Gulf Islands, BC – 9 Transformational Things to Do on the Southern Gulf Islands

Here are the best ways to spend your days on the Gulf Islands in BC

main blog image of coastline with text overlay 9 things to do in the gulf islands bc

Looking for things to do in the Gulf Islands in BC? As a BC native, I’ve spent many fabulous weeks exploring these rocky islands off of British Columbia’s coast. In this post, I share my favourite places and activities for a transformational trip to the Gulf Islands.

This article may contain affiliate / compensated links. For full information, please see our disclaimer here.

The first time I set foot on British Columbia’s spectacular Gulf Islands, I was just a kid.

We had just moved to Canada’s west coast and my Dad’s first priority was to buy a sailboat. I spent my 16th summer aboard that boat, slowly traversing between picturesque anchorages on one pristine Gulf Island after another.

I learned how to furl a jib, coil a sheet, and tie a bowline. I watched from deck as pods of dolphins ducked and glided under our bow and sea otters held hands in shallow bays. By the end of that summer, I could use mystical-sounding phrases like “ready about” and “hard a-lee” with sheer abandon.

As a grumpy teenager, with only my parents and copies of Jane Magazine for company, I had no idea what a privilege it was to be sailing some of the world’s most beautiful landscapes.

Now, after having travelled full-time for years, coming back to the Gulf Islands always fills me with awe and a deep appreciation that this, of all places on earth, used to be my playground.

rocky beach covered in green moss in the gulf islands
The moss-covered rocky shores of the Southern Gulf Islands hold a special place in my heart.

For me, this smattering of rocky islands on the coast of BC — a place where nature is overwhelming in her sheer abundance, where the air is so clean breathing gives you a natural high, and where the water is so clear and cold a leap of faith will take that breath away — will always be the answer to that perennial question:

Where’s your favourite place on Earth?

Returning late last summer for an all-to-brief visit, I got a chance to spend 5 days exploring, relaxing, and enjoying some of the wonders that BC’s Southern Gulf Islands have to offer.

If you’re curious about visiting, or are actively planning a trip, this post will help you find the most amazing experiences to make your trip absolutely transformational.

Read on to discover…

9 Transformational Things to Do on the Gulf Islands in BC

Our guide to where to stay in the Gulf Islands will help you plan your accommodation. Also don’t miss our guides to things to do on Vancouver Island and things to do in Vancouver. Also, don’t miss our series on transformational things to do on BC’s Sunshine Coast.

Sleep at the World’s Best Campground

tent and picnic table with ocean view on the gulf islands bc
Ruckle Point Provincial Park might just be the most beautiful campground in the world. It certainly is our favourite!

Just a few months after Stephen and I started dating (way back in the 90s!), we decided to take a weekend camping trip to the Gulf Islands. It was our first trip away together and the first real test of our budding relationship.

We can probably attribute Ruckle Point Provincial Park with creating a love of sleeping in the outdoors that has lasted 20 years.

This is the world’s most beautiful campground (according to us), set on a rocky shore overlooking Active Pass.

From your tent, you can wave to the iconic BC Ferries slowly floating by, wander the rocky shoreline searching for tidal pools full of baby crabs and sea urchins, or cook up a gourmet camp meal to share under the stars.

Spending time in nature anywhere can be a transformational experience but the perfect beauty of this magical point could change the course of your entire life — just like it did for us!

Commune with Eagles, Starfish, and Seals

kayaks in desolation sound
Kayaking around the Gulf Islands is a great way to change your landlubbing perspective.

There’s no better way to explore the coastal waters of British Columbia than by kayak.

With clean sheltered waters, plenty of small bays and inlets to explore, and the drama of nature all around, the Gulf Islands really are a kayaker’s dream destination.

There are kayak tour operators on all five of the southern Gulf Islands, and most offer a variety of one-day and multi-day tours. If you’re an experienced paddler, you can easily rent a kayak to make your own adventure.

Gliding silently along the shore in your kayak, watching birds soar overhead and an abundance of sea life beneath you, will give you a new and deeper appreciation of the natural world.

Still on my bucket list for the Gulf Islands is the Bioluminescence Night Kayaking Tour on Galiano with Gulf Island Kayaking. It gives me a great reason to go back!

Create Your Own Artist’s Retreat

wooden fairy castle house on the shore
There’s nothing that will ignite your imagination more than a B&B overlooking the ocean. This is Serenity by the Sea on Galiano, the perfect place to finish that book or renew your love for water colours.

The Gulf Islands have been attracting artists, artisans, and writers for decades — there’s some magic in the air that supports and ignites creativity.

If you have a project you’ve been meaning to start, or one you want to finish, the Gulf Islands will give you the time and space to create.

Book a weekend (or a week) at one of the many cozy B&Bs, like Between the Covers on Salt Spring or Serenity by the Sea on Galiano, and give yourself permission to bring your ideas to life.

Get Tipsy on Local Tipples

three glasses of cider at a gulf islands cidery overlooking a pastoral view
Don’t miss Salt Spring Wild for a tasting flight of their wide range of ciders, made with island apples.

It’s not only artists who flock to the Gulf Islands. Makers of all kinds inhabit these fertile lands, including those who are passionate about beer, wine, cider, and spirits.

If you like a drink or two, you’ll find plenty of places to sample the wares of local producers on the Gulf Islands.

I especially love the vibe and the view at Salt Spring Wild Cider, while Stephen is a fan of the IPAs at Salt Spring Island Ales. On Mayne Island, I had a chance to sample some of the fun locally inspired micro-brews at tiny Mayne Island Brewing Company — whose beers can be found at restaurants around the island.

For wine-lovers, a bottle from Sea Star Vineyards, located on both Pender and Saturna, is a must. Also, don’t miss tastings at Garry Oaks and Salt Spring Vineyards while on Salt Spring.

Stretch Your Legs and Wow Your Eyes

woman sitting looking over an ocean view
The hike up Mount Erskine on Salt Spring is challenging but you are rewarded with this spectacular view. Worth it!

It’s perfectly OK to visit the southern Gulf Islands if you’re not a hiker — but it’s so much better if you are! The islands are relatively small, so most hikes are short and sweet, lasting only an hour or two but delivering unforgettable views.

On Salt Spring, I recommend the climb up Mount Erskine, which starts amid a grove of striking red-barked Arbutus trees and eventually winds its way to a rocky outcrop overlooking Sansum Narrows, a narrow tongue of blue between Salt Spring and Vancouver Island.

If the climb to get there didn’t take your breath away, the view most certainly will.

For a less strenuous hike, drive up the the Bluffs Lookout Trail on Galiano.

I took my parents there recently and we took a leisurely walk, marvelling at the awesome height of the trees, startling grazing deer that bounded away into the forest, and watching BC Ferries come and go through Active Pass.

two people walking across a rocky beach
Walking along the rocky shorelines on the Gulf Islands is one of my favourite activities. There’s always something new and different to see!

We also did a gentle walk on the beach trail at Montague Harbour, one of the most popular anchorages in the Gulf Islands.

Taking a hike, long or short, on one of the many trails on the islands is a great way to get some exercise, destress, and see some of the most beautiful locations on the islands.

Spy on Seal Society

close up of a harbour seal
Check out this gorgeous guy! Just one of the many beautiful creatures you might get to see on the Gulf Islands. Photo by Rebeka Pirker/Vancouver Island Whale Watch.

Though I grew up on Canada’s West Coast and have seen hundreds of seals rolling and playing in the water, I never get tired of these fat furry fellows.

While taking a short hike on Mayne Island, I discovered a trail marker pointing to Seal Point. The narrow path lead along Mayne’s rocky shore to an outcrop where I spotted a pack of seals relaxing in a heap.

Each time I got a little too close, the younger seals barked and flopped into the water, while the older ones gave me the evil eye. So I stood back and watched the seal society from a comfortable distance.

Bring your telephoto lens or your binoculars for an up-close look at these friendly BC locals.

Support Artists at Work

wooden blocks with words on them journey let's get lost you are my sweet
Browsing the small boutiques on Salt Spring Island could easily fill an afternoon. It’s the perfect place to pick up gifts for your friends back home.

It’s amazing how the small population on the Gulf Islands manages to create so many beautiful things!

On the Gulf Islands you can spend long days seeking out artisanal, hand-made goods that range from bath bombs and soap to intricate carvings and extraordinary glass pieces.

On Mayne Island, visit Nomads Essentials and Happy Tides for hand-crafted bath and body products, plus a range of gift cards, and other crafts.

sparkling glass tray made by a gulf islands artisan
Artists and artisans flock to the Gulf Islands, and you can visit their workshops and pick up a unique piece of art as a souvenir or a gift. This gorgeous piece is from Marcia DeVicque Glassworks on Galiano.

You can also visit dozens of artists in their home studios. You’ll get to learn more about their process, how they spend their time on the islands, and their life as a working artist.

Of course, you’ll want to leave a little room in your luggage to bring home a few one-of-a-kind souvenirs.

On Salt Spring and Galiano, follow the artist studio tour to see a huge range of ceramics, glass works, paintings, photographs and other artworks.

Listen to Music in a Tree House

Along with artists, many musicians make their homes on the Gulf Islands, which means it’s usually easy to track down an evening of live music.

In the Ganges town centre, the Tree House Cafe is a casual favourite among locals and frequent visitors like me. One of the big draws, aside from their fresh, local food, is the nightly live music. Expect folk classics, covers, and originals by talented musicians who have chosen to make their lives on the islands.

Weekly or nightly live music can be found on most of the islands throughout the summer months.

Don’t You Forget About “Me” Time

ferry in the distance under cloudy sky
Sometimes the weather gets moody on the Gulf Islands, and those days are perfect for spa trips or slowly slipping hot coffee at a quirky cafe.

No matter what time of year, rainy days do happen on the Gulf Islands.

That’s the perfect time to treat yourself to some serious “me” time!

Imagine soaking in a hot tub with incredible ocean views, immersing yourself in a eucalyptus steam cave, or succumbing to the deep relaxation of a hot stone massage. Many B&Bs and resorts around the islands have onsite spas where you can take your pick of treatments.

You’ll be so transformed at the end of your spa day that you’ll be wishing for more rain!

How to Get to the BC Gulf Islands

Where are the Gulf Islands?

First, we should explain a little about the geography of the Gulf Islands.

In total, there are 15 major islands plus lots of tiny islets that make up the Gulf Islands. The islands can be divided into two groups: the northern Gulf Islands and the southern Gulf Islands.

However, when British Columbians talk about the Gulf Islands in casual conversation, they are often referring to the southern islands.

This is a group of five major islands that sits off the coast of Vancouver Island, about half-way between Victoria and Nanaimo.

The major southern Gulf Islands are Salt Spring Island, Galiano Island, Pender Island, Mayne Island, and Saturna Island.

Though each island has its own personality, you can expect to find awe-inspiring views, funky gift shops and artisans, homey west-coast cooking, and friendly B&Bs on all of them.

wooden board with namaste painted on it in bright colors
There’s a distinct hippie vibe to many of the Gulf Islands. You can bring a little peace and love home with you in the shape of a hand-made island art.

Salt Spring is the biggest and busiest of the five, while Galiano draws smaller crowds but still has a good range of services. Mayne and Pender are a little more sleepy, perfect if you want to truly get away from it all.

Finally, Saturna is the quietest of them all, ideal for true adventurers who want a tranquil nature experience.

How to Get There

The Gulf Islands are easily accessible from Vancouver, Victoria, and Crofton (near Nanaimo), making them a perfect place to go for a weekend break, a week-long retreat, or even a spectacular day trip.

By BC Ferries

ferry taking cars and campers to the gulf islands
The trip to the Gulf Islands on BC Ferries is spectacular and all part of the adventure.

BC Ferries are by far the best way to access the Southern Gulf Islands.

The journey is part of the adventure, a mini cruise that will sail you past the outstanding land– and sea–scapes. I’ve taken countless ferry journeys in BC and never get tired of it. If you’re super lucky, you might even spot a pod of whales!

If you’re travelling by car in summer, on a holiday weekend, or to one of the less-visited islands, reservations are strongly recommended. Without them, you could face hours-long wait times at the ferry terminal. Walk-on and cycle-on passengers should have no problem securing a space.

There are three options for getting to the Gulf Islands on BC Ferries:

  • From Tsawwassen ferry terminal, 45 minutes south of Vancouver, journey time 1–2 hours
  • From Schwartz Bay ferry terminal, 30 minutes north of Victoria, journey time 35–90 minutes
  • From Crofton ferry terminal, 40 minutes south of Nanaimo, 25 minutes, only to Vesuvius Harbour on Salt Spring

BC Transit offers excellent bus services to and from all ferry terminals.

In Vancouver, you can hop onboard and pay with any credit card that is tap enabled. In Victoria, you can pay on the bus, but you will need cash. You can also buy tickets at any BC Transit ticket machine.

If you’re going to be on Vancouver Island, don’t miss our guide to doing a whale watching trip from Nanaimo!

By air

There is a seaplane service to the Gulf Islands through Harbour Air, from Vancouver Harbour to Salt Spring’s Ganges Harbour. It can be a quick and exciting way to get to the island, but you do miss out on the incredible views from the ferry. In bad weather, flights may be cancelled or rerouted.

When is the Best Time to Visit?

jane the author posing in the crook of a big tree
Nestling into the giant limbs of this tree on Galiano Island felt like a hug.

Summer: The high season for the Gulf Islands, summer can be busy and is the most expensive time of year to visit. If you’re planning a summer trip, be sure to book ahead as most of the accommodation, including camping, can be booked months in advance. Ferries are also very full in summer, and you might wait hours to get onboard. In July and August, you can expect mostly warm, sunny days, with little rain.

If you’re planning a summer trip to the Gulf Islands, you might want to consider a day trip. Walk on or bike on the ferry and then rent a scooter or bicycle once on the islands to get around.

Spring: Late spring is our favourite time to visit the Gulf Islands. In May and June, the weather is usually warm enough to enjoy all the spectacular outdoor experiences on the Gulf Islands, but the crowds are smaller. Of course, this is the the BC coast, so bring your rain jacket to help deal with unexpected downpours.

March and April can also be a great time to visit the islands, especially if you don’t mind cooler weather and the occasional rain shower. However, some services and accommodations may not be open in early spring.

Fall: If you’re lucky, September and October can be an outstanding time on the Gulf Islands. Locals are recovering from busy season, but services and accommodation are usually still open. The weather can range from warm summer-like days to rainstorms and grey drizzle. Watching a storm roll in across the water can be a magical experience though, so we say fall is a go!

Winter: For a romantic getaway, with afternoons spent soaking in the hot tub and evenings curled by the fire with a glass of wine, try winter on the Gulf Islands. Yes, the weather can be moody, but that’s what makes it so special. The only downside is that many restaurants, services, and accommodations close down for the winter season.

Where to Stay on the Gulf Islands

view from inside a tent overlooking the ocean
From heavenly campgrounds to 5-star resorts, there’s accommodation for every travel style on the Gulf Islands.

With relatively few traditional hotels, a visit to BC’s Gulf Islands is a rare opportunity to experience unique, privately run accommodation.

There are plenty of charming B&Bs where you’ll get a warm family welcome and a beautiful breakfast made of local ingredients.

Several truly stunning campgrounds are available if you want a nature experience. If you want to treat yourself, choose one of a handful of extraordinary resorts.

Here are a few of our top picks of places to stay on the Gulf Islands.

Rates are in USD and subject to change.

Salt Spring Island

Breakfast tray laden with fresh fruit, veggies, yoghurt, granola and more.
Staying in a B&B, like Between the Covers on Salt Spring, feels just like home, but with better breakfasts!

Saturna Island

Pender Island

  • Glamping: Woods on Pender, hip airstreams, cabins, and motel for a city slicker’s weekend away, from $100
  • Resort: Poets Cove Resort & Spa, luxury boutique retreat with great sunset views, from $195

Galiano Island

Mayne Island

Though we don’t live there at the moment, BC is still the place we think of as home. We return as often as we can and have lots of great advice and travel guides to share.

We hope you find these guides useful. Let us know if you have any questions about travel in BC!

A Final Note About the Gulf Islands in BC

bc ferry entering active pass
You could lose hours just watching BC Ferries traversing Active Pass.

With easy access from both Vancouver and Victoria, BC’s Southern Gulf Islands make work just as well as part of a larger BC itinerary, or an incredible getaway in their own right. They are quirky, charismatic, and stunningly beautiful — you’ll have no trouble filling your time, whether you choose to spend a weekend, a week, or months.

Make sure to plan a little time each day for relaxing, taking in the scenery, and sipping local coffee, beer, or wine.

These quiet moments will give you the space you need to absorb all that you’ve seen and done and observe how those experiences make you feel. It’s only then, once you’ve had a chance to reflect, that your travel experiences start to work their magic and become truly transformational!

I hope this post is helpful as you plan your trip to the Gulf Islands. Our goal is to make every journey you take into an extraordinary experience that opens your eyes, gets you out of your comfort zone, and helps you to transform just a little. If you have any questions about the Gulf Islands or travel in BC, feel free to email or send us a message on Instagram.

♥  Happy transformational travels, Jane & Stephen

We’re not going to lie, it takes a LOT of work to create travel guides like this. But it’s easy to help us out! If you book or buy something using one of our personal links in this post, we’ll earn a small fee at no extra cost to you. Of course, we would never recommend anything we didn’t 100% believe in! Huge thanks in advance! –S&J

Looking for things to do in the Gulf Islands? As a BC native, I've spent many fabulous days and weeks exploring these gorgeous islands off of British Columbia's coast. In this post, I share my favourite places to go and activities for a transformational trip to the Gulf Islands. #canada #bc #britishcolumbia #travel #transform #myfiveacres
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