When you think of Vancouver Island, most people think of British Columbia’s capital city of Victoria, located on the southern end of the island. But Victoria is far from all this beautiful island has to offer. At over 31,000 square kilometers, Vancouver Island is larger than Belgium, Haiti, or Belize and more than five times larger than Canada’s smallest province of Prince Edward Island! There are dozens of communities scattered up and down the 3440 km (2136 mile) coastline, each with their own unique character and points of interest.
But one of the most beautiful areas on the island is along the central east coast. Here you’ll find the picturesque beach towns of Parksville and Qualicum Beach. These charming towns are easily accessible from the mainland, with two separate ferry routes into nearby Nanaimo: one from Tsawwassen and one from Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver. Their central location makes Parksville and Qualicum Bay the perfect home base to explore the island. Victoria is two hours to the south, Tofino and Ucluelet lie two and a half hours away on the west coast of the island, and Campbell River is a little over an hour to the north.
Family-Friendly Activities in Parksville and Qualicum Beach
Parksville and Qualicum Beach boast a unique coastal eco-system and a bounty of natural wonders for families to explore. This is the perfect destination to reconnect with nature and experience the wonders of this wild coast. Best of all, since there’s so much to see and do in the great outdoors, it’s easy to maintain a safe distance and experience all the natural beauty around you at the same time.
Minutes from downtown Parksville, Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park boasts a two-kilometer stretch of wide, sandy beach overlooking the Strait of Georgia, the strip of water that separates Vancouver Island from the mainland. Along the shoreline, you’ll find old-growth Douglas fir trees, a children’s playground, and more wild rabbits than you can shake a carrot at. (But don’t feed them please!) At low tide, the ocean recedes almost a kilometer, leaving a vast swathe of shoreline to play upon and explore with the family. (See the local tide chart here.)
No matter the tide or the weather, Rathtrevor Beach is one of the most beautiful sections of coastal British Columbia. One day you can build sand castles, splash in the sun warmed shallows, and watch for curious seals bobbing in the water. The next day might find the beach shrouded in mysterious sea mist, a seriously magical sight.
No visit to Vancouver Island would be complete without a walk through Cathedral Grove. Located in MacMillan Provincial Park, Cathedral Park offers a glimpse of the old growth forests that used to cover the entire island. A network of trails bring visitors through one of the oldest stands of giant Douglas fir trees – some over 800 years old! These towering giants measure approximately 250 feet tall and 29 feet in circumference. It’s both awe-inspiring but a little sad to realize that most of the trees that used to cover the island are now gone.
Horne Lake Caves
Vancouver Island offers more than just towering forests and spectacular seascapes. Not many people know that Vancouver Island lies over a massive, hidden network of limestone caves, the highest concentration of caves anywhere in North America. Over 1000 caves have been found so far, with more still to be discovered. Horne Lake Provincial Park is one of the few locations where amateur cavers can go underground and experience the unique thrill of exploring hidden wonders found only underground.
While self-guided tours are currently on hold due to COVID restrictions, Horne Lake Caves offers guided caving tours year-round at all levels of experience.
At one hour and forty-five minutes, the Riverbend Cave Explorer tour is the shortest, easiest tour and can accommodate kids as young as five years old. Discover how caves are formed and learn how to identify different calcite formations like cave popcorn, cave bacon, stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and more.
The Multi-Cave Experience is a little longer and lets visitors explore both Riverbend Cave and Main Cave. This tour is suitable for kids eight and up as there’s a little more crawling and vertical climbing required. At the entrance of the Riverbend Cave is a grand calcite formation known as the Chandelier. Other notable landmarks along the tour include the Ice Cream Waterfall, Little Buddha, and the Cheese Grater. Clamber over rocks and boulders, climb up a waterfall, examine fossils, sit for a minute in complete darkness, and tackle a cave slide.
And then for true cavers (ages 13+), the Adventure Cave Tour is the ultimate five-hour journey through Riverbend Cave, taking visitors deeper through the cave into its most beautiful chambers and passageways. Cavers will need to navigate three crawls, two rappels, three ladders, and two underground rock climbs. This tour includes an outdoor rappel practice session before heading underground.
Our family took the Multi-Cave tour and it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime subterranean adventure! Our guide, Emiel, was a font of information about the Horne Lake Caves, cave formations, and the geological history of Vancouver Island, all while ensuring everyone stayed safe and enjoyed themselves.
North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre
The North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre’s mission is to care for ill, injured and orphaned wildlife and to educate the public about wildlife and issues relating to their conservation. Since opening in 1986, many thousands of animals ranging from chickadees to eagles and beavers to black bears have been treated, rehabilitated, and released back to the wild.
While most animals are treated and released back into the wild, some can not be released because of permanent injury or disability. While at the recovery centre we got a close-up visit with volunteer Teresa and Quinn, a 13-year-old barred owl. As a result of being hit by a car, Quinn is blind in one eye and unable to hunt for himself. So now he lives at the recovery centre, acting as an Animal Ambassador and teacher to the thousands of visitors who come here every year.
More than 35 non-releasable resident education birds and bears live here on the 8-acre grounds. You’ll find rescued owls, eagles, ravens, hawks, turkey vultures, and Rae, a young black bear found on the side of the highway starving and unsteady on her feet, likely due to head trauma.
The NIWRC is open year-round and mostly outdoors so dress for the weather. Enter through the gift shop and the Museum of Nature displaying stuffed specimens of local wildlife. Visit the Animal Ambassadors and learn their stories. Watch eagles practice their flying and visit the Learning Centre to identify the eggs, footprints, and skulls of local wildlife. Stop by the RavenSong Canoe for a photo, then stroll around the release pond and play spot the turtles. Count the giant stone faces and look for fairy homes and miniature trolls hidden in the forest. There’s a lot to do here so expect to spend a couple of hours.
Butterfly World Coombs
Located in nearby Coombs, Butterfly World is a taste of the tropics. Beautiful butterflies flutter freely through a heated greenhouse with a wide, paved walkway that winds around a koi pond. Learn about the butterfly life cycle and watch brand new butterflies emerge from their chrysalises in the emerging window.
Butterfly World is only open from from May to October. But even though we visited late in the season, there was still plenty to see. Besides the butterflies, there’s also a small terrarium section with a bearded dragon and tarantulas, an outdoor garden and turtle pond, indoor orchid garden, and gift shop. We loved walking along with Samson the guard tortoise as he made his rounds around the garden and into the gift shop, making sure everybody was A-OK.
Expect to spend at least an hour here. In cooler weather you should dress in layers as it’s hot inside the greenhouse, but you’ll want to visit the outdoor pool and garden as well. Depending on when you arrive, you can watch staff feed Samson and the koi (and maybe even help too).
Little Qualicum Falls
Not far from Cathedral Grove is another spot nature-lovers should not miss. Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park is a beautiful location for a family hike any time of year. Groomed trails and stairs lead through the forest and down into the gorge to a charming, wooden bridge straddling the Little Qualicum River.
The northern reaches of the Salish Sea surrounding Parksville and Qualicum Beach are teeming with whales and other local wildlife. It’s the perfect location to take a whale watching tour and catch a glimpse of orcas, humpback whales, dolphins, porpoises, Steller and California sea lions, or Pacific harbour seals. Ocean Ecoventures operates out of Parksville and takes visitors out on the Salish Sea to experience this unique marine ecosystem and for the chance to encounter these majestic sea creatures.
Kayaking at Sunset
Get even closer to the ocean in a kayak. Adventuress Sea Kayaking takes visitors out on the water in single or double kayaks to de-stress, breathe ocean-fresh air, and get in a workout, all while enjoying the wildlife and beauty of the coast. They offer several different day trips as well as extended multi-day kayak trips, but the daily sunset paddle is a magical experience for the whole family. Sunset paddles are scheduled most nights in the summer.
Qualicum Beach Farmer’s Market
Qualicum Beach Farmer’s Market is open year-round, rain or shine, every Saturday morning from 8:00 am to 12:00 pm. It’s the best place to shop for farm-fresh produce, plants, and locally produced handcrafts. The market’s “Make it, Bake it, Grow it” policy ensures that at least 70 percent of the final product is value added by the vendor, so no resellers here! When we visited, I picked up some crisp Gala apples, freshly foraged mushrooms, a pair of handmade earrings, and half a dozen tiny succulents for my kitchen window.
If you need to take a break in your Parksville and Qualicum Bay adventure, there’s a great place to take the kiddos for a little mini golf just outside the entrance to Rathtrevor Provincial Park. Riptide Lagoon Adventure Golf has two 18-hole mini golf courses, a small arcade room, and laser bumper cars. It was almost empty when we visited on Sunday afternoon, so we were able to play our game at our own pace. It’s small, but a nice spot to take the kids out for an hour or so before dinner. If it’s a hot day, nearby Paradise Fun Park has a similar set-up with two 18-hole mini golf courses and bumper boats instead of bumper cars.
Finally, for families looking for a relaxing pastime that combines walking, science, and the thrill of discovery, what about an afternoon of birdwatching?
Launched last year, the BC Bird Trail is your year-round guide to exploring BC’s Pacific Flyway, offering a series of self-guided itineraries showcasing the regions our feathered friends seek out year after year. Central Vancouver Island is home to diverse ocean, estuary, riverside, marshland, forest, and alpine habitats – a wide variety of birding hot spots, all nestled safely along the Strait of Georgia.
Where to Stay in Parksville and Qualicum Beach
There are many types of accommodations in the Parksville and Qualicum Beach area to suit your family’s style and budget, from campgrounds by the beach to the most upscale spa hotels. On our most recent visit, we stayed at the Sunrise Ridge Waterfront Resort just a few minutes’ walk from Rathtrevor Provincial Park and the beach. We wholeheartedly recommend this beautiful condo-style vacation rental for families looking for a luxurious and spacious accommodation during their stay.
We stayed in one of Sunrise Ridge’s newly-constructed two bedroom, two-story townhomes. Instead of cramming the whole family into a hotel room, here we had plenty of room and a rolling, grassy lawn behind the townhomes for the kids to play. These suites have all the amenities of home including a full kitchen, washer and dryer, and even a BBQ grill on the patio. These are ideal for a longer stay, which you should totally plan on because there’s so much to see and do in Parksville and Qualicum Beach.
The kitchen with full-sized fridge, oven, and dishwasher meant we could save a little by laying in breakfast supplies and eating in on occasion. The comfortable living area on the main floor had a large flat screen TV with Netflix cued up, and an in-wall electric fireplace for ambiance and warmth.
Two large bedrooms meant that the we had our own space separate from the kids and the beds were insanely comfortable, especially after a long afternoon climbing in the Horne Lake Caves. Both bathrooms boasted deep tubs and spa-style rain shower heads, and came fully stocked with soap, supplies, and bathrobes. They even included a supply of laundry detergent and dryer sheets for the laundry room.
Resort amenities include a gym, heated pool, hot tub, and an outdoor fireplace. Don’t forget to bring along a bag of marshmallows because the front desk staff will start the fire and bring you roasting sticks too.
Everything about our stay here was perfect. Our suite was spotless and made with guests’ comfort in mind. All the amenities were clean and well-maintained, and every staff member we met was friendly and helpful. We couldn’t have picked a better place for our Parksville and Qualicum Beach retreat!
Disclosure: This post was created in partnership with Visit Parksville and Qualicum Beach. All opinions expressed are completely honest and my own, based on my personal experience. Your experience may differ.