One of my goals as a parent is to give my children an appreciation of the natural world. It’s not hard to do on Vancouver Island—we’re surrounded by wonders at every turn. In fact we’re so spoiled that it’s easy to take our bounty for granted.

Before we had children, my husband and I often picked up backpacking hitchhikers. Many of these backpackers were from other parts of the world. Though we’d lived on the West Coast for most of our lives, our passengers had often explored more of the Island than we had. It was always fascinating to hear about the places they’d been, and we vowed that we would follow their example and visit as many of the Island’s special sites as we could.

More than two decades have passed since we made that pledge, and we’ve barely scratched the surface. There’s just so much to see and do! This summer I’ve decided to get more systematic in my approach. To that end I’ve compiled a bucket list of local wonders.

With over 3,400 kilometres of coastline, Vancouver Island has a lot of spectacular beaches. The warm, shallow waters of Rathtrevor Beach are perfect for budding sandcastle architects. Long Beach (just south of Tofino) is a great place for beachcombing, wave watching and surfing, as are many of the less frequented beaches of Pacific Rim National Park. For breathtaking sunsets, I’m told that you can’t beat Pachena Bay near Bamfield. East Sooke Park and Botanical Beach both have reputations for abundant intertidal life. Sidney Spit (a tiny island off of Sidney) has great snorkeling. And for intrepid explorers willing to brave the elements, the rugged beaches of Cape Scott Provincial Park on the northern tip of the Island are said to be unforgettable.

Did you know that Vancouver Island is home to one of the finest hot springs in Canada? Hot Springs Cove in Maquinna Provincial Park is accessible from Tofino by boat (you can book a one-hour water taxi ride), or by air. Imagine the luxury of soaking in a natural mineral steam bath, with a mountain looming above and old growth forest all around. There are a few camping options, and the Hesquiat First Nations offer accommodation at a nearby lodge. The cove is an extremely popular destination; for a quieter experience, postpone your visit until the fall or winter.

The big trees of our Island are legendary—people come from all over the world to see them. Some of the most accessible giant Douglas firs are in Cathedral Grove, on the Alberni Highway. The most ancient are over 800 years old, and the largest is more than nine meters in circumference. Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park offers a more remote old growth experience. The interconnected valleys offer sanctuary to some of the largest spruce trees in the world (up to 95-plus metres high), as well as some hill-hugging ancient cedars estimated to be more than 1,000 years old. But come prepared—we had two flat tires on the rough logging road as we travelled back from the Carmanah last summer. For more information on the big trees of Vancouver Island (and where to find them), visit vancouverislandbigtrees.blogspot.ca.

Trees aren’t the only things towering over us—we also have our own mountain range. How high do you want to climb? I have my eye on Mt. Arrowsmith, near Port Alberni. At over 1,800 metres it’s the highest mountain on the south Island, and is accessible by several technical (ropes-required) and at least one non-technical route. But the Island offers countless other slopes for all endurance and skill levels. The Vancouver Island Trails Information Society has published three invaluable books with comprehensive mountain (and lowland) trail info. Hiking Trails I, II, and III are available through the library.

For a completely different nature experience, why not go underground? Vancouver Island is a caving mecca—we have the highest concentration of caves in North America. More than a thousand have been recorded to date, and many more still await discovery. The Horne Lake Caves Outdoor Centre is the perfect place to go for a safe, family-friendly introduction to the hidden wonders of the underground world.

The Island provides a habitat for some remarkable wildlife. My children will never forget the first time they activated bioluminescent phytoplankton by trailing their fingers in the ocean on a moonless summer night. It was a magical experience. They have more frequent access to tidal pools, but a good one can still captivate them for hours. We look for otters, seals, and other marine mammals whenever we’re on the water. We’re much less eager to see the Island’s cougars, bears and wolves in their natural habitat! The North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre in Parksville is a great place for safe and ethical wildlife viewing. The population fluctuates as orphaned or injured animals are brought in, and rehabilitated animals are released. You can expect to see an assortment of creatures including eagles, owls, ravens, ferrets and at least one resident bear. Visit web link for current information.

This list is just the beginning, of course. It’s a big Island, and there are endless things for families to see and do. The library has a great collection of local guide books with lots of ideas for summer travels. Happy exploring!

Rachel Dunstan Muller is the mother of five, and the author of Squeeze, (Orca Book Publishers, 2010), a caving adventure set on Vancouver Island.