Vanagons boast surfboards tied to their roof racks. Fishing boats come and go from the docks as freely as the thousands of whales that migrate through here every year. Free spirits gather to strum to the beat of the beach fire’s crackle as the sun sets behind the horizon, and surfers ride the constant, offshore break in the distance. Believe it or not, this surfing oasis doesn’t require a plane ticket to Oahu’s North Shore but rather a cruise up north to the pearl of Canadian surfing.
Tofino, British Columbia, is the surfing capital of Canada and a hot spot for both locals and visitors from around the world to surf sick breaks, hike the lush rainforest, explore hidden coves and oceanside hot springs, hang out in town, or simply sit back, relax, and point fingers at those who are crazy enough to take on the cold coastal waters off Vancouver Island.
The tiny surfing town of Tofino—nicknamed the “Tough City” in the early 1900s for its long, rainy, and tempestuous winters—is a seasonal escape for most, located on Vancouver Island’s west coast on the southernmost inlet of the 400,000-hectare Clayoquot Sound region. Tofino was only accessible by boat until a logging road poked through the mountainous landscape in 1959. The first wave of surfers appeared shortly after, setting up makeshift camps among the coastal shrubbery. Once it was paved in 1970, the road became Canada’s only paved road to the open Pacific Ocean, making Tofino the official western terminus of the Trans-Canada Highway.
Today Aussie and Kiwi accents dominate the town’s tourism industry, which greets between 750,000 and a million visitors every year. Restaurants, beaches, and other outdoors activities are omnipresent. Five sandy beaches stretch along Tofino’s coast among rocky outcroppings and scenic rainforest. Most of them are surfable and all are a good time.
Just a short bike ride south is the ever-popular Pacific Rim National Park. But once outside of Tofino’s city limits, we recommend employing a mode of transportation such as a bike. A free shuttle stops at four of Tofino’s five beaches along with other popular Tofino locations, making transportation a breeze in the summer months.
Pack your foul weather gear and bring an appropriate amount of preparedness when tackling the west side of Vancouver Island. When arriving, cruise into the Tofino Resort and Marina or Tofino Harbour Authority on Tofino’s north shore to snag a slip. The town itself is walkable with restaurants, cafes, museums, and Tonquin Beach just a short stroll away.
Pick up a latte and house-made doughnut at the Rhino Coffee House, browse the local shops and boutiques, or hop on that free shuttle for some good ole’ Northwest coastal adventures. Storm watching in the off-season is a local activity, so pick your weather windows wisely as a skipper. It’s far better to watch a North Pacific storm from Tofino with a steaming cup of coffee than try to beat your boat through.
Ride the Wave
Tofino hosts more surf shops than grocery stores, so it’s hard to choose just one. Pacific Surf Co. is a standout surf school in Tofino and offers every board rental imaginable. Book a private, group, or family stand up paddleboard or surf lesson online, or rent from their downtown shop for a couple hours, a day, or maybe three on your own. Other rental locations include Live to Surf, Long Beach Surf Shop, Surf Sister Surf School, Tofino Surf School, and Tofino Paddle Surf.
Among Tofino’s beaches, Cox Bay, South and North Chesterman, and MacKenzie Beach are surfable. On a beautiful day, think Waikiki with a Pacific Northwest twist. Beach fires take the place of sunbrellas, beer substitutes for cocktails, and wetsuits hang off bodies like sundresses. But here, tourists surf among locals, and if you don’t run anyone over, all are friendly as ever.
Hot Springs Cove
Hop in that vessel of yours and cruise 27 nautical miles northwest of Tofino to discover one of the area’s most beloved attractions. Hot Springs Cove in Maquinna Marine Provincial Park boasts seven geothermal rock pools nestled into the island’s rocky shoreline after a 1.5-kilometer boardwalk trail through old growth forest – the island is only accessible by floatplane or boat. Admire the names and ships that have been carved into the wood of the boardwalk as you make your way up the boardwalk’s steps and along the coast to the pools. Take your time jumping between mineral pools from the ocean inland, as each pool progressively gets hotter as you venture further away from the ocean. What with the waterfalls splashing into the pools, the massive trees above, and a view of the mesmerizing ocean, it’s recommended to spend at least six hours here.
Hike into the Wild
With breathtaking natural scenery, it’s easy to get lost in the beauty of Tofino’s wilderness. A short cruise away (via water taxi or your own vessel) on Meares Island lies the Big Tree Trail; a 2.2-mile boardwalk guides you through the rainforest among some of the largest cedar trees in the world. The Rainforest Trail barks up the same tree for those looking to keep to the mainland. This trail is divided into two short boardwalks where you can walk among lush rainforests under old growth cedar and fir trees.
Visitors far and wide find their way to the Wild Pacific Trail to take in the wind-sculpted coastline of Ucluelet – a 35-minute drive south of Tofino (this is where bikes come in handy). The Lighthouse Loop is one of the two sections that make up the 5.6-mile trail network. The more family-friendly, 1.6-mile trail leads you past a historic lighthouse and along the rocky shoreline and its sea stacks before venturing back into the rainforest’s protective canopy. Check the Ucluelet Small Harbor Marina for open slips if you’d rather boat over than bike. Lastly, and the most difficult of the bunch, is the spectacular Lone Cone trail on Meares Island. At the top of this 4.36-mile hike with a 2,395’ gain (in under a mile) are spectacular views of Tofino, Clayoquot Sound, and the surrounding islands.
Wildlife, Wild Waters
Tofino and its surrounding area is a mecca for nature’s wild ways in any season. Twenty thousand gray whales migrate past Tofino’s shores from Baja to Alaska March through October making for some of the best whale watching around, and in the summer, Vancouver Island black bears visit the Meares Island low tide line to feast. Hop on a tour of each and maybe you’ll even steal a peek at one of the area’s transient orca whales.
For the daring, take your chances exploring the area mid-winter to see the dramatic skies, slanting rain, and massive swells of Tofino’s storm season. Storm watching is a hobby out here in Tofino; the weather can change in a second, and it’s spectacular to watch. Discover their power at Wickaninnish Inn on Chesterman Beach where the sport began, or take in the largest waves over at Cox Bay.
15,000 Years of History
Clayoquot Sound is 15,000 years old and rich in natural and tribal history. Stop by the Clayoquot Heritage Museum to dip your toes into 10,000 years of social and geographical history including fishing history, glaciation, Nuu-chah-nulth history (pre-contact to present day), Nikkei history, fur trade, and town development among other educational artifacts. Visit tofinomuseum.com to see what’s showing. Then, head down to the Kwisitis Visitor Centre to discover First Nations stories, gaze upon a replica of a First Nations longhouse and whale hunt, learn about the differences between bear, wolf, and cougar tracks, salmon’s contribution to the rainforest, and more.