Essential RV British Columbia:
Exploring Some of the Best
of the Pacific Northwest
by Alison Bailin Batz
British Columbia, Canada’s westernmost province, makes a very strong case for the west coast truly being the best coast. The stunningly gorgeous province is bordered by the Alaskan Panhandle and the Yukon and Northwest Territories to the north, and by Washington, Idaho, and Montana to the south. Alberta lies to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. Given this, one might say it is the jewel in the center of the crown that is the Pacific Northwest.
Mountains cover approximately 75% of British Columbia but, in between, there are nearly 1,000 provincial parks and seven national parks as well as miles of rolling grasslands, lush valleys, temperate rainforests, lakes, glacier-fed rivers and even deserts. Then, of course, there is the coastline, which stretches nearly 16,000 miles and features mountainous fjords, marine islands and sandy beaches. A diverse population of animals makes British Columbia home, including Minke, Grey, Orca and Humpback whales, moose, American black bears, bobcats, harbor seals, wolverines, elk, beaver and more.
At nearly 365,000 square miles–which is larger than the total area of Washington, Oregon and California (or roughly four times the size of Great Britain)–there is more to explore in the region than one can do in a lifetime.
We’ve put together some of the highlights not to be missed.
Photo credit: Destination BC and Thomas Hill
British Columbia’s largest city, which is home to more than half of the entire population of the province, is often called Hollywood of the North given the staggering number of movies, television shows filmed there including Happy Gilmore, Deadpool, Elf, X-Files, Star Trek, Riverdale and more. It also happens to be the hometown of Ryan Reynolds, Seth Rogen and Michael Bublé.
Consistently named one of the most beautiful cities in the world, you will find majestic mountains, sparkling ocean, rainforests and foliage throughout all four seasons. A city immersed in nature, Vancouver caters to any interest throughout the year; you can enjoy world-class shopping, gourmet meals, outstanding live entertainment, sporting events, theatre, outdoor adventure, spectacular sights and attractions.
Whale watching is usually best May to October, when the most migratory whales are coming through, but you should definitely opt for a tour regardless (pending the weather, of course). Wild Whales Vancouver offers public and private tours in open air vessels, semi-covered vessels and on zodiac boats ranging from three to six hours with departures both morning and afternoon. They also guarantee a whale sighting, or each guest can take part in another tour for free. Similarly, Prince of Whales, Whale & Marine Wildlife Adventures offers whale watching tours but also acts as a “floating classroom” for guests; hosts delight in teaching everyone everything you ever want to know – and then some – about all of the marine wildlife that call west coast home. (The company also offers some of the best whale watching tours in Victoria, but we will get to that soon enough.)
Outdoor adventures beyond whale watching abound, especially at Grouse Mountain. During the late spring, summer and early fall, the popular peak–just 15 minutes from downtown Vancouver–springs to life with hiking, lumberjack shows, bird demonstrations, mountain disc golf, grizzly bear viewing at the wildlife refuge, free movies, ziplining adventures, tandem paragliding and truly distinctive culinary experiences in its Skydeck, The Observatory and Altitudes Bistro. There are two options to the top: an epic tram ride and Grouse Grind. The Grouse Grind is a 1.8-mile trail up the face of the mountain, nicknamed Mother Nature’s Stairmaster. (If you opt for Grouse Grind, you’ve been warned.) When visiting in the winter, strap on your skis, snowboard or even skates (because they have a skating rink up top) for the adventure of a lifetime. The mountain offers some of the best winter activities in the region (which is saying a lot), including skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, skating, winter ziplining, terrain parks for tricks, sledding, dining and shopping. At night there is even a lit walkway aptly called Light Walk, which is one of the most romantic ways to spend an evening in the area.
Capilano Suspension Bridge Park is another must. First, decide how you want to get there. Certainly, RVs are allowed, but they also have several free shuttles from downtown Vancouver direct to the park all day long as well. There are a total of seven suspended footbridges through towering evergreens, all over 100 feet above the forest floor. History, culture and nature are presented in unique and thrilling ways with knowledgeable staff and interpretive signage providing as much, or as little, information as guests want.
Want a more literal sky-high adventure? Look into Sky Helicopter Tours, which offer tours through mountains and forests as well as across the brilliant city skyline. They even have craft beer and root beer vodka-themed tours that feature 20-minute flights to a backcountry area where you are treated to samples of Canadian craft beer, or a vodka sampling of spirits infused with everything from root beer to passion fruit.
Photo credit: Destination BC and Reuben Krabbe
Oh, and then there is the food.
Any culinary adventure in Vancouver should include Granville Island. A short ferry ride from downtown, the region is home to over 300 independent businesses ranging from cheese mongers to glass blowers. At Granville Island Public Market, an indoor oasis featuring 50 premier food purveyors, take a food tour or even wander on your own. You’ll likely rub elbows with the area’s top chefs as they shop through the epicurean wonderland of fresh produce, seafood and confections. Among the acclaimed chefs whom you may see are Hector Laguna, David Hawksworth, John Bishop and Ian McHale. Each’s handiwork is worth a closer look – and taste – at their Vancouver eateries. Laguna is mad-scientist of food behind the lauded Botanist; Hawksworth heads Vancouver’s elegant Forbes Four-Star Hawksworth Restaurant, serving quintessential contemporary Pacific Northwest fare; and Bishop, also a Forbes Four-Star winner, is the talent behind Bishop’s, a must-visit for West Coast continental cuisine; and McHale heads Wildebeest, Canadian country-style cooking at its finest.
There is so much good food in the area; you may also want to reserve a food tour of the entire region as well. The Original Vancouver Food Tour is a visitor and local favorite, given it offers 10 different touring options, including a progressive dinner through the historic (and historically delicious) Gastown District, an urban brewery experience, a chocolate tour and even a vegan tour.
No visit to Vancouver would be complete without a sip or two of local wine (responsibly, with a designated driver, of course). The Fraser Valley, (https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/fertile-farmland-fraser-valley-british-columbia-410485018) one of the province’s five Designated Viticultural Areas, is less than an hour from downtown and is known for exceptional pinot gris, pinot noir and sparkling wines. The following should definitely be on your list: Seaside Pearl Farmgate Winery, which offers tastings in a chapel; Single Tree Winery, located on a 67-acre operating farm; Glass House Estate Winery, which pairs wine flights with small bites and fresh oysters; and Chaberton Estate Winery, which has its own French-inspired bistro within.
Even if you’re in the comfort of your RV for the trip, it is worth parking and visiting some of the local resorts for nothing else than the history, architecture, culinary creations and sheer grandeur. The Forbes Travel Guide Five-Star Fairmont Pacific Rim is located in the heart of downtown Vancouver, just a block from the waterfront and boasting sweeping views from all angles. Google images do not do it justice: see it in person. Sleek and modern with an impressive art collection and whimsical touches including yoyos, kaleidoscopes and other retro toys throughout, the 45-story tower features 367 guest rooms and 47 suites as well as the full-service Willow Stream Spa, a bicycle concierge and an eclectic collection of culinary options, including Raw Bar, which is the first 100% Ocean Wise sushi bar in Vancouver, and Botanist, a fine dining hotspot (with its own champagne room) that celebrates the bounty of the Pacific Northwest.
It is also worth visiting the sister resort to Pacific Rim; the historic Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. In 2019, the iconic hotel completed a $75 million, five-year renovation. Fairmont Hotel Vancouver is often called the “Castle in the City” and is considered one of the architectural landmarks of the region. The renovation preserved the 81-year-old hotel’s historic grandeur while making spectacular updates to the lobby, dining areas and all rooms, including unveiling Fairmont Gold rooms and suites, the brand’s exclusive ‘hotel within a hotel’ experience offering elevated amenities, a private concierge, exclusive lounge and more.
Other notable attractions in the area include: Queen Elizabeth Park, Chinatown, Kitsilano Beach, Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver Whitecaps Major League Soccer, Stanley Park Seawall, Vancouver Aquarium, Gastown, Science World, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden and the Museum of Anthropology.
Photo credit: Wines of British Columbia
Photo credit: Fairmont Hotels
Photo credit: Fairmont Pacific Rim
Vancouver Island and Victoria
Photo credit: Destination BC and Reuben Krabbe
Yes, in a blog post about traveling—which includes RVs and campers—we are recommending an island. But stay with us here.
First, let’s distinguish the City of Vancouver and Vancouver Island as they are different places. The island, which is home to British Columbia’s capital city Victoria, is a 285-mile paradise about 70 to 80 miles west of the City of Vancouver (but over water, so not an “hour drive”). Thanks to ferries, visitors are encouraged to bring their cars, trucks, RVs, bicycles and motorbikes to best explore the expansive region.
But it is so worth it.
The island is divided into six primary areas of interest: South Island, Gulf Islands, Cowichan, Central Island, Pacific Rim, North Central Island, North Island and Sunshine Coast.
South Island is home to Victoria. Vancouver Island is often mistakenly called Victoria Island. Technically the oldest city in the Pacific Northwest, Victoria has the mildest weather in the province and is known for its gardens, architecture, culinary scene and sea life. The most famous of its gardens is Butchart Gardens. Named the World’s Most Beautiful Botanical Gardens by Conde Nast, Butchart Gardens was actually a limestone quarry over 100 years ago before Jennie Butchart transformed the property, and the history of Victoria along the way. Today it a National Historic Site of Canada with 900 varieties of plants and flowers onsite as well as a full-sized carousel, iconic high tea, historic totems and The Blue Poppy Restaurant, which was constructed from what was once a greenhouse.
Craigdarroch Castle, like Butchart Gardens, is another outstanding landmark in a city steeped in heritage. The castle was built between 1887 and 1890 by Robert Dunsmuir and boasts a unique collection of residential stained and leaded glass, period furnishing, excellent wood paneling and carving. They have self-guided tours but docents available at the ready for any questions you might have.
Less historic, but every bit as beautiful, is Victoria’s famed Beacon Hill Park. Located along the city’s Juan de Fuca Strait, the dreamy park offers woodland and shoreline trails, two playgrounds, a waterpark, playing fields, a petting zoo, tennis courts, many ponds, and landscaped gardens.
As with Vancouver, whale watching abounds in this region. For an intimate experience, consider a Zodiac boat tour. Or, for a little romance, why not seek out whales at sunset. Whatever your taste, Prince of Whales has you covered here, too.
Victoria is also home to some of British Columbia’s top culinary gems, as it is a melting pot of flavors and cultures from around the world. As such, consider a walking food tour here as well. Or, if making a list of spots to sip and savor, don’t miss: The Drake Eatery, 10 Acres Bistro, Wind Cries Mary, Marina Restaurant, The Beachhouse, Olo, Vista 18, La Taqueria, Red Fish Blue Fish, The Courtney Room, Ferris’ Oyster Bar and Grill, Fol Epi,Sea Cider Farm & Ciderhouse, Nourish Kitchen & Cafe and Zambri's.
Additional attractions on South Island include the Royal BC Museum, Ocean Ecoventures, a Vancouver Island Expedition Tour, Victoria Bug Zoo, sea kayaking lessons, hiking tours , biking tours and sea plane adventures.
Just east of South Island is the Southern Gulf Island region. As the name suggests, this is a series of tiny islands just barely off the coast of Vancouver Island. Driving to any of them isn’t exactly possible, but getting here by ferry or floatplane is part of the adventure. There are some great wellness and spa options here, and yoga retreats abound.
Back on mainland Vancouver Island, just north of South Island, is Cowichan. The quaint community has all sorts of opportunities for whale watching and kayaking, and its most popular attraction is probably Merridale Cidery & Distillery. Again, please plan ahead and assign a designated driver when visiting. This is a good spot to take advantage of one of the island’s best tour groups: twofiveo. This boutique touring company raised on the island and privy to all of her best secrets.
Continuing north from Cowichan, you’ll find both Pacific Rim and Central Island. Pacific Rim is known as an outdoorsman’s paradise (and a bit of a resort town). It is a popular escape from the hustle and bustle of city life for residents of Vancouver, Victoria, Portland and Seattle. Think trails (a favorite is the Wild Pacific Trail if you have the time), lakes, mountain biking and watersports here. They even have glamping and one of the coolest schooner tours you will ever find that explores the entire region in a way all its own. Foodies can have fun here too, notably if they reserve an experience at Pluvio, Wolf in the Fog or a full tour via Tofino Food Tours.
The Central Island region includes the cities of Nanaimo, Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Deep Bay, and Port Alberni, each with its own charm. Notable attractions here include Cathedral Grove in MacMillan Provincial Park, Qualicum Beach Museum and the Horne Lake Caves, which offer underground cave tours daily. Oh, and if you happen through Nanaimo, there is a bar tour you must take…one for which you do not need a designated driver! In case you didn’t know, there is a popular dessert actually called the Nanaimo Bar. It consists of three layers: a wafer, nut, and coconut crumb base; custard icing in the middle; and a layer of chocolate ganache on top. Thanks to the Nanaimo Bar Trail, there is a handy dandy list of top spots that make their own version of the iconic dessert, using it in fudge, macaroons, waffles, spring rolls and more.
Continuing the journey northbound, the next region you will reach is North Central Island. Many parts of the region are largely unpopulated and the terrain is heavily mountainous with some lakes, rivers and waterfalls. The most popular part of the region is Comox Valley, which includes the towns of Courtenay, Comox, and Cumberland. This is the spot on the island in the winter if you like snow and its related sports as it has one of the highest snow bases in western Canada. Shoppers won't want to miss Courtenay as its downtown is filled with art galleries, mom-and-pop shops, artisan studios and unique boutiques. If eager to see bears, this is a great spot to start, and a great spot to enlist the services of a professional tour operator. You can’t go wrong with either Homalco or West Coast Grizzly Bear Tours. The region is also home to Campbell River (lots of “C” spots throughout this seaside escape), which is surrounded by five Provincial Parks, (Strathcona, Miracle Beach, Morton Lake, Loveland Bay and Elk Falls) and offers canoeing, the Gold River Upana Caves, rock climbing, scuba diving, salmon fishing and more. We should also mention that the gloriously rugged Discovery Islands lay between the Campbell River, north-central Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia. They are also best accessed via ferry from this region or the river.
Finally, at the northernmost tip of the island, you will find North Island: it begins just beyond the Campbell River. Sparsely populated, you might very well find more bald eagles, blue herons, bears, seals, otters, salmon and halibut in the area than humans. It is an amazing spot to scuba dive if so inclined, and both marine life tours as well as photo tours are quite popular here. If you have time and are a fan of backcountry exploring, be sure to check out Cape Scott. Finally, the Sunshine Coast is technically part of the mainland; however, it is only accessible by boat. You can catch a ferry to the Sunshine Coast from Comox on Vancouver Island, or Horseshoe Bay in North Vancouver.
Before we move on, it should be noted there are also some great courses on the island worth checking out if you are so inclined.
Photo credit: a.spargo
Photo credit: Destination BC and Ted Hesser
Photo credit: Destination BC and JF Bergeron
Photo credit: Destination BC and Randy Lincks
The last (but certainly not least) place we will touch on is Whistler, which is technically a resort municipality. If into winter sports, you’ve likely been to it, or it is on your bucket list. If you’re a fan of ABC’s Bachelor franchise, you’ve likely also had it on your wish list ever since Jillian’s Bachelorette season, where she searched for love at the legendary Chateau Whistler.
Located in the Coast Mountains of British Columbia, just two hours north of Vancouver, Whistler is the most consistently ranked, number-one mountain resort in North America. Renowned as a winter mecca for skiers and snowboarders, a hiker’s paradise and as mountain biking’s promised land, the resort’s adventures and activities, from snowmobiling to golf to ziplining to fishing, are complemented by a welcoming Village packed with world-class amenities, including top ranked hotels, restaurants, wine-collections and spas. Recreation or rejuvenation, adrenaline or indulgence - the options are as limitless as the vistas.
Open year-round is the must-see, brick-laid village of Whistler, which is located at the base of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, connecting visitors to 20 branded hotels in the main village and offering easy access to more than 90 restaurants and bars—many with patios perfectly suited for apres celebration (or in the summer…happy hour).
The region’s untouched natural beauty, the village’s welcoming atmosphere and an infusion of Canadian friendliness are the secret to Whistler’s allure. The combined effect of the village vibe, the limitless outdoor adventure, and the spectacular side-by-side Whistler and Blackcomb mountains that rise up from it all work their magic on millions of visitors from around the world every year.
When warmer out (i.e. no snow), consider:
- 4x4 tours
- ATV tours
- Axe throwing
- Jet boat tours
- Finding a bear or two
- Bungee jumping
- Canoeing, kayaking and SUP
- Floatplane tours
- Tree top tours
- Whitewater rafting
- Horseback riding
During the height of the snowy times of year, consider:
- Backcountry ski tours
- Snowcat and cat skiing
- Dog sledding
- Bald eagle viewing
- Heli skiing
- Sleigh rides
- Ice hockey tours
- Nordic or cross-country skiing
- Whistler PEAK 2 PEAK 360 Experience
- Glacier tours
- Outdoor baths
- Climbing (rock or ice, depending on time of year)
Also 12 months a year, a chance at Olympic glory is also on tap thanks to Whistler Olympic Park, which was created to host the biathlon, cross-country skiing, Nordic combined, and ski jumping during the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. Today, it is open to the public.
And finally, there is the food. With hundreds of award-winning venues across the Village and beyond, consider (yes, again!) a food tour here as well. But not just any food tour. Treat yourself to Whistler Tasting Tours’ “Finer Things Dinner Tour,” which is a four-hour evening adventure at several of the top restaurants in the city (plus a chocolate shop). The progressive meal will allow you to check out Bearfoot Bistro for a small bite, a wine cellar tour and champagne sabering lesson; Hy’s Steakhouse—which offers a seasonal second course, plus a blind wine tasting seminar; Quattro for the main course; Rogers' Chocolates; and FireRock Lounge…all in one night.
As with Vancouver Island, golf is also popular here seasonally, notably via four primary courses in town, and the nightlife is world-famous, bursting with nightclubs, bars, pubs and lounges, all within walking distance of each other. There’s even karaoke.
Haven’t gotten your full fix on British Columbia yet? Here are some fun facts for dessert:
- Fairweather, which sits on the Alaskan/British Columbia border, is the province’s tallest mountain at 15,299 feet above sea level. Waddington, which is in the Coast Mountains, is the tallest mountain entirely within British Columbia at 13,176 feet.
- Fraser is the longest river in British Columbia at 855 miles long.
- One of North American’s largest sockeye salmon runs is located in Tsútswecw Provincial Park.
- Harrison Mills, which is in the Fraser Valley just about 90 minutes east of Vancouver, is home to the world’s largest gathering of wintering bald eagles.
- At 12,079 square miles, which is roughly half the size of Ireland, Vancouver Island is the largest island on the west coast of North America.
- Della Falls, which is located in Strathcona Provincial Park on Vancouver Island, is one of the highest waterfalls in Canada. It cascades about 1,444 feet—more than eight times the height of Niagara Falls.
- The Great Bear Rainforest, a temperate rainforest that stretches along the coast, is the only place on the planet where you’ll find the Kermode bear, which has brilliant white fur.
- Victoria is known as the “Cycling Capital of Canada,” with more cyclists per capita than anywhere else in the country.
And of course, here is a guide to some of the best private camping and RV parks across British Columbia:
- Vancouver: Anmore Camp RV Park, Burnaby Cariboo RV Park and Campground Vancouver, Capilano River RV Park and Plaza RV Park.
- Victoria: Cedar Springs Ranch, Fort Victoria RV Park, Oceanside – A Parkbridge Camping & RV Resort, Pedder Bay RV Resort Marina and Salish Seaside RV Haven
- Vancouver Island (outside of Victoria): Alder Bay, Cedar Beach Resort, Pachena Bay Campground, Mowhinna Creek Campground, Malahat Mountain Meadows RV Park, Ucluelet Campground, Fair Harbour Marina and Campground and Page’s Resort and Marina.
- Whistler: Riverside (Whistler) – A Parkbridge Camping & RV Resort and Whistler RV Park & Campground
- Okanagan: Apple Valley Orchard & RV Park, Hiawatha RV Park, Holiday Park RV & Condo Resort and Okanagan RV Park.
- Squamish: Cheekye Ranch and Klahanie Campground
- Kelowna: Todds RV Camping, West Eagle Campground and Wood Lake RV Park & Marina
- Kamloops: Hitch N Rail Family Resort, Kamloops Riverview RV Park and Knutsford/Kamloops RV Campground
- Prince George: Bee Lazee RV Park & Campground, Blue Cedars RV Park Campground and Hartway RV Park
Photo credit: Destination BC
Photo credit: Destination BC
Photo credit: Destination BC and Albert Normandin