Camping on Gabriola Island – Descanso Bay Regional Park


Quick Facts:
  • Descanso Bay Regional Park website: https://www.rdn.bc.ca/descanso-bay-regional-park
  • Access to water: very short walk to the water
  • Obstructed views of the ocean
  • Rustic amenities with pit toilets, no showers, and only one water tap far from campsites
  • Activities: trails and paddling
  • Beach type: rocky beach and mud flats
  • Outdoor Fam rating: 8 out of 10

After our brief visit to Gabriola Island last year, we were determined to come back for a better look at the beautiful island. After our stay in Nanaimo, we hopped on the ferry and headed to a 2-night camping getaway at Descanso Bay Regional Park.

Malaspina Galleries

Before we headed to our camp, we met up with Jill and Shadab, our new camping friends who kindly shared their Porteau Cove site with us, at the famous Malaspina Galleries.

This time, instead of turning left to go under the half tunnel, we turned right and explored the exposed shores and tide pools on the other side of the peninsula. Here, Big Bro finally found some sea anemones!

Descanso Bay Regional Park

After some beachcombing at the Galleries, we headed to Descanso Bay Regional Park to set up camp.

The regional park reservation system is different from BC Parks, and it wasn’t very clear to me what time the reservation actually opened (I think they updated their rules to be more precise: reservation opens 120 days in advance, but it’s still not clear what time it updates). I had to keep on checking every morning for a few days to finally book a good site near a shore access.

Upon arriving at the park, we had to get out of the car and go into a gatehouse to check in. The staff was friendly enough, and gave us a quick run down of the place. The most striking inconvenience was that there was only one water tap and it’s all the way at the park gate. It’s a solid 500m from our campsite, so I opted to drive to get water. Having a bike would have been helpful.

We booked site #10, which has some peek-a-boo views of the ocean.

Site #10 at Descanso Bay Regional Park

Site 6a is the best in terms of proximity to the toilet and water views (but still very much obstructed by trees).

There are two coves at the park, which are very different. The North Cove is calmer, but the shores are very rocky and at low tide very muddy. This makes it difficult to launch and pull out a paddleboard.

Difficult launch at high tide, and even harder to pull out from.
No fishing and no clamming here.

The South Cove is much better for launching a watercraft, due to a section of pebble beach that makes for easier landing. But it’s considerably more choppy especially when there’s a northerly wind.

The water is much deeper around the South Cove too from what I can tell on Google maps satellite view.

The two coves at Descanso Bay Regional Park. The north cove is visibly shallow compared with the south.

The depth of the coves was important since I was eager to try crabbing. I checked with the park staff who confirmed that as long as I do it off shore from a watercraft, they have no problem with it.

After dinner at camp, with burgers generously supplied by Shadab and Jill, they headed back to their camp in Rathtrevor Beach Park while I launched my board and set up my crab trap. I chose a crabbing location between the two rocky points outside the South Cove, which was very conveniently located within 5 mins of paddling time to the launch point. But it’s fairly exposed and I had to deal with a fair sized chop at most times of the day.

The weather was so warm that we briefly considered camping without the rainfly on.

We were very glad that we kept the fly on for privacy. In the middle of the night, a tent-shaking wind blew through the campsite from the sea, waking both Tina and I up. Had we left the fly off, I’m sure the kids would have been shaken up. I actually got out to make sure our stuff won’t get blown away.

Afterwards, I treated myself to a night walk through the forest to see what the winds were doing to the ocean, which was actually a bit scary with the howling winds and moonlit darkness.

Thankfully the winds died down quickly and the next day I was able to paddle out and check on our trap. It was a very successful soak, and we had 3 good sized red rock crabs.

We put the crabs in our cooler with some fresh sea water, and headed out for a beach hopping tour of the island and looked for the perfect picnic spot to have lunch.

Orlebar Point

Our first stop was at the rocky northern tip of Gabriola Island called Orlebar Point. It’s not really a park, but there were some parking spots and information signs. The shoreline here is very rocky, with no ‘beach’ per se. But the funky rock formation and unobstructed views were quite awesome.

Sandwell Provincial Park

By the time we got to Sandwell Provincial Park, the two younger boys were fast asleep in their morning nap. Such is the relaxed pace of vacations. So I went to explore the park with Big Bro.

The beach at Sandwell was surprisingly far from the parking lot, requiring about 500m of walking through a forest and descending dozens of steps.

The large beach was very quiet on this weekday morning. It’s a mixture of rocks, pebbles, and wet sand. There were some tidal pools too which kept Big Bro entertained with small crabs and fish.

Whalebone Beach Park

By the time we got to Whalebone Beach, the two smaller boys woke up from their naps and were re-energized. Parking here was somewhat limited, basically just street parking in a quiet neighborhood.

Getting to the beach required a small walk and a slightly steep descent at the end.

Baby Bro was very happy to practice his toddling here on the sandy beach.

Gabriola Sands Provincial Park

None of the beaches above had a decent picnic table, so we went back what what we already knew was a great spot: the twin beaches at Gabriola Sands. We got what probably was the best public picnic table on the entire island, with an open view of the beach. I got busy cooking up the 3 red rock crabs we got earlier that morning while the kids played on the beach right in front. We forgot our crab crackers so I had to improvise using our camp axe.

Catching our own food from the ocean and serving the fresh bounty to our 3 crab connoisseurs was a great pleasure that we could never get from buying crabs from the grocery store.

Even with 2 nights on Gabriola Island, we still have places we still want to see. High on our lists are: Drumbeg Provincial Park for the walking trails and great views to the south, and Brickyard Beach which reportedly is good for clamming and oyster picking.

The rustic camping with easy access to the ocean and productive crabbing made it a very fun spot for us, but it is somewhat inconvenient to be so far away from a water source.


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