You don’t have to go far in BC to really get out into the wilds and off the grid. This spring I did a short road trip to one of these wild places: the Pacific Marine Circle Route on Southern Vancouver Island. This road trip starts and ends in Victoria, one of BC’s biggest cities, but most of the route goes through remote wilderness. There are tons of places to stop and hike, check out waterfalls, visit enormous trees, or walk on the beach. Unlike some of other trips on BC’s backroads, this one is entirely paved and you go through tiny (and adorable towns) every few hours. If you’re looking for a weekend of outdoorsy adventure on Vancouver Island, you’ve got to drive the Pacific Marine Circle Route.
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The Pacific Marine Circle Route is a loop road trip that starts and ends in Victoria on Southern Vancouver Island. The route is only about 260km long and can be driven in one day, but since there is so much to see along the way, many people prefer to take a few days. Driving directions are as follows:
- From Victoria go west along highway 14 to Port Renfrew
- Next, go inland to Lake Cowichan on Pacific Marine Road
- Follow the Cowichan River and highway 18 east to Duncan
- Finish by taking highway 1 south back to Victoria.
The entire route is well signed so you won’t get lost. You can travel the loop in either direction, but I did a clockwise loop so I’m describing it that way here. I also made a custom, clickable Google map for you with all the stops highlighted!
Road Conditions and Driving Tips
The entire Pacific Marine Circle Route is paved. It used to have a gravel portion between Port Renfrew and Lake Cowichan but it was paved almost a decade ago. Besides parts of the section on highway 1 between Duncan and Victoria, it’s a two lane road with few opportunities for passing. There are several sections that are very twisty and despite being paved, the road is a bit bumpy. There are also a handful of single lane bridges. Most of the route (besides the portion on highway 1) has very little traffic.
Some parts of the Pacific Marine Circle Route are quite remote and there are a few stretches where you’ll go quite a while without passing any services. In particular, there aren’t any stores, restaurants or gas stations between Sooke and Lake Cowichan except in Port Renfrew. There is a gas station in Port Renfrew but you can’t count on it being open so it’s best to fuel up in Sooke.
There is no cell coverage on the western part of the route. You will lose cell service between Sooke and Lake Cowichan. As I said, the road is well signed so as long as you stay on the main road, you will be fine.
However, if you plan to take any side trips off the main route you should bring paper maps or a GPS. (And believe me, I’ve got some side trips for you that are definitely worth it!) I used the Vancouver Island Backroad Mapbook on my roadtrip of the Pacific Marine Circle Tour. It was really helpful, especially at some confusing logging road junctions.
You can definitely drive the Pacific Marine Circle Route in a single day. It takes about 5 hours to drive with no stops. But many of the stops will take you an hour or more, so it’s best to split the trip up over several days. Two days is great but three or four is better.
Where to Stay
There are lots of accommodation options on the Pacific Marine Circle Route, from cute cabins, to waterfront campsites to posh inns. If you’re just staying one night, it makes the most sense to base yourself in Port Renfrew as it’s essentially the half-way point. If your trip is a bit longer, you could consider booking accommodation in Sooke, Lake Cowichan or the Cowichan Valley as well. On my trip we actually spent two nights in Port Renfrew as you can take lots of great day trips from there. (You can’t miss Avatar Grove and Big Lonely Doug!)
When I was planning my trip I found all kinds of cute cabins on Airbnb, but I waited too long and they were all booked up! (Oops.) Instead we stayed one night at the cabins at Wild Renfrew. They are right on the pier in Port Renfrew near the pub. The cabins have covered patios overlooking the ocean and gas powered fire pits. It was great to sit on the patio, listening to the rain on the roof after a long day of exploring.
If you’re rather camp, there are lots of options along the route. We stayed one night at the Pacheedaht campground just outside Port Renfrew. It’s right on the beach and the sunset was spectacular! Here’s a list of all the campgrounds you’ll pass on the Pacific Marine Circle Route:
- Sooke Potholes Regional Park
- Sooke River Campground
- French Beach Provincial Park
- Jordan River Regional Park
- Juan de Fuca Provincial Park China Beach Campground
- Juan de Fuca Provincial Park Sombrio Beach Campground (walk-in only)
- Pacheedaht Campground
- Fairy Lake Recreation Site
- Lizard Lake Recreation Site
- Lakeview Park Campsite
- Cowichan River Provincial Park
- Bamberton Provincial Park
- Goldstream Provincial Park
Places to Stop on the Pacific Marine Circle Route
East Sooke Park
Explore the windswept coast in East Sooke Park. There are 50km of trails to choose from with varying difficult. If you want a short walk, hike 5 minutes from the Aylard Farm trailhead to explore the nearby beach. If you have more time, hike some of the Coastal Trail. Bring a copy of the trail map to help you find your way.
To get to East Sooke Park, turn left onto Gillespie Road just after you pass the 17 Mile House Pub. Follow the signs to the park via East Sooke Road and Beecher Bay Road.
The Sooke potholes are a popular place for swimming in the river rock pools when the water levels are low in the summer. (In the winter they just look like rapids.) You can also hike on the numerous trails to get great views of the river. The ruins of an old lodge sit right next to the edge of the river canyon. There’s a fence around the ruins, and they are officially off-limits, but the area has become a favourite for local graffiti artists.
To get to the Sooke Potholes turn right on Sooke River Road. If you cross the bridge over the Sooke River, you’ve gone too far. Follow Sooke River Road up the hill into Sooke Potholes Provincial Park. There is one river access point here, but for more river access points and the hiking trails, continue a few kilometers further to Sooke Potholes Regional Park.
Make sure you stock up on gas and groceries in the little town of Sooke, BC (population 13,000). It’s the largest centre you’ll pass through until Lake Cowichan, about 130km further along the Pacific Marine Circle Route. There are a few cafes, coffee shops and fast food options if you need to take a break.
A sand spit over 1km long protects Sooke Harbour. Take a walk out along the spit to get great views of the calm Sooke basin on one side and the wilder Juan de Fuca straight on the other side. There’s a gravel trail out to the end of the spit and benches to sit on if you just want to take in the scenery.
To get to Whiffen Spit, turn left onto Whiffen Spit road about 2km after the round about in “downtown” Sooke. Follow the road to it’s end past the famous Sooke Harbour House hotel and restaurant. There’s a small parking lot and it can be very busy.
About 20 minutes past Sooke you’ll see a little A-frame cabin on the left hand side. That’s Shirley Delicious. It’s an adorable cafe, bakery and coffee shop and everyone says it’s a must-stop. On my road trip on the Pacific Marine Circle Route they were closed by the time we drove by in the early evening so I haven’t actually tried it 🙁 Next time for sure though – I’ve heard sooo many good things!
To get to Shirley Delicious turn left onto Sheringham Point road about 20 minutes past Sooke. It’s right after you pass the Shirley Community Hall.
For years I had seen amazing photos of the waterfall at Sandcut Beach on Instagram, so I was really stoked to finally see it for myself. The water pours over the lip of the sandstone cliff onto the beach. In drier weather you can walk behind the falls, but when I visited in springtime, the flow of the falls was way too heavy.
To get to Sandcut Beach look for a small signed parking lot on your left about 10 minutes past Shirley Delicious. From the parking lot it’s a 10 minute hike through the forest to the beach. The trail can be muddy. Once at the beach, turn left and walk along the gravelly beach for another 5 minutes to the falls.
Mystic Beach is located at the southern end of the Juan de Fuca Trail, a 47km coastal backpack trip that I think of as the West Coast Trail’s younger cousin. You don’t have to do the whole trail to visit Mystic Beach: you can hike 2km down to the beach and admire the wild West Coast scenery. The beach is a popular day hiking destination thanks to its photogenic waterfall and a rope swing. If you brought camping gear, you can camp overnight.
To get to Mystic Beach turn left into the China Beach day use parking lot in Juan de Fuca Provincial Park. It’s about 7 minutes past Sandcut Beach. It’s a 2km hike to the beach. Along the way you’ll cross a suspension bridge high over Pete Wolf Creek. Find more information on the hike on Victoria Trails.
Sombrio Beach is located around the mid-point of the Juan de Fuca Trail. It’s a popular place for walk-in camping on the beach as well as for surfing. The beach stretches around a wide bay and there is lots to explore. One of the most interesting features of the beach is the waterfall hidden in a mossy canyon.
To get to Sombio Beach, drive 21km from the Mystic Beach parking lot. Look for a gravel road on your left. It may be signed for Sombio Beach but often the sign is missing. From here it’s a 2km drive on a rough gravel road down to the parking lot. Most regular cars can make it but it is very bumpy with lots of potholes so you might prefer to park at the top and walk down if you don’t have a 4wd.
From the parking lot it’s an easy 5 minute walk to the beach. If you want to find the hidden waterfall, turn left and walk down the beach until you see an outhouse in the trees. A minute past the outhouse you’ll see a creek flowing out on to the beach. Follow the creek upstream to find the waterfall. (Be prepared to get your feet wet!) The canyon is a sensitive place and is sacred to the Pacheedaht First Nation so please be respectful. There is already some graffiti in the canyon – please don’t add any more.
Port Renfrew is pretty unique. It’s a tiny town at the end of highway 14. Traditionally most people knew it as a great fishing spot or as one of the starting points for both the West Coast Trail and the Juan de Fuca Trail. It’s a gritty little logging town that is slowly transforming itself into a cute eco-tourism hub thanks to its new reputation as the tall tree capital of Canada. There isn’t a real designated centre to the town – it’s kind of spread out. Be sure to head down to the dock next to the Port Renfrew Pub at the end of highway 14 to grab some photos. Port Renfrew makes a great basecamp for day trips in the area. On my trip we camped one night at the Pacheedaht campground and spend our second night in town at the fabulous waterfront Wild Renfrew cabins.
There is a small general store in town if you need supplies. The Port Renfew Pub is open year round and there are two other seasonal restaurants. There’s a seasonal gas station at the marina and a brand new gas station right at the entrance to town.
Botanical Beach and Botany Bay
If you are in the area, you can’t miss the tide pools at Botanical Beach. Located inside Juan de Fuca Provincial Park, the area is so ecologically diverse that marine biologists have been studying here for over 100 years. Check the tide tables before you go so you can time your visit for the lowest tides. Try to aim for a tide of 1.2m or less.
After exploring at Botanical Beach, take the loop trail heading west along the coast to Botany Bay. Along the way you’ll pass through beautiful coastal rainforest. There are several beach access trails at Botany Bay, plus a couple of great view points on the bluff above the beach. The trail loops back to your starting point at the parking lot. The Botanical Beach/Botany Bay loop trail is 2.8km long and takes about an hour to hike… plus stops. (You’re going to want to make a LOT of stops.)
To get to the Botanical Beach and Botany Bay trailhead, turn left on to Cerantes Road where highway 14 dead-ends in front of the Port Renfrew Pub. Drive about 5 minutes on this road until it ends in the Botanical Beach parking lot of Juan de Fuca Provincial Park.
Avatar Grove, Big Lonely Doug and Port Renfrew’s Big Trees
You can visit some of the world’s largest and oldest trees near Port Renfrew. Canada’s Gnarliest Cedar is in Avatar Grove, an easy 10km drive from town. Slightly further afield is Big Lonely Doug, the world’s second largest Douglas Fir. Doug stands alone in a clearcut, so you can really get a sense of how tall he is. There are a few other record setting trees in the area as well including the Harris Creek Spruce, the Red Creek Fir and the San Juan Spruce.
You can visit all of the trees as a day trip from Port Renfrew or as part of your Pacific Marine Circle Tour road trip. A few of the trees require 4 wheel drive to visit, but most are on easily accessible (but bumpy) gravel roads. I have a complete guide to visiting them all in my article How to Visit Avatar Grove, Big Lonely Doug and Other Big Trees on Vancouver Island.
Fairy Lake is just outside Port Renfrew. There’s a campsite there and a short nature trail, but the real star is the internet-famous bansai tree of Fairy Lake. This plucky little tree is growing out of a partially submerged log near the edge of the lake.
To see the tree drive past the entrance to the Fairy Lake Recreate Site Campground and pull over on to the gravel shoulder once the lake comes in to view. This is the best place to see the tree. If you come in the spring like I did, the lake level will be high and the partially submerged log will be almost entirely underwater.
The town of Lake Cowichan is pretty small, but compared to Port Renfrew, it’s a metropolis. This is a great place to stop for gas, groceries or something to eat. You may also want to stretch your legs with a walk along the lakeshore at the community park.
Cowichan Valley Trail
Just outside of Lake Cowichan you can access the Cowichan Valley Trail. This trail is actually part of the Great Trail a.k.a. the Trans-Canada Trail. The Cowichan Valley Trail is built on an old rail bed. It has a crushed gravel surface that makes it great for easy walks or bike rides. The trail also crosses a few old wooden train trestles high above the valley.
The main access point for the Cowichan Valley Trail is right in the town of Lake Cowichan on Cowichan Lake road just before you turn on to highway 18. You can also access it via several side roads off highway 18. There’s lots more info on the TrailsBC website.
Cowichan River Footpath
If you want a slightly more challenging (but still easy) hike, head to the Cowichan River Footpath in Cowichan River Provincial Park. This footpath meaders next to the Cowichan River through lush rain forests downstream to an old train trestle bridge over then river, then heads back up the other side. You can start and finish your hike at Skutz Falls, a popular swimming hole in the summer and a great place to watch salmon jump up the fish ladders in the fall.
To get to the Cowichan River Footpath, turn right onto Mayo Road from highway 18 about 9km from Lake Cowichan. Follow Mayo Road downhill to the river and park near the bridge. The trail starts from either side of the bridge.
Duncan and the Cowichan Valley
The town of Duncan and the Cowichan Valley are the agricultural heart of Southern Vancouver Island. There are tons of farms, wineries, and dairies. Try to time your visit so you can shop at the farmers market in Duncan on Saturdays or Cobble Hill on Sundays (summer only). Some of the farms and wineries also have on-site shops and tasting rooms.
In order to get back to Victoria you’ll have to climb up and over the Malahat Summit. Rising 300m above the waters of Saanich Inlet, Malahat Summit isn’t really that high up, but it still provides excellent views. Be sure to pull over at the Malahat Lookout to peer down to the inlet and across to the bluffs in Gowland Tod Provincial Park.
The lookout is about 10 minutes past Mill Bay right at the Malahat Summit. It’s a small parking area with some picnic tables and a totem pole. If you’re coming from the north you’ll have to continue past the lookout for one kilometre to Whittaker road. You can turn around there, then head back up the road to the lookout.
Goldstream Provincial Park
At the end of the Malahat, just before reaching Victoria, lies Goldstream Provincial Park. This popular park has tons of hiking trails and a campground. If you want a mountain hike, head up the steep trail to Mount Finlayson. If you’re after waterfalls, visit BC’s very own Niagara Falls on a short 1.3km hike.
To get to Goldstream Provincial Park turn left onto Finlayson Arm Road just as the highway finishes it’s descent to sea level fro the Malahat. There is a flashing traffic light at this intersection and a provincial parks sign. The parking lot is just off the highway.
I spent 3 days driving the Pacific Marine Circle Route this spring and honestly, I wish I had spent a few more days. In particular I loved Port Renfrew. It’s a tiny logging town that is transitioning to eco-tourism while (mostly) retaining its gritty roots. And to me that’s so quintessentially BC. You have to go visit! Have you already been? Let me know in the comments.