We completely fell in love with Tofino when we visited British Columbia in the summer.
This small town is Canada’s almost most westerly point and is simply stunning. Plus, there is so much to do in Tofino with kids. From rock pooling and storm watching to surfing, hiking and whale and bear watching, there really is something for everyone in this family-friendly town.
Set at the southern end of an area called Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island, this is Canada’s (almost) westerly point. It’s also incredibly beautiful – wild, natural and rugged.
Updated for 2021
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Things to do in Tofino
Tofino was first discovered by Spanish explorers in 1792. At that time, the area was in habited by First Nations people, led by Chief Wickaninnish. His name literally means ‘he who no one sits in front of in the canoe’, which is possibly the best name ever!
For the next hundred years or so the area was a trading outpost for whalers and voyageurs until Clayoquot Sound was settled in the 1880s. From the turn of the century, Tofino began to grow. In 1913, the C.P.R. steamship Princess Maquinna docked at Tofino and Clayoquot Island for the first time, providing regular contact with the outside world.
The first road to Tofino was only completed in 1959. Today, the town is still home to less than 2,000 permanent residents although these numbers swell during the summer months. The beauty of Tofino, however, is that you still feel as though you’ve stumbled across somewhere relatively undiscovered.
The town is peppered with restaurants and cafes as well as surf shops and a handful of operators running whale- and bear-watching tours.
Go rock pooling
Tofino has some beautiful beaches; miles of windswept sand bordered by ancient cedar forests. Stand and look out to sea and there’s literally nothing between you and Japan but the vast Pacific Ocean.
One of our kids’ favourite things to do was to explore the rock pools. When the tide goes out, the sea reveals some incredible sea life. We saw enormous emerald green sea anemones, stuffed starfish in orange and purple hues and crabs and hermit crabs. Some of the best beaches for tidal pools are Chesterman Beach, MacKenzie Beach and Lismer Beach.
Visit the Botanical Gardens
Our kids loved Tofino’s Botanical Gardens. A network of paths wind their way through twelve acres of gardens, forest, and shoreline. There are herb and kitchen gardens, a duck pond and a whimsical Children’s Garden.
Raised wooden platforms take you into the forest where clearings reveal pocket gardens and garden buildings. Art installations and sculptures are dotted around the gardens, which are fun for kids to try and find.
The “historic” Bernardo O’Higgins homestead shows how pioneers to Tofino lived (“No lights! No TV! No Kitchen!” said my kids). There’s a lovely cafe on site too.
You can definitely spend a couple of hours here wandering around. If travelling with an infant forget the pushchair and bring a baby carrier or sling instead.
Eat ice cream at Sugar Shack
During our two-and-a-half week road trip around BC we visited some incredible places. We saw otters at the Vancouver Aquarium, visited the island of Galiano, witnessed a mother bear finding food for her cubs and drove through 800-year-old cedar forests. We took ferry rides, had s’mores on the beach and went kayaking.
But despite all these so-called trip highlights, what was my 5-year-old daughter’s favourite thing about the entire holiday? Ice cream from Sugar Shack.
Address: 400-460 Campbell St, Tofino
Go on on a bear- or whale-watching safari
We went on an early morning boat ride in search of bears with Westcoast Aquatic Safaris. We had the boat to ourselves and seeing the day break over the water was truly magical.
Clayoquot Sound is home to a large number of black bears and you can often spot them close to shore, foraging for food. We were lucky and spotted a couple of bears on our trip. These included a mother bear searching for food for her cubs that we could hear calling from the forests. We also spotted seals sunning themselves on rocks.
The best time for bear watching is late spring through early October. There are a handful of bear and whale watching operators in town offering tours that are suitable for families.
Learn to surf
If you can get over the cold water then Tofino is an excellent place to surf. It’s home to some of the best surfing in Canada. But even if you’re a novice surfer, there are gentle waves to learn on.
There are a handful of schools offering surf lessons for families including Pacific Surf School and Tofino Surf School. We didn’t surf when we visited, owing to not enough time and a small baby, but we’ll definitely be organising a lesson when we next go. If you need some tips on surfing or other water activities take a look at globosurfer.com.
Watch the winter storms
Although the summer months are when Tofino is busiest, more and more visitors are coming during the winter too. The rugged west coast is wild at the best of times but the winter months bring an orchestra of crashing waves and howling winds. It might sound crazy, but witnessing the angry skies and dramatic seas during the winter months is really quite spectacular.
The Wickaninnish Inn actively promotes storm watching season and even provides raincoats and boots for kids.
Eat at Sobo
I would go back to Tofino just to eat at Sobo. This is, hands down, one of the best restaurants I have ever been to. It’s casual and relaxed, as you would expect from such a laid back town, with an innovative menu to rival some of the best city restaurants.
Food is fresh and, not surprisingly, the seafood is fantastic. There’s a kids’ menu and a playhouse on the deck shaped like a purple bus. Sobo gets busy! Get there early or make a reservation.
See the fishermen in action
At its heart, Tofino is still a fishing village and the Fourth Street Dock is still a working dock. It’s open to the public and a great way for kids to see fishermen in action. Commercial and fishing boats as well as whale- and bear-watching boats moor here and there’s also a fish weighing station.
My (very urban) kids commented on the smell but were fascinated watching the fish being hauled in. Make sure to keep an eye on children here.
Take a hike
There are some amazing walking trails in this part of Canada ranging in degrees of difficulty. Some of the most popular hikes include the Wild Pacific Trail, an easy 8km walk that is divided into three sections. The trail takes in the rocky coastline and ancient forests before opening onto a beautiful shoreline with stunning views.
Radar Hill Trail is just 0.2km but is the best spot for a panoramic view of Clayoquot Sound and Long Beach. In the Pacific Rim National Park, the Nuu Chah Nulth Trail (the Wickaninnish Trail), is the longest trail. Measuring 3.8km, it links Long Beach with Florencia Bay.
For more walking ideas take a look here. If you do plan on doing some hiking, make sure to bring good walking shoes as the trails can get very muddy.
Visit the Aquarium at Ucluelet
This is one of those wonderful aquariums that houses only local marine life and the tanks are filled with marine animals found in the waters of Barkley and Clayoquot Sounds. On view are incredible sea anemones in oranges and greens, abalone and kelpfish, sea cucumbers and jellyfish and more.
It’s a wonderful way for children to learn about life in the sea with lots of touch pools for a genuine hands-on experience. Every year the aquarium returns the marine life to the sea and fills their tanks again from the harbour.
Where to stay in Tofino
We stayed at The Wickaninnish Inn when we were in Tofino. This beautiful hotel sits on the edge of Chesterman’s Beach and offers a pile of amenities for kids. These include mini robes, welcome packets and buckets and spades for playing on the beach. You can read what we thought of the Wickaninnish Inn here.
Other popular family hotels in Tofino include the Pacific Sands Beach Resort and the Tofino Resort + Marina. You may also want to consider a vacation rental. Airbnb is another option. If you have never rented through AirBnB before, I can offer you a £27 Airbnb referral credit (this means you get £27 off your first booking).
Getting to Tofino
The Tofino-Long Beach Airport (YAZ) sits between the towns of Tofino and Ucluelet opposite Long Beach. A handful of charter carriers service Tofino including Orca Airways and Kenmore Air. Flights from Vancouver take less than an hour. There are also flights from Victoria.
However, it’s actually more fun to drive. Ferries from Vancouver and the Gulf Islands run to Squamish, the ferry terminal near Victoria on Vancouver Island and to Nanaimo regularly.
From Squamish is roughly a six-hour drive and from Nanaimo is takes around four hours. Ferry tickets can be booked via BC Ferries. You should definitely book in advance if travelling during the summer months.
The drive along Route 4 from Nanaimo is spectacular. The road takes you through ancient forests, including Cathedral Grove where 800-year-old trees tower some 75m above you. You’ll also pass through the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.
The best time to visit Tofino
Tofino is popular year-round. The summer months are when most people come but the winter months also see a good number of visitors arrive to watch the dramatic storms.
Held annually in March is the Pacific Rim Whale Festival, which celebrates grey whales and marine life education.