My legs are burning and my hair is sweaty, but I know the end is near. The lush forest packed with moss, ferns and giant trees soon reveals the reason I convinced my parents to hike up a steep mountain for 1.7 kilometres — to witness the incredible birds-eye view of Salt Spring and Vancouver Island.
“Holy mackerel!” says my father as he joins me on a cliff and soaks in the mind-blowing sight in front of him. Currents swirl in the Stewart Channel flanked by a string of velvety hills. Small islands dot the ocean as far as the eye can see. It looks like a painting.
This is the 488-metre summit of Mount Erskine, but it’s not the only place that makes you feel like you’re on top of the world on the laid-back island of 10,500 people. Boasting the tallest mountains in the region, the largest number of freshwater lakes, dozens of hiking trails, wonderful birding areas and excellent kayaking routes, Salt Spring Island is heaven for nature lovers and all you need is a couple days to explore. Here’s the top things to do if you’re a nature lover.
1. Look for birds in a nature reserve
Located just off Vancouver Island’s southeast coast, Salt Spring Island is the largest and most populated of the Southern Gulf Islands and home to a wide variety of birds. The island has two provincial ecological reserves, nature sanctuaries and nature reserves, attracting birds such as great blue herons, bald eagles, belted kingfishers, five species of woodpecker, quail and various species of owls. Blackburn Lake is great for bird watching since two-thirds of it is surrounded by a nature reserve that harbours more than 100 species of birds. It also has 21 species at risk, such as the blue dasher, peregrine falcon and the northern pygmy owl. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a little brown myotis or Townsend’s big-eared bat!
2. Hike to a viewpoint on one of the many trails
With more than 30 trails scattered amongst three provincial parks and several regional parks, there’s no shortage of hikes offering great views on Salt Spring Island. The trails range from casual beach walks and rocky coastal hikes to forest strolls and challenging ascents up steep mountains like Mount Maxwell (602 metres). Located on the northern part of the island, Channel Ridge is a quiet place to get away from it all, with more than 15 km of trails offering dazzling views of Stewart Channel. For those short on time, head to Peter Arnell Park, located on the high ridge between Fulford and Ganges Centre. Ruckle Park also has excellent trails through farmland, lush forests, ocean bluffs and sheltered inlets that beg to be photographed
3. Take a forest bath
Translated from the Japanese term shinrin-yoku, forest bathing is a form of nature therapy that originated in Japan. The concept is simple — take a slow walk in the woods, absorbing the sounds, scents, colours and forms of nature, and you’ll come out feeling like a million bucks. Marketing itself as the perfect forest bathing destination, the forests packed with huge arbutus trees, Douglas fir, Garry oak meadows, and western red cedar are certainly refreshing. Searching for fairy doors on the trails in Mount Erskine Park is a good place to take a forest bath since it teaches you to slow down, not just race to the top. Who built the stylish doors is a mystery, but they’re placed in random locations, such as rocks and tree trunks, capturing the imagination of the young and old.
4. Cycle the winding country roads
One of the best ways to connect with nature and see a lot of the island is by hopping on a bike and cycling the hilly roads that wind through the charming countryside dotted with small farms, art galleries and plenty of deer. You can hear the chirping of birds and frogs, watch lambs frolicking in fields, and feel the cool ocean breeze on your face. Most of the roads have no shoulders and are considered moderate in difficulty so be prepared to break a sweat cycling up a few challenging hills. Bikes can be rented on the island.
5. Go sea kayaking
The calm waters along Salt Spring’s 130 km shoreline provide ample opportunities to launch a kayak and search for marine life in sheltered coves and scenic harbours like Ganges and Long Harbour. Kayaking is a relaxing and intimate experience with marine life because it allows you to observe the little things, like colourful sea stars and anemones clinging to rocks, and vibrant kelp forests that attract sea otters and birds. Harbour seals are also common in the area. Kayaks can be rented on the island with the option of having a guide.
6. Watch for whales from Beaver Point and Burgoyne Bay
There’s no a guarantee you’ll witness the magic of a whale surfacing from the water, but if you have the patience to sit and stare at the ocean for a while you might just see one, depending on the time of year. Ocras, humpack whales, minke whales, and grey whales have been known to frequent the waters around Salt Spring and the Southern Gulf Islands, along with harbour porpoise, sea lions and white-sided dolphins. Even if you don’t see any whales, Beaver Point (in Ruckle Park) and Burgoyne Bay (in Burgoyne Bay Park) are still beautiful places to spend a sunny afternoon.
7. Canoe on a lake
Salt Spring Island has eight freshwater lakes, but only a few are accessible with a canoe. Located on the northern part of the island, St. Mary Lake is larger than all the other lakes combined and has a small public access area near the north end. Canoeing can also be done at Weston Lake, Stowell Lake and Cusheon Lake, providing a peaceful experience with nature. Canoe rentals are available on the island.
8. Camp at Ruckle Park
There’s no better way to wake up than to the sound of the ocean gently lapping the shore and a perfect place to do that is Ruckle Park. To get there, visitors first pass through Ruckle Farm, which is the oldest continually operating farm in B.C. The Ruckle family began farming here in the 1870s and still have turkeys, sheep and cows strolling around the property that features old farm buildings. Further into the park, tents can be pitched in the 78 walk-in sites of the grassy meadow overlooking Swanson Channel where a parade of ferries pass by. Bird watchers can often see cormorants, grebes, guillemots, eagles, grouse or quail in the area.