West Coast of Vancouver Island and its Beautiful Beaches

By Dr. Robert Berdan
March 2, 2013



Sunset along the Wild Pacific Trail by Robert Berdan ©


Sunset from along the Wild Pacific trail near Ucluelet



One of the most beautiful places in Canada for nature photographers is the West Coast of Vancouver Island. In the past decade I visited the islands on six different occasions exploring and photographing as much of the island as I could. I even visited the remote Nootka trail (see previous article). What makes these regions so attractive are the rugged coastlines, small islands and long secluded beaches. Most of the time I had the beach to myself and could walk for miles without seeing anyone. Some beaches are more popular and a few brave souls surf in wet suits.

Once in Nanaimo I had to decide whether to drive south or north to explore the island. On my first trip I choose to go south, and all subsequent trips I chose to travel north. A small but beautiful park just on the outskirts of Victoria is called Goldstream provincial park. Many of the trees in this park are covered in moss and there are several small waterfalls. If you stay in Victoria a popular place to visit and take photographs is in the Butchart Gardens. Heading south to Sooke, I stopped to visit Sooke Potholes provincial park and then further down the road I stayed at a small resort on the ocean called  Point no Point. This tiny resort offers a number of cabins with some really spectacular scenery. My father and I spent three days photographing the shoreline while attending a photography workshop led by Adele Curtis. Driving north along highway 14 you reach Juan de Fuca provincial park where there are numerous trails leading to the ocean through secondary growth forest. Many of the trails are muddy, but well marked and the coastline is beautiful.



Sunset at Point no Point by Robert Berdan ©


View of West Coast looking north from the beach at Point no point.


You are unlikely to see any big trees along this route and that was very disappointing as I would have thought they might have preserved at least a few areas for tourism, One of the parks called Parkinson's creek was clear cut and there was a sign with obscenities carved into by angry visitors like ourselves, it said "Clear cut habitat for sun loving animals". We didn't see any sun loving animals only giant clear cut stumps where once was a beautiful forest in this so called park.



Abstract stones on beach by Robert Berdan ©


Smooth stones on the beach at Point no Point


At the end of highway 14 I reached Port Renfrew, a quaint little village that forms one end of the West Coast Trail. Resources are limited here, but accommodations were comfortable and reasonably priced and there are a number of trails you can access to hike down to the ocean. One of the better known trails takes you to tide pools in Botanical Beach Provincial Park. The tide pools were disappointing and largely devoid of invertebrates compared to those I have visited further north along the coast and I wondered if they haven't been picked over by visitors. I explored several logging roads in the area, but the extensive clear cutting was depressing so I turned around and headed back home. 


Sombrio Beach by Robert Berdan ©


Sombrio Beach Juan De Fuca Trail mid day - photographed on Velvia slide film.



Juan De Fuca trail map - to zoom in move the slider to the right.



On my subsequent trips to Vancouver Island I headed north along the east coast and then inland across the island.  From Nanaimo my first stop is Parksville. This area is your typical tourist resort town with numerous motels and beaches. From a photographers point of view, nice to visit but not my idea of spot to take great pictures. However, this is where my father and I reserved a trip to with Rainforest Adventure tours owned and operated by Gary and Rhonda Murdock (www.rainforestnaturetours.com) see my previous article on the ancient rainforest.


On another trip with Gary I visited the town of Bamfield that represents the other end of the West Coast Trail, a marine biology station and search and rescue facility. The area also features numerous small shops and restaurants. For photographers take the water taxi to the across the bay from the main docking area then hike around to the coast, it's only about a 1 km hike. On the west side of the Bamfield's peninsula you will encounter Brady's beach with large sea stacks and tide pools. Piled up against the rocks I photographed stacks of purple and orange starfish. This is another nature photographers paradise and I plan to return in the future with my wife - she loves beaches and I can see myself explore and photograph this region for a week or more.


Bamfield Brady's Beach and sea stacks by Robert Berdan ©


Bamfield Brady's Beach and sea stacks.



Sea Stars by Robert Berdan ©


Ochre Star (Pisaster ochreaceus) also called Purple sea star though it comes in purple, orange and yellow to brown. They are often found in clusters and feed on mussels, barnacles, limpets and snails.




Road to Ucluelet and Toffino

The road from Port Alberni to the coast winds along lakes and forests. Red alders covered in moss are frequently encountered along the highway. Alder trees are the first to take root after an area has been logged or disturbed.  Alders tend to be associated with a dense layer of shrubs and herbs, including salmonberry, red elderberry, and several ferns. Alder roots contain nodules that convert nitrogen in the soil into a form plants can absorb and they provide shade.  Toward the west coast the highway parallels the scenic Kennedy river which then leads into Kennedy lake. Before reaching the coast the highway comes to a T fork and you need to decide whether to go left to Ucluelet or right to Toffino. Both destinations offer photographers many opportunities. Ucluelet is a small town on the coast that boasts a protective harbour, lighthouse and the Wild Pacific Trail. The trail starts at the lighthouse on Amphitrite point and is paradise for nature photographers. The light can be particularly beautiful around sunrise and sunset. The gravel pathways and boardwalks wind through ancient spruce and cedar rainforest, and along rock promontories with ocean vistas. Benches, sponsored by local businesses or purchased by individuals, are provided at viewpoints. Along the trails you will encounter wild flowers (foxgloves), banana slugs, and eagles flying overhead.  It's also a great place to storm watch



Sunrise at Amphrite point near Ucluelet by Robert Berdan ©


Prior to sunrise this photo was taken from Amphitrite point looking toward the Broken islands.


Canada geese fly over broken islands by Robert Berdan ©


Canada Geese fly over the Broken Islands just prior to sunrise - 300 mm f/2.8 Velvia ISO 50 slide film.


Fishing boat returns to Ucluelet harbour by Robert Berdan ©


A fishing trawler returns to Ucluelet Harbour early morning, the Broken Islands are in the background


Sunset Wild Pacific Trail by Robert Berdan ©


Sunset from the Wild Pacific Trail near Ucluelet.

Driving from Ucluelet to Toffino you pass through Pacific Rim National park which features long beaches with few people (which I like) and coastal trails blanketed with false lily of the valley. The Wickaninnish Centre is the parks main visitor center offering a restaurant and some incredible scenery. The Centre is open from mid March to mid October.  The weather can vary from clear and sunny to foggy and stormy. Hiking along the beach you can expect to find tide pools with starfish and variety of crustaceans. Black bears also visit the beach so beware. If you do visit this area I recommend purchasing some of the many guide books.



Try something different and convert some of your colour pictures into Black and White as I have done below to add a sense of mood.



Florencia Bay Black and white photograph by Robert Berdan ©


Florencia Bay Pacific Rim National Park


Florencia Bay Pacific Rim by Robert Berdan ©


Florencia Bay Pacific Rim National Park


Florencia Bay by Robert Berdan ©


Florencia Bay Pacific Rim National Park


Florencia Bay by Robert Berdan ©


Florencia Bay Pacific Rim National Park


Wickaninnish Center and Beach by Robert Berdan ©


Wickaninnish Center and Beach - great place to stop, eat and walk along the beach.


Wickaninnish beach by Robert Berdan ©


Wickaninnish Beach - on this day it was blowing hard and there was a mist that covered the beach.



InToffino there are many tour companies offering whale viewing, kayaking  or a pilot will fly you along the coast to see it from the air. To fully appreciate the coast  I recommend taking a short flight on a clear sunny day. From the air I could see whales below me feeding in the shallows. For the tourist, Toffino has numerous art shops and galleries. The first Nations people (Tla-o-qui-aht, Ahousaht and Hequiaht) have lived here for thousands of years. Today, there are three First Nations communities in the area: Esowista is located on Long Beach, Opitsaht is on Meares Island, just across the water from downtown Tofino, and Ahousaht is roughly 10 miles by water from Tofino, on Flores Island. You can see some of native dugout canoes along the shore and they sometimes offer trips in their canoes. In one boat trip I took to view whales we put on survival suits and were whisked out to sea at high speed.  If you do this and take your camera, make sure you bring some form of water protection, a dry bag or pelican case because you will get wet even on a sunny day and the weather can change quickly. One poor fellow sitting beside me was trying to potograph the whales with his compact camera while it was raining. His camera started to smoke and then shorted out. Even a few plastic bags with some elastic bands can protect your gear and lenses when it is raining. The best lenses to use to  photograph whales are 70-200 mm lens and a teleconverter for when you need extra reach. A compact 300mm F4 lens would also be ideal, preferably with autofocus and vibration reduction or image stabilization.  You will be bobbing up and down in the boat on the oceans so a relatively lightweight lens you can hand hold that permits a fair degree of magnification is best.



Meares Island from the air by Robert Berdan ©


Meares Island top left and Toffino is at the top right. I hired a pilot to take me up over the coast on this beautiful sunny day. The biggest problem with pictures from small planes is reflections off the window, a polarizer will help.



Long Beach with Mount Colnett on Meares Island by Robert Berdan ©


Long Beach with Mount Colnett on Meares Island appearing above the clouds.



Kayaks on West Coast island by Robert Berdan ©


Kayaking on one of the outer islands with the Mothership III we stop for lunch and I spend most of my time photographing sea stacks, old tree stumps and a variety of shoreline plants.


Another way to view the West coast is via kayak but unless you are experienced I recommend taking a guided tour with professionals that know the area, tides and dangers. All my sea kayaking adventures were with the Mothership III - see my article on sea kayaking for more information. Most of you exploring can simply be on foot. To improve your chances of getting great photographs visit the beaches at different times of the day to catch the changing light. I prefer foggy days to capture that mysterious mood. RB


What to bring

  • Binoculars and trail guide
  • Camera, wide angle lens and zoom telephoto, a macro lens if you are interested in closeup photography
  • Rubber boots are handy for walking along the beaches and shorelines
  • Raincoat and if hiking alone bring bear spray in case you encounter a black bear
  • Water proof or resistant camera bag

Robert Berdan and David Lilly at Long Beach waiting for better light by R. Berdan ©


Author and David Lilly waiting for better light at Long Beach - sometimes waiting is the best thing you can do.


Links and Resources

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