Image: Telegraph Cove, Northern Vancouver Island, BC Credit: Wozzie, Trip Advisor
When most people think of Vancouver Island, the first thing to come to mind is the Garden City of Victoria. Every year, millions of tourists flock from around the world to enjoy Victoria’s beautiful gardens, parks, shopping and British charm.
If you enjoy getting away from the crowds and off the beaten path, the drive Northward is worth it – you’ll see some of the most charming tiny towns, incredible wild scenery and abundant wildlife imaginable.
Because so much of BC’s tourism marketing dollars go to Victoria, the attractions and offerings of the North Island are not as well documented. For this reason, we’ve put together this brief guide to six “hidden gem” towns north of Campbell River.
How to Get to North Vancouver Island by RV
Highway 19, also known as the Island Highway, runs the length of Vancouver Island from Nanaimo in the south all the way past Campbell River to Port Hardy in the north. If you’re coming from Victoria, you’ll see the exit for Highway 19 (from Highway 1) just south of Nanaimo.
Keep in mind that while you can reach the towns listed below by RV, many surrounding destinations must be reached by gravel & logging service roads and aren’t suitable for RV driving. Consider renting or bringing a 4×4 vehicle, ATV or hiring a tour company to get you safely to these more remote locations.
Looking for somewhere to camp up North?
Check out our big list of full-service RV campgrounds for Courtenay, Comox, Campbell River and North Vancouver Island.
Now on to the towns!
Nestled at the mouth of the Salmon River, this tiny logging community of 400 is one of Vancouver island’s older communities. Railroad logging was a major industry here from 1904 – 1914 and again starting in the late 1930’s. You’ll see reminders of this history in the antique logging equipment displayed throughout the town.
Bear and elk hunting and fly fishing are popular pastimes in Sayward Valley’s verdant and abundant wilderness. If you prefer to fish close to civilization, the town’s port of Kelsey Bay has a popular fishing wharf.
One of Sayward’s most notable attractions is the Cable Cookhouse, a local eatery wrapped in 8200 feet of old logging cables. There are many other natural wonders to explore nearby, such as the World’s Largest Yellow Cedar, Salmon River Estuary Trail, Dalrymple Creek Trail and Mount Kain.
If you really want to test your mettle, sign up for the gruelling Kusam Klimb, an annual 23km mountain race through some of the area’s most spectacular scenery. If the views don’t leave you breathless, the race certainly will!
Google Map link: https://goo.gl/maps/CHt5BwGYny8nGVc19
You’ll notice a common theme in towns of the heavily-forested North: logging. This tiny town is no exception.
Woss was home to the last operating logging railway in North America. The line ran for 100 years until a train derailment triggered its closure in 2017. Today, you can visit (and board) the historic retired Steam Locomotive 113 at Woss Heritage Park and learn about the history of railway logging.
Woss is a popular jump-off point to hike and explore the surrounding Nimpkish Valley. Explore the rugged trails of Schoen Lake Park, Woss Lake Provincial Park or Nimpkish Valley Ecological Reserve.
The Little Huson Caves, a 30-minute drive from Woss, is one of the most memorable attractions in the area. The sound of the blue-green waters of Atluck Creek echoing through limestone arches and rock formations will leave you feeling peaceful and refreshed. There are 15 known caves of various sizes located in the park.
Google Map link: https://goo.gl/maps/jyU5Yo2TTBYFm5ba7
From telegraph station to sawmill town and fishing village to eco-tourism mecca, this picturesque village has worn many hats!
With its quaint boardwalk and spectacular ocean views, it’s certainly worth the 20-minute detour from Highway 19. Artists and photographers come to the town to paint the colourful buildings (many on stilts) surrounded by the lush green forest.
While you’re here, you can enjoy the scenery from a cafe, visit the Whale Interpretive Centre, or check out one of the local galleries for unique handmade items. If you’d like to see more of the natural beauty surrounding the town, many local companies offer whale and grizzly watching tours, kayak trips and fishing charters.
Google Map link: https://goo.gl/maps/cfWQVS9DxZSBFqFq9
Port McNeill is the second largest town on Northern Vancouver island after Port Hardy (“biggest” meaning a population of 2,356). It’s a great place to wander the seawall, enjoy the harbour’s beautiful vistas, and peruse the local galleries, museums and shops.
The most well-known attraction in this former logging town is the world’s largest burl – and the world’s second-largest burl, dethroned by the new burl in 2005. (The second-largest burl, cut from a Sitka Spruce in 1976, is about 5 minutes out of town at 1921 SW Main Rd, where it intersects with Highway 19.) The largest burl is in a waterfront park downtown.
Nearby Port McNeill are many magnificent parks, including Broughton Archipelago Provincial Marine Park, which comprises dozens of untouched islands and can only be reached by boat. There are plenty of local tour companies who can take you out kayaking, boating and wildlife watching in the archipelago.
Google Map link: https://goo.gl/maps/cfWQVS9DxZSBFqFq9
Hop aboard BC Ferries’ new hybrid-engine Island Aurora ferry from Port McNeill to visit Alert Bay and Sointula (profiled below). This enjoyable and inexpensive ride offers incredible views of Johnstone Strait. You can even take a day trip to both Alert Bay and Sointula on the same day using one ticket to save money.
Alert Bay is located on nearby Cormorant Island, about half of which is set aside as a Namgis First Nation reserve. Visit the U’mista Cultural Centre to learn more about local first nations history and culture and to view their stunning traditional artwork.
The town itself is populated by many historical buildings, and is dotted with over 30 totem poles, including the world’s tallest, which stands at 173 feet!
Nearby Alert Bay Ecological Park, with its upland marsh traversed by a network of well-marked trails and boardwalks, is a perfect place for nature-lovers to explore.
Google Map link: https://goo.gl/maps/PDikagpxTcQoWmVM8
The village of Sointula, on Malcolm island, was founded in 1901 by Finnish settlers. They envisioned a utopian community and thus named their village Sointula, which means “place of harmony” in Finnish.
Despite the years, the town still retains much of that special character. Many older residents of the town still speak Finnish. The houses are quaint and colourful, and many have kitchen gardens for growing their own produce. The local store, Sointula Co-op, has been in business for over 100 years! You can learn more about the town’s history at the Sointula Museum.
Other Malcolm Island must-sees include the delicious town bakery, Dunroven Farm & Forge, and Bere Point Regional Park with its 4.5 km roundtrip beachside trail. If your timing is good, you might see orcas swimming by or catch of glimpse of other local wildlife, including dolphins, porpoises, seals, otters, Humpback Whales, bald eagles and a variety of shorebirds.
Google Maps link: https://goo.gl/maps/wDNRc3LJRw49Rmo2A
North Island Resources