We left the Sunshine Coast on the ferry from Powell River (Westview Terminal) to Comox (Little River Terminal). We hadn’t been on a ferry of this type before, and the open front was appreciated since, during COVID, passengers were requested to stay in their vehicles. Our view of the crossing, sadly, was limited to the sky. There were no reservations for this trip, which had only four sailings per day, but we didn’t have any issues getting on after arriving about 90 minutes ahead. (The ferry dock was five minutes from our campsite, which made getting there very easy).
Our bare-bones plan for the island was to explore anything north of the ferry dock since we had not been north of Courtenay before.
Once we had finished our errands in Courtenay, we drove to our planned stop for the night. The bayside parking lot was adjacent to the paved Courtenay Riverway pathway, which made for a pleasant afternoon bike ride along the water’s edge and around the little Courtenay Airpark (and included a few successful geocache stops for Ken).
Location: Courtenay Riverway parking lot
Site type: Free camping
Site features: Listed in iOverlander, this parking lot is right on the bay, has several relatively flat spots, and no signs indicating no camping or overnights. There were three or four other vans parked there. It has picnic tables, where locals stop with meals from nearby takeout shops, and a permanent pit toilet about a block away near the playground. It is one of several parking areas along the Riverway pathway, but the others that we saw were signed for no camping
Comox to Campbell River
The next day we began our northward drive with a stop just north of the ferry terminal at Seal Bay Nature Park and took a pleasant walk in the forest.
Next, we drove a little farther up the coast to the beach at Miracle Bay Provincial Park. Though popular, even during COVID distancing, it was easy to stay apart from others while enjoying lunch at a picnic table (there are many), a long walk on the beach since the tide was way out, and a quiet read in the afternoon shade.
The Discovery Fishing Pier was our target in Campbell River as this was our planned accommodation spot, but the pier itself proved to be quite entertaining. The currents are really fast as the tide comes in and out and the pier is set up for fishers. There are holes for rods all the way along the railings, tall chairs with rod holders in a few places, a fish cleaning station and sheltered tables. If fishing isn’t enough of a draw, the ice cream shack is an institution. There is also a small aquarium nearby, which was open though we didn’t enter, and an intriguing building called the Maritime Heritage Center, which was not.
Later in our trip, we returned to the area just long enough to visit Elk Falls and its suspension bridge, both of which were impressive.
Location: Discovery Fishing Pier parking lot
Site type: Free camping
Site features: Beautiful views and access to the fishing pier and ice cream. Nothing much within walking distance was open due to COVID, but it was a short drive to grocery stores and restaurants. Lots of room in the parking lot and the spaces are flat. It was pretty busy with cars coming and going for ice cream until about 9:00 pm, but quiet after that.
Sayward and Port McNeill
Though we wanted to visit some lakes and hikes west of Campbell River, we were considering shortening our time on the north island and wanted to be sure to get all the way to Port Hardy before we had to turn around. So instead of pointing Artie west, we drove north from Campbell River unsure of our day’s destination.
The little village of Sayward, about an hour north, boasted a free campground (and free dump station and potable water) along a river and there were a few possible spots at another ocean-side campground at Kelsey Bay. We drove off the highway about 10km to check them out.
Though the campsite on the river was fine, we decided we weren’t ready to stop yet. We used the services to prepare Artie for another couple of self-contained nights and then continued our drive to Kelsey Bay. Not surprisingly, the half-dozen camping spots sitting above the dock were full with folks who looked like they had been there a while and weren’t going anywhere soon. Kelsey Bay was beautiful, but incredibly windy and cold, so we weren’t sorry that we had decided to continue our drive.
As we drove back through Sayward, we spotted this log pile right across the road from a log-sorting yard. It looked like the offcuts were being further cut into firewood and stacked, but there weren’t signs to sell it and the land this pile was on seemed to be public. In any case, the logs were piled so that they looked like a fence in the making.
Another hour and a half up the highway was Port McNeill. I had done some work remotely with the Town of Port McNeill many years ago, so I was curious to see this town of 2,000 residents. We knew that Port McNeill was one of the places on the north island that was explicitly welcoming the return of visitors as the province was opening up amid the pandemic. Unfortunately, a couple of the campsites in the area where we thought we might stay were not as open to out-of-provincers. After a look around, and lunch beside what we discovered was the big attraction in the area (the World’s Largest Burl–we didn’t even take a photo), we continued on our journey.
Port Hardy is positioned at the north end of Vancouver Island. It is the launching point for the spectacular (and long) Inside Passage ferry route and on to Haida Gwaii, trips we have yet to take. It is also a popular spot for whale-watching, paddling, diving, and fishing tours.
On this blustery July day in the middle of a global pandemic, there were very few people about and little activity on the water. We walked along the sea wall and poked about at the marina.
Location: Port Hardy RV Resort
Site type: Private campground ($44.63)
Site features: Having been rebuffed by campgrounds in the Port McNeill area, it was refreshing to be so welcomed here. Gravel sites with little privacy between but trees all around the compound. The campground is on an estuary and a path joins it to a 2km estuary walk. Log cabins, washrooms, showers ($1 for three minutes) and laundry (we didn’t use).
Marble River and Port Alice
If you drive a little inland from Port Hardy and Port McNeill you run into a patchwork of craggy inlets that connect with the Pacific Ocean on the west side of Vancouver Island. We had identified two possible camping spots in the area, thinking we might stay at one each night. The first was Marble River, a beautiful forestry campground with 16 sites. The campground is adjacent to the Marble River Provincial Park, which offers hiking trails in the rainforest with a couple of viewpoints along the way.
It was still early when we found a site. We left a few items and then drove further toward Port Alice. Initially, we were just trying to get to WiFi so Ken could purchase a fishing license, but since we got all the way to Port Alice (30 minutes away) we stayed to look around, log another geocache, and take a few photos.
A chance conversation with a fellow walking the beach resulted in a change of plans. We were going to drive through Port Alice to the other side of Alice Lake to get to the second campground the next day, and found out that the bridge providing access to this route had been out for a few years. Since we were so happy with our site, we stayed a second night, hiked the trail to Bear Falls, and Ken, having successfully purchased a fishing license online, enjoyed a bit of fly fishing in the river.
Location: Marble River Recreation Site
Site type: Free camping (found on Recreation Sites and Trails BC)
Site features: Thirteen big campsites with firepits, picnic tables, and pit toilets nestled in rich second-growth forest alongside the Marble River.
Alder Bay and Telegraph Cove
While walking along the little seawall in Port Hardy, we chatted with a resident who was quick to offer suggestions for places we should visit. One of these included Telegraph Cove, which we had been thinking about catching on our way back down the coast. We found a campground at Alder Bay nearby, so stayed one night there, driving to Telegraph Cove the next day.
Alder Bay was only home to the campground and marina where we stayed. It was pretty and peaceful, with a view of lightly snow-capped mountains on the mainland in the distance.
From Alder Bay, it was about 10 km to Telegraph Cove. It is a tiny little village on a tiny little cove just off the larger Bear Cove. We walked around the boardwalk and climbed up a gravel path to see newly-built homes that must have stunning views of Johnston Strait, its islands, and mountains beyond. Serviced and treed lots are still available!
The Whale Interpretive Center, which could have been interesting, was closed and there was little activity in the area–just one kayak group appeared to be heading out. We could only imagine the energy in this place on a normal summer day. This village of 20 residents is an eco-tourism hub with many tours starting and ending here in normal times.
Location: Alder Bay RV Park and Marina
Site type: Private campground
Site features: Popular with boat owners and fishers, the park is right on the water and has its own marina. We had a nice spot on the water. Our site cost $28 per night for an unserviced spot, and it didn’t include any services (dump fee–which we’ve never been asked to pay if we were paying to camp–$5, showers $2 each, WiFi, which we didn’t purchase, $5, laundry $2 per machine).
Back to the Sunshine Coast
On the final night of our northern Vancouver Island tour we again stayed at the Courtenay Riverway Park again (see previous post) since it was only a 15-minute drive to the ferry terminal. In order to have a few days to spend in Vancouver before heading back to Calgary for the month of August, we made the return trip to Gibsons, including two ferry trips ($65.95 and $65.75), in one day. With no line-ups and reasonable distances between, this was easy to do. Once Artie was cleaned and parked, we headed into the city on yet another ferry (free for the Gibsons-to-Vancouver direction).
Our little exploration was over, but with so much more to do and see, we plan to return.
As well as the apps and websites mentioned in the Sunshine Coast post, we found the following sites useful for finding places to go and things to do: