Clayoquot 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 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.
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 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.
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.