A largely undiscovered jewel west of Campbell River, Vancouver Island's Strathcona Park is a great place to marvel at BC's natural beauty

Forget Banff. Here, on the west coast of BC we have our own jewel in the rough.

Strathcona Park, smack in the centre of Vancouver Island, may be less known and visited, but it boasts almost 250,000 hectares and is blissfully bare of crowds.

Still largely undiscovered, this 100-year-old provincial park, BC’s oldest, is Strathcona Park Lodge’s backyard playground, and often plays host to savvy Dutch and German visitors.

Strathcona Park Lodge Instills Wonder

An easy and scenic drive west from Campbell River on Highway 28, rated one of the best motorbike roads for its curvy flat asphalt (it follows a meandering path around debris from long-ago forest fires), Strathcona Park Lodge is a bit of a local legend that sits just outside the north-eastern tip of the park on Upper Campbell Lake.

Championing environmental causes and the park itself, the lodge’s off-grid outdoor learning centre has been instilling respect for its surroundings for over 50 years with school groups and the Canadian Outdoor Leadership Training (COLT).

One guide has been coming here from Saskatchewan every summer since she first experienced the lodge on a school trip. Now she’s the one teaching kids how to paddle and camp, and even brave zip lines (a rush and must-try) and high ropes.

One of her highlights: taking a youth group from Tokyo camping into the park, where the teenagers were overcome by sleeping outside and seeing stars for the first time. Seems Strathcona Park Lodge’s mission is more than mere words: “To teach the wonder, spirit and worth of people and the natural world through outdoor pursuits.”

And the lodge was green before green was in. It’s rustic – in a good way. Think summer camp, but with cozy lakeside cabins and gourmet cafeteria fare, from ubiquitous wild salmon to barbecued tofu.

Food has always been a cornerstone for founder and owner Myrna Boulding, a vibrant and self-effacing icon you might be lucky enough to meet in The Whale Room (named for the partial skeleton of a baby blue whale hanging on the wall, found on the shores of Nootka Sound by Boulding’s husband).

Here, you’ll sample anything that’s local and in season (like vegetarian stuffed peppers) whipped up by chef Jessie Dufour. Local farmers even consult Dufour in the spring to plan their crops to best meet the needs of the lodge.

Sated, there’s Upper Campbell Lake waiting to be explored by canoe, kayak or sailboat. Or you could play a round of after-dinner soccer, or go for a swim.

The chilly waters (literally breathtaking) are easier to face knowing there’s a wood-fired sauna on the beach. Beyond, of course, there’s that backyard expanse of Strathcona Park, a short drive or paddle away.

Explore Strathcona Park

Once in the park, just steps from the highway, you’re immersed in dense forest. Ease into it with the leisurely Lupin Falls loop, lined with huckleberry and Oregon grape (the makings of a wilderness salad, as a Strathcona Park Lodge guide reveals), to a towering cascade.

Or trek deeper into the park and 1,250 metres up on the full-day Marble Meadows hike, where you reach a limestone plateau with sweeping views.

Or climb to the highest point on Vancouver Island, the Golden Hinde summit, and stay overnight in the alpine hut.

Wherever you tramp in the park, marvel at that old-growth forest and high mountains – and be thankful that it’s been here for 100 years now, since 1911, a stark contrast to the cheerless clear-cuts and scarred hillsides you'll glimpse upon leaving.

The tension between tourism and trade is strong, but it seems the two can co-exist — and have been for awhile now, with Strathcona Park Lodge leading the way.