Calgary to Tofino Road Trip (+ Car Camping)
It’s not every day you decide to drive across the country. It’s also not every day that a global pandemic cancels your international travel plans and leaves you to come up with a more... local option.
2020 definitely hasn’t been the year a lot of us had planned for (for example, I had hoped to make it to Bali... and Guatemala... and Italy... and Australia by this point this year, so far we’re at zero of those), but that’s okay because I’ve been forced to explore a place I’ve always overlooked- my own country!
After meeting a guy during that period of quarantine where everyone (or at least most of my single friends) downloaded tinder in hopes to find an isolation buddy- I came out pretty lucky and literally found my dream guy, *enter Hamish.*
One of our first conversations revolved around his knowledge of Canada being limited due to him moving here for university volleyball and living from gymnasium to gymnasium and not actually getting to explore the country on a more personal level. I countered that with the fact I had never been to Australia, (where Hamish grew up surfing every day), so we were pretty much even. From that moment, I proudly took on the personal goal to show him a little bit more of the country I call home.
When Tofino was brought up, both of us knew it would be the perfect option. I could show him Canada along the way, and he could teach me how the Aussies surf (and to be honest, it sounds like a pretty fun couples trip to spend time before work and life resumes to normal). So of course we packed our masks and hand-sanitizer, and off we went!
If you’re looking to travel with your significant other from Calgary to Tofino- here’s an itinerary you may want to follow to have the best time together. This may not be the most efficient way to get there, but it will definitely leave you with some memorable activities and views. Also, feel free to swap out any accommodations- due to the fact that we’re students we definitely resorted to car camping (not ideal) as a primary option.
Start in Calgary and leave bright and early to beat the traffic. Make sure you’ve got your park pass and drive all the way out to Lake Louise. If the gate to Moraine Lake isn’t get full, feel free to check it out.
Hamish and I hiked up to Lake Agnes, continued up to Big Beehive (stunning views!) then made it up to Devils thumb. Don’t forget to stop at the teahouse on the way down for some snacks (cash or credit only!). At the beginning of August you’ll hear avalanches from the nearby glaciers, see a beautiful array of wildflowers, some overly courageous chipmunks, and will even get hot enough to go for a dip in one of the icy lakes- in my opinion this is a perfect way to spend the morning.
If you’re anything like us, you’ll be tuckered out from hiking and will want to stop at Trailhead for a wrap and a coffee in Lake Louise Village for the car. Rest your legs and continue on to Revelstoke (or stop at Emerald Lake if you’re feeling ambitious on the way).
If you’re looking for a more boujee stay, I’d recommend booking ahead of time at Halcyon Hotel closer to Nakusp. (However, if you’re looking to car camp, there’s a lot where vans and semis park at the intersection where you can continue on the highway or turn left towards the ferry and that’s a generally safe place to stay I’ve found).
If you stayed at Halcyon, you’re already close, otherwise catch the ferry on Arrowhead Lake towards Nakusp and hit Halfway Hotsprings in the morning. It gets quite busy by noon but if you want some private time, the morning is definitely the move- just remember to bring leftover cash from the teahouse in case there’s a host at the site collecting entrance fees (shouldn’t be too much money).
In the afternoon catch the ferry back, hit the Revelstoke Pipe Roller Coaster if you’re feeling adventurous (just book your tickets in advance) and then hit the road to head to Kelowna.
For a stay in Kelowna, I’d highly recommend glamping with Unique Canvas Okanagan, they offer luxury camping experiences- and trust me, they’re definitely worth it. I’m literally tempted to redesign my bedroom after how cute the tent we stayed in was. They offer a more intimate experience than a hotel or campground but still have the convenience of being near town (and they overlook a coulee with stunning sunset views). The best part is- they have real (AND COMFORTABLE) beds!
When you have access to the beach, use it! We started the morning out with some Yoga on the Okanagan, then spent the day in the surrounding area checking out wineries!
One winery we stopped at that had an absolutely STUNNING property (and some pretty tasty wine, too) was Burrowing Owl Winery. If you book far enough in advance you may even be able to get one of their guest suites- a couple’s oasis! A fun fact is if you stop here, 100% of wine tasting proceeds goes towards the burrowing owl sanctuary in BC! They also offer a $50 patio picnic lunch for two (exclusive tax and tip) that includes everything for romantic picnic with your significant other.
Head back to your glamping accommodations (or stay of choice) to rest up for your next day (if you can’t make it glamping, you can sleep on the Wal-Mart parking lot).
Big driving day! Take your sweet time in the morning and drive straight to Horseshoe Bay where you’ll catch your ferry- tip: book it in advance to reserve your spot and choose the last one of the night so you can get some activities in before it.
There are lots of beautiful hiking spots right around Horseshoe Bay, we did Tunnel Bluffs (took a couple hours breaks and photo-time included) or you could go for a bigger one like Lion’s Bay. Just be sure to sort out your parking ahead of time so you don’t get a ticket (maps/ AllTrails doesn’t give you the correct spot- make sure you’re not in a 30 min zone or on a permit-only street. There’s a lot with 12 spots with $3/hour parking, or you can park at the elementary school dirt lot and walk up).
Catch the late ferry to Departure Bay and find a place in Nanaimo to sleep! (If you’re car camping- you can’t sleep at Walmart here or you will get kicked out, the only safe place I know of where you’re allowed to stay is Cabellas.)
This day is up to you! We drove to Victoria and checked it out and hiked to the Goldstream Tressel and Niagara Falls, however there’s a variety of other beautiful hikes in the area. If you’d rather head straight to Tofino instead, that works too. (We did the first way and it was a lot of driving, plus the traffic picked up so we couldn’t hit all the places we wanted to in time but that’s okay- you live and you learn!)
On the drive towards Tofino, there will be a sign that says “Goats on Roof,” TAKE IT! It will lead you to a market that literally had a roof made of grass and goats walking on it!! Apparently there’s some super tasty ice cream there, and if you want to get their famous donuts you have to make it before they sell out.
That afternoon/ evening we drove to Ucluelet and stayed in the motel (this is a surprisingly cute town not too far from Tofino, and you get to pass all the beaches on the drive in!)
Drive to Tofino and rent your surf gear from Long Island Surf Shop! (Boards and wetsuits are a MUST).
When driving from Ucluelet to Tofino, stop in at every beach (Florencia, Wickinnish, Long, Cox, Chesterman) to check out the waves so you’ll know where you want to go. Get your gear and spend the day surfing!
If you need some energy, stop and Rhino Coffee and Tacofino for some famous eats.
Pro tip: you can’t car camp in Tofino or Ucluelet. Once upon a time you could park on the road to the dump, but they’ve since installed a gate so it’s not possible. If you need to car camp, go back to the highway 4 junction (where you either turn left to Ucluelet and right to Tofino) and head back on Highway 4 like you’re going to return to Nanaimo. One of your first left turns will be onto West Road (right after “A Walk in the Forest”) and there will be a small parking pullout on this road on the left hand side where you can park and sleep without being in anyone’s way. Just remember to keep it clean and respected so they can keep this spot!
Surf surf surf! Use up the remaining time on your surf rentals and catch all the waves you can. Note: you can still get good waves if it’s raining- don’t let the weather scare you. Spend your day soaking up the rest of Tofino, and drive back to Nanaimo to catch a ferry back to Horseshoe Bay- the late one if you want to use up the rest of the day to the best of your abilities.
Once you get to Vancouver, find a cheap hotel (or expensive, whatever you feel like), to spend the night. Just know tomorrow will be a BIG DAY on the road compared to the rest.
Start with coffee, you’ll need it. If you’re wanting a scenic drive, head through whistler and stop in town on the way back, and Joffre lakes if you’re wanting a leg stretch (or a hike!). Try your best to make it all the way to Lake Louise where you’ll spend the night at Lake Louise Inn!
Home time!! If you stay at Lake Louise Inn you’ll wake up just minutes away from one of my personal favourite spots in Canada, Lake Louise and Moraine Lake.
If you’re wanting a good leg stretch to shake off the fact you spent the previous day driving (and some excitement before you head home!) I highly recommend you check out the Mount Norquay Via Ferrata Tour when you’re passing through Banff. Hamish and I did the 4 hour Ridgewalker tour, but there’s a variety of options for different skill levels and thrill dealers. My favourite part about this was it combined the adrenaline of scaling a mountain with the novelty of getting to do it in a way that’s both safe and informative- something that is often overlooked while hiking. Our guide Katie definitely made the tour enjoyable for us and we’re so glad we finished the trip with this activity.
Stop for some Rocky Mountain Bagel House and Rave Coffee in Canmore on your way home and then 1 more short hour and you’ll be back in the comfort of your own home!
Despite this trip being super compact, we thoroughly enjoyed our activities and we’re so grateful for the opportunity to get a glimpse of Canada through our car window. I’ve only included activities I felt were worth checking out, so hopefully you enjoy them too! Feel free to change this schedule to however you feel fit and make sure you check in with travel restrictions and general safety tips for travel during a pandemic before embarking on your journey.
Safe travels and Bon Voyage!