Clayoquot Sound: Vancouver Island’s Sweet Spot

©istockphoto/CarrieColePhotographyClay­oquot Sound is lit­er­al­ly the end of the road. Canada’s High­way 4 up the west coast of Van­cou­ver Island sim­ply dead-ends at a small park­ing lot over­look­ing the Clay­oquot Sound in the surf town of Tofi­no. The park­ing lot is often full of peo­ple pack­ing kayaks to con­tin­ue their jour­ney north by the only way they can. Boat and float­plane docks sit in front of the icon­ic moun­tains of Clay­oquot Sound: Lone Cone and Cat­face Mountain.

A com­bi­na­tion of rain­for­est, rich marine life, a rugged out­er coast full of surf beach­es and wilder­ness­es where wolves and bears roam—and a birth­place of Canada’s rich con­ser­va­tion heritage—make the sound an ide­al destination.

There are more remote places on Van­cou­ver Island. But those require long dri­ves on dif­fi­cult log­ging roads, and few have the com­bi­na­tion of intact rain­for­est, a per­fect kayak­ing envi­ron­ment and a thriv­ing native cul­ture. “It was obvi­ous that Clay­oquot Sound was the last great rain­for­est that was left, and also the best pad­dling,” said Dan Lewis, recall­ing his arrival in Clay­oquot Sound in 1990 on a kayak cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion of Van­cou­ver Island. “That’s when I real­ized I’m mov­ing here.” Lewis, now the Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of Clay­oquot Action, and his wife Bon­ny Glam­beck have been pro­tect­ing Clay­oquot Sound ever since.

The Sea
The sea dom­i­nates Clay­oquot.  The sea is in the salt that fills the air, the fog that lingers over the coast and the fish that’s sold in restau­rants in Tofi­no. A mile west of the dock, the pro­tect­ed inlets give way to the vast sandy beach­es and rugged off­shore islands begin. Past them, there’s noth­ing west until Japan.

The best way to explore these out­er waters is with a sea kayak. No oth­er craft has the ver­sa­til­i­ty to han­dle these waters, cov­er dis­tance, nose into secret coves, land on surf beach­es and pack your camp­ing gear for a week or two. The west coasts of Var­gas and Flo­res Island and the Hes­quiat Pen­nin­su­la offer easy beach camp­ing. Vast beach­es like Ahous Bay, White­sand Cove, Whales Island and Cow Bay (named not for bovines but for the moth­er gray whales that loi­ter there in the sum­mer) can accom­mo­date large groups with room to spare. Whales, wolves and bears are com­mon, and sea otters are expand­ing their range into Clay­oquot Sound after a rein­tro­duc­tion fur­ther north. Kayak­ers can choose between the surf zone, play­ing in rock gar­dens and off­shore jour­neys. The out­er coast of Flo­res Island, between Rafael Point and Sharp Point is ful­ly exposed to the Pacif­ic, and should only be attempt­ed by skilled pad­dlers in good conditions.

The oth­er way to expe­ri­ence the out­er coast is with a surf­board. Tofi­no is a surf town, and the com­bi­na­tion of beach cruis­er bikes and surf bums around town can make the first-time vis­i­tor won­der if they’ve stum­bled into a fog­gy Cana­di­an ver­sion of San­ta Cruz or Encini­tas. Beach­es close to town like Chester­man Beach, Cox Bay and Long Beach are pop­u­lar spots, and class­es abound. But even the remote beach­es of the wild islands appeal to board-surfers, who take water taxis out to wild surf beach­es and camp.

Clayoquot_SoundThe Inlets
When the out­er coast is too fog­gy or rough, it’s time to explore the glac­i­er-carved fjords that slice deep into Van­cou­ver Island’s moun­tains. Inlets like For­tune Chan­nel, Tofi­no Inlet, Shel­ter Inlet, Syd­ney Inlet, Her­bert Inlet and Bed­well Sound bring you deep into the tem­per­ate rain­for­est. Riv­er mouths like the Kennedy and Megin rivers are eco­log­i­cal­ly vital estu­ar­ies for salmon and the bears and wolves that feed on them. Camp­ing spots in the steep-walled fjords and dense forests of the inlets are few­er and far­ther between than on the out­er coast.

The Islands
The islands them­selves are a rich com­bi­na­tion of dense rain­for­est and oppor­tu­ni­ties to explore. You’ll need to take a boat of some kind to get to them. Mear­es Island includes the Big Tree Trail, a dif­fi­cult hike that leads to the top of Lone Cone for a stun­ning view. On south­ern Flo­res Island, the Ahousat tribe man­ages the Wild Side Her­itage Trail, which runs 11 kilo­me­ters from the native vil­lage of Maaq­tusi­is to Cow Bay on a series of pris­tine beach­es, trails and board­walks through­out the Sit­ka Spruce rain­for­est. It’s best done as a mul­ti-day back­pack­ing trip with great beach camping.

The Future
Not sur­pris­ing­ly, Clay­oqout Sound is pop­u­lar and get­ting more so. Whale watch­ing tours, fish­ing char­ters and hotel rooms get crowd­ed in the sum­mer. But the area is large, and big beach­es make it easy to find soli­tude. Remem­ber to use leave-no-trace camp­ing. Pop­u­lar sites have out­hous­es and bear box­es for food stor­age. Use them! Don’t store food in your tent or in open cool­ers. The area had prob­lems with accul­tur­at­ed wolves and bears in the past. Clean fish and build camp­fires below the high-tide line.

And sup­port con­ser­va­tion. As Lewis notes, the fact that the area’s a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for eco­tourism does­n’t mean that it’s pro­tect­ed. Min­ing pro­pos­als on the Cat­face Range, fish farms and indus­tri­al log­ging still threat­en part of the sound. Con­tribute your time and mon­ey to keep­ing Clay­oquout wild.