Photograph by Josh McCulloch, Parks Canada
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A watery playground, the Gulf Islands offer a wealth of ecological and cultural attractions.
Photograph by Josh McCulloch, Parks Canada

Gulf Islands National Park Reserve

Location: British Columbia
Date Established: 2003
Size: 15,321 acres (8,896 acres on land and water; 6,425 acres of adjacent marine area)

Nurtured by a unique Mediterranean climate, Gulf Islands National Park Reserve supports a stunning diversity of rare bird, plant, and marine life spread across 15 islands and innumerable islets and reefs in the northern reaches of the inland Salish Sea.

Park Facts

Ocean Park There’s no gate or interpretive center at this national park reserve: Much of the nearly 9,000-acre park is spread over 270 square miles of sheltered ocean separating mainland Vancouver from the city of Victoria on Vancouver Island, and some of it is under water. Much of the park is located on the bigger southern Gulf Islands, including Saturna, North and South Pender, and Mayne.

Human Habitation The abundant marine life, climate, and physical beauty of this archipelago—protected in the rain shadow of two mountain chains—have attracted people for more than 5,000 years. First were the Coast Salish, thriving on the bountiful shellfish, plants, and game; Spanish explorers followed, adding their names on waterways and islands. The British joined the Hawaiians and other Europeans as pioneer farmers, clearing great swaths of the forest to plant apple orchards and graze sheep.

Threats From Development The latest wave of settlers—mostly artists, seasonal cottagers, and retirees—have created enormous new development pressures across the southern Gulf Islands in the later part of the 20th century and into the 21st, threatening the endangered ecosystems found only in this microclimate, including the multitude of rare life-forms associated with the meadows and rocky outcrops occupied by the Garry oak, British Columbia’s only native oak. The demand for waterfront property has also threatened the last critical habitats for fish, seals, sea lions, and killer whales.

Work in Progress In 2003, Canada’s federal government gathered together a patchwork of existing ecological reserves, provincial parks, and newly acquired lands under the banner of a national park reserve. The park reserve remains a work in progress, with new acquisitions ongoing.

How to Get There

There is regular car/passenger ferry service (BC Ferries) to the larger southern Gulf Islands throughout the year from Swartz Bay (near Victoria) and the Tsawwassen ferry terminal accessible from Vancouver. The rest of the parklands and marine protected waters open to the public are only reachable via private means—passenger ferry, water taxi, boat, or even kayak.

When to Go

The dry, warm season between June and early October is the best time for most activities in the park. Services and some park access are limited in the winter.

How to Visit

In the absence of visitor centers, the Parks Canada website provides maps and information about hiking routes, boating, and other activities.

If you have only one day, take a car ferry to Saturna Island, the biggest and least developed of the southern Gulf Islands with national park land on them. Home to about one-third of the park’s total land area, it offers short trails, day-use areas, and some of the most commanding views in the region. Accommodations are limited; book ahead if you want to stay overnight, especially in summer. There are no reservable campsites on Saturna Island.

For a very popular but no less spectacular view of the park, spend a second day exploring Sidney Spit on Sidney Island, wandering the beautiful sandy beaches, forests, and meadows.

Note: There are no garbage cans throughout the park. Pack out what you pack in. Bring your own drinking water, too, as it is in short supply during summer across the Gulf Islands.

—Text adapted from the 2011 National Geographic book Guide to the National Parks of Canada