Disclaimer: I was thrilled to explore Tofino in partnership with Expedia.ca & Tourism Tofino. All opinions are my own.
The first time I visited Tofino, BC as a child I knew I’d found a really special place. The combination of the world-class breaking surf, pristine windswept beaches, rugged coastline & deep vibrant rain forests make Tofino a Canadian destination that you want to return to again and again. It’s a destination with something for everyone and somewhere every traveler should see at least once!
Tofino, BC and its neighboring Pacific Rim National Park Reserve are a draw all across the world. In fact, Tofino regularly wins destination awards even being named one of the best spring vacations by National Geographic! In fact, Its popularity has exploded over the last decade.
I think you’ll agree though, with popularity come crowds and high costs no matter the location…
So, how do you visit this Canadian gem on the pacific while avoiding the crowds and without breaking the bank?
You visit in the “off” season of course! It’s a technique I learned early in my travels and something I still employ regularly when visiting popular destinations (like Iceland or Thailand) while sticking to a budget. And although Tofino is a year-round destination, you’ll still save a few dollars and a headache or two by taking a pass on the height of summer travel.
Tofino BC & The Pacific Rim National Park
Tofino has a storied past, founded as a resource town full of loggers, lighthouse keepers and fishermen. Today it’s become a bustling eclectic enclave of artists, surfers and wilderness lovers. Drawn in by its wild coastal charms these are the people who call Tofino home. No Starbucks, no McDonald’s; just laid-back locals, but the town wouldn’t be what it is today without its most famous neighbor, the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.
The success and popularity of the early Canadian national parks (like Banff, Yoho & Waterton Lakes) drove the federal and provincial governments to search for a possible park on the Pacific coast. Unfortunately without an overland link to the rest of the island the Tofino area was deemed far too inaccessible to be worth pursuing.
It wasn’t until World War II when a military airbase was built near Long Beach that roads connecting the small hamlets of Tofino and Ucluelet to the rest of the island were constructed. No longer so remote, the area became a real national park contender and was first protected in 1959 but didn’t grow into its current scope and size until 1971 when it became the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.
When to Visit Pacific Rim National Park
Bursting at the seams during peak season, I’m a huge fan of exploring Tofino and Pacific Rim National Park in the calmer ‘off season’ which spans from September to April. Between May and August Tofino is inundated with tourists from Canada and around the globe, it’s more difficult to secure rooms, and rates for everything from accommodations to tours rise to meet the soaring demand.
Benefiting from a mild climate like most other areas of temperate rain forest in the PNW, you’ll rarely find it overly hot or cold in Tofino. You’ll often find it wet however and no matter the season you’ll likely see some rainfall.
It may be mild here, but old man winter still makes an appearance in Tofino, make sure to put on all your layers! Winter happens, but maybe not in the way you might expect. It’s hurricane force winds and stormy sea’s rather than snowfall you need to worry about, but this makes for breathtaking storm watching as the waves ruthlessly pummel the rugged coastline. A great reason to come visit the wild west coast in the spring, fall or winter!
Places to Stay in Tofino
As with any popular tourist destination Tofino has plenty of hotel options. From hostels to luxury suites and beach-side cabins or even some of Vancouver island’s best camping there’s an option for every traveler and budget.
We stayed at Ocean Village Resort. It’s one of out favorite places to stay in Tofino, with it’s cozy A-frame cabins just steps from the beach. You’re never guaranteed anything weather wise in Tofino, but we loved sitting snugly beside the fireplace in our cabin watching the fog roll in and out over the beach. The sound of raindrops on the roof as we fell asleep was icing on the cake. A full kitchenette lets us prepare our own meals, only to skip doing so to indulge in the local food scene while Surf & SUP gear loans & comfortable beach chairs make it easy to stay as busy or as relaxed as you want.
Middle Beach Lodge was another fantastic location, with rooms overlooking small coves, rugged headlands and middle beach itself it too was only steps from the shore. We loved the great room of the lodge and its free coffee bar, contently sitting in front of the massive fireplace enjoying a game of cards in the evening, or the panoramic views from it’s stunning deck over morning coffees.
Top Things to do in Tofino
As you might have gathered by now, Tofino is a nature lovers paradise, rain or shine. After finding somewhere to call home base for your time here among the sublime surf, pristine windswept beaches and wild rain forests its easy to catch a case of decision paralysis while considering all the things to do in Tofino in the off season!
The beauty of Tofino is that you can do as much or as little as you like. Hit up an adrenaline inducing surf lesson if you want but remember there’s no shame in simply strolling along the beach and watching. Below are some of the top things to do in Tofino while you visit!
Take in the Tofino Beaches
If It wasn’t already crystal clear to you, hanging out on a beach can be one of the best things to do in Tofino! Most of us picture hot, sunny, summer days when thinking about beaches, but here you don’t let a little rain dampen your spirits. It’s simply liquid sunshine after all!
Close to town you’ve got some amazing choices. Mackenzie, Chestermans & Tonquin beaches are only a stone’s throw from any of the popular restaurants or hotels, and if you’re willing to go a little further afield Cox bay, Schooner Cove & Long Beach are ripe for exploration!
During low tide at Long Beach—the largest and longest beach in the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve—the shifting sands stretch away nearly 16km to the horizon. Though the beach is hugely popular it never feels overly crowded due to its massive scale.
Schooner Cove, one of my favorites, is accessed by an intimate rain-forest boardwalk rather than being a drive up location. The hike keeps the majority of tourists from ever seeing it, but dont miss out! Take the time to enjoy this beautiful walk and amazing piece of beach!
Use caution when the surf is high around the Tofino Beaches, its not uncommon for people unfamiliar with the ocean to be swept off the rocks where they think they’re safe!
Tofino Whale Watching & Bear Watching
Tofino whale watching is some of the best in the world! Gray whales, Humpbacks and even Orcas call the area home. It’s not uncommon to be able to spot whales from shore, but to really appreciate these massive mammals you need to get up close and personal.
Each spring and fall nearly 20,000 grey whales migrate through the waters off Tofino. Not wanting to miss the show we embarked on a three hour tour with West Coast Aquatic Safaris aboard their boat Wasco. Bouncing through the surf of the unprotected waters off Tofino, In no time captain Shane had located the whales.
We were one of only two boats in the area floating smack dab in the middle of this “whale soup” just offshore of Long Beach. With no less than 6 grey whales and a solitary humpback feeding and playing in the area we enjoyed the show from the Wosco’s comfortable rooftop viewing deck and really appreciated the intimate experience it provided us.
Protip: Make sure you bring the charged camera batteries with you, not empty ones! 😳
If whales aren’t your jam or you’d rather just sail calmer, more protected waters, bear watching could be the perfect excursion for you. While in summer these lumbering giants stick to the forest to stay cool, the damp, overcast weather during the spring and fall is perfect for spotting bears along the coastline searching out their next meal.
Our tour up the isolated inlets of Vancouver Island proved fruitful and left us in awe! 6 coastal black bears (one with treed cubs), bald eagles and harbor seals made for an exciting trip I’d recommend to anyone!
Soak in Hot Springs Cove
Whats better than a dip in a steamy natural hotspring surrounded by pounding surf and dense rainforest? Not too much if you ask me! A couple hour boat trip (or quick seaplane ride) north of Tofino, a natural wonder of Vancouver Island awaits you. The 50°C geothermal springs of Hot Springs Cove cascade down a waterfall and into 7 rock pools each getting progressively cooler as you approach the ocean’s edge.
Plan to visit Hot Springs Cove at low tide for the best experience. During high tides and stormy weather waves can flood the lower pools displacing the soothing hot water with something more akin to an ice bath! In peak months the tourist traffic here can be crazy, I suggest visiting in the spring or fall.
If you’re up for a little extra adventure camping is available at the First Nations campground near the hot-springs. Staying overnight lets you enjoy the springs after the day-trippers leave in the evening and before the first wave returns the next day!
This rustic, remote, all-season day trip is one of the top things to do in Tofino and a great way to reward yourself after a busy weekend exploring Tofino and the Pacific Rim. Most Tofino tour operators and outfitters run some sort of service to Hotsprings Cove but ensure you book with a company that has proper park use permits (list here).
World Class Tofino Surfing
Tofino’s world class waves are a cold water surfers dream. Pair the sublime surf with a chill local culture and and uncrowded beaches and its no wonder why surfers flock to Canada’s surf capital from around the world.
The beginner friendly sandy beaches and shore breaks of Tofino cater to every level of surf expertise. There’s no crowding or ego here either, just stereotypically polite Canadians enjoying their backyard. If you’re new to surfing or just want to try something new, any one of the surf shops in town can hook you up with rental, lessons, swag and advice.
The surfing from November to March is top-notch and you’ll find that Cox bay, Chestermans and Long Beach are the go-to locations for the locals when the surf starts to pick up. Keep an eye on the local surf forecasts and webcams for up to date information.
Storm Watching in Tofino
In the Fall and winter you’d expect tourist traffic to Tofino to die off but this is well and truly when storm watching season begins. Winter brings with it occasional gale force winds and huge waves which put on a larger than life show for storm watchers.
Some of the top hotels in the area have a front row seat to the power of these winter storms. Those that do will loan you rain jackets and even rubber boots so you can enjoy a walk on the wild side and experience the fury of mother nature first hand. Look for storm watching specials on offer for bookings during the off-season.
Take a Hike in the Rainforest
The picturesque boardwalks of the aptly named “Rainforest Trail” cut through a truly wild west-coast rain-forest near the Pacific Rim Visitors Center. The trail’s beauty and ease of access makes it a favorite among locals and visitors alike.
The trail is divided into two loop trails intersected by the Pacific Rim Highway. These two short trails will immerse you in old growth with a winding boardwalk full of ups and downs. Bring a camera, the giant cedars and hemlock stand tall above cascading creeks and beautiful benches.
Eating: Tofino Restaurants Worth A Visit
Tofino’s food scene is nothing short of amazing. Everything from quick and delicious to high class gourmet is available if you know which Tofino restaurants to check out. This community really pulls together around it’s food. You’ll find fresh, local & delicious ingredients front and center in nearly every dish and they likely haven’t traveled more than a few hours from farm to table.
Rhino Coffee House – $ – Rhino Coffee is a local staple. The ever present lineup you’ll find here isn’t solely for their steaming cups of black gold, you’ll also find amazing breakfast wraps, sandwiches and epic doughnuts. Get here early if you cant to catch one of the coveted maple bacon doughnuts to kick-start your day! Once they’re gone they’re gone!
Tacofino – $$ – In the back corner of a surf shop parking lot near Cox bay you’ll find the Tacofino food truck. Known for having the best taco’s on Vancouver Island its nearly a right of passage and you’ll rarely arrive here and walk right up to place your order. Even in the off season a short wait is standard! Take it from me, the fish Taco’s are to die for!
Shelter Restaurant – $$$ – A great heated patio and west coast seafood inspired menu make Shelter a great local establishment. Great service and fresh local ingredients are the name of the game here. A reservation is a must even in the off season, so think ahead! Give the tuna a try, it’s excellent!
The Pointe Restaurant – $$$$ – Worth visiting if for no other reason than glimpsing the stunning panoramic views from it seaside clifftop location The Pointe Restaurant at the Wickaninnish Inn is likely the best of the Tofino Restaurants at your disposal. The “refined West Coast cuisine” served up by Chef Barr is delicious and paired with a great glass of wine and a Tofino sunset makes for a moment everyone should experience at least once—that’s all my wallet could handle.
Getting From Vancouver to Tofino
Vancouver. British Columbia’s largest city is likely the starting point for your adventure if you’re visiting from outside the province or country. So how do you get from Vancouver to Tofino?? You’ve got a couple great options:
The Tofino Roadtrip
Getting from Vancouver to Tofino is arguably one of British Columbia’s most picturesque road trips. Leaving Vancouver’s iconic skyline behind, a short drive delivers you to the BC Ferries Horseshoe Bay terminal where you’ll board your boat to Nanaimo.
Once on the ferry you can sit back and relax in comfort watching the world go by. The passing islands & ships make for an entertaining voyage and If you’re lucky you might even see dolphins or whales! Arriving in Departure Bay, Nanaimo your road trip to Tofino begins in Ernest.
The 3-hour, ~200Km, roller coaster of a drive over mountain pass’ and along the winding shores of Vancouver island’s largest lakes will make you want to pull over around every turn to admire the views until highway 4 dead end’s at Tofino’s First St. docks.
Flights to Tofino
If you’re not all about that road-trip lifestyle there are flights by various operators into Tofino. My favorite of which is the Seaplane from Nanaimo or Vancouver to the Tofino Harbor. Flights are much faster albeit more expensive than driving but you’ll get an epic aerial overview of Vancouver Island and Tofino.
The Take Away
A stunner in the summer Tofino is no slouch through other seasons of the year. A visit during the off season is a great way to save a few dollars while experiencing a host of great activities that aren’t at their prime during the peak vacation season. Whenever you decide to visit remember to bring your camera and sense of adventure (maybe a raincoat too)…
Have you had the chance to visit Tofino? Did you get to check out some of the awesome activities we talked about? We’d love hear your stories! Drop a comment below to touch base with us on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram!