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The Best Family Camping On Vancouver Island

  • Michael 
Best family camping-Rathtrevor Park

As a family, our outdoor activity of choice for the better part of three seasons of the year is camping. My teenage son Zachary used to believe that camping was better than video games! He’s 17 now, and that may not still be the case, but it is still near the top of his list of favourite things. One of the best family camping spots is also close to our home, making it ideal for setting up on a Friday evening after work. Welcome to Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park!

Located just 25 minutes north of the Departure Bay ferry terminal in Nanaimo, 347 hectare Rathtrevor Provincial Park is a popular camping and day use area on the ocean just south of Parksville, BC. Moreover this park sees the highest visitor rate of any Provincial Park on Vancouver Island. It can make getting a camping spot pretty challenging!

A Guide To Online Gambling

Booking a Provincial Park campsite these days is a bit like gambling. Or an online raffle. You wake up early on a day four months before your actual camping date, sign onto the gambling website, I mean the Provincial Park reservations site, and right at 7 AM you leap onto the campsite you hope to win. However if you weren’t savvy enough to have your particular Provincial Park page pre-loaded, the chances were slim to none you’d get a site booked.

best family camping-Rathtrevor Park

And so this year, when booking our site at Rathtrevor Park, I logged in at 7 AM on the nose, and landed my second choice, all complete by 7:06. Consequently the entire campground of 250 sites was booked by 7:07!

I’ve been finding this is the case for most reservable campsites in BC lately. Everybody wants a site, and there just aren’t enough to go around. So many more people are camping. And why not? If you have the gear, it’s the least expensive form of vacationing for families. Depending on the Provincial campsite you visit, prices range from about $15 a night up to $40.

Despite the challenges of nailing down a campsite, I recommend making the effort. Because the rewards greatly outweigh the difficulty! Why do I say this? Let’s start with the beach.

Rathtrevor Beach

Rathtrevor Beach is an unexpected treat for those who have never been there. Park the car and walk the short distance from the day use parking area, and you’re struck by the expansive, open skies. You have a view across the Salish Sea to the magnificent Coast Mountains on the BC mainland.

best family camping on Vancouver Island-Rathtrevor Park

Crest the low bluff and the sea is suddenly revealed, you won’t believe your eyes. If you show up at low tide, you might have a hard time figuring out where the water is. At the peak of low tide, the water’s edge can be more than half a mile (800 metres) from the top of the beach! If you wanted to dip your toes in the ocean, you might have to walk an additional 8 or 10 minutes.

Best Family Camping-Rathtrevor Park

Having such a wide stretch of sand means you can lay out all your blankets, lounge chairs, coolers, beach toys, umbrellas, and not worry about crowding out your fellow beach goers. There is so much room to spread out that, even on busy days, Rathtrevor Beach is never crowded.

The beach extends along Craig Bay for almost 2 miles. Most of the beach lies outside of Rathtrevor Provincial Park, but it’s all public beach below the high tide line. South of the park you’ll find numerous beach resorts, hotels and B & B’s.

Explore the south end of the beach and find thousands of sand dollars, those iconic shell-like relatives to the sea urchin that resemble silver dollars. Most of the sand dollars you’ll see in the tide pools and half buried in the sand are still alive. If they are dark grey or dark brown in colour, please leave them be. The bleached white specimens are the skeletons, or tests, of dead sand dollars. 

 Warm Tropical Seas?

 We’ve built our fair share of sand castles at Rathtrevor. It’s always fun to walk the beach and check out the other creative sand builds. Some people will spend the entire day doing nothing but assemble incredibly elaborate sand castles, only to watch them be reclaimed by the advancing tide.

And speaking of tides, a unique feature of the long, flat expanse of sand is the turn of the tide. When the tide begins its steady return to the top of the beach, visitors can watch the water creep across the sand. On a warm summer day, when the sand has absorbed the sun’s heat for the better part of the day, the advancing tide picks up the heat from the sand. Wading through the water is like being in a wading pool in a Mexican resort! Albeit without the all-you-can-eat guacamole bar.

Best family camping Vancouver Island-Rathtrevor Park

During the summer months, the incoming tide also picks up fresh strands of green seaweed and carries it near the shore. We like grabbing clumps and throwing it at each other. There’s something viscerally satisfying hearing the wet slap of fresh seaweed on bare skin. Our seaweed fights are pretty epic. If ya can’t have a snowball fight in July, just grab some seaweed! I suspect the other beach visitors may think we’re a little unhinged, chasing each other through the warm, shallow water and chucking live plants at each other’s faces.

A Short History of Rathtrevor 

At one time Rathtrevor was a working farm. William Rath, a moderately successful Irish gold prospector, chose this area of Vancouver Island to homestead and start a family. Together with his 20 year old bride Elizabeth and their infant daughter, 52 year old William arrived by canoe and established a small homestead. Starting with a small log cabin and a rough barn, the industrious couple cleared some of the land for growing crops. Most was left forested.

Best family camping-Rathtrevor Park

Not just busy homesteaders, the Rath’s also produced five offspring, future farm workers to expand operations. They built a small house on what is now one of the parking areas by the beach. Their third house is now the Nature House, part of the Province of BC’s Parks Interpretive Program.

William died in 1903, leaving the monumental task of raising 5 young sprogs and managing a growing farm to his wife Elizabeth. But she was entirely up for the task. Under her guidance and hard work, the farm thrived. But Elizabeth had bigger ideas as well.

Soon auto touring became popular. Elizabeth capitalized by operating a campground on the property. Ultimately this proved an excellent addition to the Rath family finances. A savvy marketer, Elizabeth called it “Rathtrevor Campground”, deeming it a more lyrical name for a tourist operation.

The property became part of the Provincial Park system in 1967.

The Campground

With 250 reservable campsites, and another 25 or so walk-in sites, Rathtrevor’s campground is huge. All the sites are forested, with the exception of the 50-odd RV sites in an area near the beach parking.

The forested sites vary in size, but most are quite large and can accommodate the largest pseudo-camping motorhome/mobile summer cottage. And if you’ve got little kids, they’ll love playing in the forested areas right next to your campsite. Our site this past weekend had a great area of open forest between ours and the site next door. This is pretty common at Rathtrevor.

Best Family Camping-Rathtrevor Park

But there’s also a great playground area if your little ones aren’t into imaginary forest games. There’s a climbing wall, and a BMX trail around the perimeter. Unfortunately Heather won’t let me near it, ’cause I’ll scare the kids with my noisy climbing attempts…

The Nature House

The Nature House at Rathtrevor Park has it’s own interesting history. Built around 1942, the Nature House used to be Rath House, the Rath’s family home. And though it’s seen better days, it’s still a fascinating peek back to a simpler time. There are photos on the wall showing the family farm and home. I enjoy walking through the narrow corridors and seeing in my mind’s eye the life these courageous people led.

Best Family camping-Nature House, Rathtrevor Park

Not just a piece of Vancouver Island history, the Nature House is a fun place to learn about the natural history and plant and animal stories of the area. Lots of displays hold the attention of kids and adults. It’s also a nice place to enjoy an ice cream sandwich under a shady Douglas Fir.

The Nature House closed last summer, and is still currently closed. I understand they are planning on opening it again this summer. They are completing some renovations and program updates.

Hiking at Rathtrevor

Rathtrevor is not for the hardcore hiker. But if you want to go for a nice walk, without hills or stream crossings, you’ll enjoy the trails here. With five and a half kilometers of trails meandering through the park, you’ll still be able to get your daily steps in.

The popular trail is the beach walk, at about 2 kilometers long. The trail roughly begins near the north end of the campground and follows the shoreline between forest and beach.

Hiking Trails-Rathtrevor Park

My favourite trails are the interior paths. They meander through the old farm and woods, past the Nature House and around a small wetland area. There are almost always signs warning of bears in the area. Don’t let that deter you. Just don’t go hiking wearing a rancid meat shirt and you’ll be fine.

Hiking trails-Rathtrevor Park

Our June Camping Weekend

This weekend was our annual June trip to Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park. And so we brought along our two International Students, Onno and Ahmet. Ahmet, from Turkey, had never camped before. He seemed to enjoy the experience.

Onno and Ahmet doing what teenagers do best

Even if you’re not a camper, I recommend a trip to Rathtrevor Park. The Day Use area of the park is worth the trip. Endless sand beach with shady picnic areas, walking trails and warm water for family seaweed fights. What more could you need for a relaxing family outing? You will love it!

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