Half the fun of Tofino is getting there

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The trip from Vancouver to Pacific Rim National Park, Tofino and Ucluelet is a significant drive but has benefits, most of them visual.

When you think about traveling around an island, you don’t often think of mountains.  On Vancouver Island, mountains are very real and have an impact on your driving plans, unless you’re a nitwit like me and forget about the mountains.

As you take Highway 19 from Nanaimo (follow the signs to Parksville as you leave the Departure Bay Ferry Terminal) it all seems fairly normal coastal Vancouver Island terrain.  To get to the Pacific Rim, watch for the signs for Highway 4 to Port Alberni.

I’ll get back to the mountainous part in a minute; there are good distractions to take into account when driving along Highway 4.

The first key one is The Old Country Market in Coombs.  It’s a funky place to stop.  Sometimes you will see goats on the rooftops.  If you need a leg stretch and bio-break, this is a good one.

The second absolute must stop is (officially known as MacMillan Provincial Park) what is known to everyone British Columbia as Cathedral Grove.  It is a preserved stretch of massive Douglas Fir trees that are from 300 – 800 years old.  The whole feel of this rainforest of giant trees is virtually indescribable.  I’ve posted a couple of photos I took in March 2011.  One note of caution is that the pullout/parking area for Cathedral Grove comes up on you fast as you are heading westbound.  Be sure not to hit anyone when pulling in.  Also, for the easiest loop walk, you have to cross over to the north side of the highway.  Watch out for cars!  There’s a bend in the road and people take the highway fast.  I guarantee you it’s worth the risk.

In another 19 km, you are into Port Alberni.  This is the last point of full service civilization until you are in either Tofino (124 km) or Ucluelet (100 km).  And it may be important for some of you to know Port Alberni is the last town you can find a Starbucks.  Gas up and stock up here!

As you travel west on Highway 4, you will eventually come to a sign that says you need chains and winter tires from about November to April.  As I was driving on my all season radials in late March, I wondered if they were kidding.  The BC highways people were not kidding.  In fact I found out later that friends of mine had taken this route a week earlier and had to turn around, go to Port Alberni, buy chains for the tires and then try again.

Yes, there are mountains.  Port Alberni Summit is 411 m (1348 feet) high.  (I was wondering how a port can have a summit, but what the heck, I didn’t name the place.)  And the road is twisty and the views incredible.  If you are driving, keep you eyes on the road.  Let your passengers do the ooh’ing and ahh’ing.  They have conveniently (for tourists) roughed up the lane lines so that if you cross the middle line or get too close to what qualifies as a shoulder, you will happily know it.  The locals don’t like these as they like to cheat on the curves and don’t want the extra wear on their tires.  If you are white knuckling on this route, make sure to take what chances you can to pull over and let faster traffic past you.  It will reduce the pressure on you and will also send good karma to those familiar with the road.

There’s a rest stop about half way through and has a bathroom.  If you see it and you have the need, take advantage of it.

As you wind around the scenery we had a good laugh as the BC roads people had a sign saying something like: “Warning winding mountain road for the next 12 km.”  My wife and I simultaneously said, “What the eff did you think the last 50 km were?”

Make sure to stop at the cross roads where you turn left for Ucluelet or right for Tofino.  There’s the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve Information Centre on the right and they can tell you what’s going on as well as sell you a park pass.  Make sure to ask lots of questions about what type of pass you need.  A day pass that allows you to park at Long Beach and The Wickaninnish Interpretive Centre costs about $20.  This is one of a few places that you can buy one.

Also, by the time I got through that mountain driving, I needed a break!

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