Trip Report: Hot Springs in Tofino
To reach the hallowed and hot water of Clayoquot Sound’s famous natural springs, you need to first get there, and that’s one of the most rewarding features of these steaming, healing pools that sit oceanside in Hesquiat First Nations territory. All winter long, Tofino Resort + Marina offers trips to Hot Springs Cove, which sits about an hour-and-a-half-hour north of their docks. On a mid-winter day, I boarded one of their covered aluminum boats en route to these hot springs I had heard about since I was a teenager growing up on Vancouver Island.
When the boat pulls out from the dock and into Tofino Inlet, the winter snows can be seen on the mountains above. Many visitors are surprised to see such rugged and beautiful mountains when they get to Tofino. Decades of white sandy beach photos have convinced most people that Tofino is an ocean paradise only, but hey, it’s the west coast of Canada. We have mountains. Lots of them.
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To clear the inlet, the captain pilots the vessel past a big sandbar, around the navigational markers, and around the many islets that make us Tofino’s inner waters. Soon, the boat is up on top of the surface, speeding quickly on one of the many quiet passageways protected from the full power of the Pacific Ocean. It’s behind these islands where much of Clayoquot Sound’s wildlife can be seen. Wolves patrol the shore, hunting seals and scavenging on whatever the sea provides. Bears use their powerful shoulders to turn over heavy rocks and snack on the rock crabs that scurry from beneath. Pods of orcas swim gracefully here, and strike fear in the hearts of sea lions. It’s rich with life in these forest and seaside mountain flanks. Whether inside the comfortable heated cabin, or outside on the boat deck, the guests all keep a sharp eye out.
Eventually, the boat pulls out into open water and it becomes rougher. Some of the guest retreat inside to sit on padded seats but I stay outside and let the salty ocean spindrift lightly spray over me. This is the true Tofino, out here on the water, in the elements. The salt chuck, as some fishermen refer to it, is invigorating. I am rewarded with the sight of a raft of sea otters floating in the ocean, some of them holding their paws in anthropomorphized love. It’s pretty damn cute.
As we approach Hot Springs Cove, you can see the hot springs to the right, tucked into the rocks and steaming in the cool weather, but the adventure has only begun. Once the boat moors on the government dock, the guests disembark and start a short hike up into what is the perfect example of a west coast rainforest. A wide, elevated boardwalk keeps us off the first floor, weaving through tall cedar and Douglas fir trees literally dripping with moisture. The moss that hangs down looks like it’s dripping too. Stairs take you up and down as the rainforest rises and falls over uneven ground. For many, this trip would be impossible without the easy-to-walk boardwalk. The rainforest is simply too thick and lush. On the wooden slats under your feet, many guests have carved their names into the grain, some expertly and some, well, crudely.
There’s something about walking through a real rainforest. The moist, oxygenated air seems to empower the body. The deep emerald contrasts with the lighter green hues. Birds and small mammals scurry about. It’s a feast for the eyes and the ears, and the 30-minute walk to the hot springs is worth the trip alone.
As you arrive at the hot springs, the forest begins to open up and the ocean can be heard crashing on the shore. Soon, you see the steam rising from the natural geothermal source below the earth. A rustic wooden change room can be seen on the left, and the short trail down to the pools goes over grey rock. Depending on the time of day and the weather, the tides can crash the waves hard enough that bathers can feel the spray.
As I crawl into the pool, I’m surprised how warm the water is on this cold, wintery coast. While this part of Canada is relatively warm in the winter (considering the rest of the country is under snow), sitting here on this jagged coastline is surprisingly comfortable. A couple of women from Vancouver and a man who lives on the tropical island nation of Niue join me in the pool. All of us are pleasantly surprised by this strange, wild hot tub experience. It’s truly a unique experience to be on the west coast under the Canadian winter sky looking out at an ocean with nothing between you and Japan. It’s even more unique to do it in the hot springs. While the springs are small, they tub-sharing is friendly, and people take turns in the tub, and under the hot springs shower that flows from a rock above. Over almost two hours, we enjoy the conversation and laidback vibe.
We walk back to the dock along the 1.4-kilometre trail feeling refreshed. For the return trip, I have opted for a flight instead of getting back on the boat. Seeing the coastline from the air has always been a dream. When I get into the float plane, the pilot shows me how to strap in, and then he fires up the motor. My heart flutters with excitement. This coast has a long history of bush pilots exploring, and the feeling you get when it finally pulls away from the shore is only a touch of what it must feel like to pilot one.
When the pilot lines up the right trajectory and pulls back on the throttle, it’s simply awesome. The power of the engine pulls the plane forward, and pulls me back in my seat. It is loud. As the pontoons leave the water’s surface, the noise peels away and the ride smoothes out. The plane quickly climbs and then levels out just high enough for the perfect vantage point. From there, it’s an easy and short flight back. Along the way, the white sandy beaches of Tofino’s marketing material are revealed around every corner on every island. Who knew there were so many stunning stretches of sand hidden here in the shadow of the mountains? Pilots, First Nations, and fishermen…that’s who. Surfers must know this place well too, as the coastline is lined with surf breaks, rugged lines of white in the dark water, only expertly surfed by those brave and talented enough.
When the plane touches down in Tofino’s inner harbour, the feeling is thrilling. We taxi to the dock at Tofino Resort + Marina, and up along the same dock Harbour Air uses to shuttle adventurers from Vancouver, Comox and other cities. Once the prop stops spinning, the pilot lets me out, and I step onto the relative stability of the dock in Tofino Inlet. What can top a trip to the Hot Springs like this? Coming back and doing it in springtime. I’m already planning it.