Let’s Take a Fall Ferry Trip in the Southern Gulf Islands

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Hastings House originally sponsored this look at a fall ferry trip in the Southern Gulf Islands of British Columbia.

A ferry tour in the Southern Gulf Islands, fills the bill for a unique fall adventure. What traveler doesn’t appreciate beautiful scenery, uncrowded islands and enough activities to satisfy the most active of baby boomers?

Visit 5 islands on a fall ferry tour of the Southern Gulf in B.C.

Located between the British Columbia mainland and Vancouver Island, 200 Gulf Islands are scattered in the Strait of Georgia, also known as the Salish Sea. With a mild Mediterranean climate, the islands—especially the Southern Gulf Islands—are a haven for hikers, cyclists, kayakers, scuba divers, wildlife watchers, and those who enjoy a delicious organic meal after all that activity.

Yet each island has a distinctive character, making for a unique travel experience.

White house with colorful flags on a grassy hill, Saturna Island, BC.
Explore colorful Saturna Island. Photo courtesy Salt Spring Island Chamber of Commerce.

Touring the islands by BC Ferries is a fun and scenic way to arrive and depart. Be aware that the ferry schedule changes depending on the day and the season. On a trip like this, you definitely want to make advance reservations not only for the ferry but also for accommodations.

It’s possible to visit the islands without a car if you’re an avid cyclist. The rest of us will want to bring the car along as not all of the islands offer car rental services.

Dirt path leading through a forest of tall trees.
Walk through the forest at Salt Spring Island. Photo courtesy Salt Spring Island Chamber of Commerce.

There are two options for ferrying to the Gulf Islands. Visitors departing from the British Columbia mainland embark from Tsawwassen, south of Vancouver. Ferrying from Port Angeles, WA, to Swartz Bay, near Victoria on Vancouver Island, and then to the islands is another option. 

Let’s go island hopping in the southern Gulf Islands on a 5-island itinerary that makes the most of your fall travel plans. Include an overnight—two or three nights are even better—to fully experience each island’s unique character. Of course you could visit each of these as a Gulf Island day trip, too.

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Mayne Island: Gateway to Gulf Islands National Park Reserve

Sea lions sitting on a rock near the ocean.
Harbor seals on Mayne Island. Photo courtesy Salt Spring Island Chamber of Commerce.

Located in the center of the Southern Gulf Islands, Mayne serves as a ferry hub to the rest of the islands. You’ll find numerous non-stop ferries from Tsawwassen (Vancouver) and Swartz Bay (Vancouver Island) to Mayne Island depending on the season and day of the week.

If you’re looking to cycle one of the Gulf Islands, Mayne may be your best choice. With a good road system offering interesting routes, cyclists explore the countryside, including a 14-mile loop around the island’s perimeter.

Considered the gateway to Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, Mayne Island provides beach access in the reserve for beachcombers and kayakers. Don’t miss visiting the 1885-era lighthouse at Georgina Point. Overlooking the eastern entrance to Active Pass, the point offers a good vantage point to see orca whales and harbor seals.

Mayne Island accommodations include resorts, lodges, bed and breakfasts, and cottages.

Salt Spring Island: where art meets outdoor fun

Aerial view of boats in the harbor and buildings dotting the hills of Salt Spring Island.
An aerial view of Salt Spring Island. Photo courtesy Salt Spring Island Chamber of Commerce.

Salt Spring Island wears many hats: vibrant arts community, Canada’s organic farming capital, and popular cycling destination—no wonder it’s the most frequently visited Gulf Island. In autumn, there is limited non-stop ferry service from Tsawwassen (Vancouver), numerous non-stops from Swartz Bay (Vancouver Island) plus inter-island ferry service.

Upon arriving at Salt Spring Island, it’s hard to know what to do first. Cyclists will grab their bikes, or rent one, to explore the narrow, hilly roads. Water enthusiasts will head to Ruckle Provincial Park for paddleboarding, ocean kayaking or whale watching.

Hardy hikers will challenge themselves on the rugged trails leading up Bruce Peak or Mount Tuam. Providing the highest points in the Gulf Islands, these mountain hikes are some of the most challenging in the Gulf Islands.

Watch for pods of Orcas from the waterfront at Ganges. This is also the central hub for services on the island, especially shopping, gallery hopping and restaurants. With over 200 organic farms, the food promises to be delicious. And don’t miss the cheesemakers, wineries, or Salt Springs Island Ales Brewery.

Salt Spring Island sustains a vibrant arts community. Shop the galleries or enjoy a self-guided studio tour based upon the free map available at the Visitor Center in Ganges.

Hastings House, situated on 22 acres overlooking Ganges Harbor, offers a luxurious, relaxing place to stay. Within walking distance to Ganges, the historic country house feels like your private island estate. With such a beautiful setting, Wellspring Spa, and gourmet meals featuring local ingredients, it’s tempting to stay put in this Relais and Chateaux property. But explore Salt Spring Island you must!

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Pender Island: two for the price of one

Gold and red trees on a golf course.
A fall round of golf on Pender Island. Photo courtesy Salt Spring Island Chamber of Commerce.

Pender is actually two islands—North Pender and South Pender—connected by a one-lane bridge. During the fall, non-stop ferry service from Tsawwassen (Vancouver) is limited but there are plenty of non-stops from Swartz Bay (Vancouver Island). Inter-island ferry service is available, too.

In addition to the hiking, kayaking, wildlife watching available at all of the southern Gulf Islands, Pender offers opportunities for the recreationalist. Golfers will enjoy the 9-hole course. The 27-hole disc golf course is not only free, it’s an internationally famous course.

Partake in wine or cider tasting, explore art galleries and indulge in a bit of shopping. But nature is still the star. Pender Island has more public beach access points than any other Gulf Island. And don’t miss a swim at Magic Lake. 

An array of lodging is available, including resorts, inns, bed and breakfasts, cottage rentals and campgrounds.

Galiano Island: birdwatcher’s paradise

Women sitting on a hill overlooking the southern Gulf Islands in British Columbia.
Taking in the view on Galiano Island. Photo courtesy Salt Spring Island Chamber of Commerce.

Dubbed Gem of the Salish Sea by the Chamber of Commerce, Galiano Island enjoys direct ferry routes from Tsawwassen (Vancouver) or Swartz Bay (Vancouver Island). Arriving via inter-island ferry is also possible. Reservations are highly recommended.

When visiting Galiano, look up or down for amazing wildlife encounters. Birdwatchers come to Galiano, located on a migratory bird path, to see approximately 130 species of birds in this Canadian designated Important Bird Area. One of the main feeding routes for orca whales is located at Active Pass. At Bluff’s Park, look down onto the pass for primo orca watching.

You can also explore sandstone caves or hike in old growth forests on this quiet spot in the Gulf Island chain. There’s an adequate selection of bed and breakfasts, inns and rentals but reserve Galiano accommodations ahead.

Saturna Island: a quiet change of pace

Mother and children sitting on a rock watching a pod of orcas play in the Salish Sea.
Whale watching on Saturna Island. Photo courtesy Salt Spring Island Chamber of Commerce.

Saturna Island holds the distinction for hardest island to reach on your fall ferry tour. There is no direct ferry service from Vancouver in the fall. Your journey requires a transfer at Mayne Island, however direct service is available from Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island. Definitely make advance reservations.

Upon arriving, you’ll find that the unspoiled landscape is well worth the effort. Over half of Saturna is designated national park land, the majority being Gulf Islands National Park Reserve. But you’ll also enjoy easy to access beaches at Thomson Regional Park and East Point Regional Park.

What else is there to do on Saturna? Hike or bike up Mt. Warburton Pike, the tallest mountain in the outer Gulf Islands. Take quiet nature walks. Explore the rock shelf at Russell Reef at low tide. Or watch for wildlife from the shore to see otters, seals, sea lions, and other sealife. And, of course, there’s also kayaking or whale watching.

Accommodation choices on Saturna Island are limited so reserve in advance. The serene beauty will more than make up for the lack of services—only 350 residents call the island home.

After thoroughly exploring on a fall ferry trip in the Gulf Islands, catch a ride over to Victoria on Vancouver Island to extend your trip. Immerse yourself in history, sophisticated city culture and admire fall colors at the lovely Butchart Gardens.

What a fall boomer travel adventure!

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Fall ferry trip to the southern Gulf Islands, B.C. Photos courtesy Salt Spring Island Chamber of Commerce.

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