Pacific Rhododendrons at Rhododendron Lake

Pacific Rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum) Flowers
Early blooms of Pacific Rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum) stand out against green leaves.

For those interested in botany and unusual plants it is often necessary to get off the beaten path and explore areas that are sometimes a little less accessible. Rhododendron Lake, just south of Parksville on Vancouver Island, British Columbia is one such destination.

At the end of a 13 km stretch of sometimes-rough gravel logging road is an isolated grove of Pacific Rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum). While this shrub is common in Washington State and further south there aren’t many places in British Columbia where one can see Pacific Rhododendron. On Vancouver Island, Rhododendron Lake is one of only two locations where it can be found. On the mainland, Rhododendron Flats in Manning Park is an easily accessible place to see this gorgeous native shrub.

Rhododendron Lake
A moody sky at Rhododendron Lake south of Parksville on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

Rhododendron Lake is somewhat challenging to get to. Just south of Parksville look for the entrance to Island Timberlands. Check in at the gate for a visitor’s permit and directions to the lake. Road conditions are fairly good for the first 9 kilometers but become rougher once you leave the main logging road. While the last 3 kilometers are doable with a compact car (I was driving a Toyota Corolla) using a vehicle with more clearance would be a lot less stressful. Some strategic driving to negotiate steep rough sections, washouts, deep ruts and rocky road is required and branches reaching out over the narrow road may scratch your vehicle. Better to find a friend with an old truck or SUV that can navigate the difficult road. Your other option is to park your vehicle where the narrow track to Rhododendron Lake leaves the main road and walk in.

Pacific Rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum) in Bud
Pacific Rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum) in bud in early June.

A short rough trail leaves the parking area at Rhododendron Lake and works its way into the Pacific Rhododendron grove. Much of the land around the lake is wet and boggy. Western Bog-Laurel (Kalmia microphylla) is also in bloom at this time of year and it is worth keeping an eye open for other bog plants. The trail is very muddy in places and overgrown with lush Salal (Gaultheria shallon) but still passable.

Pacific Rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum) Leaves
The thick leathery leaves of Pacific Rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum) are evergreen.

Pacific Rhododendron is one of two species of native rhododendron that grows on Vancouver Island. It has thick, leathery evergreen leaves that are elliptical in shape. The flowers are showy pink to rose-purple and bell-shaped with some spotting. The petals have a wavy edge to them. A second species of rhododendron can be found on Vancouver Island later in the year at higher elevations like Paradise Meadows in Strathcona Provincial Park. The more common White-flowering Rhododendron (R. albiflorum) has smaller white flowers and deciduous leaves that are yellowish-green in colour.

Pacific Rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum) Flower
A fresh pink Pacific Rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum) flower brightens a dull gray day at Rhododendron Lake.

For those wishing to view the Pacific Rhododendron in bloom now is the time to make one’s way to Rhododendron Lake. This shrub flowers late in the spring and is just coming into full bloom now in mid-June. Many plants are in bud and over the course of the next two weeks will come into spectacular flower. While it takes a bit of effort to get to the lake it is well worth it to experience this unique plant community on Vancouver Island.

Rhododendron Lake
Rhododendron Lake under late spring gray skies.

Need to Know:

  • Check in at the Island Timberlands gate for an access permit and directions to Rhododendron Lake
  • Peak bloom time this year is the second and third week of June
  • Keep an eye out for wildlife – both wolves and cougars have been reported in the area.
  • The road is fairly rough and a vehicle with good clearance is recommended, especially for the last 3 kilometers