In spring, British Columbians face some tough choices. There’s still plenty of skiing and snowboarding to be done, but it’s also time to hit the hiking trails, put the boat in the water and break out the camping gear.
Camping? In spring? You bet. The weather’s agreeable and the parks aren’t yet crowded. The only real quandary is choosing where to go. Canada’s westernmost province boasts more than 1,000 provincial parks and protected areas. All those public beaches, meadows and mountains, along with hundreds of city, regional and national parks, form the most extensive park system in the country. And here’s the thing: every one of those parks has been set aside for a reason. From rare eco-systems and endangered wildlife habitats to unique geography and priceless First Nations heritage, BC’s parks are all havens for something precious.
Whether you’re planning a day out with the kids, a photo safari or the expedition of a lifetime, here’s a short list of parks that will reward a visit right now.
Bring the Family
For clement weather and plenty of kid-friendly activities, head to Vancouver Island. Just 90 minutes by ferry from Metro Vancouver, North America’s biggest Pacific Island is a wonderland of lush forests, ocean shores, seaside towns and adventure-ready parks. A great choice for families is Englishman River Falls Provincial Park near Parksville, where a stroll through silent forests of Douglas fir, cedar, hemlock and maple ends at two thundering waterfalls.
The provincial parks in the immediate area include Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park, where a long sandy beach is primed for the first sand castle of the year, and MacMillan Provincial Park, where the massive Douglas firs of Cathedral Grove — some up to 800 years old — loom high above the forest floor.
If your gang is up for star gazing and wienie roasts, hop a ferry to Ruckle Provincial Park on Salt Spring Island, one of the cluster of Gulf Islands sprinkled across the strait between Vancouver Island and BC’s mainland. The park’s campground, on a grassy meadow overlooking Swanson Channel, is among the most photogenic tent sites in the province. Bonus: the gentle climate makes early-season camping an enticing option, even for softies. The seaside sites are walk-in, but that’s part of the fun: wheelbarrow your gear a few minutes from the parking lot and you have spectacular ocean views, easy hiking trails and seven kilometres (4.3 miles) of beachcombing without a car in sight. Ruckle Park is set on a century-old homestead and is still part working farm; after checking out the beach, explore the heritage farm buildings and gaze at the lambs gambolling in the fields.
Watch for Wildlife
Spring in BC brings out much more than lambs. The province is home to a greater diversity of wildlife than any other part of Canada, and spring is prime time. Imagine watching mountain goats and big horn sheep scampering along impossibly narrow alpine ledges, or spotting elk feeding quietly by a forest pool, or seeing huge flocks of migratory birds returning to vibrant wetlands.
Where to start? The rare and diverse ecosystems in BC’s Thompson Okanagan region provide unique wildlife-viewing opportunities. While this sun-blessed part of southcentral BC is best known for its luscious wines, vineyard-studded hills and abundant orchards, its lakeside bluffs, pine forests, grasslands and desert landscapes are favoured habitats for everything from deer and black bears to muskrats, beavers and birdlife.
Your destination? Vaseux Lake Provincial Park. Set on a lakeshore between the resort towns of Penticton and Oliver, this relatively small park punches above its weight in the number, variety and accessibility of its wildlife. Besides those agile mountain goats and big horn sheep, Vaseux protects a wide range of endangered species, including badgers, bats and even the night snake, Canada’s rarest serpent. Trails lead to neighbouring Vaseux Lake Migratory Bird Sanctuary, where waterfowl can be seen throughout the year, and migratory birds fill the air each spring.
Or head east to the wildlife-rich parks of BC’s Kootenay Rockies region. Set among the lakes and snow peaks of BC’s southeast corner, Kikomun Creek Provincial Park is home to a wealth of wildlife, including herons, elk and one of BC’s largest populations of endangered western painted turtles.
Spring is mating season. The turtles, some as big as dinner plates, emerge from hibernation. On warm days, you’ll see them sunning on lakeside logs (sometimes stacked several deep), chasing potential mates and paddling in the water. It’s also an ideal time to explore the park’s hiking and biking trails, or to launch a canoe and join the turtles for a paddle around Surveyors Lake — keeping a respectable distance, of course.
Dip the Paddle
Boaters, kayakers and scuba divers get almost misty-eyed at the mention of Desolation Sound. About 145 kilometres (90 miles), and two ferry rides, north of Vancouver, this island-dotted sound, lapped with clear, warm waters, peppered with snug coves and backed by towering snow peaks, is a stunning example of BC’s wild and jagged shoreline.
Desolation Sound is home to five parks — Desolation Sound Marine Provincial Park, Copeland Islands Marine Provincial Park, Malaspina Provincial Park, Roscoe Bay Provincial Park and Okeover Arm Provincial Park. All have sheltered shorelines, and one of the best ways to see them is by kayak. Go it alone, launching from Lund or Okeover Arm Park, or join a local outfitter to explore the area’s hidden coves and islets. Powell River Sea Kayak and Terracentric Coastal Adventures both offer day and multi-day trips into the sound.
For a very different paddling experience, head east to the Cariboo Chilcotin. This vast landscape of ancient forests, lakes and mountain ranges is the setting for some of the world’s great wilderness adventures. Among them is the legendary Bowron Lake Canoe Circuit, a six- to 10-day expedition that follows a 116-kilometre (72-mile) series of lakes, streams, rivers and portages in Bowron Lake Provincial Park. A bucket-list staple, this journey takes you through deep forest and crystalline lakes framed by Cariboo Mountain peaks. The area abounds with moose, bear, beavers, otters and birdlife.
Spring comes a little later in this part of the province; the circuit is open mid-May through September. Numbers are limited and reservations with BC Parks are essential. Local outfitters Pathways and Whitegold Adventures offer guided expeditions starting in June; Whitegold Adventures runs four-day samplers of the circuit starting in May.
Seek out Northern Treasures
Prefer to relax in a spa-like pool, surrounded by orchids and wandering moose? Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park, three hours north of Fort Nelson on BC's Alaska Highway, is just the ticket — and possibly the only place in the world you’ll find orchids and wandering moose. Set deep in BC’s northern boreal spruce forest, the hot springs, one of Canada's largest, creates a micro-climate warm enough to support such tropical flora as yellow monkey flowers, ostrich ferns and orchids. A boardwalk passes through the forest and a warm water swamp, leading to an open-air pool where temperatures stay a toasty 42-52°C/107-125°F year round. In early spring, lingering snow creates a winter wonderland; at any time of year you might see moose wandering down to feed at the swamp.
More unique geology is on hand further west at Anhluut’ukwsim Laxmihl Angwinga’asanskwhl Nisga’a. Also known as Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Park, this spot, north of Terrace, is the site of a massive volcanic eruption that created an almost lunar landscape about 250 years ago.
The park, managed jointly by the Nisga’a First Nation and BC Parks, is significant not just for its exceptional moonscape, but also for its important First Nations heritage. Guided tours of the lava cone, starting in mid-May, include a hike to a viewpoint overlooking the crater and a chance to learn about the site’s special place in Nisga’a culture.
Of course, all these parks just scratch the surface of what the province has to offer. Whether you’re looking for cultural treasures, outdoor adventure, stunning scenery or just a chance to kick back for the weekend, at least one of BC’s thousand provincial parks is sure to fit the bill.
To discover more BC Parks, visit env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks. For more on British Columbia's destinations and travel information, visit HelloBC.com.