A short drive from Victoria or serene ferry sailing from Vancouver, 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.

Never far from farm-fresh dining and locally-roasted coffee, birders can plan a route exploring the region’s diverse communities, independently-owned businesses, and world-class birding opportunities that make up the Central Vancouver Island Trail.

This three-day itinerary works its way through several unique coastal communities. Ramble through the long farm roads of Cowichan, and the harbour-side city of Nanaimo. Further North, Parksville Qualicum Beach is home to the Mount Arrowsmith Biosphere Region – and some of the most breathtaking natural vistas on Vancouver Island.

Central Vancouver Island’s small-town charm and slow-paced lifestyle provide ample opportunities to relax and rejuvenate, embracing the fresh air and natural mystic of Canada’s west coast.

Follow the Central Vancouver Island Trail

The traditional land of the Coast Salish people including the Quw’utsun, Halalt, Stz’uminus, Snuneymuxw, Snaw-naw-as, K’ómoks, and Qualicum First Nations
Three Day Tour

Follow the Central Vancouver Island Trail

The traditional land of the Coast Salish people including the Quw’utsun, Halalt, Stz’uminus, Snuneymuxw, Snaw-naw-as, K’ómoks, and Qualicum First Nations
Three Day Tour
Day 1

The Cowichan Valley

Located between Victoria and Nanaimo, The Cowichan Valley is named after the Cowichan First Nation for whom it means “land warmed by the sun.” Look out for turkey vultures in the spring and summer, trumpeter swans in the valley in the fall, and herons in the estuary.

Getting Here

Sunrise in Cowichan Bay

Quiet mornings along the Salish Sea provide an ideal setting to explore the unique communities that makeup Vancouver Island’s Southeast tip. Take your time, there’s magic in the air – and if you’re lucky, herons and osprey too.

 Cafe
 Birding
 Food
 Shopping
 Accommodations

Afternoon Deep in the Valley

As you continue to explore the Cowichan Valley, opportunities abound – get inspired on your own, or amongst the locals.

 Birding
 Cafe
  • 11
    Java World Coffee & Teas
    5811 York Rd

    A retro-styled highway drive-thru refitted as a coffee hub; this community favourite serves up organic Karma coffee, a variety of sandwiches, and delicious baked goods.

 Shopping
  • 12
    Bucky’s Sports Shop
    171 Craig St

    This family-owned business has been outfitting the Cowichan Valley since 1947, with all the supplies needed for outdoor adventures.

  • 13
    Volume One Bookstore
    149 Kenneth St

    Since 1972 this downtown Duncan staple has been full of new and used books, as well as guides by local authors about nearby trails and outdoor hotspots.

Quiet Coastal Evenings

As the sun sets on the Cowichan Valley, the dynamic food and beverage scene comes alive with a variety of family-friendly hotspots welcoming to locals and visitors.

 Food
  • 14
    The Ainslie
    161 Kenneth St

    A family-run restaurant that takes pride in Cowichan’s local food scene, pairing delicious plates of fresh seasonal ingredients with dynamic local wines.

  • 15
    Owl’s Nest Bakery and Bistro
    9752 Willow St

    Fill your pack with pre-made sandwiches and baked goods, or take a break and enjoy the Owl’s Nest’s house-made soups & entrees.

  • 16
    Ma Maison
    10445 Chemainus Rd

    Head chef Lauren Cartmel brings her worldly charm to the Cowichan Valley in this beautiful cafe and bakery, serving up farm-to-table deli-style breakfasts and lunches.

  • 17
    Fox and Hounds
    11 High St

    “Like a warm hug on a chilly day,” this British-style pub presents a welcoming atmosphere to all who enter, serving up all the classic fare you’d expect to find at a local pub.

 Accommodations
Day 2

Nanaimo

Nanaimo, The Harbour City, is a central hub and major ferry port on Vancouver Island. While the Old City Quarter and Commercial Street are full of retail and restaurants, a quick trek out of the city presents beautiful outdoor experiences and opportunities to view cedar waxwings, sparrows, hawks, and waterfowl.

Getting Here

Town and Country

All along Departure Bay, and deep within the region’s rolling countryside, lies an abundance of unique birding opportunities and local business gems.

 Food
 Birding
  • 21
    Nanaimo Estuary Natural Area
    1270-1136 Raines Rd

    This short trail on the banks of the Nanaimo River offers a host of birding opportunities, all within view of downtown Nanaimo.

  • 22
    Nanaimo River Estuary
    1160 Island Hwy

    This diverse area is where the Nanaimo River meets the Salish Sea, creating the largest estuary on Vancouver Island.

  • 23
    Hemer Provincial Park
    Entry at the end of Hemmer Road

    Just South of Nanaimo, this forested park includes walking trails and a viewing platform over the marsh perfect for easy-access birding.

 Cafe
  • 24
    COCO Café
    1840 Cedar Rd

    Fresh baked goods made in-house daily, as well as specialty coffees, teas, breakfast, and lunch options to dine-in or take with you into the field.

 Food

Parks and Recreation

Stretching North along the Island Highway, Nanaimo’s local parks welcome birders of all backgrounds to slow down, and enjoy the scenery.

 Birding
 Shopping
  • 29
    Strong Nations Books

    Ordering from this Indigenous-owned online bookstore supports the local community while extending your learning journey through art and literature.

  • 30
    The Backyard Wild Bird & Nature Store
    6314 Metral Dr

    This community birding hub has all the essentials for making any backyard a bird paradise. In season, they also offer guided bird walks throughout Central Vancouver Island. 

 Cafe
 Food
  • 32
    Mon Petit Choux
    120 Commercial St

    This French-inspired cafe can help turn a birdwatching hike into a five-star picnic, with fresh, organic bread, pastries, breakfast, and lunch options.

  • 33
    McLean’s Specialty Foods
    426 Fitzwilliam St

    Purveyors of imported delicacies and specialty foods, this local favourite boasts over 150 varieties of cheese from around the world.

Eating Well in the Harbour City

We all get peckish after a day, or two, or three, of exploring Super, Natural British Columbia. Thankfully, Nanaimo’s growing farm-to-table food scene has plenty of options that cater to any taste.

 Cafe
 Food
 Accommodations
  • 40
    Buccaneer Inn
    1577 Stewart Ave

    Just around the corner from the Departure Bay ferry terminal, this Nanaimo motel features nautically-themed rooms with a wide range of amenities all along the water.

  • 41
    Inn on Long Lake
    4700 N Island Hwy

    Just north of downtown Nanaimo and close to the Departure Bay ferry terminal, this hotel property features rooms fitted with private balconies or patios offering gorgeous views of Long Lake.

Day 3

Parksville Qualicum Beach

So much more than just a few small towns on the west coast, Parksville Qualicum Beach spans 14 unique communities – all epitomizing the Vancouver Island lifestyle. The sandy beaches of this region are truly remarkable, spanning as wide as 1 kilometre at low tide. Stick to the scenic coastline for plentiful pelagic birding opportunities, then relax and recharge your batteries with the postcard views, and stunning trails of these charming communities.

Getting Here

The Jewel of Vancouver Island

Just 37km north of Nanaimo, Parksville is the perfect oceanside retreat to relax, rejuvenate and reconnect. With something for everyone, this region offers family-friendly activities, outdoor adventure, and luxurious spa getaways. Year-round events bring the locals together, all under the watchful eyes of the resident and migrating bird population.

 Birding
 Cafe
 Shopping
 Food
 Accommodations

Birding Along the Beach

Continue your exploration of Parksville, then head further north up the road to the charming seaside town of Qualicum Beach. The name is a Straits Salish word meaning “where the dog salmon run”.

 Birding
  • 53
    North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre
    1240 Leffler Rd

    With a mission to care for injured, ill and orphaned wildlife, this world-class rehabilitation centre is home to more than 60 non-releasable birds and animals and features the largest eagle flight enclosure in Canada where recovering eagles regain condition and build muscles before being released back into the wild. Open daily for public viewing.

  • 54
    Seaside Park Faye Smith Rosenblatt Memorial Pavilion
    Off the Island Highway

    This interpretive pavilion honours Faye Smith, a longtime wild-salmon advocate dedicated to protecting salmon habitats from Englishman River to Little Qualicum watersheds. Take in the panoramic view, and learn about the intertidal ecology, wild salmon, and a myriad of bird species. 

 Cafe
 Food
 Shopping
 Accommodations