Unlike many national parks in Canada, Gulf Islands National Park Reserve (GINPR) is not a single terrestrial site, but rather a series of sites dotted across islands. Visitors can drive to some locations, but must kayak to others.
With so many entry points, it’s hard to accurately track visitation numbers, but if toilet paper usage is any indication, visitation has gone way up.
In 2016, the park reserve supplied about 800 rolls of toilet paper across its many sites; in 2017, they used 1,120 — a 40 per cent increase.
Darcy Gray, acting visitor experience manager for GINPR, said the increase is in line with other metrics they have been tracking. The park reserve started taking reservations for the summer camping season on Jan. 3 this year and their day one reservations were 38 per cent higher than day one reservations last year. McDonald Campground, a drive-in site in North Saanich, was 35 per cent busier in 2017 than 2016 based on paid overnight stays and it has become more than twice as busy since 2013.
“It’s a national park that’s quite literally in the backyard of Greater Vancouver and Greater Victoria, but we found for many years the awareness wasn’t there,” said Gray. “I think we’ve come past that.”
Campers can reserve dates from May 15 to Sept. 30, with most people angling for the peak summer season, but Gray said despite the increasing popularity, GINPR is still a place for last-minute campers.
“I am actually quite happy that we’ve had that kind of visitation growth,” said Gray, “but we still are one of the few places within the region where even in the peak of summer, there is still the opportunity for those last-minute campers to, on a whim, try and go camping more often than not — whether it’s a nice forested site at McDonald [Campground] or a beachfront site at Sidney Spit.”
Long weekends and peak summer weekends usually fill up about a week beforehand, but Gray said there are lots of lulls mid-week where “there’s still so much vacancy and opportunity for campers who are interested.”
“That’s where we direct people if they want certainty but don’t want to plan far ahead of time,” he said.
Gray said with Canada 150 last year, there was a lot of public interest in Parks Canada, so they increased their staffing for resource conservation, visitor services and facilities/assets positions, particularly with summer students (the author of this piece was himself a summer student in 2016). They expect to maintain similar staffing levels this year.
This year, three backcountry campsites are now reservable — Shingle Bay and Beaumont (on Pender Island) and Narvaez Bay (on Saturna Island), which Gray said was a response to visitor demand.
“A lot of times people just don’t want to commit to packing up their stuff, getting on a ferry and going to an island unless they know there is a site for them,” said Gray.
Though it is cold, backcountry sites are open year-round, while frontcountry campsites are only open from May 15 to Sept. 30. The campground area on Sidney Island is closed for First Nations hunting until the end of February, but the day use area remains open.