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If you look at a map of coastal British Columbia, you’re likely to quickly spot Haida Gwaii. This knife shaped cluster of 450 islands sits 80 km off the coast and is steeped in one of Canada’s most magical and unique cultures. With just a long weekend and a bit of effort, you can travel to the island and see old growth rainforests, flora and fauna you can’t see anywhere else, witness bald eagles, bears, whales, and sea lions and even long-standing totem poles carved by the island’s Haida peoples.
Here are five things you must do if you visit this incredible place:
Haida Gwaii is named such on behalf of the Haida Nation, a group of indigenous people that have occupied the archipelago for around 12,500 years. The Haida Heritage Centre at Kay Llnagaay just opened its doors in 2007 on an ancient village site. The 50,000 sq. ft heritage centre itself is designed to look like the oceanside Haida village that once stood in its place. On the site, Haida poles were raised by master Haida carvers, in front of the Haida Gwaii Museum, Performance House, Carving Shed, Canoe House, Eating House, and more. This is a must-visit if you make it to the islands.
Another crown jewel of the islands is the Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve, National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, and Haida Heritage Site. This incredibly sacred region is protected from the seafloor to the mountaintops thanks to a partnership between the Haida Nation and Government of Canada (Parks Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada). Featuring still-standing and fallen totem poles, long houses, some of the largest trees on the planet, and a colourful, snorkel-friendly reefs, it’s no surprise the park reserve is consistently recognized as one of the best on the planet.
A former Haida Village located in the southwest corner of Gwaii Haanas, SGang Gwaay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, National Historic Site of Canada and Haida Gwaii Watchmen site. It features an outstanding collection of Haida memorial and mortuary poles. Other Haida Gwaii Watchmen Sites such as Hlk’yah GawGa (Windy Bay) and K’uuna Llnagaay (Skedans) also offer views of standing poles, while Skedans, SGang Gwaay, and T’aanuu Llnagaay (Tanu) features many house pits of Haida longhouses. Be sure to make time to chat with the Haida Gwaii Watchmen. Watchmen are members of the Haida Nationwho live at the sites from May to September and share their personal stories and experiences while guarding these sacred sites. Seeing these incredible works of art and architecture amid the fog and lush rainforest is a rare, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
As you can imagine, the deep sea fishing on Haida Gwaii is some of the best in British Columbia. The island features many chartered tours and guides which can help you find local honey holes. Wildlife viewing opportunities include many flora and fauna and species that are distinct to the island. Bring your camera along as there is a good chance you’ll see black bears, sea lions, miniature sitka deer, grey whales, killer whales, dolphins, bald eagles, red throated loons, ancient murrelets and more.
The trek to Haida Gwaii is pretty intense, especially by ferry, but that translates to some incredible surfing in one of the most remote and beautiful locations in the country. October to May sees big storm swell brewed up in Alaska that drive south and smash Haida Gwaii, in essence, creating a surfers dream landscape. If you’re new to the sport or would like to give it a try, North Beach Surf Shop can get you started with lessons and rentals.
What: Gwaii Haanas: An incredible park reserve, marine conservation area reserve, and Haida Heritage Site which protects an archipelago of over 180 coastal islands and some of the most beautiful coastlines and tallest trees in the country. The park is steeped in Haida culture and still contains cultural features such as poles, canoe runs, and sacred hotsprings. It is truly one of the more spiritual places you’ll ever visit.
Where: Gwaii Haanas is only accessible by plane or by boat; there are no roads, hotels or cell service in beautiful backcountry destination. You can either travel down with a guided tour operator or on your own if you are an experienced mariner. On the southern tip of Haida Gwaii (formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands), Gwaii Haanas is located south of Alaska on the Pacific coast of British Columbia
When: Gwaii Haanas is located in a temperate rainforest, so even the winter months are stormy, wet and can be chilly. Most tour operators don’t operate in winter months. Try the shoulder months of April/May or September/October to beat the crowds. Best weather occurs from June to August. A trip to Gwaii Haanas takes planning – the friendly folks at Gwaii Haanas are always happy to answer questions 1-877-559-8818.
What to bring: Bring camping gear and clothing for a wet, northern temperate climate. While it’s not likely to drop below five degrees, especially in the summer months, it can rain for days on end. Pack as if you’re heading into a rain storm, even if you’re not. Learn more about what to pack here.
Where to stay: If you’re not going to camp within the park reserve, there are two guest houses. Many tour operators offer ‘live aboard’ experiences. If you wish to extend your trip to stay in/around Haida Gwaii, then check them out here.
How long to stay: Being such a remote location, you’ll want to stay at least a long weekend on the island.
How To Get There: Gwaii Haanas is located in a larger area called Haida Gwaii. There are flights to the Sandspit Airport with Air Canada, or into Masset via Pacific Coast Airlines, and Inland Air. You can fly directly to Haida Gwaii from Vancouver or Prince Rupert..
Alternatively, you can fly to Vancouver and either fly directly to Sandspit or Masset. If you have the time, take a ferry with BC Ferries from Port Alberni (on Vancouver Island) to Prince Rupert and then from Prince Rupert to Skidegate on Haida Gwaii. They regularly schedule sailings to Haida Gwaii from Prince Rupert all year long.
Once on the island you’ll need to contact a tour operator who can get you to Gwaii Haanas. If you plan to travel on your own, you’ll have to reserve a visit with the park and participate in a Gwaii Haanas orientation
Like this post? Check out 6 National Parks That Are So Much More Than A Park and The Best Hikes In The World Are Right Here In Canada