British Columbia’s Gulf Islands are a beautiful collection of rugged islands scattered throughout the Georgia Strait between Vancouver and Vancouver Island that offer some of the most unique and memorable natural attractions on the BC coast.
Featuring tremendous scenery, abundant wildlife, fascinating history, intriguing art culture and a focus on sustainable, natural farming, the spectacular Gulf Islands BC represent a phenomenal opportunity for travellers looking to venture off the beaten path.
Now, exactly which islands are included under the blanket term “Gulf Islands” can be quite confusing, especially if you start using criteria such as “inhabited” or “connected by public ferry”. In fact, there are supposedly over 6,000 islands located along the BC coast between Washington and Alaska so, yeah, good luck narrowing it down in a way everyone will agree on.
During the time we spent both extensively researching and then touring the Gulf Islands, we have yet to find two lists that are exactly the same. Which means it is inevitable that someone will also take issue with the islands that we have (or have not) included here.
The good thing, though, is this is our website and, therefore, our list. So, as my sister often tries to convince her kids (usually in vain), “you get what you get, and you don’t complain”.
On that note, here is our overview of the Gulf Islands of BC, with brief descriptions, highlights and transportation info. We have written specific, comprehensive posts about many of the islands as well, which you can visit for more detailed info.
What are the Gulf Islands?
Good question. In general, they are divided into two sections, the Southern Gulf Islands and Northern Gulf Islands.
The Southern Gulf Islands definitely include all of those connected by the main BC ferries lines between Vancouver and Victoria – Galiano Island, Mayne Island, Saturna Island, Pender Island, Salt Spring Island and Gabriola Island. Thetis Island and Penelakut Island also have BC ferries connections from Chemainus and Newcastle Island has its own foot passenger ferry from Nanaimo. Valdes Island and De Courcy Island are not serviced by ferries but are large and/or popular enough to make this list.
The Northern Gulf Islands always include Hornby Island and Denman Island, and usually Texada Island, Lasqueti Island and Jedediah Island. Some also include Cortes, Quadra and the Rendezvous Islands further north but I would consider these to be more accurately part of the Discovery Islands, so they are not included here.
In addition to all these choices, there are many more small, often lovely, islands scattered throughout the region. In general, they are only accessible by private boat or float plane and only offer camping, no other facilities. Which can make them particularly great kayaking destinations but, alas, leave them short of making this list.
BC Gulf Islands Map
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10 Southern Gulf Islands BC
The most popular and well-known section of the Gulf Islands, almost all these islands are visible from the main ferry between Vancouver-Tsawwassen and Victoria-Swartz Bay. Most of the Southern Gulf Islands have public transportation connections, restaurants, accommodation and tourist facilities.
Salt Spring Island
The most populous and busiest of the Gulf Islands, Salt Spring Island features vibrant art and music scenes, a wide range of organic farms, an impressive selection of restaurants and plenty of natural attractions. Some of the top things to do on Salt Spring Island include:
- Wander the cool town of Ganges
- Hike to the viewpoints of Mount Erskine (watching closely for “fairy doors”)
- Camp in Ruckle Provincial Park
- Tour the art studios
- Browse the Saturday market
Long, narrow Galiano Island is a bustling adventure hub just a hop, skip and jump from Vancouver. As the closest of the Southern Gulf Islands off Vancouver to the mainland, with less farmland than most, over 50 public ocean access points and featuring an endless list of fun activities, Galiano Island is the place to go for outdoor pursuits. Some of the top highlights include:
- Kayak in Montague Provincial Park
- Check out the Galiano Island caves
- Admire the Kunamokst Mural
- Soak in the ridge views from the Bodega Trail
Tiny Mayne Island was once home to the most important harbour on the Pacific Coast but now is simply one of the quietest and most beautiful of the main set of Southern Gulf Islands. There are lots of quiet beaches to choose from, as well as some surprising attractions, including:
- The exceptional Japanese Gardens
- Georgina Point, possibly the nicest lighthouse in the Gulf Islands
- Historic Miners Bay, once a hectic Gold Rush hub
The quietest and least visited of the Southern Gulf Islands on the main BC ferries line, mountainous Saturna Island is a great place to get away from the crowds. There is superb hiking, excellent kayaking and plenty of peaceful beaches. A few of the highlights include:
- Hiking to the top of Mount Warburton
- Backcountry camping in the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve
- Learning about the history of the Gulf Islands at the Fog Alarm Building
Actually two different islands separated by a man-made channel, then connected by a cute, little bridge, Pender Island is full of impressive natural spaces and some of the best viewpoints in the area. Among the top options:
- Admire the views from Gowlland Point
- Hike the shoreline at Mortimer Spit
- Enjoy a meal on the deck in Port Browning
- Watch for whales in Beaumont Marine Park
Lovely Thetis Island is connected to Vancouver Island by frequent BC ferries routes to and from Chemainus. With very few permanent residents but lots of natural beauty, Thetis Island is known for its excellent hiking, kayaking and beaches. There are no protected parks but plenty of public access to the water. Some of the best things to do include the following:
- Hike to the top of each ridge – Burchell Hill in the west and Moore Hill to the east
- Try scuba diving in Porlier Pass
- Sea kayak among the islets out of Preedy Harbour
Separated from Thetis Island by a narrow channel is Penelakut Island, the beautiful home to the Penelakut First Nation. Formerly called Kuper Island and the site of one of the first controversial and ultimately disastrous Residential Schools, Penelakut Island has a rather grim history of oppression and mistreatment of indigenous people. Today there are no commercial establishments on the island and it is not open to tourism.
De Courcy Island
Filled with history, as well – both wholesome and sordid – pleasant De Courcy Island has a fascinating backstory to go with its ample natural attributes. Evidence of indigenous inhabitation goes back over 3,000 years. However, most people want to hear about how, in the late 1920’s, Brother XII, the cult leader of the Aquarian Foundation, convinced over 8,000 followers to join him on De Courcy Island and renounce all their worldly possessions. Renounce them to him, as it turns out, and when he was called to face trial in 1933 he quickly disappeared with the fortune, never to be found again.
Today, besides hopeful searches for hidden treasure, most people visit De Courcy Island to enjoy the trails, caves, beaches and camping in Pirates Cove Marine Provincial Park. The island is only accessible by private boat or kayak.
Another Southern Gulf Island with no public ferry access, a long history and small permanent population, Valdes Island also features the Lyackson First Nation Reserve. A popular summer home destination, there are plenty of reasons to check Valdes Island out yourself.
- Explore over 60 archaeological sites
- Kayak to the amazing sandstone cliffs and formations
- Enjoy the classic forest trails of Wakes Cove Provincial Park
One of the most accessible of the Southern Gulf Islands, Gabriola Island is connected to Nanaimo by a short ferry ride frequently throughout the day. With forests of big cedars and garry oak, some unique geological and historical sites and very few cars, Gabriola Island is a wonderful getaway. Be sure not to miss the following:
- The spectacular caves of the Malaspina Galleries
- The views of the lighthouse from Berry Point
- The fascinating rock art in Petroglyph Heritage Park
- The differences and similarities of the impressive “Twin Beaches”
Newcastle Island, also known as Saysutshun, is near Nanaimo and can only be accessed by foot passenger ferry. But not to worry, the island is small enough to explore without a car. Once home to Hudson’s Bay Company coal mines, it was later purchased by the Canadian Pacific Railway and opened up for recreational use. Some of the top activities include:
- Gazing out at the scenery from the unique foot passenger ferry
- Stopping for a picnic by the Pavilion, a former Dance Hall built in 1931
- Exploring the sea caves
- Hiking to the superb clifftop Giovanda Lookout
5 Northern Gulf Islands BC
Not nearly as well-known as their southern counterparts, the Northern Gulf Islands offer a very unique and often much quieter Gulf Island experience. Whether you choose the eclectic artistic attractions of Hornby Island, the natural spaces of Denman Island or the untouched wilderness of the other options, the Northern Gulf Islands are a great choice for those who like to try something a little outside the norm.
Only Denman Island and Hornby Island are connected by BC ferries routes. Meanwhile, Texada Island, Lasqueti Island and Jedediah Island are not far east but are only accessible through private transportation.
Wild, eclectic and scenic, Hornby Island wears many hats. With thriving art, wine and craft scenes, plus lots of organic farming and some of the best beaches in the Georgia Strait (also known as the Active Pass), Hornby Island is a very popular summer destination. There is enough to keep you busy for days but a few of the main highlights include:
- Hike the stunning Cliff Trail in Geoffrey Escarpment Provincial Park
- Soak up some rays on the white sand beaches in Tribune Bay
- Go wine tasting at one of the fantastic vineyards
- Stock up on supplies and curiosities at the Hornby Island Farmer’s Market
- Tour the many different art studios around the island
Even though you have to pass through Denman Island to get to the public ferry to Hornby Island, few people stop to enjoy the many outdoor charms of this smaller, quieter Northern Gulf Island. Those looking for peace and solitude in nature have many great choices on Denman Island:
- Frame the perfect photo of Chrome Island from Boyle Point
- Enjoy basic camping with a view in Fillongley Provincial Park
- Visit Morning Beach at low tide to hike across to Sandy Island
- Rent a kayak and do a circle-8 around Denman and Hornby
While it may not be accessible by public ferry, massive Texada Island is filled with gorgeous forests, coves and beaches. Formerly a whaling station but now home to a working limestone quarry, it can be reached by ferry from Powell River or by private boat or kayak but sees very few visitors so you will usually have its many terrific highlights to yourself, including outstanding hiking, kayaking, bird watching and scuba diving.
Like stepping back in time, rustic Lasqueti Island is mostly undeveloped, leaving its natural scenery relatively untouched. Accessible by foot passenger ferry from French Creek, near Parksville on Vancouver Island, there is no public electricity grid on Lasqueti, meaning nights lit by candle or kerosene lamp. No camping is allowed and, in general, tourism is discouraged, but there are some basic places to stay where you can experience the unique, throwback lifestyle of Lasqueti Island.
The largest of more than 30 tiny islets tucked into the Sabine Channel between Texada Island and Lasqueti Island, Jedediah Island is only accessible by private boat or kayak. However, it is one of the top destinations on the west coast for sea kayaking and wild camping. In 1995, the province bought the island from private owners and declared it Jedediah Island Marine Provincial Park. Surrounded by beautiful beaches, rugged coves and seabird nesting sites, it also features excellent hiking and several intact archaeological sites.
History of the Gulf Islands BC
The Gulf Islands have been inhabited by First Nations for millennia, with the Coast Salish tribe being the inspiration for the commonly used term, “Salish Sea”. In 1792, Captain George Vancouver arrived in the area in search of a passage through to the Atlantic and described the islands as being located – incorrectly – “in a gulf”. Despite the geographical inaccuracy (it is an open-ended sea, not a gulf), the name stuck.
As the European presence the area grew and more and more ships plied their trades between the islands, the British sent the HMS Plumper to explore the Georgia Strait to put together some more accurate maps. Starting around 1859, pioneers from all over the world began settling on the islands, starting farms, fisheries and other businesses. During the Gold Rush of the 1860’s, Miners Bay on Mayne Island was one of the busiest ports in the Americas.
In recent years, indigenous culture has been increasingly prioritized in the Gulf Islands, recognizing their history and cultural contributions to the area.
When to Visit: Gulf Islands BC Weather
The Gulf Islands enjoy a very mild, temperate climate and suffer through less rain than anywhere else on the BC coast. Summer offers the best weather (25/13C high/low and very little rain) and the most things to do in the Gulf Islands. In summer, the days are longer, the trails drier, the camping better, the water calmer and the beaches 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 hotels might only be open on weekends.
The shoulder seasons (May/June or September/October) usually offer the perfect mix of good weather and fewer people. Early summer is a good time for wildflowers and fall provides the warmest water of the year.
How to Get to the Southern Gulf Islands
8 of the Southern Gulf Islands are connected by public ferry. Since the Gulf Island ferry schedules change seasonally and are often different on different days of the week, you should always check the latest info on the BC ferries site. Some of the longer routes between Vancouver and Victoria can be reserved in advance and stop off at the islands along the way. Services between the islands are less frequent and are generally first come, first served.
Some other tips for taking the ferries around the Gulf Islands:
- Watch the website for changes and advisories
- Unless you have a reservation, arrive early (up to an hour or more depending on the route)
- If you will be taking lots of ferries, consider buying a BC Ferries Experience Card that you pre-fill with credit to get discounts on certain routes.
Ferries to the Gulf Islands from Vancouver
There are usually 2 non-stop ferries per day to/from Vancouver-Tsawwassen that can be reserved in advance (highly recommended) and stop off at various islands along the way.
Ferries to the Gulf Islands from Victoria
In summer, there are multiple ferries per day between Victoria-Swartz Bay and the nearby Gulf Islands. Some, such as Salt Spring Island, have lots of sailings, while the others may just go 2-4 times per day.
Gulf Islands BC Seaplane
The fastest way to get to the islands is by air. There are now several different companies offering sea plane service between Vancouver/Richmond and some of the islands. Most routes take less than half an hour and usually cost somewhere in the $150 per person range. You will need to check each airline individually to see if they fly to the specific island you have in mind.
How to Get Around the Southern Gulf Islands BC
Most of the Southern Gulf Islands are served by just 2 ferries per day between each other – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. So if you are planning to do some island hopping you’ll need to plan your route carefully.
Galiano Island – Salt Spring Island Water Taxi
On Saturdays in July and August, a water taxi runs back and forth between Galiano Island (Sturdies Bay) and Salt Spring Island (Ganges). The rest of the year you may be able to catch the same boat from Monday to Thursday when it doubles as school and public transportation.
How to Get to the Northern Gulf Islands
Denman Island is connected to Vancouver Island by public ferries through BC Ferries. These take just 15 minutes and run frequently throughout the day. To get to Hornby Island, you take the Denman Island ferry, drive across the island (just 10 minutes) and catch a second ferry to Hornby Island.
Lasqueti Island is accessible by foot passenger ferry from French Creek but Texada Island and Jedediah Island can only be reached by private transportation – boat, kayak, canoe or floatplane.
Ferries from Vancouver
There are regular BC Ferries services to Nanaimo from both Vancouver-Tsawwassen (south Vancouver) and Vancouver-Horseshoe Bay (north Vancouver). From Nanaimo, it is about a 40-minute drive to French Creek (for Lasqueti Island) and a 1-hour drive to Buckley Bay, where you can catch the ferry to Denman Island and Hornby Island.
Driving from Victoria
From downtown Victoria, it is a scenic 200-kilometre drive to Buckley Bay. Count on roughly 2.5 hours, and more if you plan to enjoy the views and make any stops along the way. French Creek is around 2 hours.
Gulf Island Seaplanes flies once or twice per day between Vancouver Harbour and Hornby Island, or you can charter a private floatplane.
Gulf Islands BC Summary
The unique Gulf Islands of British Columbia are unlike any other destination in Canada. This beautiful string of islands boasts a bevy of natural attractions from sandy beaches and rocky coves to steep mountains and thick forests, making them magnets for hikers, bikers, kayakers and swimmers.
On the other side of the coin, however, are the many fascinating archaeological sites dating back from the mid-20th century to thousands of years, and every time in between. Mix in burgeoning art, music and organic farming scenes, a vast array of exceptional camping options and a relaxed, back-to-nature vibe and it is easy to see why the Gulf Islands are one of the best destinations in BC.
Whether you only have time to see one or two or can dedicate a couple weeks to island hopping all the way from one end to the other, the magnificent Gulf Islands in Canada should be at top of your Western Canada bucket list.
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