Exploring the Caves of Vancouver Island
You might be surprised to learn that caves are everywhere on Vancouver Island, ranging from barely accessible fractures leading to extensive underground networks, to the well-known caves in Horne Lake Provincial Park. Because Vancouver Island is partially formed out of karst limestone, a unique topography that results in caverns, springs, and disappearing streams, there are over 1600 known caves, with countless more sure to be discovered by enthusiastic spelunkers.
Artlish Caves Provincial Park
Getting to Artlish Caves is half the adventure. Located 80 km south of Port McNeill, and about the same distance northwest of Woss, there are no developed trails in this remote location. With two large entrances and an underground river that snakes through serene old-growth forest, these caves are a sensitive, protected area, and their unique karst features offer a true wilderness caving experience. These are challenging caves with hazards like sinkholes, so only well-experienced cavers should explore this system. Visit BC Parks for more information and updates on accessibility.
Gordon River Caves
Because the Cowichan region also features the Karst geology found all over the island, it’s home to a southern network of impressive caves that hide in plain sight. Near Gordon River, there are Mudslick, Stream, Hourglass, Easter, Big Bear, Banana Split, and Woodhole caves, each with varying degrees of difficulty and extra “features” like the need to use rope, rappelling skills, and bushwhacking. Not for beginners, this network of impressive and beautiful caves offers up endless exploration opportunities.
Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park
The most widely known and used caving system on Vancouver Island, Qualicum’s Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park provides the opportunity to explore the caves yourself, or experience a guided tour, and rappelling, year-round. The Riverbend cave provides a taste of caving without having to climb or crawl, and the Main cave is a tighter squeeze with ladders and climbs. Self-guided explorers can adventure through the lower cave, Andres Annex, or the first 20m of the main cave during park hours. While at the park, check out Phil Whitfield’s Fossil Geology trail, a moderately difficult 1.5 km loop named in honour of one of the park’s founders.
Little Huson Regional Park
Often described as magical with disappearing waterfalls and rivers, and an emerald green lake, the Quatsino system near Zeballos offers an incredible opportunity to explore the underground world nestled between the Nimpkish Valley and Strathcona Provincial Park. Little Huson is popular with beginning cavers with easy access and well-marked trails leading to several key areas to explore, including the Vanishing River, and the Reappearing River. Openings to the beautiful limestone caves are dotted along the banks of the Atluck Creek.
This series of caves in Cowichan’s Looper Creek Canyon lies just east of Nitinat Lake. It’s accessible by a short steep ravine, and a short walk upstream where a crack in the limestone leads in to a series of large caves. Some swimming is required, and the water is icy cold even on the hottest summer day, so plan accordingly with a wetsuit and shoes with good grip. Even if you don’t opt to go caving, the Looper Creek Canyon itself is an incredible sight made up of a 100-foot vertical limestone karst formation.
Sea Caves at Owen Point
A different form of cave, the sandstone sea caves at Owen Point can be explored along the West Coast Trail when tides are below 1.8 m. These caves have been carved out by the repeated wave action of the Pacific Ocean, which has broken down the softer and weaker materials in the rock face, resulting in stunning caverns along the shore.
Upana Caves is a huge system of over 100 known caves in Nootka Sound, about 17 km west of Gold River. Upana is the most accessible of all the cave systems in the area, with fifteen known entrances. The caves can vary in size from a single cavern to a full network of darkened corridors. These caves are the deepest ones north of Mexico and can dip more than 610 metres underground so it does get quite cold. Guided tours of the “White Ridge” caverns and the underground river are available, or the cave system can be independently explored by even casual cavers.
Whether you’ve never set foot in a cave or have decades of experience in the subterranean world, Vancouver Island is an adventurer’s dream with caves galore to explore. To have the most fun, always bring the proper gear, and never go caving alone. We hope you get the opportunity to explore some of the most awe-inspiring terrain in the world, and when you’re ready to relax, we invite you to enjoy the views and ambiance here at Van Isle Marina in beautiful Sidney, BC.