The “off season” for Tofino BC on Vancouver Island is roughly from October to April. It is a part of what we refer to as the Pacific Rim, which also includes the towns of Ucluelet, Port Alberni, Long Beach, and Clayoquot Sound to name just a few.
Tofino experiences mild, rainy winters during the off season much like Seattle, Vancouver, and other Pacific Northwest temperate rain forests. Snowfall and blizzards do occasionally occur during winter, but don’t let that stop you from visiting as it makes the beautiful scenery even lovelier and the storms even more worth watching.
Since historically it’s been known as a fishing village community, Tofino is located on the northwest side of Vancouver Island, so it’s quite a ways to travel to here from Vancouver, approximately 282 km (175 miles) away. Nanaimo is closer by 206 km (128) miles to the east. Tofino swells in its population every winter to almost 2,000 people—many of whom are visitors and fellow surfing fans!
Tofino has a large protected natural harbour and is a key transportation hub for Vancouver Island. Its neighbour, Ucluelet, offers many a natural and beautiful sight for visitors including the local marine life. The Alberni Valley, north from Tofino, offers excellent mountainous scenery and harbourfront views in its downtown district.
Vancouver Island’s Pacific Rim consists of the following towns and regions:
- Pacific Rim (West Coast)
- Alberni Inlet
- Alberni Valley
- Barkley Sound
- Bedwell River Valley
- Broken Group Islands
- Clayoquot Sound
- Long Beach
- Pacific Rim Highway 4
- Port Alberni
- Quait Bay
- Sproat Lake
Frugal vacationers often assume that Tofino is totally out of reach, and for good reason. With its stunning scenery and cozy fishing village vibe, this Vancouver Island gem is one of the most magical spots in the country. So it’s not surprising that you need $500-plus to rest your head at the famed Wickaninnish Inn in the summer, or that even B&Bs charge $200 for an ocean view and gluten-free scones.
But it is possible to visit the lush wilderness outpost without paying the exorbitant prices. If you want a fall or winter getaway, look no further.
Getting to Tofino and the Pacific Rim is Easy and Relaxing
- Take a leisurely ferry ride from Vancouver on BC Ferries – the trip alone, which lasts an hour and a half, is relaxing. Sit back and check out the beautiful views over a cup of gourmet coffee or while enjoying a meal. You can relax in either comfortable seats inside or on the open deck outside. Keep your eyes peeled for any Pacific White-Sided dolphin pods or the majestic Killer Whales that call this part of BC their home! For more information on schedules visit the BC Ferries website here: http://www.bcferries.com/schedules/mainland/hbna-current.php
- Travel to Tofino by helicopter or seaplane. You’ll get a beautiful aerial view of the Pacific Rim, Hot Springs Cove, and the Clayoquot Sound as well as Vancouver and the Lower Mainland. Book a charter with Atleo River Air Service to see these great sights! More info: http://www.atleoair.com/
- Fly into Tofino-Long Beach Airport (YAZ). Daily flights are offered by K.D. Air and Orca Airways. They are small, friendly airports with modern passenger facilities. Each airport is approximately 17-23 km from Tofino. There are also float plane flights from the Vancouver and Victoria waterfronts. More info: http://www.tofinoairport.com/
- Go by car or take the Tofino Bus for one of the most scenic road trips on Vancouver Island. For those looking to travel to Tofino for the storm season or in winter (approximately November to April), you can check the Sutton Pass webcam online to see the best areas for the trails most covered by a winter wonderland. Winter tires and/or chains are required by law to be placed on your vehicle from October 1 to March 31.
Experience Vancouver Island Nature with a Walk or Hike Along its West Coast
- The Pacific Rim National Park is home to the stunning natural beauty you can only find on Vancouver Island’s west coast. It is divided into three parts: Long Beach, the West Coast Trail, and the Broken Group Islands. The park’s Rainforest Trail is its most popular and beautiful trail to hike on. It weaves in and out through the thick foliage with two routes connecting to it from the main highway. Watch your step as there is a steep staircase along the trail, but the natural sights are majestic and well worth the effort.
- Chesterman Beach in Tofino is one of its best beaches as well as one of the top 5 best beaches to visit on Vancouver Island. This is one the best spots to go surfing or storm watching, or simply go on a walk. It offers spectacular sunrise and sunset sights!
- Long Beach is the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve’s longest beach, spanning an incredible 16 km (9 miles) up along Vancouver Island’s west coast. Take a walk along its beautiful sandy shores (leave room for the surfers and storm watchers, however!). Keep your eyes peeled for one of many tidal pools where you can see all kinds of marine life that call the Island home!
- Sproat Lake Provincial Park near Port Alberni is a beautiful lake and an ideal hotspot for freshwater activities such as swimming, fishing, waterskiing, and even windsurfing. A trail from its eastern side includes one of the finest prehistoric petroglyphs you can find on Vancouver Island called K’ak’awin.
- Schooner Cove is considered by many to be the best boardwalk hike that Tofino has to offer. During low tide, you can investigate a passageway that opens up during these times of the day, which leads to a small island. You might spot some bald eagles who call this little island home!
- Hot Springs Cove is a wonderful hot spring in Maquinna Provincial Park near Tofino. To be more accurate, it’s located in the remote northern end of Clayoquot Sound. There’s nothing quite like soaking in warm water on a chilly day while surrounded by a magnificent forest. Several companies offer regular tours to Hot Springs Cove, even during Vancouver Island’s off season.
- The Wild Pacific Trail in Ucluelet skirts the rugged cliffs and shores of Vancouver Island’s West Coast. You can see great views of the Broken Group Islands, Barkley Sound, and the wide open Pacific Ocean. Expect to find spectacular panorama sights of the sea through ancient Cedar and Spruce tree-framed platforms set up along the trail.
- Cox Bay Beach is another one of Tofino’s best surfing and storm watching vantage points. On its far right side, there is a little path called Pettinger Point where you can get up close to see giant waves crashing up against the rocky shore. A few discreet and unofficial paths can be found on the other side of the beach, offering visitors all sorts of natural and beautiful sights.
- Cathedral Grove within Port Alberni’s MacMillan Provincial Park is a Vancouver Island gem, a preserved and protected forest and a stunning example of Canada’s natural beauty. It is only a 30-minute drive away from Nanaimo and well worth the time to travel to.
Storm Watching is Relaxing and Exhilarating
Tofino and the rugged Pacific Rim (west coast of Vancouver Island) are world famous for storm watching in the off season. The winter months bring a dramatic storm season – roughly November to February.
Here you get to experience giant waves and near gale force winds in this unique natural experience. Be sure to bring (some hotels offer this) your rubber boots and rain gear for maximum comfort and enjoyment. You can even watch the storms from some of the hotel rooms in the area.
World Famous Tofino Surfing
Tofino is home to some of the best cold-water surfing in Canada. Enjoy year-round surfing on Long Beach or Cox Bay in Tofino where you will experience one of the best cold-water surf experience imaginable. Lessons available from Pacific Surf Company. More information: https://pacificsurfschool.com
Wildlife Tours Galore
- Jamie’s Whaling Station offers amazing wildlife sights for visitors who are looking for some adventure during Tofino and Ucluelet’s off season. Take a whale watching tour and you might see some grey and humpback whales, transient orcas, sea otters at play, seals, porpoises, and sea lions. Each tour provides engaging commentary by their crew. The Whaling Station also offers bear watching tours for those who really feel adventurous! More info: https://www.jamies.com/
- Go for a seasonal safari with West Coast Aquatic Safaris. In addition to the usual bear watching and whale watching tours, they offer safaris that take place during Tofino’s storm season as well as a tasty adventure during the annual Clayoquot Oyster Festival as well as Feast BC. More info: http://www.whalesafaris.com/
- Tofino’s Whale Centre & Museum offers wonderful whale, bear, and bird watching tours, and they even offer tours to Hot Springs Cove during December. Their whale interpretive centre features a gift shop and a full-size grey whale skeleton inside. More info: https://www.tofinowhalecentre.com/
The Arts & History in Tofino and the Pacific Rim Area
- The Tofino-Clayoquot Heritage Museum is open even during the off season on weekends. It is open to the public for free and showcases Tofino’s history from the retreat of the last glaciers nearby to the present day.
- The Alberni Valley Museum is considered to be one of BC’s best community museums. Its collections vary from local Nuu Chah Nulth artwork to the Alberni Valley’s logging, farming, and fishing histories.
- The Amphitrite Lighthouse in Ucluelet was originally built in 1915. Its structure is that of a bunker built to withstand against the Island’s harshest winter storms. Currently, there is a museum in the works that the Ucluelet and Area Historical Society hope to set up near the lighthouse.
- The McLean Mill National Historic Site in Port Alberni is a steam-operated sawmill, the only commercial one of its kind in Canada. The site’s steam train runs on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays year-round and you can grab a meal by booking your ride ahead of time. Embark on a self-guided tour and check out at your own pace the site’s 32 acres of historic buildings, logging equipment, and demonstrations of logging practices including the ‘steam donkey’.
- Eagle Aerie Gallery is a northwest coast longhouse-style art gallery based in the heart of Tofino. It is owned and run by Tsimshian Native artist Roy Henry Vickers. We highly encourage you to check out his handcrafted wood carvings, original paintings and prints, books, and jewelry. The gallery is open seven days a week, year-round.
Where to Catch a Show
- Tofino Theatre, or Clayoquot Sound Community Theatre, is an intimate live theatre venue with excellent acoustics seating 72 people. It originally opened in 1983 by a group of volunteers on Campbell Street. They regularly show movies on Monday nights and play host to the annual Tofino Film Festival and the West Coast Winter Music Series, as well as several other community and touring events.
- The Capitol Theatre in Port Alberni is the main venue for the Portal Players Society, a non-profit that produces and performs a wide range of comedic and dramatic live theatre as well as concerts. Catch one of their live shows while you’re in town!
Winter Activities in Tofino and the West Coast
- Catch a hockey game with the Alberni Valley Bulldogs, a Junior “A” ice hockey team.
- November is the prime time of the year to check out the annual Clayoquot Oyster Festival, where you can sample some of Vancouver Island’s finest seafood with dishes that include the popular crustacean.
- Brand new to the Pacific Rim is the Tofino Winterlights celebration at Tofino Botanical Gardens. It’s a Christmas light display that covers all of the gardens in many beautiful lights and decorations throughout December.
Unique Shopping Experiences
- Take a break at Coombs Country Candy between Port Alberni and Tofino, located on the Old Nanaimo Highway. This is a great place to sample locally made treats such as ice cream, caramel popcorn, fudge, peanut brittle, caramel candy apples, and more. Their products are made on site and they offer demonstrations to visitors. More info: http://www.coombscandy.ca/
- Naesgaard’s Farm Market in Port Alberni features the Island’s largest selection of clay pots in their “Pot Shop”, which is a must-see if you’re a gardener! The market sells fresh produce, flowers, and plants from both their farm and from local suppliers, as well as handcrafted jewelry, garden ornaments, and fresh honey and cheese to name a few. More information: http://www.naesgaards.com/
- Tofino’s Artisan Market may be open only during the high season but we put them here in our list because they also have a winter market later in the year! You can find fresh produce, preserves, baked goods, or a beautifully handmade gift. More information: http://www.tofinomarket.com/
- Harbour Quay in Port Alberni is a unique blend of outdoor and indoor attractions and activities. The area is home to Port Alberni’s brand new aquarium as well as a clock tower, a giant salmon carving, a huge B&B in the form of a 100-foot tugboat, and many waterfront shops and restaurants. Stroll around at your leisure. You may find some great photo opportunities while you’re checking the harbour out! More information: https://www.albernichamber.ca/visitor-info/harbour-quay
- Blackberry Cove Marketplace in Ucluelet is a blend of love for books, specialty groceries, and roasted coffee, creating a unique West Coast experience! There’s nothing like a hot drink with a good book on a rainy day. The marketplace features a bookshop selling both new and used books, a specialty grocery store, and a full-service coffee bar. More information: https://www.facebook.com/BlackberryCoveMarketplace
Tofino and West Coast Family Fun
- Tofino Botanical Gardens offers all sorts of activities! They have a Children’s Garden in the forest and a duck pond where you can meet some of our local wildlife. Their café, Darwin’s, offers a good variety of baked goods and espresso drinks. Their Ecolodge is open year-round and hosts many educational lectures and classes that cover many environmental topics.
- Take the kids to the Ucluelet Aquarium where you can touch the fish in one of their many touch tanks and discover Vancouver Island’s varied and local marine wildlife. Every year they hold a catch and release day that everyone can participate in.
- Rollin Art Centre in Port Alberni is a great place to visit any day because admission is free! The centre is an art gallery, a marketplace, a gift shop, a garden, and an art studio rolled into one. Kids and adults both can participate in their art classes or tick off their loved ones on their shopping list at one of the many seasonal markets they offer even when it’s cold outside!
- Big Beach Cinema in Ucluelet’s Community Centre offers movies to kids and adults for very low prices! Their showings usually take place on specific Fridays and Saturdays throughout the year, even when it’s cold outside. The best way to find out which movies they will be showing is to follow the District of Ucluelet’s Facebook page.
- In Port Alberni there is Char’s Landing Public House, which hosts many daily and nightly events such as live music and concerts, as well as special themed nights. They also host a library where kids can bring board games to play with their friends, or you can play games with your friends, or you can simply relax with a good book to read. What’s nice about Char’s Landing is it’s also a dog-friendly venue so you don’t have to leave Fido behind if you don’t want to!
We hope you have a safe and wonderful time traveling to Vancouver Island’s West Coast. Maybe you’ll find something new and exciting along the way!
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