Discover Campbell River: Where Culture Meets Adventure on Vancouver Island
British Columbia is a diverse province full of hidden gems; from wetlands to deserts, to towering mountains and remote coastal landscapes – we’re always hunting for new experiences and things to see. It feels like the possibilities are endless, and our never-ending list of BC must-sees is becoming somewhat daunting. When we were approached by the city of Campbell River to take part in an excursion on Vancouver Island, we both realized we had no preconceived idea of what Campbell River would be like. As Brie is from Victoria, the two of us spend lots of time exploring southern Vancouver Island – and yet, neither of us have been further north than Tofino! Doesn’t that seem crazy? (Check out Vancouver Island on a map, this isle is huuuuuge). We jumped at the opportunity to visit Campbell River – it was about time we ventured further on the island than we ever have before. So, without knowing much about the city itself, we ventured off to Campbell River – land of the unknown.
The flight to Campbell River from the South Terminal at YVR is made easy with Pacific Coastal Airlines – a quick hop over to Comox, and a skip across to Campbell River; a total one hour of travel time. When we landed, we were surprised to learn two facts: Campbell River is known as the salmon capital of the world, and the city has a population of over 35,000 people. (Okay, so it’s not exactly huge, but in island numbers, it’s pretty darn big!)
Campbell River is situated on the east coast of Vancouver Island at the south end of Discovery Passage, (named after Captain Vancouver for his ship, the HMS Discovery), and is world-renowned for its fishing and its rich history of Coast Salish culture. Campbell River’s waters are teeming with fresh local seafood and wildlife, and as we were about to find out, the region has a rugged wild side full of old growth forests and striking, glacial mountains. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights from our unforgettable visit!
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Elk Falls Provincial Park
Our first stop was to visit Elk Falls Provincial Park – and holy smokes were we were blown away. With its extensive network of forest trails, spectacular 25 metre waterfall and towering suspension bridge, it felt like we had stepped into a temperate rainforest. (Oh wait, we had!) The foggy morning gave way to low hanging mist over the trees, and the warm, humid air gave the park a tropical feel. It definitely didn’t feel like BC anymore! We hiked one of the smaller loops to a vista overlooking the falls, and we marvelled at the view of the bridge suspended over the canyon. With its campsites, day tripping areas, the nearby Quinsam salmon hatchery and the well stocked lakes, we’ve made a mental note to come back to Elk Falls.
Crabby Bob’s and Discovery Pier
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Campbell River is known for its fresh seafood. Next stop was our lunch destination, Crabby Bob’s – a no fuss no muss one stop floating seafood shop down on Discovery Pier. Before lunch, we took a walk along the dock and watched the fisherman casting directly off the pier. It’s not like we didn’t believe people when they said Campbell River is the salmon capital of the world, but to see it is to believe it – one guy literally caught a massive salmon right in front of us! You can probably imagine how incredible our lunch was. “Crabby Abby”, the owner of the seafood shop, brings in the FRESHEST sustainably and locally caught seafood every day, and her tanks are stuffed full of crabs, prawns, mussels, clams, scallops, oysters, and fish. If you don’t feel like taking something home to cook, Abby will prepare the seafood for you to enjoy on their outdoor dock. We devoured a massive platter of crab, prawns and shellfish – simple, pure, and dipped in garlic butter…it was such a unique and memorable experience.
Discovery Marine Safaris
Next it was time for our whale watching and wildlife excursion with Discovery Marine Safaris. Our four hour journey took us up the Discovery Channel past Quadra Island to Sonora Island, and circled Quadra in its entirety on our way back down to Campbell River. Our captain, Captain John, was so well informed and environmentally conscious, and the establishment’s focus on promoting responsible wildlife viewing and awareness was truly appreciated. Our vessel, the Tenacious III, had ample viewing space and seating both inside and on the decks, with 360 degree decks that we could cruise around depending on where the closest animal sighting was. Between Captain John and Tina, the onboard marine expert, we learned so much about the humpback whales, (we hung out, sipped coffee and watched one milling around near Sonora Island!), killer whales, seals and dolphins in the area. By far, the most incredible moment was when dozens of Pacific white-sided dolphins decided to jump and play in the waves of our bow. It was a great way to get close to nature while viewing a remote, lesser known coastline of BC with such a remarkable perspective.
Strathcona Park Lodge
After our whale watching adventure, our next journey led us to our lodgings for the night. Perched on a point on Upper Campbell Lake is the famous Strathcona Park Lodge and Outdoor Education Centre, located about 25 km west of Campbell River. Strathcona’s Mission is: “to teach the wonder, spirit and worth of people and the natural world through outdoor pursuits.” Founded in 1959, this rustic, slightly off-the-grid retreat provides an escape from city life. (You won’t find a tv in your room, and say goodbye to wifi and cell reception during your visit!) We woke up to a stunning view of the lake and glacier carved valleys, and immediately soaked up the cozy community feel in this self contained operation. A delicious and hearty breakfast was served buffet style, and we made our way down to the water for a paddle. We spent a few hours exploring the beautiful Upper Campbell Lake via canoe with our guide, and learned more about the history of the area and the Strathcona’s efforts to preserve the land from logging. We even hopped out on Treasure Island to take in the views – there’s honestly nothing like a morning paddle! No matter what your outdoor passion is, whether it be kayaking, paddle boarding, hiking, climbing, camping, mountain biking or even stargazing, Strathcona Park Lodge has multitudes of day activities and expeditions for the adventurer in you to enjoy.
Strathcona Provincial Park
Campbell River is the gateway to one of the most stunning parks in all of BC, Strathcona Provincial Park. At 2,458 square kilometres, Strathcona Provincial Park contains the Elk River Mountains, which have some of the highest peaks of the Vancouver Island Ranges. (They may not be the highest measured peaks in BC, but they certainly have some of the highest ascents in the province). Adventurous folk flock to Strathcona Park from all over the world to explore its immaculate lakes, incredible waterfalls, (including Delta falls, the highest waterfall in Canada), and its glaciers. The park is wildly popular for alpine hiking and mountain biking, with Buttle Lake being a sought-after destination for swimming, canoeing, kayaking, and fishing. On our list for our next trip? Hike to Upper and Lower Myra Falls.
Next on our agenda was a perfect outing for a hot, sunny day: a vineyard and distillery tour of the Comox Valley. Legendary Tours is a newly established tour company that provides an intimate, well-curated outing to some of the beautiful wineries in the area. Their guided tour is complete with a shuttle ride from stop to stop, and a hilarious and informative narration provided by the owner himself, (we didn’t stop laughing the whole time). They even provide a picnic of, you guessed it, wine and local cheeses – so delish! During the tour we hit up Shelter Point Distillery, a stunning 400 acre property consisting of ocean and farmland. The distillery itself was so impressive, the guide, (think Richard Attenborough in Jurrasic Park), was mesmerizing. Did you know that Shelter Point is the supplier of raspberries for Smucker’s Jam?! Who knew that a gem like this existed on Vancouver Island. We also visited 40 knots Winery, Beaufort Vineyard and Estate Winery, (owned by the one and only James Cameron), Coastal Black Estate Winery, and the Wayward Distillation House.
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49 North Helicopters
There is something about flying in a helicopter that can’t quite be described; the magical views, the rush of adrenaline, the new perspective this mode of transportation provides. Soaring high over the towering peaks of Vancouver Island was nothing short of incredible, and flying with the doors off to provide us with unobstructed views was exhilarating. Our pilot, Bastian from 49 North Helicopters, navigated the skies with ease, and knew exactly where to go in order to show off the island’s pristine hidden alpine lakes, raging waterfalls cascading down mountainsides, and the massive Comox Valley Glacier. As the sky turned golden, we landed on a summit overlooking the peaks of Strathcona Provincial Park. Feeling like the only people in the world, we watched the sun go down as the horizon turned a glowing pink, and we flew back towards our home base through purple haze. It was such a surreal experience – we’ll never look at Vancouver Island the same.
Part of the reason Campbell River is such an indispensable region to Vancouver Island is due to its rich, cultural First Nation’s history, beginning with its earliest settlers. The Carving Shack is one of the many places striving to keep the culture of Campbell River alive – it’s where Kwakwaka’wakw artists from the Wei Wai Kum First Nation of Campbell River come to practice wood carving in its original form. The “shack’s” walls are plastered with beautiful family portraits and images of past competitions and artwork, and its floors are covered with wood shavings and curls. The fresh, woody fragrance of cedar fills the air, and a salty breeze from the ocean drifts in from the beach just below. It’s hard not to be inspired here. We spent a morning chatting with Greg Henderson, a third generation carver at the Carving Shack, who was kind enough to share some of his tribe’s family history. He comes from a long line of revered artists who passed their talent on from generation to generation. The Carving Shack is frequented by many of Greg’s brothers, cousins and uncles, all of whom source their own wood, make and maintain their own tools, and meticulously craft their art. The totem we saw in progress was incredible, and the detail and attention to symbolism with deep, meaningful roots was mesmerizing. Hearing of the struggles Greg’s ancestors endured in order to preserve their traditions and way of life demonstrated the massive importance of the First Nations’ customs to British Columbia’s heritage. The Carving Shack is open to the public, so stop by and visit the artists for yourself, you might just get to see them working on a new project!
Wild Coast Kayaking
Much of the coast of Vancouver Island boasts world class kayaking, and the Campbell River region is no exception. Getting out on the water is a great way to tour the area, so for this next adventure, we decided to hop on the twenty minute ferry over to Quadra Island. At Rebecca Spit we met up with Damon, veteran guide at Wild Coast Kayaking, and Bender, our second guide. We were stunned to find out that they design and make all their kayaks and paddles locally on Quadra Island, (they were the lightest, most comfortable kayaks we’ve ever used), and that Damon was actually one of the “stars” of the viral video of a humpback breaching in front of bunch of kayakers last year! Wildcoast’s informative staff are truly masters of the ocean – they know everything there is to know about navigating these local waters and finding the wildlife who reside here. The tour company’s most exclusive and popular excursion is a trip to their remote Orca Camp, which they describe as “Johnstone Strait’s best glamping experience.” (We believe it, we’ve seen the hot tub!) The camp, only accessible by water, is completely private in the middle of the wilderness and full of glamping amenities. Best of all, it’s situated in an area where both resident and transient killer whale pods frequent.
Gowlland Harbour Resort
After a day of kayaking in the hot summer sun, relaxing on Gowlland Harbour Resort’s beautiful outdoor patio was the perfect start to the evening. We enjoyed cold drinks while overlooking the tranquil emerald waters and watched the eagles swoop to catch their dinner. Gowlland Harbour’s world renowned chef prepared a spectacular meal for us; standouts had to be the scallops with risotto and the wild salmon – yum! Their house restaurant uses as many locally sourced ingredients as possible, much of which come from the Comox Valley. Gowlland Harbour Resort is a highly sought after location for destination weddings, and we weren’t surprised to hear that they are almost at full capacity for the entirety of the summer. We can’t wait to come back for a visit later in the fall!