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  • Writer's pictureCarmen Castro

Port Renfrew: A Guide to Explore the South West Coast of Vancouver Island, BC

Updated: Feb 25

Imagine waking up in the morning to roaring waves, the chirping sounds of birds, a gentle breeze, and the welcoming sunlight flowing through your campsite. Sipping coffee or tea by the fire and looking at the ocean that waves at you just a few steps away, or perhaps setting off on an early adventure to check out Botanical Beach and Botany Bay. Do you like being outdoors? If so, you will love it here.




Port Renfrew, "the Tall Tree Capital of Canada" and home to the Pacheedaht "Children of the Sea Foam" First Nations, is a small town situated about 111 km from the city of Victoria,

on the south-west coast of Vancouver Island. Here, you won’t find beautiful heritage buildings or trendy shops and cafes like in charming Victoria. What you will find here is nature all around: ancient rainforests, beautiful beaches, and a calmer, slower pace of life.


Getting to Port Renfrew

By sea: Getting to Port Renfrew from Vancouver by sea, will require you to catch a ferry departing from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay, and it will take only an hour and 35 minutes to get to Vancouver Island. Booking the ferry is easy and recommended even more during peak season to avoid being turned around and any delays. The ferry ride itself adds to the beauty of this journey, giving you the opportunity to experience the beautiful water passage to Vancouver Island. Keep an eye out for Mayne Island's lighthouse on the left side of the ferry. Also, if you pay attention to the water, you can sometimes see seals and sea otters swimming along. Please note that the price of the ferry varies according to the number of passengers and whether or not you are travelling by foot.


By air: Getting to Port Renfrew by air will require you to book with the following airlines:

After arriving in Swartz Bay, you would need to drive or ride 134 kilometres from there. If you don't have a vehicle, don't worry; you can take a couple buses. The first one is route 72, 70, or 71 from Swartz Bay terminal to Legislature Terminus in Victoria, which will take about an hour and cost only $3 as of May 2023. From there, you would need to walk 6 minutes and transfer to the West Coast Trail Express bus (May to Sept) that will take you right to Port Renfrew. The ride will take around two hours and cost $60 one way, as per May 2023. Reservations are strongly recommended, and cancellations are required with 10 days notice.

You can also rent a vehicle from the airport or the ferry terminal.


Places to stay in Port Renfrew

There are several places to stay in Port Renfrew, from luxury cottages to simple campgrounds. My family and I stayed 4 nights in the Pacheedaht Campground, which we loved because we got to sleep to the thundering ocean water after a starry night by the campfire. This campground is situated on the Port of San Juan, along the Gordon River. It offers 73 campsites on the North Beach and 39 sites on the South Beach. The sites are well spaced, and most of them offer good privacy. The beach is kept as it is meant to be. Log debris is all along the beach, and the grasses and shrubs grow fearlessly. If you have kids, rest assured they will entertain themselves by collecting rocks and branches as well as playing in the sand.

Tent on Port Renfrew, camping, sunny day, beach campsite

The campground provides outhouses and flush toilets that can be found close to the office, as well as showers and even a laundry room. The Internet connection is limited, but you can pay $2 to get access to it and use it around the office area. There are also five cute and cozy-looking barrel cabins with views of the Gordon River that provide up to two beds. A fire ring and a small picnic table set on a grassy area will be your relaxing spots if you decide to stay in these cozy little cabins.

To book this place, you can email camping@pacheedaht.ca or call (250) 647-5414. Reservations are encouraged for the summer months. We rolled into the North Beach campground on a Sunday evening, and it wasn't busy. We had the opportunity to choose an oceanfront site that had a fire ring and a picnic table (we noticed several sites don't have one or the other or both, which can be a nuisance). That evening, the office was already closed, and we registered the next morning before 11 a.m. without any problem. The fact that we had to clear up several cans and water bottles (leftover rubbish from previous campers) before setting up camp was a drawback of this spot.


A different campground that might be worth checking out is:

Also, this is a good page for more vacation rentals in the area: stayportrenfrew.com


Things to do in Port Renfrew

Port Renfrew is nature's heaven, and there are plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy.

Surfing, waves
Surfing:

If you are into surfing, the waves here invite fearless people to ride them. The best time of the year for this activity is winter, but you can check the daily surf forecast for more information throughout the year. The water temperature in the winter months averages between 8 and 9 degrees Celsius.


Snorkelling and Diving:

There is plenty of opportunity for this activity in different spots, but if you like calmer waters, Mill Bay is only 1.4 kilometres away from town. Mill Bay is a small, beautiful beach where you can find sea creatures on the rock formations that surround the bay. If you are more into beach combing, this beach has plenty of shells, colourful rocks, and seaglass to admire. We also found a few tide pools, which are great to check out for sea creatures right from shore. Please note that to get to Mill Bay, you will have to take a short hike that is not suitable for people with mobility impairments due to the uneven trail, rocks, and roots. Also, in the wetter months, expect lots of mud.


Swimming in cold waters, sunny day, blue waters
Cold water plunges:

Because who doesn't love a cold plunge in the ocean? Am I right? Feeling that reinvigorating energy going through your body after a cold water plunge is something really pleasant, I have to say. For this activity, you might want to know that the water temperatures throughout the year in Port Renfrew range from 7 degrees to 12 degrees Celsius, with September being the warmest month.

If you plan to stay in the water for longer periods of time, then you will need to wear a good steamer wet suit, a neoprene hood, boots, and gloves to be comfortable.


Fishing, fish caught
Fishing:

Chinook salmon fishing is available throughout the months of May, June, July, August, and September. Coho salmon fishing is available throughout the months of July, August, September, and October.

From early February through late September, halibut can be caught. Please keep in mind that this fishing will be done on a charter and will occupy the majority of the day out at sea, so if you have children, you might want to consider this. Apply for a recreational fishing license ahead of time.


Hiking:

Explore Juan de Fuca Provincial Park: This park offers 47 km of wilderness trail along the western shoreline, extending from China Beach on the southwest side to Botanical Beach to the northwest. This trail can be done as a multi-day hiking adventure, or sections of the trail can be walked starting at one of the four trailheads: China Beach, Sombrio Beach, Parkinson Beach, or Botanical Beach.


-Botanical Beach and Botany Bay:

Botanical Beach is a rich marine ecosystem, better appreciated at low tide when you can walk on the flat areas of the rock to admire sea anemones, sea stars, crabs, hermit crabs, molluscs, and more. Not only that, there is the possibility to observe gray whales and orcas in the months of March and April, along with seals and sea lions. The crashing of the waves on the rock formations is another spectacle worth seeing; just remember to be careful not to get too close, as these rogue waves are strong enough to drag a person into the water. Botany Bay is also an interesting area to explore, offering tide pools and opportunities for snorkelling and diving. The black rock formations are mesmerizing, and the overall landscape is stunning. Don't forget to check the tide chart for Botanical Beach before visiting the tide pools.



-West Coast Trail:

This hike offers 75 km of wilderness terrain along the west shoreline of Vancouver Island, extending from Pachena Bay to Gordon River. This trail is to be done as a multi-day backcountry adventure, and the recommended time from start to finish is 6–8 days. You can also start the hike at the midpoint at Nitinat village to lessen the time of the hike, but either way, this hike is not for everyone, so please make sure to learn all the information before deciding on registering.

BC Parks does not recommend this hike if you: Have not hiked overnight before. Are not able to hike long distances. Don't have flexible time (in case of unexpected situations). Are not healthy and injury-free. Are not over the age of 12.


Ice cream time:
Ice cream, stores in the back on a sunny day

Stop for an ice cream at Miss May's, because why not? We tried the maple walnut, strawberry, and chocolate mint flavours and loved them. This place was cash-only when we visited.


Other activities that you can enjoy in Port Renfrew are: Canoeing Wildlife viewing Cycling Windsurfing



Places to discover along the way

Depending on where you are visiting Port Renfrew from, the route you take to get there, and whether or not you are driving, there are other beaches and hikes you can visit along the way.

We took Highway 14 towards Swartz Bay on our way back to Vancouver and made a few stops that may also interest you. Our first one was China Beach in the Juan de Fuca Provincial Park, which was a good place for another cold plunge. The beach here has more gentle waves than Port Renfrew, and the trail to get to the beach is short but muddy and uneven mostly on the last part. Keep that in mind if you or any of your companions have mobility impairments. There is a parking lot and outhouses at the trailhead.



After China Beach, we moved on to visit French Beach Provincial Park. Here, the path to the beach is short, wide, and paved, so it is perfect for a stroller, a wheelchair, or a wagon. This park offers a beautiful green area with picnic tables, a playground, fire rings, outhouses, and a parking lot. This beach is a good spot to watch gray whales in the month of April as they migrate north to rich feeding grounds and in November and December as they migrate south to have their young. Other marine creatures that can be spotted are orcas, harbour porpoises, Pacific harbour seals, Steller sea lions, and California sea lions. French Beach is rocky, and its waves are also more gentle than the ones in Port Renfrew.



From here we head to Metchosin to have a bite to eat and stop at My Chosen Café, "home style cooking in a cozy country atmosphere," as they describe themselves, and it was really good. The ambience was welcoming, and the food was tasty. If you are close by, don't hesitate to stop and give it a try. Of course, our last stop was Victoria, although we just drove by downtown and decided to stop at Elk Lake and also went to a small beach in the Uplands where we used to visit way back when we lived in Victoria. If you have more time, downtown Victoria is definitely worth a longer visit. Check out our blog post for places to visit in Victoria: Victoria, BC: Exploring the Beauty and Charm of British Columbia's Crown Jewel.



Other places that you can stop on your way back to the ferry are: Jurassic Grove Sheringham Point Lighthouse Otter Point Park

Places to eat in Port Renfrew

As my family and I were camping, we were cooking our own food by the campfire, but I want to list a few places for you to have on hand in case you plan a visit to this beautiful place.

Please keep in mind that some of these places are only open seasonally. Coastal Kitchen Cafe The Renfrew Pub Bridgemans West Coast Eatery Tomi's Home Style Cooking Pie-ro Pizza


Before wrapping up, it is necessary to highlight that, depending on your cell phone provider, the signal in Port Renfrew might range from poor to non-existent. We have Telus, and for the duration of our vacation, we had no cell phone coverage in the entire town.


Wrapping up:

We hope this post gives you an insight into the plethora of fun activities you can experience in Port Renfrew.

If this beautiful place makes it to your travel bucket list this year, please make a conscious effort to keep it wild and clean.

Where will you be travelling this year? Let us know in the comments below. Happy travels!








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