Come meander with me on this installment of my 2023 Summer Van Life Road Trip series, where I've been journeying through the breathtaking landscapes of British Columbia. As a retired, solo female traveller, there's something truly liberating about exploring this stunning region in my converted Sprinter van named Wanda. Today, my tires are rolling along the winding roads of Vancouver Island, a place where I began my island-hopping adventure in the north and have steadily been making my way south. The warm embrace of summer is slowly fading. Daytimes are pleasant but the cooler evenings remind me that fall is on its way and is a poignant reminder that my road trip is reaching its final chapters.
Coombs Old Country Market - Goats on the Roof
So far, my Vancouver Island expedition has been nothing short of extraordinary. From the rugged beauty of Port Hardy to the charming allure of Malcolm Island, the surprises of Telegraph Cove, and the serene moments at Oyster Bay Shoreline Park, I've savoured every twist and turn of this remarkable journey. Not to mention the coastal camping gems of Miracle Beach and the enchanting Kitty Coleman Provincial Park in the Comox Valley. I've shared some of the stories from the road and answered some of your questions about my van life. I'm thrilled to have you join me as I continue my explorations on Vancouver Island.
Qualicum Bay is a small community about 45 minutes north of Nanaimo located on the eastern coast of Vancouver Island, following an easy drive along Highway 19 from the Nanaimo Ferry Terminal. This is a serene bay with calm waters and a picturesque shoreline that feels far from the hustle and bustle of city life. Qualicum Bay is part of the Parksville-Qualicum Beach area and includes several small communities between Nanoose Bay in the south to Deep Bay in the north and inland to Cathedral Grove.
I chose to stay at the Qualicum First Nation Campground located beside the Big Qualicum River on the shores of the Salish Sea.
Qualicum History and Culture
The traditional lands of First Nations communities in this province are unceded, meaning that the lands were never under treaty nor surrendered through battle. The Qualicum Bay area is the traditional land of the Qualicum First Nation, a mixed community, made up of both Coast Salish and Kwakwaka'wakw people.
Settlers began arriving in this area in the middle of the 19th Century, attracted by the lush forests, abundant marine life, and fertile soil. Logging and fishing formed the basis of the economy. Today, Qualicum Bay and its surroundings offer a blend of cultural influences, where indigenous heritage and settler history coexist.
Nearby Activities and Attractions
Qualicum Bay has a wide array of activities and places to explore in the area. From golf to caving, waterfalls to towering first-growth forests, this is an excellent place to use as a base for exploring some of the best of Vancouver Island, especially for those with limited time for a long road trip. Here are my suggestions for enjoying yourself in the area.
Spend a relaxing day on Qualicum Beach itself. It's a fantastic spot for beachcombing, sunbathing, and building sandcastles. Rent a kayak to explore the coastline from a different perspective. Paddle along the shore, observing marine life and enjoying the tranquillity of the bay.
Wander around the little village to explore the boutique shops and art galleries. You'll find unique souvenirs, local art, and handicrafts goods to take home.
Delve into the local history at the Qualicum Beach Museum. This little museum has fascinating exhibits about the local First Nations, the settlers, and the natural history of the area.
Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park
Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park offers caving tours into limestone caves with stunning rock formations and underground marvels -- this is an activity that I have yet to try as I am somewhat claustrophobic but it is an experience that friends have raved about. Visitors must use a guide. I plan to do the easy entry-level tour on a future trip when I'm not travelling solo. The easy tour lasts less than 2 hours and doesn't include any squeezing or vertical climbs. Depending upon the tour chosen, rates run between $55 - $200.
Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park
Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park is a lush rainforest with beautifully well-maintained trails that lead to stunning waterfalls. There are several trails to choose from that provide views of the river and access to the Upper and Lower Falls. Cameron Lake is fairly warm and is a popular swimming and fishing spot. I'm told that it is ideal for sailboarding due to the way the wind funnels through the surrounding mountains.
I am not a golfer so please do your research but I am told that the golf courses in Parksville-Qualicum make this area a golfer's paradise. There are 7 different courses to choose from with difficulty levels from fairly easy to challenging.
Sports fishing in the Salish Sea and fly fishing along the many creeks and rivers attract anglers from around the world. Local guides will take you to prime fishing spots and provide all the necessary equipment and coaching (if needed). Be aware that you will need a fishing license. More information about fishing licenses and regulations can be found here.
image: Backroad Mapbooks
The small community of Coombs is located about 10 km west along Hwy 4, the road that visitors travel on their way to the Wild Pacific Coast communities of Ucluelet and Tofino. If you are heading to Pacific Rim Park, make a point to stop here for your market needs and an enchanting and unique experience.
Coombs is most known for the Old Country Market where a trio of goats graze happily on the market roof but there is much more to the village than that. (Note: The goats are kept in the barn during the winter months) Visitors can purchase fresh fruits and vegetables but can also visit shops selling high-end clothing, gifts, home design, plants, baked goods, ice cream and groceries.
Do not leave the Old Country Market area without joining the long line-up in front of the donut shop. The donuts here are legendary.
Next door is the Coombs Emporium and Frontier Town. There is a large (free) parking lot on the west side of the Emporium. It has a good selection of gift items and clothing. It also has a café. Outside the Emporium is a huge collection of sculptures and statues, mainly Asian in design.
I find the Emporium/Frontier Town confuses and amuses me with a jumble of buildings and retailers without any clear theme -- or perhaps, too many themes! The Emporium is very Old American West style but there is a strong Asian influence in the sculptures, the clothing is more Indian inspired, and the wood carvings are a jumble of subjects from whimsical mythical creatures to wildlife native to BC. And then there is the pink fairy-tale castle...
Cathedral Grove is about 15 minutes west of Coombs along Highway 4. Cathedral Grove is a stand of massive old-growth Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar trees located in MacMillan Provincial Park -- some are over 800 years old! The sheer size of these trees is difficult to comprehend and the tallest are impossible for me to photograph in their entirety. I think it is impossible to walk through these giants without feeling awe and deep respect for Mother Earth. This aptly named forest emanates a deep spirituality.
From the parking area, the Grove extends on both sides of the road. The north side includes a beautiful boardwalk through large cedar trees making this side of the grove accessible to those with mobility concerns. The south side has forest trails and really BIG trees. The biggest tree is over 9 metres (30 ft) in circumference.
Exploring both sides of the Grove doesn't take long. The trails are short. This is an extremely popular site with little parking, all along the road. During the busy summer months, plan to arrive early in the morning or later afternoon to avoid having to wait for a parking space.
Review of Qualicum First Nation Campground
I chose to stay at the Qualicum First Nation Campground. They have 2 sections, split by the Big Qualicum River. The south section is for the seasonal campers who lease their sites for the entire summer and the north section is for the transient summer campers. I chose to stay for a week, in three different campsites.
The first two sites were non-waterfront but the last one came with splendid unobstructed views of the Salish Sea. I spent a great deal of time watching the tide roll in and the tide roll out, covering and uncovering the little "island" in front of the beach.
During the time that I visited the wildfires in the interior of the province were intense with evacuations being ordered. The entire province had a cover of smoke. The Qualicum Bay area, over 500 km away, was lightly hazy but the coastal winds kept most of the smoke at high altitudes, which created spectacular sunsets.
Rating Qualicum First Nation Campground
For a full explanation of the rating criteria, check out this Comox Valley post. I really liked this campground and declare it my favourite Vancouver Island campground of the 2023 Summer Van Life Road Trip. A power-only site was a bargain at $40 per night. It is a seasonal campground and closes for the winter months but this will be a campground that I will use on future summer van life trips.
Location 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️
Ideally located in the Parksville-Qualicum beach area, this campground is close to major urban centres and incredible natural attractions, both coastal and mountain. A beautiful open field area includes a pair of welcoming totems which greet the sunrise each day.
When the tide goes out, it goes out far, perfect for checking out the tide pools and watching the shorebirds but during high tide, the water covers almost the whole area. High tide is the signal to grab a floatie, kayak, or SUP and get out on the water.
Amenities 🏕️ 🏕 🏕️ 🏕️
The campground has a washhouse with coin showers and flush toilets. The washhouse is locked overnight but there are plenty of regularly-serviced pit toilets located around the campground. There is free WIFI and the cell connection is strong. The office sells treats, gifts, and camping necessities.
For travellers who want to enjoy this amazing view but aren't camping, there is some good news! Like many of the campgrounds I visited this year, Qualicum First Nation Campground also rents cabanas. These are well-equipped and ideally placed for incredible views of the sunrise and the Salish Sea.
Another feature is the beautiful covered picnic/event area that can be rented out for private functions. I was told it is often used for summer weddings and corporate barbeques.
I appreciated the small but well-done nature walk with interesting and informative signage. The beach preservation and signs are an excellent example of the First Nations' connection and commitment to the natural environment of their lands. I learned about the beach ecosystem, native marine and land animals, traditional territory and culture, plus some Pentlatch words. I am still learning how to pronounce many Indigenous words. I was happy to have a WIFI connection to Google how to pronounce these words. If you are interested in learning more, here's a great pronunciation guide by the Canada First Nations.info website.
Campsites 🏕️ 🏕 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ The campground offers basic tenting sites, power only (30 amp) and fully-serviced sites, including waterfront and non-waterfront sites. Most sites had little or no shade. Each campsite I stayed in was very spacious and decently level. Although nothing is separating the sites, there is no feeling of being crowded. I had the most privacy in the waterfront site which included some trees and morning shade. The afternoon sun was harsh enough that I went into Parksville to buy a screen room and rigged shade walls to pull during the most intense part of the day. The waterfront site had incredible unobstructed views of the Salish Sea and the Sunshine Coast beyond.
Nearby Activities/Services 🏕️ 🏕 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️
With Parksville and Nanaimo close, all urban services are available while still being centrally located to many natural attractions. This campground makes an excellent base for travellers wanting to explore the surrounding area and for those who are looking for a place to relax and rejuvenate.
Noise Levels 🏕️ 🏕 🏕️
This is tough to rate. The first 4 nights were very peaceful and I could fall asleep to the gentle sound of the waves. Unfortunately, the last two nights a very large and determined-to-party crowd showed up. Ignoring the "quiet hours" rule, this group partied until 3 am the first night and even later the next night. Complaints by many campsites after the first noisy night seemed to encourage even louder and longer partying the following night. Unfortunately, campground staff are not available overnight to enforce the campground rules.
Aesthetics 🏕️ 🏕 🏕️ 🏕️
Qualicum First Nation Campground is well-designed and kept very natural. There is a crew who keeps the outhouses and grounds clean and maintained. The views and beach are stunning. I especially liked the river area which fills and empties with the tides.
Final Thoughts and Conclusion
From the rugged northern coastlines to the quiet bays and forests of the south, Vancouver Island is a treasure of natural beauty and cultural richness. I encourage you to add Vancouver Island to your BC itinerary. Qualicum Beach is a convenient and very accessible location close to the Nanaimo ferry. Whether you are chasing sunsets, hiking through ancient forests, or immersing yourself in local culture,
Qualicam will steal your heart.
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