top of page

Port Hardy: Discovering Estuaries, Herons, and More

I have been on an extended 2023 Summer Van Life Road Trip through the stunning Canadian province of British Columbia as a retired, solo female traveller. Regular readers have been meandering with me through the heart-stirring landscapes soaking in the natural wonders, and uncovering the lesser-known areas of this picturesque province. From the awe-inspiring peaks of the Okanagan to the tranquil lakes of Kootenay, we've experienced true road-trip magic. After stopping home for a couple of days, it was time to head towards Vancouver Island for the last month of this summer's adventure.

I travel in my converted Sprinter campervan named Wanda. She and I have grand road trips together travelling to places around the province during the summers. I generally travel alone, following no particular route or itinerary. Since I am on the road for more than two months, I need to be careful with my budget. I can't afford hotel rooms and restaurant meals plus excursions and fuel for an extended road trip. Since I love getting away from it all while taking it all with me, van life is my solution.

If you're new here or haven't had a chance to catch up on my previous escapades, take some time to scroll through the post list or do a deeper dive into one of the categories. Trust me; you won't want to miss out on the breathtaking hikes, the dips in pristine lakes, the historic town visits, and the spellbinding camping spots I've found.


Welcome to British Columbia!

There are many reasons to visit British Columbia. Our tourism industry is exceptional. The vast majority of visitors to British Columbia will spend all their time in Vancouver and Victoria -- both vibrant, interesting cities with plenty to engage visitors. However, those who have the time to really experience the stunning beauty of the province really need to take a road trip. Today's post begins a road trip on Vancouver Island. Over the next few weeks, I will be covering destinations on the east coast of Vancouver Island starting in the northern town of Port Hardy and meandering southwards towards the mid-island city of Nanaimo.

Thank you for being a part of this incredible journey, and if you're ready to dive into the beauty of Vancouver Island's north, hit that subscribe button and let's keep the wanderlust alive!


Vancouver Island

Vancouver Island, off the west coast of Canada, has long been a haven for adventurers and nature enthusiasts. Stretching for about 4360 kilometres from tip to tip, the island is a remarkable blend of coastal beauty, dense forests, and towering mountains. At its northern tip lies the picturesque town of Port Hardy.


Getting to Vancouver Island

Most visitors will be travelling across the Salish Sea to Vancouver Island from Vancouver. There are several options (and price points). You will need a vehicle to explore outside of the main cities and it is worth doing some math comparing the costs of renting that vehicle on the island to the rental cost in Vancouver. You can travel to the Island by air or on a ferry.

Travel by Air: Flying is more expensive but is the quickest option. There are daily flights as well as seaplane and helicopter routes between the cities. The two major seaplane companies, Harbour Air and Pacific Coastal Airlines also fly into many smaller coastal towns not serviced by airports. Helijet runs helicopter routes between heliports in Vancouver, Vancouver Airport, Victoria and Nanaimo. The seaplane route travels at a low enough altitude to great some great views of the Gulf Islands and the Salish Sea. I was once lucky enough to be on a flight when a pod of orcas was seen hunting in the waters below.

Prices fluctuate based on flight times and dates but a one-way flight generally costs approximately twice as much as taking a regular vehicle and 2 passengers on a return trip on the ferry.


Travel by Ferry: The BC Ferry Corporation provides the "road" link between the mainland and the island. The two terminals in the Vancouver area are Horseshoe Bay Terminal in West Vancouver and Tsawassen Terminal in Tsawassen. Both terminals are served by public transportation. Tsawassen serves routes that travel to Swartz Bay (Victoria), Duke's Point (Nanaimo), and the Southern Gulf Islands. Horseshoe Bay routes go to Departure Bay (Nanaimo) and the Sunshine Coast. Fares depend on the size of your vehicle, the route travelled, as well as time and date. It costs approximately $20 per passenger and about $65 for a standard-sized vehicle. (My van is overheight and costs an additional $10). A reservation system is available for an additional fee ($10 - $21). Reserving your space for weekend routes is highly recommended. Helpful hint: if you do drive onto the ferry, do NOT turn on your car alarm. It will get activated by the wave action. Multiple announcements about car alarms are made on every trip. These ferries on these routes are large ships with multiple car decks, a café with overpriced but generally tasty food, multiple seating areas inside and out, gift shops, pet areas, and children's play areas. The food services are run by a BC favourite restaurant chain, White Spot. Order your burger with "Triple O" sauce. Even better, ask for some Triple O sauce for dunking your fries. The actual restaurants are much better but they do a fairly good job of the ferry concessions.

After you've had your meal, take a walk on the decks or find a seat near a window and enjoy the journey. As you cross the open waters, keep an eye out for passing orcas (rare) and dolphins (more common). Enjoy spotting the cottages and cabins on the islands as you pass by.

Getting to Port Hardy Whether you've chosen to start your Vancouver Island journey from Victoria or Nanaimo, you will be travelling north to get to Port Hardy. Following Highway 19N will take about 5.5 hours of driving from Victoria or about 4 hours from Nanaimo. You can add another hour or so to these times by following the "Oceanside/Old Highway" route which is far more scenic.

I chose the quickest route because my plan was to meander my way south using the scenic route. Be aware that fuel and grocery costs increase as you go north, so fill your tank and stock up somewhere around Nanaimo.

Port Hardy, Vancouver Island North

The indigenous communities in and around Port Hardy are the proud carriers of ancient traditions and deep connections to the land. The Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw peoples, including the Gwa'sala-'Nakwaxda'xw, Kwakiutl, and others, have called this region home for countless generations. Approximately 35% of the residents in this area are of First Nations descent.

image: Canadian Encyclopeadia


Europeans began to arrive in the late 18th century when explorers began charting the coastline. The area's strategic location and abundant resources drew the attention of fur traders, who established trading posts along the shores. By the middle of the 1800s more permanent communities were being established but Vancouver Island's northern region, including Port Hardy, was a land of untamed wilderness and opportunity. Fishing, forestry, and mining drew settlers seeking new beginnings and economic prosperity.

image: Royal BC Museum

The Fraser River Gold Rush of the 1850s was a transformative period in the island's history. The promise of gold brought a surge of prospectors, merchants, and adventurers, reshaping the landscape and laying the foundation for modern settlements. Though the gold rush itself was short-lived, its impact on Vancouver Island's development was profound and lead to the first steps of merging the separate British colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia into a single province that would eventually join the new country of Canada.


Interactions between settlers and indigenous communities were complex throughout this time, marked by cultural differences and changing power dynamics. The growth of settler communities often led to the displacement of indigenous peoples from their traditional lands and lifestyles. Diseases were introduced against which the native population had no immunity. The governments of the day legislated control over every aspect of indigenous life. Missionaries convinced communities to convert to Christianity. Children were removed from their communities and sent to horrifically abusive residential schools with the goal destroy the indigenous culture.

The Alberni Residential School, located 360 km from Port Hardy, closed in 1973. Image courtesy of BC archives


The historical relationship between indigenous communities and settlers has not been without its struggles. European colonization brought changes that disrupted traditional ways of life and threatened cultural practices. Efforts towards reconciliation have been made through dialogues, truth and reconciliation initiatives, and cultural revitalization projects. While progress has been achieved, disparities in areas such as economic opportunities and healthcare persist.

In Port Hardy, the relationships between First Nations and settler communities reflect a broader reconciliation narrative in Canada. The Gwa'sala-'Nakwaxda'xw Nations, Kwakiutl First Nation, and other local indigenous communities play active roles in fostering understanding, sharing their cultures, and advocating for their rights. Native culture, businesses, art, and conservation projects are evident throughout Port Hardy.


Modern Port Hardy

Now, let's fast-forward to the present – Port Hardy today. This vibrant town thrives on a blend of industries, catering to residents and visitors alike. The local economy is as diverse as its landscapes, ranging from fishing to tourism. The town has cafés, shops, and adventure tour companies that will cater to your every need.

Port Hardy's economy thrives on a dynamic mix of industries that reflect the region's natural resources and unique location. Fishing, particularly the harvesting of salmon, remains a cornerstone of the economy. The forestry industry, deeply rooted in the island's history, is equally important. Additionally, tourism plays an increasingly pivotal role, drawing visitors who seek to explore the breathtaking landscapes and take part in outdoor adventures that Port Hardy offers. The town is home to about 4,000 residents, many of whom have been here for generations, alongside newcomers who have been drawn by the allure of island life.

Where to Stay in Port Hardy

After a day of exploration, finding a comfortable place to rest is paramount. Port Hardy offers a variety of accommodations to suit every traveller's taste. Road trips don't have to include camping. Tenting is not for everyone. You don't have to have a campervan or motorhome. Your definition of a great road trip may include a different style of accommodations. Whether you're drawn to rustic charm, the allure of the ocean, modern comforts, or outdoor escapes, Port Hardy has options that cater to your preferences.

Rustic Cabins and Cottages: For those who yearn for a touch of wilderness and seclusion, Port Hardy's rustic cabins and cottages are a dream come true. These are usually located in campgrounds with better amenities. Picture yourself surrounded by towering trees and the sounds of nature but having none of the inconveniences of camping. Consider exploring areas like Storey's Beach or Quatse River for these cozy getaways. You can find these accommodations on platforms like Airbnb, and Booking.com, or by directly contacting the property. The Port Hardy RV Resort that I review below has a row of cabins available for rent.

Seaside Lodges and Inns: If the ocean's embrace calls to you, Port Hardy's seaside lodges and inns provide an ideal haven. Imagine waking up to the sight and sound of waves crashing against the shore. Consider accommodations around the Seagate area or near the marina to fully immerse yourself in the coastal atmosphere. Booking websites or direct communication with the property are your best avenues for securing these stays. Always read the reviews carefully. The hostel in town looked a little shabby but it also looked as if it were full.

Modern Hotels and Resorts: Port Hardy's hotels and resorts are a perfect match for travellers who crave modern comforts. Experience luxury combined with stunning surroundings. Look for accommodations near Market Street or Carrot Park for convenient access to amenities and attractions. Booking platforms and direct bookings are your go-to methods for securing your spot in these establishments.

First Nations' owned Kwa'lilas Hotel

Campgrounds and RV Parks: For the adventurous souls seeking a true outdoor experience, Port Hardy's campgrounds and RV parks offer an authentic connection to nature. Consider pitching your tent at Quatse River Regional Park, parking your RV near Port Hardy Airport, or staying at Port Hardy RV Resort, as I did. While bookings are recommended, those travelling without reservations can often find available spots on a first-come, first-served basis.

Bed and Breakfasts: Port Hardy's bed and breakfasts are a fantastic choice to enjoy local hospitality and a homey touch. Wake up to a hearty breakfast and engage with friendly hosts. Exploring areas like Granville Street or Coal Harbour Road might lead you to these warm and welcoming options. I walked by several charming guesthouses that had decks, porches, and seating areas designed to take full advantage of the water views.

Tips for Spontaneous Travellers: For travellers who love the thrill of spontaneity, arriving in Port Hardy without reservations can be an adventure in itself. Many accommodations cater to last-minute bookings, especially during off-peak seasons. The Visitor Information Center is a great place to find information and recommendations. The iOverlander app can be useful for finding free places to park for a night or two.


If you are looking for a campsite on busy days (weekends, holidays) arrive at the campground no later than 11:00. If staying multiple days, let them know that you are willing to move spots. If they can't accommodate you, ask for recommendations.

Things to Do in Port Hardy

Port Hardy's natural beauty can be seen in a simple stroll around town with its unique character. The waterfront trail is a treat of stunning bay views opening to the ocean at one end and the natural estuary at the other end. The Quatse River Estuary is a wildlife sanctuary, and the Quatse Salmon Stewardship/Fish Hatchery trail is an informative and immersive experience that connects you with the region's ecological wonders. Keep your camera ready – the estuary's dynamic landscape and diverse wildlife will leave you in awe.

Hardy Bay Seawall and Harbour Walk

The route I followed included the official short paved walk in town and then joined up with the Hardy Bay Harbour Walk to continue to the Quatse Estuary. This picturesque trail showcases the area's natural splendour, guiding visitors along a scenic route with serene park spaces, and industrial areas following a path through both public and private lands.

The trail officially begins at the Information Center and the surrounding park. I walked through the park admiring the totems. It was a drizzly day but with waterproof clothing, hat, and boots I would be fine -- unless it started to pour.

I then walked down onto the beach for some beachcombing. looking into tidepools, turning over rocks and shells and watching the birds doing their birdy thing as I wandered along. I joined the paved path at Tsulquate Park.

This section has excellent signage detailing the abundant wildlife that calls this area home. These informative signs offered insights into the creatures I might encounter, from marine life to local birds.

Leaving the town behind, the trail led me toward the end of the bay, where a portion of the route meanders through private lands. This segment offered a unique perspective of the region, providing glimpses of the local lifestyle while still honouring the natural beauty that defines the area. I was pleasantly surprised by the land owners who have created displays for those passing through their property.

At one point along my walk, nature treated me to a breathtaking spectacle. A majestic eagle soared overhead, clutching a sizeable salmon in its talons. I watched in awe as the eagle gracefully glided over my head and settled on the opposite bank. There, the eagle enjoyed its salmon feast. It was a moment of pure wonder, a snapshot of the untamed world that thrives just beyond our daily lives. Unfortunately, I hadn't brought my DSLR and zoom lens, so these phone photos will have to do as a memento.


Quatse River Loop Trail

Another trail in the Port Hardy area is the Quatse River Loop Trail which can be joined at various points along the route. This easy 2.5 km loop trail leads along the river's edge and under bridges to the renowned Quatse Salmon Fish Hatchery and Salmon Stewardship Center. I started at the north end of the campground following the trail under the highway bridge.

I was immediately greeted by the soothing sounds of the river flowing over the stones. The trail filtered the highway sounds leaving only the sound of birds and water. The path is wide and flat.

The abundance of native fruits and berries delighted me. The joys of internet connection allowed me to identify those I didn't know and let me know which were edible and which were poisonous. Thimbleberries, huckleberries, blackberries, elderberries, crabapples, and more beckoned me with their vibrant colours and enticing aromas. It was as if nature herself had prepared a feast just waiting for me to forage. I couldn't resist picking some huckleberries, a decision that would later reward me with a delectable breakfast treat.

European crab apples, thimble berries, twinberry honeysuckle


The Quatse Fish Hatchery and Salmon Stewardship Center

One of the highlights of this trail is the Quatse Fish Hatchery, dedicated to salmon stewardship and conservation. The hatchery plays a crucial role in supporting local salmon populations, ensuring their survival for generations to come. As I approached the hatchery, I was captivated by the sight of dedicated staff working to protect these remarkable creatures.

image credit: Quatse Salmon Stewardship Centre

What makes the Quatse Fish Hatchery truly remarkable is its connection to the indigenous communities of the region, including the Gwa'sala-'Nakwaxda'xw Nations and Kwakiutl First Nation. These communities have deep ties to the land and the salmon that have sustained them for centuries. The hatchery is an example of collaborative efforts between indigenous knowledge and modern conservation practices.


Quatse River Estuary Park

I really enjoyed the Quatse River Estuary Park. It is a haven of tranquillity and natural wonders that invites visitors to experience an estuary's unique and invaluable qualities – a delicate ecosystem where freshwater rivers meet the ocean's saltwater. An estuary is a place of convergence, where fresh and saltwater intertwine, creating a dynamic habitat that nurtures a myriad of life forms and is a vital breeding ground and feeding area for numerous bird species, fish, rodents, and other aquatic life.

The Quatse River Estuary has not always enjoyed the tranquillity it exudes today. In the past, the estuary was damaged by industrial activities and building projects. Restoration initiatives, led by conservationists, indigenous communities, and local organizations have revitalized the area, allowing it to once flourish again.

During high tide the wetlands on either side of the path and is full of birds chattering and singing. During low tide, the estuary unveils its intricate network of channels, mudflats, and lush vegetation but, except for the nesting Canada geese, it's quiet. It's a reminder of the estuary's ever-changing nature and the harmony that emerges from the ebb and flow of life.

I spotted herons, geese, ducks, yellowlegs, eagles, turkey vultures, ravens, and crows. Herons (my spirit animal) stand as graceful sentinels, embodying this natural sanctuary's calm and contemplative essence.

About midway along the path, at the far end of the bay, visitors are greeted by a totem that faces the path, a symbol of the indigenous connection to the land and the estuary's restoration.

A little further along is a bridge, a prime viewing area, where I watched kingfishers darting around, their vibrant colours adding splashes of brilliance to the scene.


Review: Port Hardy RV Resort

I chose this campground because of its location on the river and the estuary. Despite spending most of my summer in prime wildlife-viewing locations, I really hadn't had much luck. I knew I would at least see birds.


Location 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️

The RV Park is located beside Highway 19 on the way into town, at the south end of the bay. It is about a 10-minute walk along a pleasant trail to get to town. The ferry terminal is about a kilometre away. There are several trails attached to the campground. The campground overlooks the Quatse River Estuary.

Amenities 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️

The campground includes 45 RV ($46.50) and tent ($29) sites. coin-operated laundry, showers and free WIFI. There are also 12 log cabins with a shower, kitchenette, TV, and dedicated WIFI ($210).

Campsites 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ The outer sites are a good size with a mix of sun and shade. Level and clean with some privacy between the outer sites. Center sites had no privacy or shade. The tenting area included some platforms overlooking the estuary and a large grassy area. Some sites were in full sun, others were shaded for most of the day.

Nearby Activities/Services 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️

There is lots to do in Port Hardy. Sports fishing and golf attract the majority of visitors. Neither of these activities interest me so I am unable to offer recommendations but there were many tour options available including both day trips and longer excursions. It is also possible to get coastal tours and wildlife/whale-watching tours. Although these were on the spendy side, it is well worth the splurge for the spectacular experience if there is room in the budget. For nature lovers with thinner wallets, the trail walks, fish hatchery, and estuary are highlights.

Noise Levels 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️

The highway is fairly busy during the day but quiets at night. The campsites closest to the highway experience a fair amount of daytime noise but those closer to the estuary are very quiet all day.

Aesthetics 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️ 🏕️

I thought this was a lovely campground. It wasn't full so there was plenty of space to enjoy unobstructed views of the estuary. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the eagles and herons hunting, the loons swimming by, and the tides coming in and going out.

Final Thoughts

Port Hardy makes a great place to explore the nature beauty of northern Vancouver Island. Its rugged coastal beauty, indigenous community, and connection to land and water gave me a deeper understanding and appreciation of this area of Vancouver Island. As I packed up Wanda and turned south, I knew that I wanted to linger longer in the north. I am very excited to share some of these unique communities with you. By subscribing to the blog you'll be notified when new content is posted and help the blog to remain ad-free. You can also follow my Facebook page, Facebook Group, Twitter (I guess I should call it X), or Instagram. Until next time, keep exploring, wandering, and embracing the beauty surrounding us.

 

Note to commenters: You must be signed in or your comment will be published as a "guest" comment



17 Comments


Guest
Nov 12, 2023

Thanks for sharing the important history of the area. I had a great time in Port Hardy when I was there to kayak with the orcas. It's good to know there are so many good accommodation options, and I would love to stay at the Kwa'lilas Hotel one day. That nature walk looks beautiful!


- Melanie

Like

Guest
Sep 25, 2023

I've learned a lot from your posts and your adventures. Reading these articles transports me to areas that I'm very curious about but haven't yet had the chance to get to know.

Unquestionably, this is a region to enjoy nature and appreciate the calm inherent in natural spaces. Your photos really illustrate the peace you feel there. Angela | Home - (blondearoundtheworldtravel.com)

Like
Lyn (aka Jazz)
Lyn (aka Jazz)
Sep 29, 2023
Replying to

I'm so glad you are learning about my beautiful province through my posts, Angela. There is no doubt the closeness with nature is the major draw when travelling outside the urban areas.

Like

Guest
Sep 23, 2023

This has to be the most calming stop on your trip so far. I really enjoyed your pictures and imagined myself following you along on the walk through the flat parkland. Good to see that Canada isn't overrun by tourists during the summer and Port Hardy has retained a flair of "untouched" and "unspoilt" nature.


Carolin | <a href="https://solotravelstory.com/">Solo Travel Story</a>

Like
Lyn (aka Jazz)
Lyn (aka Jazz)
Sep 24, 2023
Replying to

We have our overrun tourist places for sure. The places I've been hitting this summer are what the guidebooks would call "off the beaten track".

The average tourist isn't likely to get much further than Vancouver and Victoria. I'm enjoying sharing what is beyond the cities.

Like

Guest
Sep 23, 2023

I'm sad to hear the fires are still causing massive destruction, they've basically stopped reporting on it here in the states. I'm glad you were able to divert and still find peace up there. Port Hardy looks so calm and a great place to slow down and connect with nature.

Like
Lyn (aka Jazz)
Lyn (aka Jazz)
Sep 24, 2023
Replying to

Having alternate plans and being wildfire aware has become essential in the last decade or so but this has been a very difficult summer. The current wildfire threat is lessening with cooler weather and rain. I really enjoyed the close connection with nature that is felt in Vancouver Island North. The raw beauty of this province will never cease to amaze me.

Like

Guest
Sep 20, 2023

I was drawn to your estuary descriptions Lynn that I ended up imagining my little Kya moments, a character from Delia Owens' fascinating novel Where the Crawdads sing. Have you had the chance to read it? The joy of discovery, the marsh and mudflats, the river and the sea and all the creatures that inhabit this once fragile place. Happy to know that Wanda is taking you to interesting places - come rain or shine ;-) #flyingbaguette


Jan - https://flyingbaguette.com/

Like
Lyn (aka Jazz)
Lyn (aka Jazz)
Sep 22, 2023
Replying to

I have read the book and loved it but you have reminded me to read it again. Thanks, Jan

Like
Post: Blog2 Post
bottom of page