Because we had so much difficulty finding information about RV travel on the island, I thought it might be helpful to share some things we learned for those of you considering the trip.
The Big Picture
We planned our island tour hoping to catch the best weather in each area (it varies greatly from south to north, and east to west). We also wanted the optimal opportunity for a variety of outdoor adventures and for seeing wildlife.
We headed north first to catch the prime whale watching season, then west to the wild coast of Pacific Rim National Park. Following our mailboat cruise in Port Alberni (and bear and salmon watching) we returned to the east coast to explore the temperate Cowichan Valley and Salt Spring Island, just off the coast. We wound up our time on the island with a few days in lovely Victoria—at this point, the weather was distinctly beginning to turn toward fall.
A Snapshot Of Vancouver Island Adventures
How To Get There
Two passenger/vehicle ferries make the round-trip journey from the U.S. Neither are luxurious, but you’ll have comfortable inside seating and large windows to enjoy the scenery (or you can move outside to the deck if the weather is good). A Washington State Ferry travels from Anacortes, Washington to Sidney, B.C. A private ferry line (Black Ball Ferry, MV Coho) makes the trip from Port Angeles, Washington to Victoria, B.C.
We’ve taken our rig on ferries dozens of times (we spend our summers in the San Juan Islands) and it’s a straightforward process. A deckhand will guide you onto the ferry and into position. It will be tight quarters, especially if the ferry is full. Just go slow, be vigilant, and don’t let them rush you!
The ferries can handle any size rigs. Even the small ferries to the outer islands surrounding Vancouver Island can easily manage the largest RV.
Anacortes, WA to Sidney, B.C.: Although this route takes almost three hours, it’s by far the most scenic and sails through calm, sheltered waters on a Washington State Ferry. You’ll travel through the picturesque San Juan Islands to the small harbor of Sidney on Vancouver Island. Sidney has a beautiful and interesting waterfront, and it’s only a half-hour drive to Victoria and the highway that takes you north on the island.
Port Angeles to Victoria, B.C. The journey on the Black Ball Ferry MV Coho is shorter (about 90 minutes) but you’ll be traveling over 20 miles of open water with nothing interesting to look at, and you’ll feel the enormous ferry roll with every ocean swell. (To add drama you might have two women sitting across from you making the sign of the cross every time the ferry pitches.) However, it delivers you directly to the Inner Harbour in Victoria, which is interesting and convenient if Victoria is your destination.
The cost of the ferries is approximately the same. We paid about $200 each way for our tickets (the price increases with the length of your rig). You don’t need to purchase a round-trip ticket, and you don’t save anything by doing so. Make reservations in advance to secure your space on the ferry, and plan to arrive about 90 minutes ahead of your sailing to go through Customs. You can always change your reservation if need be, with minimal or no charges if you provide sufficient notice.
How Bad Is Customs?
Really, not bad at all. We breezed through Customs on our entry to Vancouver Island and were stopped and searched when we returned to the States (but it was no big deal and only delayed us about 15 minutes). Here’s what we learned: You are not going to be able to figure out exactly what is and isn’t allowed, coming or going. That’s because the laws are ephemeral, and can change at any time.
Instead of worrying about it, make a list of the foods you’re carrying so that you’re prepared for any questions the customs agent asks. We were searched in Port Angeles because of a lemon (apparently bringing citrus into the States—even citrus grown here—is a red flag). The U.S. Customs Officer confiscated our lemon and after a quick glance in our refrigerator sent us on our way.
The important thing is, be honest. If they find something you haven’t declared, the fines are stiff. “Forgetting” that you have something is not a valid excuse.
What’s The Weather Like?
We were on the island for most of September and into mid-October. This is typically a good window of weather with plenty of sunshine and little rain.
The temperatures were comfortable, generally in the mid-40’s at night and the mid-60’s during the day. Perfect hiking and biking weather! Of course, you’ll want to wear layers and have a good rain jacket. We were also happy to have waterproof boots, which came in handy for hiking muddy trails.
Other Reasons To Go In The Fall
You will miss the crush of summer crowds. Tourism drops off sharply after Labor Day, which means you won’t need reservations for most campgrounds, but most campgrounds and other attractions are still open, at least until mid-October.
If you’re heading up the island, be sure to plan that early in your trip. The further north, the colder and wetter it tends to be. The weather on the west coast is random, so plan extra time there. We lucked out with sunshine and mild temperatures for the week we spent in Tofino/Ucluelet, but we met people that spent only a day or two in the area and didn’t see a thing because of heavy storms.
Watch out for Labour Day (they celebrate it the first Monday in September, same as Labor Day in the U.S.). That’s their last hurrah of summer camping. We planned our trip to arrive just after Labor Day. Also watch out for the second Monday in October, their Thanksgiving. That one caught us by surprise. Apparently, a lot of people go camping that weekend—we found a sweet place on Salt Spring Island, but only after a bit of scrambling.
One more excellent reason to visit in the fall: Lots of wildlife! This is a great time for whale watching up north, the salmon are returning to spawn in the rivers, and the bears are actively fishing.
Travel on Vancouver Island is pretty simple. Traveling south to north, there’s a long ribbon of highway that begins in Victoria (Hwy 1 north). In Nanaimo, about halfway up the island, it changes to Hwy 19 north to Telegraph Cove and beyond. The roads are wide and well maintained. Don’t miss a small detour onto scenic Hwy 19A, the Oceanside Route between Parksville and Campbell River.
Highway 4, the road from Port Alberni west to Tofino is another story. It’s the only access road to Tofino/Ucluelet/Pacific Rim National Park. Two lanes, winding, hairpin curves, rock cliffs that narrow as they rise and a stretch with an 18% grade is not friendly for big rigs. We were fine (we have a 27-foot trailer and a Tundra), but I’m not sure that I’d drive that road with anything much bigger. Then again, tractor-trailers use that route. Which seems crazy.
Try to not miss Tofino/Ucluelet/Pacific Rim National Park. Consider leaving your rig behind if it’s not appropriate for that winding road, and stay in other accommodations for a couple of days. It’s worth it!
Where To Stay
We stayed in everything from B.C. Provincial Parks to tiny rustic RV parks to fancy RV resorts. The provincial parks are beautiful but have no water or electric hookups. They offer taps for filling water, dump stations, and bathhouses, though. The private parks tend toward full-hookups and internet (sometimes good, sometimes not).
We made reservations a couple of weeks ahead for our time in Tofino, because it’s a popular place, even in the fall. Other than that, we looked ahead a few days at a time and called places that looked interesting. We had no trouble getting beautiful sites (in summer, it would be a different story).
About That Internet
Your provider, even though it promises connection in Canada, is going to be lame. We had intermittent cell coverage on the island, and as far as useable internet connection via our phones or hotspot, we had none.
Verizon connects to the cell towers on Vancouver Island (Telus or Rogers will show up on your phone). Phone coverage is actually okay except when driving from one town to the next (or if you’re heading somewhere really remote). Traveling up the island, you won’t have coverage from north of Campbell River until you reach Telegraph Cove (about 2 hours driving time). Heading west from Port Alberni, you’ll be out of range for a couple of hours until you get close to Tofino and Ucluelet.
Almost all private parks offer internet (most of it pretty good, some of it excellent) and you can always get blazing fast internet at coffee shops. No, it’s not as convenient as sitting in your RV, but we spent some lovely afternoons in lovely coffee shops doing what we needed to do on the internet.