Just a short ferry ride from the main Vancouver Island city of Nanaimo, peaceful Gabriola Island is a terrific place to get away from urban life and experience quiet bays, large cedar forests and a relaxed, artistic vibe. With some impressive trails, unique caves and more than 70 art studios, Gabriola Island attracts a good mix of curious tourists and alternative lifestyle residents. And deer. Lots and lots of deer.
There are also plenty of old stone carvings on Gabriola Island and a cave burial that dates all the way back to 1500 BC. Today there are around 4,000 permanent residents – an eclectic mix of artists, farmers, business owners and retirees.
Known also as “Petroglyph Island” or “The Isle of the Arts”, Gabriola Island is a great place to go to enjoy a creative culture, choosing from a wide range of retreats, classes, festivals and workshops. Plus, it is a very popular place among outdoor enthusiasts, featuring outstanding kayaking, paddleboarding, hiking and fishing.
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Where is Gabriola Island?
Part of the Southern Gulf Islands, Gabriola Island is located in the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver and Vancouver Island. Also called the Salish Sea, this stunning area is packed with gorgeous islands and teeming with marine life.
Gabriola Island is best reached by a short ferry trip from Nanaimo on Vancouver Island.
Can you walk around Gabriola Island?
Yes, at just 5 kilometres long, Gabriola is a relatively small island so distances are short and it is an easy place to explore. Plus, public access has been retained along most of the shoreline so it is possible to walk nearly all the way around the island without leaving the coast.
Gabriola Island Map
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17 Outstanding Things to Do on Gabriola Island
For such a small island, there are still a surprising number of Gabriola Island things to do, see and experience. Even though lots of people just visit on a day trip, you could easily stick around for a few days and find plenty to keep you busy.
Find Your Favourite Gabriola Island Beach
While many of the Gulf Islands have had their coastal property swallowed up by private ownership, Gabriola Island is unique in that almost all its beaches are public access, marked by yellow concrete blocks.
Gabriola Island beaches are also surprisingly varied, from rocks to driftwood to sand to tidepools and more. Degnen Bay has one of the more popular beaches thanks to its good mix of all these features, plus some of the best petroglyphs and great views of Valdes Island.
Other good choices are Gabriola Sands (Twin Beaches), Descanso Bay (especially at sunset), Drumbeg Provincial Park (big driftwood), Brickyard Beach, Whalebone Beach, Sandwell Provincial Park and Orlebar/Berry Point.
Go for a Gabriola Island Hike
There are over 170 kilometres of hiking trails scattered throughout Gabriola Island, most of which tend to be gloriously empty.
Drumbeg Provincial Park Loop
This short loop trail is only around a kilometre and a half long and can be done in less than 30 minutes.
However, it still features excellent scenery, both in the trees and along the coast, where we were enthralled by some of the largest driftwood we’ve ever seen.
Elder Cedar Nature Reserve
An easy forest walk just off North Shore Road, the Elder Cedar Loop follows a boardwalk surrounded by massive, amazing cedars. One of the trees is even hollow and can be walked through.
Once again, the whole loop will only take about half an hour.
Petroglyph Heritage Park
History buffs generally make a beeline for this fascinating trail near the Gabriola Museum. It is lined with re-creations of petroglyphs carved into the sandstone and also leads through Garry Oaks and a nice meadow.
Get Out on a Kayak
The ocean is obviously one of the biggest draws in the Gulf Islands and probably the best way to enjoy it is perched on a kayak. Even a short paddle offers up phenomenal scenery, wonderful marine life and access to quiet, untouched beaches.
While Gabriola Island isn’t very large, the shoreline is very jagged so it still has around 100 kilometres of coastline. Kayak is also the perfect way to get a close-up look at the Indigenous petroglyphs.
You can rent single kayaks, double kayaks and paddleboards at Page’s Resort and Marina. Rentals can be 2 hours, half-day or full-day and all include life jackets, safety equipment, island maps and ocean charts. They also rent mountain bikes (with helmets, locks and backpacks).
In mid-summer, guided kayak tours are offered two days per week from 9 am to noon out of Descanso Bay Regional Park. Mondays are for kids age 8 to 15 and Tuesdays are for everyone age 8 and up. Tours cost $40 per person and they provide the kayaks but you’ll need your own life jacket, plus any water and snacks. Beginners are welcome, you need to pre-register at least 5 days ahead and the tours may be cancelled if the wind is too strong (37 km/hr +).
Do Some Salmon Fishing
Gabriola Island boasts some of the best year-round salmon fishing in the region and avid anglers come from all over to try their luck. Silver Blue Charters runs highly rated salmon fishing charters on a comfortable 25-ft SeaRay Amberjack.
They also offer some great 3-hour wildlife tours with sightings that change with the seasons but almost always impress. Eagles and seals are pretty much guaranteed year-round, while sea lions congregate around Entrance Island in spring and orcas and humpback whales are most common in summer.
Check Out Sandwell Provincial Park
Known for its large, sandy beach with fantastic ocean views, Sandwell Provincial Park is a great place to enjoy the coast. You follow a short trail (less than a kilometre) down to the beach – easy at first, then a bit steep and slippery at the end.
The park features information boards, picnic tables and pit toilets. At low tide you can walk far enough east down the beach Lock Bay to find an ancient petroglyph carved into the rock and there are also some nice, easy trails through the forest.
See the Lighthouse from Berry Point
Along with more sandstone rock formations, some of the most amazing views of Gabriola Island can be found at Orlebar Point. In addition to an expansive look out over the sea, the snow-covered mountains on both sides of the Georgia Strait and (often) many of the fascinating marine species that call it home, you also get a great view of Entrance Island, home to the famous Entrance Island Lighthouse and its pair of resident cats who have become something of an Instagram phenomenon.
Not that you’re likely to spot them from the beach, but just knowing they are out there is a thrill in itself, obviously.
Explore Gabriola Sands Provincial Park
Known locally as “Twin Beaches” because there are beaches on either side of the road facing in opposite directions, Gabriola Sands Provincial Park also boasts some pretty exceptional views to go with its many other attractions.
To the west is a large grassy play area, picnic spots and more sandstone while to the east you’ll find powdery white sand and calm shallow water that is great for families.
Marvel at the Malaspina Galleries
The highlight of Gabriola Island for us, the mesmerizing Malaspina Galleries are a beautiful set of curved sandstone formations hidden away at the end of small dirt road in the northwest corner of the island.
“The Galleries” have been naturally eroded by wind, water, snow and ice over thousands of years and are named after Alejandro Malaspina, an intrepid Spanish explorer from the 18th century. There are a number of superb photo spots and in summer people enjoy swimming in the bay below the rocks.
From the end of Malaspina Road, you follow an easy trail to the point then make your way over the rocks around the point to the galleries.
Hit the Links at Gabriola Golf & Country Club
Golfers may want to get out to hit a few at the basic but scenic and challenging 9-hole Gabriola Golf & Country Club.
It is open to non-members, has a full-service clubhouse and winds its way around lovely Hoggan Lake.
Wander Drumbeg Provincial Park
Tucked away down in the far southeastern corner of Gabriola Island, Drumbeg Provincial Park offers a completely different angle for views of the Gabriola Passage, Valdes Island, the Strait of Georgia and the Coast Mountains north of Vancouver. We have already talked about the short hiking loop here, as well as the giant driftwood, and there are also even more cool sandstone formations.
Swimming can be tricky here because of strong currents and riptides but it is a popular scuba diving site. On dry land, there are pit toilets and picnic tables and families enjoy the beach and grassy fields.
Hit the Weekly Gabriola Farmer’s Market
The classic Gabriola Saturday Market is hopping from 10 am to 2 pm every (you guessed it) Saturday from Victoria Day (May Long Weekend) to Thanksgiving (the Canadian version in October). You’ll find upwards of 100 stands featuring everything from produce and local food specialties to arts and crafts.
Visit the Paradise Island Alpaca Farm
Alpacas, not llamas? Okay, there are a couple llamas as well, but mostly alpacas (smaller, and arguably cuter). Plus dozens of chickens, more than a dozen goats and even a few miniature horses. All of which can be fed, petted and adored by kids and adults alike.
Entrance to the farm is free but they do appreciate donations that are used for upkeep of the animals. For opening hours you’ll just have to swing by and see if the sign says “open”. When you’ve had your fill of mingling with all the friendly animals you can check out some of their products, including alpaca wool, knitted clothing and, of course, eggs.
Pick Up Some Fresh Produce
There are small, local farms all over Gabriola Island where you can find just about anything from produce to meat to baked goods to specialty drinks.
One of the more popular ones is AngelStar Farm, which has more than 20 types of heritage fruits, herbal teas, cuttings, artisan jams and syrups, flowers and even vinegars and mustards.
Try Scuba Diving
Although many people don’t realize it, there is excellent scuba diving in the Gulf Islands. Drumbeg Provincial Park is a great spot where those with their own gear can dive right from shore, or more experienced divers can head out by boat to Roger’s Reef in the Gabriola Passage.
There are no dive shops open on Gabriola Island at the moment but there are several places in Nanaimo that run dives in the channels.
Browse Ravenskill Orchard & Cidery
Specializing in heritage apples – those that formerly grew wild throughout the region but have slowly disappeared to development – Ravenskill is doing their best to bring these apples back through organic farming.
You can collect apples in their u-pick orchards or just have a look around and buy some caramel apples, apple butter or, of course, one of their unique craft ciders.
Shop for Local Gabriola Island Art
Whether you are in the mood to buy or just enjoy browsing the many wonderful local creations, you should check out a few of the classic Gabriola Island art galleries. One of the top events on Gabriola Island is the Thanksgiving Studio Tour, when close to a hundred local artists welcome guests to their galleries.
But any time of year you can pick up a Studio Tour Guide from the Gabriola Arts Council and have a look through to decide what to focus on. There is a vast array of options from paintings and sculpture to woodworking and jewellery. Some studios are open year-round and others will need to be contacted for access.
Free Spirit Gallery is a popular contemporary art space, and a few of the other favourites include Moonshine Studio, Gabriola Mystic Minerals, Zaworski Homestead, Wishbone Specialty Foods, Marsha Batchelor Abstract Art, Green Bough Studio, Marchlight and Kate Wood Art and Jewellery.
Learn Island History at the Gabriola Museum
Like most things on Gabriola Island, the museum is a bit odd and worth a stop because of that, rather than despite it.
Learn the history of the island, enjoy the garden, check out the Indigenous baskets, hear stories of hippie habitation and learn how to rub a petroglyph properly (hint: it’s sort of how you’d think).
Where to Stay: Gabriola Island Hotels
There are a couple good hotels on Gabriola Island but they do tend to fill up fast. Luckily, Nanaimo is just a short ferry ride away with many more choices if these don’t work out.
The Surf Lodge and Pub
We stayed at The Surf Lodge and Pub and, for us, the highlight was the location with a great view over the water.
We were treated to a pretty stunning sunset as well.
It’s a quirky older property and the rooms in the main building have a rustic feel but have everything you need and a few have ocean views.
If you have a larger group the three bedroom cottage is a good option. There is a good restaurant and pub on-site.
Gabriola Central B&B
On South Road, Gabriola Central B&B is a good option that is more centrally located and within walking distance to restaurants but still feels surrounded by nature. You’ll enjoy the tasty breakfast and friendly hosts.
Nearby Gabriola Island Accommodation Options
Considering that Gabriola Island is a pretty small place, you are probably also hoping to explore some of the many outstanding attractions on Vancouver Island. If that is the case, you may be better off staying on the main island so you don’t have to rely on the ferries as much. There are plenty to choose from, although here is one we can specifically recommend:
Island View B&B
This beautiful bed and breakfast just outside of Nanaimo features lush gardens just a short walk from the beach. Island View B&B boasts amazing views of the bay and another fantastic breakfast. This is the perfect central location for people looking to explore many different areas on Vancouver Island, while still enjoying quiet, natural surroundings.
Gabriola Island Camping
To truly soak in the amazing natural feel of Gabriola Island, spending a couple nights enjoying quiet nights in your tent could be the way to go.
Descanso Bay Regional Park Campground
With a family-friendly beach, great swimming, nice picnic area and phenomenal sunsets, Descanso Bay Campground is a fabulous place to get back to nature, while still sticking close to all the Gabriola Island sights and attractions.
It is less than 2 km from both the ferry terminal and the village and there are more than 30 forested tenting sites, some of which are large enough for RVs and a few that even have ocean views. You can bring your own firewood or buy it there unless there is a fire ban in effect (which is most of the time, unfortunately), and there are pit toilets and a limited amount of potable water. There are no showers and no sani-dump.
There are three separate bays and a launch if you want to explore the photogenic sandstone coastline by boat or kayak. Meanwhile, nearby Cox Community Park has several easy hiking trails to enjoy and the Malaspina Galleries are only a couple kilometres away as well (accessible on foot or from the water).
When to Visit: Gabriola Island Weather
As with most of the Gulf Islands in British Columbia, Gabriola Island enjoys a very mild, temperate climate. Summer offers the best weather (25/13C high/low and very little rain) and the most things to do on Gabriola Island. The farms and studios are open more often in summer and the beaches are much more festive.
However, the weather is fairly mild all year-round (7/2C in January) so a winter visit can also be great for people looking for a quieter getaway with empty beaches and hiking trails. Of course, there is also more rain (and sometimes even a bit of snow), many tourist services shut down for the winter and even the restaurants, shops and studios are often only open on weekends.
Coming in one of the shoulder seasons (May/June or September/October) can be the perfect mix of good weather and fewer people. Late spring is a good time for wildflowers and it can be fun to visit during the fall farm harvests.
Where to Eat: Gabriola Island Restaurants
Mad Rona’s Coffee Bar
Mad Rona’s is known for its excellent coffee and a lovely ambience. It is conveniently located shortly after getting off the ferry if you need a quick pick me up before starting to explore.
Check out the outdoor patio with shady trees. The cookies and wraps are particularly popular.
Enjoy the cozy atmosphere or just take your pizza to go. They serve more than just pizza so you will have lots of options. And remember to save room for desert.
Perfect for grabbing a quick beer if you are a bit early for the ferry as it is conveniently located overlooking the ferry terminal.
Can you do a day trip to Gabriola Island?
Yes, it is located just a short ferry ride from Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. The island is small enough to traverse entirely in a day, so a Gabriola Day trip is definitely do-able, although staying for a couple nights will give you a chance to explore more thoroughly.
How to Get to Gabriola Island BC
Gabriola Island is just 5 kilometres from downtown Nanaimo and is easily reached by a short ferry ride from Nanaimo Harbour.
Gabriola Island Ferry
Vehicles, bikes and foot passengers can take the 20-minute BC Ferries trip between Gabriola Island and Nanaimo Harbour that runs over 20 times per day.
The Gabriola Island Ferry Advisory Committee provides a chart of the busiest sailings that is worth referring to if your schedule is flexible and you can also check the Gabriola Ferry Cam to see what the lineup looks like in real time.
From Vancouver, there are ferries to Nanaimo from Tsawwassen (2 hrs) and Horseshoe Bay (1.5 hrs), where you can switch to the Gabriola Island ferry.
By far the fastest and easiest way to get to Gabriola Island from Vancouver is to book a float plane journey to Silva Bay with Gulf Island Seaplanes. They usually make the trip 3 times per day and it doesn’t cost nearly as much as you’d expect ($132 per adult and half that for kids).
Getting Around Gabriola Island
The easiest way to get around Gabriola Island is by car, although it is also small enough to explore by bike (or ebike). Compared to other Gulf Islands, Gabriola has a rather impressive public transportation system, by which I mean they have one. Even if it is limited to just GERTIE, a local community bus service that tries to coordinate with the ferry (but doesn’t always succeed).
There is also a taxi (singular) on Gabriola Island Canada. If you are on a schedule you should definitely call ahead of time (250-247-0049) to schedule a pickup rather than waiting until it’s time to go.
Gulf Island Hopping
The lovely, forested Gulf Islands are scattered throughout the Georgia Strait between Vancouver and Vancouver Island. They are roughly divided into two sections, the Northern Gulf Islands of Denman and Hornby, and the more numerous Southern Gulf Islands. The other south islands that are inhabited, have accommodation options and BC ferry connections are Salt Spring, Pender, Mayne, Galiano and Saturna.
However, there are several other small islands that can also be visited if you have access to your own boat, a few of which have accommodation options or basic camping. Valdes Island and Thetis Island have places to stay and people occasionally also visit Mudge Island, De Courcy Island, Ruxton Island, Portland Island and Prevost Island.
Each of the beautiful Gulf Islands features its own unique sights and personality. Spending a week or so island hopping through this superb area is sure to be one of the most memorable trips you can take in Western Canada.
Salt Spring Island
The most populous and developed of the Gulf Islands, bustling Salt Spring Island offers a huge variety of activities.
It is one of the best places in British Columbia to shop at local farm stands and in summer offers an impressive array of live music venues.
Pender Island is actually made up of North Pender and South Pender, the two divided by a man-made channel back in the early days of European habitation.
Both sides are fantastically peaceful and feature some of the best viewpoints in the South Gulf Islands, including Gowlland Point, Mortimer Spit and Magic Lake.
Wild and mountainous Saturna Island is tucked into a small pocket of Canadian territory with the USA surrounding on three sides. It is one of the least known and least visited of the Gulf Islands and is a great choice for those looking to get off the beaten path.
Home to Miner’s Bay, once the most important harbour on the Canadian Pacific Coast, Mayne Island is full of small, hidden beaches, nice hikes and the exceptional Japanese Gardens, our pick for the most surprising attraction in the Gulf Islands.
Of all the Gulf Islands, Galiano Island is the closest to Vancouver which, combined with a wealth of natural highlights, has made it one of the top adventure destinations for people looking to escape the city.
Hiking, biking, kayaking and fishing are just a few of the possibilities on long, narrow Galiano.
Hugely popular in summer, scenic and diverse Hornby Island is known for a variety of highlights, including local wine, art and crafts.
There are several outstanding beaches and a few excellent hiking trails.
Often overshadowed by its more popular neighbour, Hornby Island, Denman Island has plenty to offer visitors in its own right. Not the least of which is a much quieter, more natural experience.
With impressive hiking, serene beaches and more deer than you can honk your horn at, it is worth setting aside some time to explore before jumping on that next ferry to Hornby.
Gabriola Island Summary
Just a short ferry trip from the major Vancouver Island city of Nanaimo, Gabriola Island has a fantastic natural feel and is a great place to enjoy outdoor pursuits, unique sandstone formations and petroglyphs. It also has one of the most vibrant art scenes in the region.
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