Story and photos by Lisa Pulsifer
Washington state residents know the San Juan Islands are a must-visit destination. They also know the San Juan island archipelago continues north across the border, where they’re known as the southern Gulf Islands. This collection of 15 islands is every bit as charming as the San Juans, and many of the islands are easily reached by ferry from Tsawwassen, B.C.
The southern Gulf Islands have a warmer, drier climate than the mainland and are rich in ecological diversity. You’ll find fern-filled forests, rocky bluffs and grassy meadows. The surrounding waters are home to abundant sea life including seals, otters, porpoises and whales. When the local mainland mountains are still buried under snow, these islands are the perfect playgrounds. Pack your bags, load the car and follow along to explore three of the easier-to-access islands.
Leave the car on the mainland to tour this lovely eight-square-mile island by bike. From the ferry dock, head north to the town of Miners Bay to pick up provisions for your day. Continue north to reach the Georgina Point Lighthouse. The historic lighthouse helps to guide ships into the narrow and busy Active Pass. East of the lighthouse, Campbell Bay’s sand and pebble beach is another nice spot for a break.
Don’t miss Mayne Island Brewery at the crossroads of Campbell Bay Road and Fernhill Road. If you’d prefer a view with your lunch, cycle east to Bennett Bay Bistro. After lunch, trade your bike for a kayak (rentals are available right on the bay) and paddle around nearby Georgeson Island.
Back on your bike, head south, passing below the 800-foot summit of Mount Parke. On the south shore, pull off at either Piggott or Gallagher bay to take in views of Pender Island. Finish up your loop with a visit to the Japanese gardens at Dinner Bay Park before returning to the ferry dock or your accommodation for the night.
Mayne Island is also a great jumping-off point to explore the section of Gulf Islands National Park Reserve on neighboring Saturna Island. The national park reserve is spread throughout the Gulf Islands, but the section on Saturna Park makes up 43 percent of the total reserve. Catch a ferry for a day trip to remote Saturna Island where about half of the island is incorporated into the reserve. Hike to the 1,300-foot summit of Mount Warburton Pike, whale watch from East Point Lighthouse or enjoy the quiet beauty of Winter Cove Marine Park.
Only 17 miles long and three miles wide, Galiano is a treat to explore. It’s the first stop along the Gulf Islands ferry route from Tsawwassen, and you’ll arrive in the hamlet of Sturdies Bay. Start your exploring with a hike up to the 1,000-foot summit of Mount Galiano where you’ll have fantastic views of the surrounding islands.
Galiano is home to three B.C. provincial parks – Dionisio Point, Bodega Ridge and Montague Harbour. At Dionisio Point you’ll find unique sandstone cliff formations, wide-open beaches and trails in thick forests. Hike Bodega Ridge for views of the Gulf Islands to the north and the Coast Mountains to the east. Montague Harbour offers up a white shell beach, tidal lagoons and craggy headlands.
North and South Pender are home to eight parks and more than 20 public beaches. Plan to spend a few days on the Penders, which are connected by a bridge, to properly explore all that the islands have to offer. There are three campgrounds, a handful of resorts and dozens of bed and breakfasts that you can call home during your stay.
On North Pender, visit historic Roesland, hike to Roe Lake or explore the shoreline of Shingle Bay. On South Pender, hike to the summit of Mount Norman or kayak the shoreline of Beaumont Marine Park.
Interested in a more laid-back trip to Pender? Visit the Saturday morning farmer’s market at the Community Hall on North Pender, then cruise the islands to visit local artisans, find Instagram-worthy viewpoints and explore hidden rocky coves.