Gulf Islands National Park

British Columbia, Canada

One of Canada’s newest national parks, Gulf Islands takes the highlights of the Pacific Northwest coast—windswept bluffs, sheltered inlets, tide pools, and a counterculture vibe—and adds it to a backdrop of a Mediterranean climate. Thank the rain shadow from nearby Washington’s Olympic mountains, which foster vegetation (like the rare Garry Oak and the smooth red arbutus) not found anywhere else in Canada and allow only 30 inches of rain to drop per year. Once an escape for Vietnam War draft-dodgers, this 20-square-mile collection of 15 larger islands—plus some 200 tiny, uninhabited ones—is now home to everything from B&Bs and pubs to orcas and eagles, all within a short ferry or float-plane ride from the British Columbia mainland cities of Vancouver and Victoria.

Though public ferries (which carry vehicles) criss-cross between some of the larger islands (the Penders, Mayne, Galiano, Saturna, and Gabriola), the best way to explore is by sea kayak, an experience that brings you close to sculpted sandstone cliffs, sea otters, and untouched coves. Bonus: Some of the park’s official campsites are reachable only by water, making them all the more secluded and pristine.

With winding roads and steep hills, the islands are perfect for exploring by bike—especially if you use your wheels to link inn to inn. Plus, the ferries are much cheaper without a car. Try Mayne Island for the flattest and quietest route past orchards and sandy beaches; or loop Salt Spring Island for a tour of art galleries and studios. The only caveat? You won’t find many paved shoulders anywhere, and summer traffic can be tight on the narrow thoroughfares.

With hilly, rocky terrain and precipitous cliffs, there are surprisingly few designated national park trails on the islands, though local organizations on some of the islands are developing networks of their own. Galiano Island is a good bet: Bluffs Park has thick virgin forest and a go-forever beach, plus a 2.5-mile trail in Bodega Ridge Provincial Park skirts a cliff edge on the way to huge views of Trincomali Channel and the Strait of Georgia. On South Pender Island, scale 800-foot Mount Norman, then grab a seat on the observation platform and take in a vista that reaches through Boundary Pass into Washington State.

Most backcountry facilities (think five to 10 tent platforms and pit or composting toilets) are stunning and accessible only from a boat, and that includes Cabbage Island, Narvaez Bay on Saturna Island, D’Arcy Island, Isle-de-Lis, Portland Island, and James Bay on Prevost Island, while Beaumont, on South Pender, can be reached by water or walking. Expected to pay a modest nightly fee. Want to sleep in your trailer or bring your car? Prior Centennial, on North Pender, has 17 drive-in sites—or you can base yourself out of the McDonald campground on Vancouver Island near Sidney’s Swartz Bay ferry terminal.

Published: 31 May 2012 | Last Updated: 22 Jun 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »