Our Summer Swimming Vacation - Swimming Holes, Vancouver Island

by Coleman


Dad wanted to do something “old but new” for our summer holidays last year. It sounded kinda suspect, but Jen and I rolled with it anyway. As soon as we headed towards Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver, we knew what was up: Parksville, Vancouver Island. Don’t get me wrong: we’ve spent many great summers building sandcastles and flying kites on the shores of Rathtrevor Beach, but the fact of the matter is Jen and I aren’t kids anymore. Dad’s idea, we found out later on the ferry over to Vancouver Island, was to have a revival tour; “swimming renaissance,” as he put it, of all the swimming holes we’d ever set foot in on Vancouver Island over the past 20 some odd years. This should be interesting I thought: Jen doesn’t even like to get her hair wet anymore, let alone go on a seven-day swimming binge. As it turns out, Dad’s idea was not half-bad; fun even (at times). Here are the stops we made:

Stotan Falls, Puntledge River, Comox Valley

Stotan Falls is about a 15-minute car ride from downtown Courtenay. To get to the falls you need to walk on water (only a few inches deep) for about 100 meters, so I recommend you wear shoes or sandals that’ll stay on your feet, have grip, and can stand getting wet. What’s cool about the Puntledge River bed is it’s dotted with potholes, some big enough for you to sit in, even have a hot tub party in if you want to.

You’ll know when you get to the falls because you’ll see kids jumping off the ledge into the pool below, which seems like a cool idea until you’re actually standing on the ledge looking down. In other words, I chickened out. Instead Dad, Jen, and I ducked under the falls and watched from inside the water cascading in front of us, which is pretty cool also.

As for Mom, she got her kicks from simply swimming in the pools of water. In some places you’ll feel an undercurrent, which Mom says works like a resistance pool. It sounded like too much work for me, so I didn’t try it. Unfortunately Mom’s exercise plans didn’t go according to plan. I noticed her ever so slowly drifting away down the river. I guess the current was getting the best of her. We didn’t think anything of it. Literally she’s a person who swims a mile a day everyday of the year, except Christmas. According to Mom, she nearly got swept away, because she couldn’t get out of the water (never mind it was only a foot deep). All the rocks she tried to grab onto were either too round or too slimy. Dad said it sounded like a fish tale. Anyway, to make a long story short, Mom’s excitement for the rest of the afternoon was sitting in one of the potholes and reading a book.

Stotan Falls are cool, but you need to keep an eye on your kids, and, as it turns out, parents too.

Little Qualicum Falls Regional Park

This is one of Dad’s all-time favorite swimming holes. Mom, on the other hand, can’t stand it. You need goggles here and a dollar store dip net, because the main activity is looking for trout and crayfish. Little Qualicum River is just that, little, which is probably why Mom is not fussy about it: she can’t let loose and swim laps. On the other hand, it’s perfect for kids.

Usually what we do is park in the lot where there is a real washroom with flushing toilets, which gets the thumb’s up from Mom. Then we walk alongside the river for about 15 minutes and find ourselves at a small beach. Dad says the best spots are the pools between the upper and lower campsites. It’s a good idea not to swim close to the waterfalls because it can be dangerous, especially when the water levels rise. Mom usually goes hiking while we’re swimming. She said it’s quite fun because there are trails on both sides of the river with a couple of bridges in between, so it’s easy to hike.

Top Bridge Regional Park - Englishman River

The first time we went to Top Bridge Regional Park on Englishman River we never even made it into the water. Nate brought his mountain bike along, because Dad heard there was a bunch of trails set aside for mountain bikers. Unfortunately, Nate showed up back at the car with a mangled bike and bleeding leg just as Dad was giving our air mattress its last blast of air. That was the end of that.

Our Revival Tour was different. Top Bridge Regional Park is only a 10-minute drive outside of Parksville, (end of Chattell Road), so you don’t end up falling asleep before you get there. We crossed a foot suspension bridge over the river and followed a short trail down to the water. The pool is larger than most. Mom was happy because she could stretch out her arms and actually swim without worrying about ramming into someone. It has a few cliffs if you’re into jumping. For the most part, I got stuck towing Jen around on her air mattress while she worked on her tan. Once in a while, Dad would take over, and I got to do what I wanted. You can spend a few hours in the water without ever feeling bored.

Nanaimo River

The Nanaimo River is about 18 km south of Nanaimo. The swimming hole we went to is 3 or 4 kilometres up the Nanaimo River Road from the bungee jumping bridge (WildPlay Nanaimo). There are several places you can go swimming along the river, and they are all awesome. Apparently the water gets up to 25 degrees Celsius, which is unreal, and the pools are transparent. Both Mom and Dad, and Jen and I for that matter, love this place. You just need to pick and choose your spots if you have kids, because the water never stops moving. This is a great river for catching crayfish so remember your dip net.

There are places you can park along the road, but I don’t remember seeing a washroom anywhere, so come prepared. If you want to find out more information on the Nanaimo River, see the website ourbc.com.

Cowichan River Provincial Park, Inner Tubing

As you might’ve already guessed, our family never goes on a summer holiday without a carload of inflatables. Literally our car is so jammed with stuff, it looks like we’re taking a mini version of our house. Mom swears by inflatables. She always says, “You’ll last a lot longer in the water if you stay on the top.”

For the Cowichan River, you need an inflatable. I’ve never seen anyone riding down the river without one. Unless you have someone waiting for you a couple of miles downstream, get used to the idea of riding for 100 meters, getting out of the water, walking back, and doing it again. This is how we always did it, and we still had a blast. I guess neither Mom nor Dad wanted to miss out on the fun. You can pick your route, and not have to worry about any surprises popping up along the way. Apparently the current picks up at certain places, and you sometimes come across bare spots as well, not to mention random branches. All part of the fun.

Mom’s biggest complaint about the Cowichan River are the rocks. For some reason the rocks on the riverbed are covered in green slime, so you need to be careful getting in and out.

Apparently there is now a business on Cowichan Lake that rents tubes and provides a shuttle service: all your problems are solved.

Sooke Potholes Provincial Park

This is my favorite spot. The water is incredible. This one time I dived down to get a closer look at a fish I thought was like a foot away, but really it was about 10 feet under. That’s how clear it is. If you can, bring a dinghy and go exploring along the river. The river starts out big, but then it gets narrow, almost like a fjord with steep cliffs. Dad and I found some ledges under the water. He said if we dived down we might find an underwater cave. That’s about as far as we got on that one. In one spot we had to get out of the dingy and carry it, because the water wasn’t deep enough to take us over.

If you were a kid, you could totally let your imagination run wild here, and pretend you’re an early explorer snaking up an unknown river looking for gold. Jen and I never got out of the water until it was time to go home. It was so much fun. Mom and Dad went exploring too; they went even further along the river then Jen and me.

The only snag was no flush toilets. Mom and Jen even walked down to the main parking lot, thinking there would be a legit washroom there, but no such luck. They got stuck using a Port-O-Potty. Oh No!

One thing I will warn you of is the parking lots fill up fast. You’re taking your chances if you arrive later than noon on a sunny weekend.

*** One Last Thing: Safety First ***
It’s too bad none one of these swimming spots have lifeguards. It’s up to you to use common sense, and as my Dad says, “Don’t do anything stupid.” As even my Mom found out the current is not as half-asleep as it looks. You can find yourself in a stressful predicament pretty quick. It’s always a good idea to play it safe, and make sure you’re with someone else. Don't swim during periods of high water. Observe and obey posted signs. Other than that, go out and enjoy yourselves. You’ll have a blast.


All these swimming holes are on the east side of Vancouver Island.


Vancouver Island