & chips at the marina are tested and approved for consumption.

For coffee drinkers, I also suggest checking out The Java Shack afterwards. Great full-bodied coffee,I even forgot to take a picture of it.

Dockside Fish & Chips
Dockside Fish & Chips

Telegraph Cove

The next morning we visited the little village of Telegraph Cove. It appeared in 1912 and served as the terminus of the telegraph line from Campbell River. Today, Telegraph Cove is often printed on postcards and magazines, which call it the northern jewel of the island.

Telegraph Cove, North Vancouver Island

What should you expect from a tiny beautiful town with a population of 20 people? Absolutely not the crowds of kayakers at 9 a.m., the $5 parking lot, and the mile-long line at the coffee shop…

Slightly disappointed by all the hype, we strolled along the wooden promenade along the lush flowerbeds and freshly painted brightly colored houses. No one has lived in them for a long time. Graham family, which owns a half of the town, has cleaned up the old huts to attract tourists. They built a campsite, a hotel, and created infrastructure. It turned out that up to 120,000 people come here during the season!

Telegraph Cove, North Vancouver Island

Telegraph Cove’s main attraction is eco-tours for watching grizzlies, seals, and sea otters. The local waters are also considered some of the best in British Columbia to observe orcas. Starting in late June, about 200 individuals have been following salmon past the village into the reserve Robson Bight. And if it weren’t for the thick fog, it’s very likely we would have seen them even from the shore. But in the white cloud, only the outlines of boats could be glimpsed.

When we were finally freezing, we went to the Whale Museum to warm up a bit.

Telegraph Cove
Telegraph Cove, North Vancouver Island

Whale Museum Interpretive Centre

In the early 20th century, during the heyday of whaling, several stations were built on North Vancouver Island. Sailors had used them to hunt and harvest for whale oil till the eighties.

No wonder there were enough animal remains around for an entire museum. However, to be honest, we didn’t expect huge skeletons and such an interesting quality exposition. Lots of informative posters, maps, and historical facts. A super unusual and informative place to learn more about marine mammals!

Admission is 5 CAD/person, check the official website for opening hours

Whale Museum, Telegraph Cove, North Vancouver Island
Whale Museum, Telegraph Cove, North Vancouver Island
Whale Museum, Telegraph Cove, North Vancouver Island

While we were in the museum, the fog cleared. The promenade began to play with new colors, souvenir stores opened, and conversations and laughter could be heard from everywhere. I found myself thinking that I would love to spend a day here, just admiring the local scenery from some hill or a boat. Telegraph Cove, despite all the tourists, is very expressive and cozy.

A funny announcement came across my eyes before I left, in a public restroom: “lock your cars, our bears know what’s in your cooler”.

Alert Bay

Now it’s a good time to tell you why we didn’t take the whale tour and were done with Telegraph Cove so quickly. The whole purpose of the trip to the North of Vancouver Island was to experience something unusual and wild. The city-island of Alert Bay, accessible only by boat or ferry, was the best fit for all the criteria.

Ferry to Alert Bay

The ferry to Alert Bay and neighboring Malcolm Island (once home to Finnish settlements and the chic Finnish bathhouses that still remain there) leaves six times a day from Port McNeill Pier. Prices are pleasantly different from more popular destinations – about 11 CAD per person for a round trip. It costs 25 CAD to move the car there and back, so we left it in the parking lot at the pier (5 CAD/day) and planned to see everything on foot.

Ferry timetable to Alert Bay can be found here. Pay attenton to the DC – Dangerous Cargo sailings dates, when passengers are not allowed on the flight.

Alert Bay, ferry

The ferries to Alert Bay are fancy, electric ones. They are efficient, economical, quiet, fast and can hold up to 47 vehicles (which is more than enough for a small island). It took only 35 minutes!

alert bay ferry
alert bay view

Indigenous Island

Alert Bay is a unique place. The island has been inhabited by Indigenous Peoples since ancient times and they still live there! More than half of the residents (out of 1200-1500 people) belong to the Namgis tribe. Already from the berth you start seeing totems, traditional symbols, dubbing in an incomprehensible language…

Alert Bay
Alert Bay, North Vancouver Island
Alert Bay, North Vancouver Island

The first thing we did was to move toward the main attraction, the U’mista Cultural Center.

The walking distance from the pier to the museum takes fifteen minutes; we spent the whole forty! Every other step I wanted to take a picture of a boat, a cabin, views, an abandoned barn, a gazebo… There were five of them along the shore, according to the number of Namgis clans.

Alert Bay, North Vancouver Island
Alert Bay

U’mista Cultural Center

I had high expectations for the U’mista Cultural Centre. As one of the first Native American museums in British Columbia, it has a stunning collection of masks and other attributes of the ancient Potlatch ceremony. Many people come to Alert Bay specifically just for this exhibit and unique Native American souvenirs.

However, for us U’mista hasn’t become a life-changing experience.

Alert Bay, U'mista Cultural Center, North Vancouver Island

The employee at the entrance said that we would have to wait 30 minutes in line, or better yet, go for a walk and come back in an hour. We had no time to spare, so we decided to settle in on the couch. Five minutes later, another employee invited us to come into the gallery. We would let such organizational inconsistencies slide, since there’s the pandemic and all that.

But the museum, in fact, turned out to be just one room with traditional masks and super brief captions. Well, they were certainly colorful, exotic and ancient. It’s just that for 15 CAD/person, we expected something on a larger scale. One can’t take photos and shoot video inside, but you can explore it in detail on a virtual tour online, without leaving home.

We had a fairly quick look at the exhibits, read about the rituals, watched an interesting film reenactment of Potlatch and went on our way.

Potlatch is a Native American ceremony of exchange of gifts, demonstration of power and wealth, and enhancing cooperation. The tradition has long been forbidden by the federal government.

Alert Bay, U'mista Cultural Center
Alert Bay, U'mista Cultural Center
Alert Bay, U'mista Cultural Center, North Vancouver Island

The Big House and the Tallest Totem

Next on the program was the world’s tallest totem pole and the Potlatch performance hall. From the U’mitsa Gallery a road leads to them through residential neighborhoods. The Indians’ houses in Alert Bay are small, modest, and creative.

Alert Bay
Alert Bay

From the distance the legendary totem does not seem that high, until you come up close, lift your head up and gasp. By the way, his title as the tallest totem in the world is constantly being challenged. The main argument is that the totem is assembled from two parts: 50 and 3 meters. In 2007, during a storm, the top fell off and fell to the ground (the pole is now only 50 meters high). But anyhow, the scale is very impressive! The totem was carved by six artists of the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe and raised up in 1973.

Alert Bay, North Vancouver Island, The World's Tallest Totem Pole
Alert Bay, North Vancouver Island, The World's Tallest Totem Pole

The average lifespan of a totem is 50 years, but with proper restoration and care they can last a bit longer. If you want to see the tallest totem pole, hurry up. In Alert Bay it looks neglected and ready to depart to his ancestors at any moment.

READ MORE: Second tallest totem pole and other beauties of Victoria

Alert Bay Big House

The big house next to the totem opens only to show the traditional dances, which were not held that day. So we just stood by the carved door a bit and turned back to the waterfront.

Schedule of performances is here

Namgis Original Burial Grounds Cemetery

Cormorant Island (where Alert Bay is located) is 5 km long and about a kilometer wide. All the interesting places are close to each other and we got to the Namgis Indian cemetery quickly.

Namgis Original Burial Grounds, Alert Bay, North Vancouver Island

Namgis Original Burial Grounds is one of the few where the memorial totem poles are located in their original location. They were installed in honor of the departed leaders and important people of the city.

When a totem falls from old age or bad weather, it is allowed to remain on the ground…

As a sign of respect, passage to the hill is restricted. But all the totems can be perfectly viewed from the sidewalk.

Alert Bay, North Vancouver Island Namgis Original Burial Grounds
Namgis Original Burial Grounds

This is where we ended our tour of the amazing Alert Bay, the only must-visit left unattended was the trail to Ecological Park. With the car, we could probably get there in three hours (the break between the ferries), there would be plenty of time.

Alert Bay turned out almost exactly as I had imagined. There was no souvenir stores, restaurants or cafes on the empty streets. The nature has already begun to absorb abandoned buildings on the water. The hotel was like something out of a horror movie. It was incredibly interesting to see how people live in such a remote place, in an Indigenous reservation, and to experience the athmosphere. And of course, the scenery here is exceptional…

READ MORE: Vancouver’s Indigenous Peoples: 15 Places to Explore Local Culture

Alert Bay hotel
Alert Bay, North Vancouver Island
Alert Bay
Alert Bay ferry terminal

Port Hardy

It’s amazing how many impressions we have accumulated by 4 p.m.! Back in Port McNeill, we picked up the car from the parking lot, quickly checked into a nearby motel, and drove off to explore Port Hardy.

Port Hardy

It is the northernmost town on the island, from where adventurers sail to Alaska. The motto of the local population is “Live the Adventure”. So we didn’t plan any entertainment in advance and just went for a random walk in Carrot Park. It didn’t take long for the attractions to appear.

The bitten carrot in the park symbolizes the empty promises of the government, which was going to build a highway to Port Hardy since 1897. The road was not paved until 1979, after protests and active agitation campaign by local residents.

Port Hardy, Carrot Park
Port Hardy, North Vancouver Island

Bald Eagles

We were walking quietly along the embankment, admiring the views, when suddenly a couple with a bucket and folding chairs came out of the truck. With a confident gesture, the man dumped the contents – pieces of salmon – onto the stones by the water, pulled out his camera, and sat down with his wife on the sidewalk. We understood that something was coming, and settled down next to them on the curb.

At first the gulls flocked to the fish, and then there was a high-pitched, loud cry – a bald eagle from a nearby tree was calling to his friends for a meal. One flew in, a second swooped down, and soon there were so many of them that the seagulls disappeared from view.

Bald eagle, port Hardy

The Bald eagle is a treasure of North America. The U.S. even made it its national symbol, put it on its coat of arms and printed it on coins. The Canadian bald eagle can be found in several provinces, but most often in British Columbia.

The bald eagle was called bald a long time ago by the British, when “balde” actually meant “white”.

Bald eagle, port Hardy
Bald eagle, port Hardy
Bald eagle, port Hardy, North Vancouver Island

Hike to a Dakota 576 Plane Crash Site

In addition to the fauna, Port Hardy also has one unusual hike to a plane that crashed here in 1944. On alltrails it is listed as easy and not very long, so we decided to give it a go. It was a couple of hours before sundown, and we expected to be done in an hour and a half.

There was not a soul in the parking lot at Bear Cove Park, near where the trail begins.

Dakota 576 Crash Site Trail parking

It soon became clear what was meant by“overgrown” in the description of the hike. Sprawling bushes, more than a meter high, grew on either side of the trail. Without long sleeves and pants, it was not very pleasant to wade through such thickets. But that’s just the beginning!

At about the second kilometer, the road began to descend sharply downhill with rope assistance. Then up, down again, and through the great amounts of mud all the way to the plane.

Dakota 576 Crash Site Trail
Dakota 576 Crash Site Trail

Sometimes a beautiful Port Hardy sunset appeared in the gaps.

Port Hardy, North Vancouver Island

And finally, an airplane. Old, raspy… The pilot didn’t have enough fuel during a training flight to complete the landing. There is a small plaque on the site with the history and date of the crash.

This is the first trail for us, when instead of a panoramic view the reward was a real airplane, and even in the sole possession of it. There were no other smart guys to hike just before the sunset in Port Hardy. The only thing to keep in mind is that such a difficult trail doesn’t suit for little kids and dogs.

There is also a similar trail to the plane on Vancouver Island in Tofino.

READ MORE: Tofino: What to do in Canada’s Surfers’ Town

Dakota 576 Crash Site Trail, Port Hardy, North Vancouver Island
Dakota 576 Crash Site Trail
Dakota 576 Crash Site Trail, Port Hardy, North Vancouver Island

If you’re going to Dakota 576, don’t miss the huge windmill blade at the intersection of Highway 19 and Douglas Street. It is not marked on the maps, so we whizzed right past through it the first time, but on the way back from the hike we stopped and looked at it properly.

The Cape Scott wind farm, 60 kilometers from Port Hardy, provides electricity not only to that town, but also to Port McNeill and Port Alice. The blade in the parking lot was damaged and brought here for observation. Its length is 49 meters and its weight is 7.5 tons!

Cape Scott Wing Project, Port Hardy

Port McNeill

There is absolutely nothing to do in Port McNeill in the evening. We planned visiting the main attraction, a huge round wooden thing called “burl”, for the morning, and before going to bed we stopped for dinner at the bar Gus’s Pub. They brought me a burger with a piece of chicken, 3-4 cm thick, it was quite edible – and we didn’t expect anything more than that anyway.

North Vancouver Island Sunset
Where to eat in Port McNeill

A funny misunderstanding happened with a burl, because there are two of them in Port McNeill. First we gathered all the dust and mud on the dirt road, trying to get to one of them, where it turned out that parking was not allowed. And then back in the city we found a proper tourist one – unofficially the world’s largest burl (at Broughton Blvd). This piece of wood weighs about twenty tons.

A burl is an outgrowth on a tree. It’s particularly valued by artists for its unusual wood pattern

Port McNeill, North Vancouver Island, World's largest burl
Port McNeill, North Vancouver Island
Port McNeill, North Vancouver Island

Dalewood Inn

For reference, Port McNeill has a great inn, the Dalewood Inn. It’s freshly renovated, perfectly clean and there are large windows with a view on the bay. The room had a refrigerator, microwave, coffee/tea and other necessary things.

There is plenty of parking space, and a small Liquor store on the first floor. Convenient location for a reasonable price.

Dalewood Inn, Port McNeill
Dalewood Inn, Port McNeill
Dalewood Inn, Port McNeill
Dalewood Inn, Port McNeill
Dalewood Inn, Port McNeill

Little Huson Caves

Interesting fact: Vancouver Island has the highest concentration of caves in North America. More than a thousand have been discovered since 1970 (and more are still being found)!

The incredible Horne Lake Caves are quite popular. You can get into them only with a tour (book in advance). We were interested in exploring something less touristy, like Little Huson Caves, on our way out of Port McNeill.

This park is located next to Huson Lake, a 20-minute drive by the gravel road starting from the main Highway 19.

After sneaking around the pits and rocks, we drove into such a wilderness that for the first time on the trip we purposely took out a bear horn and doused ourselves head to toe with repellent. There was no one else in the parking lot except us, but the toilet (with sanitizer), maps, and signs were all there as they should be.

Little Huson Caves,
Little Huson Caves, map

It is a short walk to the caves, along a well-trodden path. Unlike Horne Lake Caves, there is no need to go underground, book something in advance, pay admission or bring any special equipment. Limestone arch caves are available to all comers, any level of training!

Of course, I would like to get somewhere farther and deeper. But the place is really wild, some arches have already collapsed, the caves themselves are incredibly slippery, so we had to limit ourselves to the main and the safest one – River Cave.

Little Huson Caves

The stream that flows through the caves from the lake is emerald green and very warm. We found several pools where you can swim (keep the kids close, the flow is quite powerful).

Little Huson Caves, North Vancouver Island
Little Huson Caves, North Vancouver Island

We liked the caves, in the end they were worth the time and effort to stop by. We spent there about an hour and got a lot of positive impressions. And with that we completed our grand foray to the north of the island.

Little Huson Caves, North Vancouver Island
Little Huson Caves, North Vancouver Island

We had a few hours left before the ferry to Vancouver, and instead of wasting them we decided to see at a couple of other interesting places. Territorially, they can’t be classified as the most northern north, but since they’re along the way, it would still make sense to mention them here.

Cheese Farm (Little Qualicum Cheeseworks)

Charming farm Little Qualicum Cheeseworks offers guests free self-guided tours and a small gift store with its products. It is located in Parksville, 40 kilometers from Nanaimo.

Little Qualicum Cheeseworks

I was immediately attracted to the neat houses, the contented look of the animals and the permission for uncontrolled wandering around the territory. Little Qualicum Cheeseworks specializes in cheese and dairy products, so the main inhabitants are cows. There are several horses, a pen with goats (you can get inside if you want), rabbits and chickens. There’s also a playground and some picnic tables. It takes at least half an hour to get a full experience of the place.

Little Qualicum Cheeseworks

The shop sells local cheeses, eggs, honey, magnets and much more. But the coolest thing is the automatic dispenser outside with fresh milk. You take a bottle, put a coin in, press a button, and get a delicious drink. For a couple of cents, you can taste it first.

Little Qualicum Cheeseworks
Little Qualicum Cheeseworks
Little Qualicum Cheeseworks
Little Qualicum Cheeseworks
Little Qualicum Cheeseworks

I personally was delighted with the farm. My husband was pleased with the bottle of milk from the dispenser. But the cheese came out to be not our cup of tea (it’s possible that we just chose an unfortunate variety).

The most beautiful park

Finally, already in Nanaimo, I had a park with a funny name marked down on my map – Neck Point. We stopped, went out to look and almost missed the ferry!

Neck Point Park juts out slightly into the bay and everywhere you go, you get stunning views of the ocean, mountains, cliffs, rocks and beaches. The dry grass and tall pines remind of some hot southern island, as if you had been teleported to Spain or Greece.

Neck Point Park

The park is named after the narrow strip that connects the park to the rocky “head” in the water. I don’t know where they saw a neck, to me it looked just like a whale’s tail.

Neck Point Park

Apparently sea lions sometimes come here, and sea otters play near the rocks a little farther away. We didn’t see any of those, but we were still hugely impressed with the place. It was probably the most beautiful park of the entire trip and the most recent sunny memory of stunning Vancouver Island.

Conclusion and itinerary

So, what conclusion can be drawn from our foray into the wild-wild north?

First of all, it’s not that wild. Although there are much fewer tourists and much more animals. We passed deer, a bear frolicking in the bushes by the highway, and eagles. The hikes and parks we visited almost completely alone; on the Indian island of Alert Bay, we saw ten people from the city population at most. There is not much choice concerning restaurants and food, so it is better to bring something from home and have a picnic in nature.

Also, for a proper experience you have to go to Vancouver Island North for five days. Taking eco-tours, kayaking, exploring caves, islands, lakes.

But two and a half days was enough for us to take in the local beauty and atmosphere. If you’d like to come after our steps at some point, I attach our detailed itinerary below.

“Live the Adventure”, be safe and have a great weather. everyone!

Port Hardy, North Vancouver Island

North Vancouver Island itinerary

Day 1:
  • Road from Tofino to Campbell River
  • 6pm: Elk Falls Park (1.5 hours)
  • 8pm: Checking into a motel, resting.
Day 2:
  • 6am: Early rise, breakfast
  • 7am: Drive from Campbell River to Telegraph Cove (2.2 hours)
  • 9:30am: Telegraph Cove: see the city and visit Whale Museum (1 hour)
  • 10:30am: Drive to Port McNeill (30 minutes)
  • 11am: Buy ferry ticket, have a picnic at the pier (there are tables with a view along the beach drive)
  • 11:35am: Alert Bay Ferry (35 minutes)
  • 12:10pm: Alert Bay: town, U’mista Museum, the tallest totem, Indian cemetery
  • 3:15pm: Ferry to Port McNeill (35 min.)
  • 4pm: Hotel check-in, afternoon snack
  • 4:30pm: Drive to Port Hardy (30 min.)
  • 5pm: Port Hardy: Walking the waterfront, watching eagles
  • 6pm: Hike to the Dakota 576 crash site (1.5 hours)
  • 7:40pm: Drive to Port McNeill (pull into the parking lot with the wind turbine blade)
  • 9pm: Dinner at Port McNeill (Gus’s Pub)
  • 10:00 p.m.: Return to the hotel, rest.
Day 3:
  • 7:30am: Breakfast
  • 8:40am: The Biggest Burl
  • 8:50am: Road to Little Huson Caves (45 minutes)
  • 9:40am: Seeing the caves (1 hour)
  • 10:40am: Road to Campbell River (2 hours)
  • 12:40pm: Campbell River: walk the waterfront, take lunch to go at Dockside Fish & Chips, then eat it at Robert V. Ostler Park), coffee at The Java Shack
  • 2:30pm: Drive to Little Qualicum Cheeseworks Farm (1.5 hours)
  • 4pm: At the farm
  • 5pm: Drive to Neck Point Park (40 min.)
  • 5:40pm: Neck Point Park: walk (50 min.)
  • 7pm: Dinner at Nemo Sushi (we brought it with us on the ferry)
  • 8:30pm: Ferry to Vancouver

Download Canada travel itineraries in PDF format

With descriptions of places for each day, maps and recommendations of restaurants and activities!


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