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Vancouver Island North Coast Wilderness

North Coast region near Nimpkish Lake
North Coast Wilderness looking east
North Coast Wilderness near Coal Harbour

North Coast Wilderness

As the largest relatively unpopulated and undeveloped area on Vancouver Island, the north coast wilderness area remains the largest sink of environmental and biological capital on the island. With more at-risk species making their living in this area than in any other on the island, the long term preservation of this wilderness is essential to the long term maintenance of Vancouver Island’s biodiversity. Containing less than 3% of the island’s population, the small towns of the north coast are concentrated and coastal, leaving the vast majority of the area to the local species, including the Vancouver Island Wolf, the Northern Pygmy Owl, Bald and Golden Eagles, Black Bears, Roosevelt Elk, Northern Goshawks, Red-legged Frogs, countless species of seabirds, and thousands of species of plants.

Location and Access Coordinates: (North of Sayward on East Coast North of Nootka Sound on West Coast)

There is no real boundary to the North Coast Wilderness, and the area can be considered to start after the last major city on each coast: Campbell River on the east and Tofino on the West. Past this point, the island is heavily forested, except for the central mountain peaks, and where logging has recently occurred.

The North Coast Wilderness Area, though remote and generally unpopulated, is served by a number of major roads, including the Island Highway, which extends all the way to Port Hardy. Hundreds of kilometers of gravel and logging roads penetrate throughout the rest of the area providing limited access to those who choose to visit. The north coast is a popular tourist destination with those that enjoy the outdoors and the major draws are ecotourism and world class fishing. BC Ferries operates out of Port Hardy with service to Prince Rupert, and the Port Hardy Airport offers daily flights to Vancouver, as well as a number of regional airports in BC.


Covering an area of more than 10,000 km2, the North Coast Wilderness area comprises approximately a third of Vancouver Island’s total area. The terrain is rugged, with mountains, river valleys, glacier carved features, and inlets marking the landscape. On the west coast, the shoreline is exposed, leaving the foreshore at the mercy of the waves, whereas on the east coast, the coastline is sheltered, with many protected bays and inlets providing year-round shelter from rough water.

Many freshwater lakes dot the landscape as well, with Woss Lake, Nimpkish Lake, Victoria Lake, and Alice Lake being the largest. The steep mountainsides also produce many short-run rivers in the area, most of which carry substantial amounts of snowmelt to the ocean each year. Salmon run in these rivers, with most seeing decent returns year to year.

Life in the North Coast Wilderness Area

As the most remote and unpopulated habitat on Vancouver Island, it is natural that this area contains the most life. All of the large mammals that inhabit Vancouver Island live here, including the wolves, bears, elk, deer, cougar, and beaver. The north coast also supports many species of birds, with the coasts, including Triangle Island and the Scott Islands, supporting an incredible number of nesting seabirds, as well as eagles, falcons, cranes, and shorebirds. In the forests, many songbirds are found, as well as owls typical of the BC coast. In particular, the endangered Northern Pygmy Owl (swarthi subspecies) makes this area home, residing primarily in the Nimpkish River valley.

The coastal areas of the region are dominated by the typical ocean ecosystems of the BC coast. Kelp forests, exposed shoreline, sheltered bays, and deepwater inlets all exist along the coast and provide thousands of kilometers of habitat. Rockfish, lingcod, anemones, urchins, chitons, and many other forms of marine life dominate the nearshore, providing what many consider to be the best cold-water SCUBA diving in the world. There is also a healthy salmon run in the area, with annual returns to many rivers on the north island including the Quatse, Muchalat, Nimpkish, and Nahwitti.

The North Coast Wilderness Area, as Vancouver Island’s last large contiguous habitat, is of vital importance in sustaining biodiversity and healthy populations of life on Vancouver Island. Though there is little chance of colonization in the near future, the damages of active logging and mineral development continue to threaten the wilderness. Several areas are protected as BC Parks, but the vast majority remains under forestry licenses. The damages due to clearcut logging are already visible and extensive, and at present, clearcutting is continuing in these forests. The long term damage to Vancouver Island’s biodiversity will be extensive, and without ecological intervention, organisms may go extinct, and valuable habitat will be permanently lost.


Web site ©: The Institute for Coastal and Oceans Research (ICOR) at the University of Victoria, British Columbia Canada.