Who says camping can't be sustainable?
Pacific Rim National Park and the nearby towns of Tofino and Uclulet are the perfect eco-friendly vacation destination for active families and outdoor adventurers. The beaches along the 40 km stretch of Pacific coastline between Uclulet to the south and Tofino to the north are Canada’s only major surfing hub. Since my husband Fred and teenage sons Ezra and Adin caught the surfing bug several years ago we’ve been spending a week every summer tenting at one of the area’s campgrounds.
This year we made our annual pilgrimage at the end of June, one week before “Plastic Free July”. Happily, camping for us has become pretty plastic-free. Over time we’ve assembled a complete set of reusable cooking and eating utensils. No single-use products for us! And when we camp, we always bring along earth-safe biodegradable soap for washing dishes. I recommend an all-in-one biodegradable soap that doubles as a body wash for showering and laundry soap. Our Coleman stove and lantern have refillable fuel tanks, which means they don’t utilize those unsightly single-use propane canisters that often litter parks and beaches. Even, the lighter we use to light our stove, lantern and campfire is refillable.
Naturally, we always bring along a set of our own GlassSipper reusable glass drinking straws for when we go out for shakes, smoothies, and hot beverages at Tofino’s many great coffee shops such as Tofino Coffee Roasting Co (605 Gibson St), Tofitian Cafe (1180 Pacific Rim Hwy) and the Rino Coffee House (430 Campbell St). If we ever run short on our GlassSippers - which admittedly is pretty unlikely - we can always pick up more locally at the Merge Artisan Collective Shop in Tofino at 305-B Campbell Street, and in Ucluelet at the aquarium gift shop. We also bring along our GlassSipper travel cases and pouches to keep our straws clean and safe.
Many cafes, smoothie and ice cream shops in the area now offer paper and “compostable” straws, which are definitely much more eco-friendly than single-use-plastic straws. Nevertheless, we are happier with our GlassSippers which, unlike paper, do not collapse or disintegrate part way through your drink, or give your beverage a wet-paper taste. And, remember - “compostable” doesnot mean biodegradable. Compostable straws do not biodegrade on their own. Tossed in a garbage or a recyclable bin, a compostable straw will remain intact much in the same way as a single-use-plastic straw, and cause much the same damage to the environment. Compostable straws will only degrade in an industrial composter. Sadly, few actually make it all the way to an industrial composter.
We’ve learned the hard way that campsites during the summer can be almost impossible to come by around Tofino. The first year we tried to get a campsite in the area we attempted to book one of the 94 campsites at the spectacular Green Point Campground in Pacific Rim National Park, set on a bluff overlooking Long Beach (which at 14+ km long, deserves its name). For $30 per family, the sites are also a great bargain. Sadly, nothing was available. Not just for the week of our trip. There was nothing for the entire summer! Fortunately, we discovered the privately owned Long Beach Campground, with available sites for $50. Unfortunately, the campground’s name is its only close connection with Long Beach. Located almost 2 km away from the beach, the campground is right beside the airport and golf course. Still, we were happy to find a campsite anywhere in the area, and the campground was pleasant and relatively well-maintained, though a bit of a party destination, perhaps because it was the only place available at the last minute.
We’ve since learned that to book a campsite at Green Point Campground for dates during the summer one must go on the National Park website as soon as bookings open each year on January 2nd at 8:00 a.m. The first time we booked at Green Point Campground we went onto the website ahead of time to scout out the most desirable sites. You know, the ones that are far from the highway, with an ocean view, and close to the bathrooms and showers, but not too close. Prior to the start time all sites are marked by a small green circle, indicating that the particular site is available. We “cleverly” made up our list in order of preference and got online well before the 8:00 a.m. start time. Once the webpage opened up for bookings, however, the entire campground quickly shifted from green to red, as sites were snapped up before our eyes. Panicking, we immediately jettisoned our list and took whatever site we could get before there was nothing left. Sadly, no ocean view or proximity to the bathhouse. But at least we were far from the highway.
This year we tried out the new Surf Grove Campground which opened in 2020. Surf Grove is pricier than the rest but has excellent facilities (including WiFi, electricity, and water at the sites), is well run and maintained by a friendly staff and, best of all, perfectly located right on Cox Bay, which is the area’s most popular surfing beach. Our site was two minutes walk from the beach, which was amazing for the surfers in the family. With the beach steps away, there was no need to wait for stragglers. Whoever was ready could just walk off with his surfboard to the beach. And those who were done first could just walk back to the campsite. Another great feature is showers, hoses, and bathrooms right at the edge of the beach, and hot outdoor showers back at the bathhouse.
Surf Grove is also dog friendly, with green “degradable” doggie bag dispensers and a full array of recycling-garbage receptacles at key locations around the campground. While the boys were out carving waves and catching barrels, our Border Terrier “Hunter” and I would walk the endless beaches and rainforest paths. Be sure to keep a close watch on your dogs though! There are wolves in the area who have been known to brazenly snatch dogs on the beaches (usually in the early morning) and even on the bike path along the highway.
I love the fact that we can cook our own meals at the campgrounds. In preparation for your trips, I do a shop for produce just before leaving home, but also like to support local businesses by augmenting supplies at the well-stocked Tofino supermarket, the “Co-op Food Store” (you don’t need to be a member) at 140 First St (hours 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily), and the Common Loaf Bake Shop, 180 First St, where the peasant bread is usually eaten before we get it back to our campsite, so I have to buy two loaves. Friends and family are always thrilled when we bring back a loaf for them. The Common Loaf is also a regular destination for baked treats, hot chocolate, and a quick slice of pizza.
Our first supper was hot dogs and corn on the cob roasted over the open flame, and then variations of pasta with salad for the rest of the nights. Breakfast is burritos or eggs along with oatmeal enhanced with nuts, berries and granola. Lunches tend to be on-the-fly - usually pita with hummus, cheese on bagels, and cut up fresh veggies and fruit.
Once we finish setting up camp on the day we arrive, our next stop is always “Live to Surf” to obtain surf boards and wetsuits. Tofino’s first surf shop, Live to Surf (Est. 1984) is a great place to recycle and reuse … wetsuits. There is always a rack of second hand wetsuits. It’s a bit hit and miss in terms of sizes. But over the years my husband and boys have managed to find good fitting wetsuits for as little as $30, and no more than $120. With growing boys we’ve had to find “new” used wetsuits every year or two. This year we’ve also picked up an excellent hand-me-down surfboard from a friend who has moved up to the Okanagan, which has much to offer, though not a lot of surfing.
While my boys check out second-hand surfing gear, I dutifully (though not exactly happily) stand in line at the original iconic Tacofino food truck located in the parking lot right behind the surf shop for some pre-surf fish tacos and burritos. The lines during meal times at Tacofino are crazy, so we always try to time our visits for late-morning, mid-afternoon or late evening. Oh, and by the way, the food at Tacofino - at least at the original food truck behind the surf shop - is as good as its reputation.
While Fred and the boys surf, I never have a problem finding things to do. Apart from lots of walking with Hunter, I enjoy the chance to catch up on my reading and writing. Last year I took a whale watching tour. I even do some GlassSipper admin work on my iPad. Although I left my bike at home, next year we all plan to bring our bikes. The road between Ucluelet and Tofino is not at all bike-friendly, with narrow or non-existent shoulders and fast moving traffic. However, after years of construction, a world-class off-road bike path linking Tofino and Ucluelet is nearing completion and will be open by summer 2022 for sure. Once finished, the bike path will make getting anywhere in the area both eco-friendly and practical. You’ll be able to park your vehicle upon arrival and not get back in until your departure. You can even get a special attachment for cycling with a surfboard - or just carry the board under your arm like many intrepid local surfer-cyclists do. Part of the bike path parallels the highway, but many sections snake through the rainforest and run alongside the beaches.
Although we eat most of our meals at the campsite, we always try to have one supper at the fabulous Basic Goodness Pizza with its wood-burning oven. The restaurant is located at151 Campbell St on the west side of the road near the entrance to Tofino. Basic Goodness does have regular hours, but do come early! The restaurant makes its dough fresh daily and shuts down once the dough runs out.
On this year’s trip we made a great new food discovery - the Surfside Grill take-out joint. You’ll never find it unless you know it’s there. Next door to the Surf Grove Campground is one of Tofino’s high-end beach-side resorts - Pacfic Sands. To get to the Surfside Grill, which is in the middle of Pacific Sands, you can either walk up from the beach, or drive in from the highway (and park in the Pacific Sands parking lot next to the surf shop) - but there are no signs at either point of access. The Surfside has an extensive burger and seafood menu with reasonable prices, and its own beautiful courtyard with picnic tables and outdoor fireplaces, and a pretty spectacular view of the ocean. Roasting marshmallows over the fireplaces is encouraged. And here’s another secret known only to locals (and all of us)! On Monday’s the Surfside offers a “local special” which is an excellent veggie burger and a generous portion of fries for $10. It’s not on the menu so just ask for the local special.
A second outstanding food discovery we made this time is the Cheesus Custom Sandwich food-truck located at the T-intersection where the highway ends and the roads to Ucluelet and Tofino split off in opposite directions. Despite the name, there are lots of meat, veggie and vegan options - all on foot-long rolls baked fresh daily. It’s the perfect stop for your hungry crew on the way in or out of town.
Thankfully, everyone in the family got what they needed to nourish their body, spirit, and stomach during our stay at Surf Grove Campground. We hope to return at the end of the summer for a multi-day ocean kayaking adventure in Clayoquot Sound, just north of Tofino. So will keep you posted!