It’s no secret that Tofino, British Columbia, is a popular terminus for outdoor-minded tourists. The tiny surf town sits at the end of the road—literally, the end of the road; drive any farther and you’ll drop straight into the Pacific—on the rugged western coast of Vancouver Island. This is First Nations territory, and the indigenous population’s influence remains strong: downtown art shops peddle exquisitely carved masks, paintings, and smoked fish; interpretive hiking trails are lined with signs explaining the significance of certain trees, animals, and islands; and the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve offers guided tours and guest speakers to help impart the importance of this stunning landscape to visitors.
During a late fall trip to Tofino with my adventure partner, though, visitors were few and far between, and the vibe was deliciously relaxed. Fishing boats bobbed in and out of harbors, surf vans cruised the main drag in search of waves, and fog and rain dominated the forecast. But somehow, it didn’t rain for four straight days during our visit, a rarity in October—and a refreshing contrast to the sun-drenched, crowded summer season.
Indeed, locals say, it’s quite a different scene in the summer months. As soon as the sun peeks out, hordes of tourists descend from Vancouver and beyond, and the sleepy town wakes up—tours run dawn until dusk, restaurant lines snake out the door, surf breaks look like waterpark wave pools, and “no vacancy” signs abound. Indeed, when we called Crystal Cove RV Park in October to reserve a spot for a night, their automated message informed us that spots were already being booked for the following summer.
Whenever you decide to visit, however—with the crowds and craziness of summer, or the more relaxed fall and winter—Tofino is a magical spot. Here’s what to do, where to stay, and what to eat in this year-round adventure oasis.
We’ll say it again: Summer is the most obvious (and popular) time to visit this Canadian surf town. For beachgoers—whether you’re a fair-weather surfer or prefer to simply lounge in the sand—sunshine and comfortable temperatures are the main draw. Of course, crowds are pretty much guaranteed to come with those, too. Keep in mind that if you’re a surfer, the likelihood of scoring big waves is low (most of Tofino’s surf comes alive when the weather gets gray). For a newbie, however, or a more advanced surfer who doesn’t mind mushier waves and navigating crowds, summer can be a fine time to soak up the fun surf scene.
In fall, the crowds die off as the days grow shorter, darker, and grayer. Simultaneously, the surf gets more consistent, and fall’s a favorite time to get in the water. Plus, you’re still likely to score a sunny afternoon or two.
What’s more, fall is also an ideal time for foraging for mushrooms—Tofino’s rainforests are thick with edible species like sought-after chanterelles, though it’s important to go with an experienced guide to avoid a potentially dangerous foraging fail.
Fishing is another motivation to visit in fall: BC’s salmon and steelhead are dream catches for fly fishermen. You can apply for a Canadian freshwater fly fishing license if you prefer to try your luck on your own. But for a once-in-a-lifetime trip, outfitters like Tofino Fishing offer guided float plane excursions that drop you off at remote lakes and rivers to cast for fish unaccustomed to anglers. In addition, plenty of guide companies (Tofino Fishing included) can take you offshore to fish for salmon, halibut, and more.
Heavy swells shut down certain surf spots in winter (while others only start to pulse), but that gives way to an entirely different cold weather activity: storm-watching. When enormous surges of swell crash along the coast, momentarily swallowing bluffs in powerful spray, it’s time to throw on a rain jacket and gum boots and tread carefully to a safe vantage point. For nature photographers, there’s arguably no better time to visit Tofino. Also, the availability (and affordability) of accommodations makes an impromptu getaway possible.
For nature lovers, spring is a smart season to visit Tofino. The rainforests are lush and green, sun may grace the forecasts (if you’re lucky), and whale watching begins in earnest. Come March, thousands of gray whales begin their journey back from Baja, Mexico, cruising through Tofino on their way north. Lucky whale watchers—and even the occasional kayaker—can score the trifecta: spotting a gray whale, a humpback, and an orca in the same day! Not to mention, bald eagles, sea otters, black bears, and more are commonly sighted in these wild lands.
Where to Stay
For the outdoorsy crowd who doesn’t mind roughing it a bit, the Crystal Cove RV park is your best bet. Campsites are small but well-cared for and have all the necessary hook-ups. If you’re just car camping, you can take advantage of showers, laundry, and clean bathrooms. Due to sky-high demand and a lack of free camping options in the area, Crystal Cove can charge ludicrously high rates—$70 in peak season with a minimum 3-night stay. In the off-season, it’s a little more manageable at $55 per night. (Though depending on the exchange rate for U.S. travelers, those rates will be a bit lower.)
If camping isn’t your cup of tea—or you’re looking to spend a couple nights out of the dampness of the great outdoors—Tofino Marina and Resort is a solid option. Clean, recently renovated rooms offer a unique perspective of Tofino as they’re overlooking a picturesque harbor in the Clayoquot Sound. The Marina’s actually now owned by several professional hockey players (how Canadian can you get?), and it’s no surprise that their pier-side gym is state-of-the-art. (In summer, rooms usually book up quick, so be sure to reserve in advance if you’re traveling in peak season.)
A cold-water surfer’s paradise, Long Beach Lodge has unparalleled beach access to Cox, one of Tofino’s most consistent breaks—on the ground floor, rooms open right up to the water. What makes it truly tuned to the needs of the surf crowd, however, is the Surf Club—an exclusive surf shop that offers rentals and lessons, as well as cushy changing rooms, a wetsuit wash, a hot tub, and sauna. In addition, the upscale on-site restaurant serves up excellent local fare and drinks. Be sure to take advantage of happy hour, when you can watch surfers slash into sunset while sipping on an beautifully crafted $4 cocktail. And the oysters are a must, garnished with shredded horseradish, lemon, and a raspberry tabasco mignonette.
Where to Eat
For an authentic taste of Tofino, the First Nations-owned Dockside Smoked Fish Store, is an must-visit stop. Wild-caught salmon is the star of the show here: Get it candied, cold-smoked, or peppered for a savory snack by the water, or take some home as the perfect souvenir.
A heated outdoor patio is a highlight of The Shed, a recently opened gastropub on Tofino’s main drag that draws a nice crowd for affordable beers and burgers—the perfect post-adventure meal. Meanwhile, unbelievably tasty tacos are churned out through the window of the famous Tacofino taco truck, the sticker-covered vehicle that launched a popular chain of restaurants from Vancouver to Victoria. But you can’t beat the a bite from the original: Go with the seared Tuna-Ta taco, with a kicky pop of seaweed salad and wasabi mayo.
If You Go
You can fly into the Tofino airport, though prices are expensive and you’re likely to want a car while you’re visiting. Your best bet is flying into Vancouver or Victoria, and then renting a car. If you fly into Vancouver, you can drive onto the ferry, which is an adventure in and of itself. From Victoria, it’s a four-and-a-half hour drive to Tofino. Once you take the hour-and-a-half ferry from Vancouver to Nanaimo, it’s a three-and-a half hour drive to town.
Driving to Tofino from the United States is less daunting than you might think. You can cross the border by land, driving up from Seattle to Vancouver, or take a ferry from Port Angeles to Victoria. We’ve done both, each time expecting an enormous hassle, and each time being pleasantly surprised by how smooth the process is. If you do decide to drive your own car, request a Canadian insurance card in advance from your insurance provider. Your existing insurance should cover you, but you do need to have a Canadian insurance card in order to abide by Canadian law. (You might not need it, but better safe than sorry.)
Like many small towns at the end of the road, Tofino’s prices can be on the high side. It’s a smart idea to load up on gas and groceries before you come into town. And once you get there and see for yourself how magical it is, you won’t want to leave anyway.
Written by Drew Zieff for RootsRated.