Nanaimo to Tofino – 13 essential road trip stops

Last Updated on June 28, 2022

A road trip from Nanaimo to Tofino is one of the best road trips in the Pacific Northwest and a necessary part of any Vancouver Island road trip. You’ll pass through Nanaimo if you are driving to Tofino from Victoria or Vancouver.

This stunning drive takes you from the east coast of Vancouver Island to the west coast of the island in just 200 km or 125 miles. Give yourself a full day or more to enjoy all the fascinating stops along the way, from gorgeous sunny beaches to swimming lakes to crashing waterfalls and ancient rainforests. Follow along and I’ll make sure you don’t miss a thing along this epic and unforgettable drive.

Most people get from Nanaimo to Vancouver by driving, and this is the ideal way to take your time and get all the stops in. You can also take a bus from Nanaimo (or Victoria or Vancouver) to Tofino. You’ll still get to see the stunning scenery in comfort while not having to worry about driving.

This drive from Nanaimo to Tofino travels through the lands of many First Nations people including Snuneymuxw, Tsheshant, Huu-at-aht and Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations

How far is the drive from Nanaimo to Tofino?

The driving distance from Nanaimo to Tofino is about 200km or 125 miles. Driving time is approximately 3 hours, not including any stops or construction delays.

Stopping in Parksville adds about 20 minutes of driving time, and stopping in Ucluelet adds about 30 minutes of driving time. Both stops are well worth a few extra minutes!

I recommend giving yourself all day to make the drive so you can enjoy it and enjoy all the things to see along the way.

What is the road like from Nanaimo to Tofino?

The Pacific Rim Highway which takes you from Nanaimo to Tofino is a paved, two lane highway. The government of BC maintains the road (expect construction) all year and provides good information about road conditions here.

The road is often wet and at times has quite a bit of construction.

Is it worth it to drive to Tofino?

If you enjoy road trips, this road trip is a must do! Not only is the west coast of Vancouver Island in Tofino absolutely stunning, the drive is also gorgeous with many diverse landscapes and ecosystems in a short distance.

The drive is not fast and the road is very windy in many places with limited passing opportunity, so it’s best for people who enjoy road trips and taking their time with lots of stops.

What time of year can I drive to Tofino?

The Pacific Rim Highway from Nanaimo to Tofino and Ucluelet is open all year. This area receives a lot of rain so be ready for wet roads any time of year, but especially in winter when wet roads and “ponding” are all but guaranteed. Ponding is when standing water collects on the road.

In summer there is almost always extensive road construction going on, since this vital road takes a beating and the construction season is relatively short.

No matter what time of year, give yourself plenty of time!

A two lane highway on an overcast and rainy winter day between Nanaimo and Tofino. A sign over the road says "Water ponding"
“Ponding” is a common situation during heavy rain in winter on the Pacific Rim Highway between Nanaimo and Tofino

What to see on the drive from Nanaimo to Tofino

Englishman River Falls

The top of a waterfall as it cascades over a rock face in the forest with moss and ferns
Englishman River Falls in the fall. Photo Credit: Tourism Vancouver Island

Time added to the road trip: 30 min – 1 hour

Englishman River Falls gives you a wonderful opportunity to stretch your legs and see one of the many stunning waterfalls on Vancouver Island.

A mile long trail takes you to a beautiful waterfall. The trail has some ups and downs but isn’t ever very steep.

Parksville Community Park Beach

A sand and gravel beach at low tide on a sunny day. There are forested islands in the distance across the water
Parksville Community Park Beach at low tide

Time added to the road trip: 30 minutes to all day

One of Canada’s most beloved beaches, Parksville Beach, has plenty of sand to enjoy during Parksville’s impossibly sunny days. The Parksville and Qualicum Beach area are rainshadowed by the mountains of Vancouver island, giving them far more sun then Tofino and Ucluelet have.

Soak it up with some beach time if it’s a sunny day, or make it a quick picnic stop or leg stretch. In addition to the beach, the park also has plenty of lawn, picnic tables and plenty of beach volleyball courts.

Little Qualicum Falls

A waterfall crashing between rock walls covered in moss and ferns in a forest at Little Qualicum Falls between Nanaimo and Tofino on Vancouver Island
The Upper Falls at Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park

Time added to the road trip: 1-2 hours

I highly recommend the 2km (1.25 mile) loop to the Upper and Lower Falls in Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park. It’s a beautiful loop hike to two waterfalls through a beautiful forest. Though short, there are plenty of hills, rocks, roots and stairs making it challenging for some folks.

You can make it shorter by going out and back to one waterfall instead of both. Dogs are allowed here as long as they are on leash. Fences and signage warn visitors to stay back from the dangerous water.

A great thing about this hike is you can enjoy it rain or shine. Waterfalls and rainforest feel appropriate on a rainy day, and provide shade and cool breezes on hot sunny days.

Cameron Lake

A blue lake surrounded by forested hillsides on a sunny day between Nanaimo and Tofino.
Cameron Lake has a beautiful picnic area just off the highway

Time added to the road trip: 30 min-1 hour

Cameron Lake is also in Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park, a bit further on down the road. This stunning blue lake is full of mystery and legend of a mysterious mythical creature living in its deep waters!

Regardless of your thoughts on mystery sea creatures, there’s no question that this is one of the most beautiful picnic spots on Vancouver Island. It has picnic tables but also a beach to spread out a picnic on instead.

In addition to enjoying the view, Cameron Lake is a popular fishing area. You can also swim, kayak or paddleboard here. At times the wind can be quite fierce, so take this into account when deciding how much time to spend here.

Cathedral Grove

Giant Douglas fir and cedar trees in a forest of other trees, ferns and moss with a boardwalk going between them in Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island between Nanaimo and Tofino
The trails on the north side of the highway are boardwalked through Cathedral Grove

Time added to the road trip: 1-2 hours

Cathedral Grove is one of the most stunning groves of old growth Western Red Cedar and Douglas Fir trees in the Pacific Northwest. Some of these trees are more than 800 years old!

Part of MacMillan Provincial Park, this area is a popular stop along the highway from Nanaimo to Tofino for good reason. Some of the trails here (mainly the boardwalk on the north side of the highway) are wheelchair accessible. The Old Growth loop trail is a boardwalk that is flat and has handrails throughout. The Living Forest Loop on the other side of the highway is also flat, but often has deep mud.

Many of the forests in the Pacific Northwest have been logged multiple times, but there are many protected groves too. This is one of the best and most accessible.

Star Wars fans should definitely stop here, as some scenes of the planet Endor in Return of the Jedi were filmed in Cathedral Grove (most were filmed in California). It’s not a hard leap to imagine Ewoks behind every log!

A person stands on a log looking up the side of an old growth douglas fir tree in an evergreen forest
A hiker admiring an ancient Douglas Fir tree in Cathedral Grove. Photo Credit: Destination BC/Sean Scott

Coombs Country Candy

Time added to the road trip: 15-30 minutes

Shortly before arriving in the town of Port Alberni, you’ll come to the Coombs Country Candy Store. This is a must do!

A wide variety of candy made in the store as well as ice cream options make this a super fun stop. They have everything from fudge to toffee, chocolate bars to caramel apples, chocolates, kettle corn and more.

They also have a large outdoor seating area.

If you need a walk after your treats, a short but steep walk takes you to Hole-in-the-wall, a hole in the rocks along the river.

Port Alberni

A wooden boardwalk along a river with grass and trees to the right and a marina directly ahead.
The waterfront along the river in Port Alberni, just before the river empties into Alberni Inlet

Time added to the road trip: 1 hour

Port Alberni is a delightful town at the head of Alberni Inlet. Alberni Inlet is a narrow body of the Pacific Ocean that stretches 40km (25 miles) inland from the west coast of Vancouver Island. The Somass River also flows through town and enters the inlet.

Port Alberni is dominated by the lumber and paper industry, but don’t let that stop you from exploring this delightful town. Canal Waterfront Park as well as Victoria Quay provide an opportunity to look at the water and walk alongside it.

There are several restaurant options here, my favorite is Twin City Brewing which has good beer and amazing pizza. They have a big outdoor patio that’s covered as well.

Tseshaht Market

Time added to the road trip: 15-30 minutes

The Tseshaht Market is a fantastic place to buy all kinds of supplies including gas. It is also a fantastic place to buy gifts as they specialize in a variety of gifts by First Nations artists and companies. From clothing to mugs, stickers and even beautiful jigsaw puzzles, this is one of the best gift shops on Vancouver Island.

The market is located about 15 minutes beyond Port Alberni going towards Tofino, about halfway between Tofino and Sproat Lake.

Sproat Lake

Time added to the road trip: 1 hour – all day

The waters of Sproat Lake warm up in the summer making it a wonderful place to go swimming! Canoeing, kayaking and other water sports are also popular at Sproat Lake Provincial Park.

There are flush and pit toilets as well as showers here, and camping as well as a big picnic area.

Pets are allowed in the park on leash but are not allowed on the beach areas.

Kennedy River Rest Area

Time added to the road trip: 15-30 minutes

The entire Kennedy River area between Sproat Lake and Kennedy Lake is one of the most stunning stretches of a river I’ve ever seen from a road. The river roars through a canyon at times and at other times winds and crashes over rocks in a wider area.

Unfortunately there are very few pullouts in this area to admire it (if you’re the driver keep your eyes on the road!). There are lots of blind curves on this part of the drive making it hard to soak in this beautiful river.

The best spot to pull over and take a look is at the Kennedy River Rest Area, which gives you an opportunity to safely park and take in the river for a few minutes before continuing on your way.

Kennedy Lake

A sunset amid clouds across a lake surrounded by forested hillsides on the drive from Nanaimo to Tofino
Sunset over Kennedy Lake

Time added to the road trip: 30 min-2 hours

Kennedy Lake Provinicial Park comes just about 45 minutes outside of Tofino, so you might be tempted to keep driving but this stop is so worth it on a summer day, or a sunny day any time of year.

Kennedy Lake is a good place for a quick picnic, or a longer stop for swimming, kayaking or paddleboarding.

There is also a campground here, for those looking for a camping option near Tofino or Ucluelet that’s a bit further away.

Ucluelet

A white lighthouse with a red light top on a rocky shore with dark clouds over the water
The Amphitrite Lighthouse on the Wild Pacific Trail in Ucluelet

Time added to the road trip: 1 – 3 hours

The town of Ucluelet is a mandatory side trip on the drive from Nanaimo to Tofino. At a minimum, make sure to stop for some food (try the Barkley Cafe for coffee and amazing breakfast sandwiches) and take a walk along a portion of the Wild Pacific Trail.

The Wild Pacific Trail has several access points in Ucluelet, including the Ancient Cedars trail and the Lighthouse loop.

If you’re only going to do one thing in Ucluelet, make it the Lighthouse trail. Here, you’ll see beautiful coastal rainforest, impressive rocks at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, a charming lighthouse and the entrance to the Ucluelet harbor. The area is dotted with many tiny islands and there is plenty of boat traffic going in and out.

You can walk to the Lighthouse area and views in less than 5 minutes, or you can spend as long as you want exploring further down the Wild Pacific Trail.

Make sure to stay on the trail and avoid the temptation to walk out on the rocks, which can be extremely dangerous with unpredictable waves crashing against them without warning.

Long Beach – Pacific Rim National Park

A sandy beach with ocean waves crashing on Long Beach in Pacific Rim National Park near Tofino. There are clouds offshore and there are three surfers heading out into the waves
Surfers heading out from Long Beach near Tofino

Time added to the road trip: 30 minutes to all day

Long Beach in Pacific Rim National Park is a long sandy beach with several access points and parking areas shortly before you arrive in the town of Tofino.

Extremely popular with surfers, expect parking to be busy and to enjoy watching wetsuit clad surfers heading out to enjoy the waves. This beautiful sandy beach is also an ideal place to go for a walk any time of year. Make sure to keep your dog on a leash here.

The beach has outdoor showers and changing rooms as well as washrooms in the parking area.

Make sure to pay the Pacific Rim National Park entrance fee at the kiosk in the parking lot, even if you’re there for a short visit.

Where to eat between Nanaimo and Tofino

Two beers sitting on a wooden outdoor table. The glasses are engraved with Twin City Brewing
The beer is great at Twin City Brewing, and so is the food! Especially the pizza

I highly recommend bringing picnic food and snacks with you, partly because there are so many wonderful places for a picnic (all the provincial parks and rest areas) and partly because your options for getting food along the way are a bit limited.

I highly recommend both the food and the beer at Twin City Brewing Company in Port Alberni as well as the Tsheshant Market just outside Port Alberni. Port Alberni also has a Tim Horton’s.

Other than Port Alberni and the area around it where Tsheshant Market is, there are not many food options once you leave the east coast of the island and before you get to Tofino or Ucluelet.

Electric Vehicle Charging between Nanaimo and Tofino

Fast charging is available in several locations in Nanaimo, Port Alberni, the Taylor River rest area and at the Pacific Rim Visitor Centre at the junction of the road to Ucluelet and Tofino.

Final thoughts

The drive from Nanaimo to Tofino is one of the most stunning and diverse road trips in the Pacific Northwest. If you enjoy road trips and making lots of stops to see interesting things, you will absolutely love this drive!

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Jennie Flaming
Hi! I'm Jennie. I’m a fourth generation Seattleite who lived in Alaska for 7 years. I've been a tour guide in both Alaska and Washington and I love to share the places I love with visitors, newcomers and my fellow locals. I’m so glad to have you along on the journey to experience your best low key adventure in Washington, Alaska and Western Canada!