With precious days off and a rare chance to get our whole family together, we headed over to Vancouver Island two Saturdays ago in March for a short vacation. The idea was to catch an afternoon ferry over to Departure Bay from Horseshoe Bay, then hang out in Nanaimo for the first night. There’s a nice private campground near the mouth of the Nanaimo River called Living Forest Campground that we like to stay at there..
The boat ride over was both uneventful and pleasant, and had us in Nanaimo at around 230 pm. We stopped in at Petroglyph Provincial Park on the way to the campsite for some exploration. We had driven past the park sign for years without ever visiting , and I’m glad that we finally stopped by. In addition to the petroglyphs, there are also decent bouldering possibilities there. We stayed around half an hour, and enjoyed ourselves immensely.
My daughter has an innate talent for climbing just about anything, so of course she ran up this face to a tiny ledge and scrambled up from there! Naturally, the slide down was twice as much fun, so she did it again and so did I!
The views at Living Forest Campground did not disappoint! We were able to see not only the Nanaimo River and Gabriola Island but much of Nanaimo Harbour as well. The blend of the estuary’s natural scenery and the industry beyond gave us plenty to look at, and we passed the rest of the evening drinking cold beverages and listening to the calls of barred owls by the campfire before turning in.
The campground has a number of trails that will give you a fine view of the river delta and the area is also well known for its birdwatching opportunities.
The following day we awoke to overcast skies and headed south along Highway 1 toward Victoria before swinging west toward Sooke on Highway 14. The spring rains hit hard late Sunday morning, as we arrived in Langford to fuel up.
Our destination? French Beach Provincial Park. It has become a strong family favourite of ours over the years. Set in a beautiful forest of Western Red Cedar, Bigleaf Maple, and Sitka spruce, it features a cobblestone beach that crashes and rattles when the Pacific surf hits its shores. If you’re lucky, you can sometimes see migrating gray whales in March and April each year.
Along the way, my wife and daughter got a chance to stop off at a local meadery called Tugwell Creek ,near the town of Shirley, to sample its wares.
Mead, in case you’ve not heard of it, is an alcoholic beverage- wine to be specific- made with honey. Tasty stuff, and something to do while you wait out the rainstorm, which by now was hitting us in full stride! We pulled in at French Beach by mid afternoon, and after a very wet hike on the nearby trails and the beach, we spent the rest of the day drying out.
Sometimes it rains so much on the coast that attempting to have a campfire is almost an exercise in futility, and this was just such a day. Instead, we amused ourselves by drinking, reading, creating dinner, and playing games, all good fun!
Monday morning dawned with much improved weather, and upon seeing some sunlight, I made for the beach again that morning. The tide was at ebb, but the waves were much higher and had the beach clattering with its all too familiar sounds. I was even able to see across the waters to the Olympic Peninsula and Washington state, in the United States.
While there were no whales in sight, the odd Harbour Seal popped its head out in curiosity. Seas were calm, and birds could be heard when the surf receded. Listen, if you like, to the sounds of French Beach in the video below…
I returned to camp in an hour, then ended up going back to the beach with my son, who had just awakened. We spent another half hour there before breakfast. He has a natural love of being near water, even to the point that he would rather walk in the rain.
This photo below had me thinking back to a time when he couldn’t exactly peer through an outhouse window that was six feet off the ground. Time flies, and your kids grow up fast!
After coffee, we eventually decided to head north toward Port Renfrew, with the idea of camping on the beach at Jordan River. Unfortunately, the Capital Regional District had temporarily closed the area to camping while the dam above the town is being assessed for safety reasons. Some time was spent on the beach watching surfers and paddleboarders out on the break.
Since the sunshine was persisting, the choice was made to reverse direction and retrace our steps toward Nanaimo again. This time the plan was to stay the night at Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park, near Parksville. Though this meant a longer drive, it would also make for a more relaxed return trip the following day as the park is not all that far from Departure Bay. On the way back toward Sooke we stopped at Sandcut Beach Regional Park, which is close to French Beach, and my daughter and I hiked down to the shores.
It was an ideal cruising on the trip back around the horn, as the sunshine continued. We even pulled over to pick up some farm fresh eggs in Sooke along the way. On this particular Monday, even the people driving the Malahat near Victoria didn’t seem to have their usual frenzied sense of urgency, and we hit little or no traffic until we arrived in Nanaimo.
It was about 4 pm when we rolled into Rathtrevor Beach. Once there, I tended to splitting some firewood and we all took turns walking the beach and trails. Rathtrevor is a special place to me, as I always see something interesting that I haven’t before, whether it be animals, trees, or distant mountains.
The park is noted not only for its beach but also for its forests of old growth Douglas Fir. There are very few low elevation fir forests that remain intact on Vancouver Island, as most of them were harvested long ago. There is considerable biodiversity and wildlife that lives on at Rathtrevor despite the area’s popularity in the summer months. Its reasonably sheltered waters make it ideal for water sports like kayaking, canoeing, and paddleboarding.
I had not noticed on my last visit, but you can see the hulking mass of Tantalus Mountain to the east of Rathtrevor. It is 2605 metres tall, and visible in the distance from the beach. It was a welcome sight to me, having seen it many times from the opposite side when hiking and climbing on the Squamish Cheakamus Divide.
I was particularly interested in seeing what the sunset had to offer after dinner and a couple of very cold beers, so I strolled back to the beach just as the sun was beginning to set. The skies were a brilliant orange, and I was surprised and fortunate to have the shores entirely to myself!
It was a quiet scene, silent but for the odd call of the occasional owl, as the sun sank below the horizon. It’s very obvious why the people of Parksville enjoy this place so much as it’s one of the island’s most beautiful places. More beer was enjoyed and laughter ensued late into the night, but that wasn’t going to deter me from getting up early to see the sunrise!
It’s 6 am Tuesday morning, and I’m rolling out of bed trying not to wake anyone, a normal occurrence on our road trips. As someone who craves solitude, rising early has been something I take naturally to but that was well reinforced spending mornings with my father while younger. There is really nothing quite like the sun’s first rays! A mere five minute walk had me on the beach to begin the day.
This, however, was no ordinary sunrise. The whole time I was there, the natural world virtually paraded before me. First, there were the calls of loons, followed by herons swooping by above. Then came the sounds of eagles, woodpeckers, and songbirds. Canada Geese flew across the waters at intervals as did Brants, and the entire time I was serenaded by the barking of sea lions.
It was soon evident that there were actually sea lions everywhere, perhaps as many as fifty, from what I was observing. I later was to discover that there was a run of herring going on, so of course the food source was what was drawing all the attention. When I returned to the beach a second time with my son, we also spotted a killer whale breaching in the distance, several harbour seals, and soon after that a sizeable pod of dolphins also showed up to the party! It was one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in some time.
Reluctantly, I headed back to camp for breakfast, and the girls set out for a walk on the trails for a while before we left for home. As I write this today, with the rain crashing down here on Vancouver’s North Shore, it reminds me of how much I appreciate sunny spring days here on the west coast. I’ll leave you with one last image, taken on the deck of the ferry looking toward Mt Garibaldi, the closest volcano to Greater Vancouver. Until next time, I hope you enjoyed the tale.