Welcome to Spring! Or, in our case, Midsummer! We seem to have skipped Spring and leaped headlong into another heat-domed summer. So I decided I would share a little bit about where we live here on Vancouver Island, and give you a selection of fun family activities in the Cowichan Valley.
If you’ve never visited Vancouver Island, on Canada’s West Coast, you might not realize just how diverse the climate, geography and biodiversity of the island really is. It’s a big island, so you’ll find lots of differences across its length and breadth. And also so many great family activities in the Cowichan Valley and surrounding area.
Before Heather’s grandfather moved to the Island in the 1960’s, he did a ton of research. He looked at the weather patterns, the local infrastructure, available services, land prices, even the ambient water temperatures throughout the year! Thing is, he had to make some tough choices once he was armed with all that data. Turns out that he had lots of choices. But ultimately he decided on the Cowichan Valley region to build a life for his family.
Located between Nanaimo to the north and Victoria to the south, the Cowichan Valley is really more than just a valley. From Cowichan Lake in the interior, the valley formed by the Cowichan River spreads eastward, toward the Salish Sea. The valley opens up near Duncan, a small city near the coast. From here the region spreads out to the north and south, encompassing other small valleys, estuaries, towns and coastlines. Including us here in little old Ladysmith By The Sea.
The Mediterranean of Canada?
The climate of the Cowichan Valley is described as “maritime Mediterranean” which means warm and dry in summer, mild and wet in the winter. Wet is relative, though. Vancouver on the mainland to the east receives almost double the rainfall of this part of Vancouver Island. The Cowichan Valley benefits from the coastal rain shadow, which is created by the mountainous spine of the island.
I spent a lot of time here when I first moved out to the West Coast. My home was in Vancouver, but my work with the Canadian Pacific Railway brought me here during the week. I didn’t get to do much exploring, but we worked up and down Vancouver Island, between Courtenay to the north, and Langford, just outside of Victoria. You can read a little more about it in my What’s So Great About Road Trips post.
But enough about me. What’s there to do here? Tons! Let me share with you a brief and far from exhaustive list of great family activities and destinations in the Cowichan Valley.
BC Forest Discovery Centre
Located just off the Trans Canada Highway north of Duncan, the BC Forest Discovery Centre is a treasure trove of history from the forestry industry in BC. But it’s so much more than a museum!
Bring the family to explore the Centre’s 100 acres of Vancouver Island forestry history. With thousands of artifacts ranging from fully operational locomotives, to machinery and tools, there’s really something for everyone to enjoy. Including a narrow gauge railway!
During the summer season, the railway runs every 30 minutes and takes visitors on a tour of the Forest Discovery Centre’s expansive property. The grounds are covered in Douglas Fir forest, marshlands, orchards and pastures. The train will even take you out on a trestle over Somenos Lake.
Cool Things to See and Do at the Forest Discovery Centre
Get off at any of the station stops and explore the grounds. There’s even a large playground for the little ones. Trails are abundant, as is the wildlife. The Centre is a great place for birdwatching, and you’ll probably spot a few deer in the meadows.
There are extensive exhibits indoors and outside across the property detailing the rich history of forestry on Vancouver Island. Dozens of heritage buildings dot the site, some with displays and exhibits open for exploring.
Throughout the year, the Forest Discovery Centre hosts different events, including Halloween (one of the best Halloween events around!), Christmas, Easter, and many more. You’ll want to check with them to confirm their events calendar for the year.
Before You Go
The Forest Discovery Centre re-opened to the public on April 8 for the 2023 season, and operates until September 24. They’re open Thursday to Monday until June 30, 10 AM-4:30 PM. Summer hours are the same, 10 AM-4:30 PM. They also open for Halloween and the Christmas Express. Check their website for schedule updates.
Admission varies depending on the season. ranges from $12 for children 2-12, youth 13-18 are $14, $16 for adults, and $14 for seniors 65 and older. Little ones under 2 years old are admitted free. Family day passes are only $65 for 2 adults and up to 3 children or youths.
Throughout the Cowichan Valley you’ll find some of the finest trails on Vancouver Island. One of them is the Cowichan Valley Trail, which winds from just south of Nanaimo, to the Town of Lake Cowichan, and south toward Victoria. It’s part of the Great Trail, or Trans Canada Trail system, which runs across Canada from the Pacific, to the Arctic and the Atlantic Ocean. And on the Cowichan Valley Trail you’ll come across the Kinsol Trestle, and away your breath will go!
Here’s a cool factoid; the Kinsol Trestle is one of the tallest free standing timber rail structures in the world. It stands 44 meters (144 feet) high and extends across the Koksilah River for 187 meters (613 feet).
Kinsol Trestle construction began in 1912 as part of the Canadian Northern Pacific Railway. They built the rail line to provide better access to Vancouver Island’s rich lumber and mineral resources.
Over the years the railway was abandoned and the line fell into disrepair. Eventually the Provincial government decided to dismantle the dangerous structure, but a massive community response to save the trestle changed their minds. Work began in 2010 on rebuilding the structure.
Today it’s an important link on the Trans Canada Trail, and a spectacular destination along the Cowichan Valley Trail. This is one of our favourite outdoor family activities in the Cowichan Valley.
The Kinsol Trestle is reached by driving south of Duncan on the Trans Canada Highway and turning onto Mill Bay/Shawnigan Lake Rd, and continuing to the end. Turn right onto Renfrew Rd, and then right on Glen Eagles Rd. After a short distance you’ll arrive at a parking lot for the Cowichan Valley Trail. From here it’s about a 15 minute walk to the Trestle. Here’s a link to a map and more information about the Kinsol Trestle.
Cowichan Bay Village
If you’ve a hankering for wandering about a picturesque seaside village, filled with funky shops, an artisan bakery, excellent seafood, and friendly locals, Cowichan Bay is where you need to be. A little off the beaten track, or Highway 1, Cowichan Bay Village is a perfect daytrip location. But if you have a few days for exploring, it’s also a perfect base for checking out the rest of the Cowichan Valley. There are excellent dining options, first class accommodations, and loads of outdoor activities. Whenever we have guests, Cowichan Bay is one of our top recommendations.
Best Places to Eat in Cowichan Bay
Did I mention food? Oh yes! This small village is big on food. From ice cream to fine dining, you’ll find it all.
Best Bakery in Cowichan Bay
True Grain is a European inspired artisan bakery that’s been here since 2004. Everything is made by hand, using organic, local stone-ground grains, without preservatives or conditioners. Every day their bakers hand make hundreds of loaves of bread, pastries and cookies. Some of the best ginger cookies around!
Open Wednesday to Sunday from 8-5, and currently available for online ordering with in-store pickup. Just give them 2+ days to get your order together and come pick it up. More information can be found here. Located on the main drag, 1725 Cowichan Bay Rd. Just look for the giant pretzel!
Best Ice Cream
Udder Guy’s Ice Cream. Nothing beats sitting on the wharf on a sunny day with an old-fashioned style ice cream cone. Original Udder Guy’s Ice Cream and Candy sticks to the theme of artisan style with their fresh, in-store made, all natural ice creams. If I had to pick a favourite, and I can’t, it would be the Licorice or the Orange & Chocolate Shavings.
Find them at 1765 Cowichan Bay Rd. Open 11-5 Tuesday thru Thursday and Sunday, 11-6 on Friday and Saturday. (250) 746-4300.
Best Fine Dining in Cowichan Bay
For fine dining with a bit of history, you’ll want to check out the Masthead Restaurant in Cowichan Bay. The building was constructed in 1863 and operated for many years as the Columbia Hotel. Today it is one of the nicest restaurants on Vancouver Island.
And that menu! From pan roasted fresh halibut to tenderloin, you’ll be hard-pressed to decide. My suggestion: just go for it. Close your eyes and stab your finger at the menu. You will not be disappointed. But I also suggest going with your server’s suggestions for an appropriate wine. The selection is just too daunting to make a decision on your own!
The Masthead Restaurant is located at 1705 Cowichan Bay Rd. Reservations are highly recommended. (250) 748-3714.
Besides food, there’s lots of other things to do in Cowichan Bay Village. The seaside location lends itself perfectly to outdoor family activities in the Cowichan Valley.
How about watersports? From Pier 66, the main marina in Cowichan Bay, you can rent kayaks or book a sailing excursion. You can charter a fishing boat, join a whale watching trip, go scuba diving, moor your own boat, or just sit and watch the boats come and go.
Walk back through town and stop in at the Cowichan Estuary Nature Centre for some hands-on, interactive exploration of the Cowichan Estuary. Here families can get up close and personal with the natural life of the estuary in touch tanks and the aquarium. There’s an interpretive trail starting from the Centre out along the oceanfront. Climb the viewing tower and try spotting killer whales.
For current hours, call (250) 597-2288
Chemainus is a small town on the east coast of Vancouver Island, about halfway between Ladysmith and Duncan. Historically a logging and mill town, Chemainus went through a radical transformation back in the early 80’s when the mill shut down, erasing jobs for the vast majority of the townsfolk.
Luckily some very creative and forward-looking people stepped up and proposed something crazy; let’s turn this former mill town into a tourist destination!
Chemainus is known as “The Little Town That Did”, because they took that crazy idea and made it a success. So what did they do? They turned their little town into an outdoor art gallery, with over 40 artist-created murals, a self-guided walking tour, and one of the coolest, friendliest downtown shopping districts around. Chemainus village provides the perfect backdrop for outdoor family activities in the Cowichan Valley.
Stop by the Chemainus Visitor Centre and pick up a souvenir Mural Map, then just follow the yellow footprints painted on the sidewalk. Each mural tells a unique story. Displayed here is the history of the Cowichan Valley and its people, right back to the original inhabitants, the Hul’qumi’num.
Another excellent resource is muraltown.com, a comprehensive website created by the Chemainus Festival of Murals Society, who manage and develop the extensive Mural Project. You can explore each mural from your computer, as well as make your way around an interactive map of Chemainus that shows you the location of each of the murals, as well as sculptures and other attractions throughout the town.
Chemainus also has some excellent dining options, in case you want a break from the tour. From ice cream to afternoon tea, to pizza and dinner theatre, you’ll find something for your particular tastes. Everything is close by, so park your car at Waterwheel Park and hoof it!
The town of Chemainus is a short 6 miles (10 Km) southeast of Ladysmith on Highway 1, and about 12 miles (20 Km) north of Duncan. Turn east at the traffic light at Henry Road. There’s a Co-Op gas station on the west side of the highway. Henry Road winds down to the Chemainus Road roundabout. Turn left and follow Chemainus Rd. into town. Follow the signs for Waterwheel Park.
This could be one of the highlights of your life. Anyone who loves the outdoors cannot miss the opportunity of observing Orca whales, Humpback or Grey whales in their natural habitat. And this part of Vancouver Island is a premiere spot for seeing them. Heck, we see Orcas coming into Ladysmith Harbour fairly frequently! But if you book a whale watching excursion with Ocean Ecoventures in Cowichan Bay, and you’re almost guaranteed whales.
The Salish Sea, off the east coast of Vancouver Island, is home to an incredibly rich and diverse marine ecosystem. The nutrient rich waters around Cowichan Bay and the neighboring Gulf Islands are home to southern resident Orca whales, as well as transient killer whales, humpback and grey whales.
Photo courtesy Oceanecoventures.com
Ocean Ecoventures passion is for this amazing wildlife and their habitat. They are strong believers in sustainability, conservation and education. They take their own environmental impact very seriously, and encourage others to act with conservation in mind. The company uses small vessels with the quietest sound footprint in the whale watching industry, which means far less intrusion for the wildlife.
Their tours have a maximum passenger capacity of 12 people, with captains who also provide information for whale researchers on their observations. Many are also professional photographers that share their photos with research agencies and the scientific community. Their deep knowledge of whales in the Salish Sea provides tour guests with a deeper understanding of these amazing animals.
If you’re interested in booking one of their tours, you can give them a call or book on their website. Check out https://oceanecoventures.com/day-tours/ for more information. Their phone number is 1-(866) 748-5333. You can also stop in if you’re already exploring Cowichan Bay at 1721 Cowichan Bay Road.
I’ve touched on just a few great outdoor activities you and your family can do in the Cowichan Valley. The region is rich in activities, far too many than I could share in one article. I’ll post more info on our part of Vancouver Island as we get into the Summer season. So keep an eye on this website for more fun things to see and do in the Cowichan Valley.
Have you been to this part of the world? Do you have any favorite family activities in the Cowichan Valley? Share with us in the comments below.