If you are looking for a fun and challenging weeklong hike to write home about then consider the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The West Coast Trail is a 75 kilometre long hiking trail situated on the southwest side of Vancouver Island. It used to be a trade and travel route used by First Nations.You should be a reasonably fit and/or experienced hiker to go on this trail. On average it takes 5 to 7 days to complete the hike where you can enjoy the scenery of the pacific coast, the cool sea air and wildlife. Last summer I hiked the West Coast Trail and it was a great experience.
Where To Start
Deciding which trail entrance to start from involves some analysis and personal choice. The trail from Pachena Bay (north trail access) is relatively flat for at least 40 km so you can work your legs in preparation for the southern more challenging terrain all the while lightening your load by consuming your food. If it rains (very likely) then your heavy rain-soaked clothes and backpack will offset this weight reduction.
If you start from the south end in Port Renfrew you may be be drier, have a heavier pack and your rusty legs will not have had the time to get used to the terrain but at least you would get the hard part of the trail out of the way. All things being equal there are places to stay and pubs in both villages.
I started from the south end in Port Renfrew so I could get the more challenging terrain out of the way and coast through the later parts of the trail. My worry was the constant rain I have heard about from so many previous hikers who have posted their own West Coast Trail stories online. Lucky for me it did not rain during my hike except for a small sprinkle on the second morning.
The trail is open from May to September. Each day a very limited number of hikers are allowed to start from opposite ends of the tail. During peak season, June to August, if you do not make an advanced reservation for the trail then you will be on standby for a day or even a whole week. If you want to hike early or late in the season then you will not need a reservation; call ahead to make sure.
Hikers Orientation Presentation
Before you pay and register for your hike you must watch a mandatory orientation session about the West Coast Trail at the Parks Canada Registration Office. This is where you get an update on trail conditions, wildlife, active black bear and cougar warnings, clean water sources etc. Some people have changed their minds and not gone on the hike after watching the presentation; it is more efficient for park staff to issue payment receipts and not refunds. At the orientation you are also informed on how many people had to be rescued during the current hiking year. In the first 3 weeks of the trail being open there were 6 people rescued from it. Turns out one hiker was wearing jeans and plain runners (runners not recommended but still doable). Another hiker wanted to bring a heavy large cast iron frying pan on the trail to cook from. The park staff told him no.
You then have your backpacked weighed and it should weigh no more than 33% of your body weight. Mine weighed 24 kg (52 lbs) which included my 2 litres of water. The lightest pack weighed in that week was about 19 kg (42 lbs).
A quick boat ride took me and a couple other hikers over to the other side of Gordon River to the trail entrance. We snapped some photos and off we went.
Day 1 – Gordon River Access to Thrasher Cove (6 km)
Though solo, I started the hike with a family of three, a middle aged man, his daughter and his dad. It was nice to see three generations of family going on a little adventure. I hiked with them for this first day going up and doing the ladder systems, taking breaks and snapping photos. I must have gone up and down twenty different series of ladders ranging from five rungs to over seventy. With a 52 lb pack it was a slow methodical climb with safety being the number one priority. The first six kilometres of hiking took six hours, though you can do it in four hours if you push hard. Thrasher Cove is the closest camp site from Port Renfrew. If you have an early start and have good stamina then you can hike eight more kilometers to Camper Bay. Since it was my first time on the trail I decided to call it a day to rest and camp out at Thrasher Cove. Getting to Thrasher Cove from the main trail involves going down another series of long ladders towards the beach.
Instead of my usual tarp and bivy combo I bought a used and discontinued MEC Mercury tent. This one-person tent was quick to set up and take down. Little did I know its smaller footprint would serve me well in a few days. At Thrasher Cove I pitched my tent higher up on the beach close the tree line. Based from the wooden debris along the beach you can see how high the tide comes in at night. A few hikers have underestimated how high the tide comes in and have woken up in the middle of the night swimming in their tents.
A lone sailboat was anchored some 300 metres from the beach. Its occupant’s laundry hanging from their lines. Whomever was onboard must have been out for their own little adventure.
I bought a new smaller stove system for this hike, the MEC Primus Classic LPG Stove. On previous hikes I used the MSR WhisperLite Stove. The MEC Primus Classic served me quite well in both convenience and portability. It was easy to start and adjust the flame. I had more than enough fuel for freeze dried food, cup-of-soup and cafe mochas.
There are heavy duty bear boxes at every camp to store your food. Just in case the boxes are full you should always be ready to hang your food from a high tree branch away from your tent.
Note: Bears are cute to see from afar, but not up close and personal at 2 am in the morning when you thought no one would know or appreciate that you stashed a bag of Twizzlers in your tent for a late night snack. Only you and the bear thinks that’s a good idea.
Day 2 – Thrasher Cove to Camper Bay (8 km)
To get to Camper Bay you can either climb up about 100 metres of ladders back to the main forest trail or take the difficult and scenic beach route passing Quartertide Rocks, Kellet Rock and Owen Point. I took the beach route keeping in mind the high and low tides. The beach route is full of oversized boulders that you must snake through while watching your footing else you would risk injury. It was during this part of the hike that I re-dislocated my shoulder (an old injury).
I had reached my left arm out laterally to both maintain my balance and push off from one of the oversized boulders. Then as I awkwardly refooted myself my body twisted one way while my shoulder went the other. The instant pain had me balling up and over a small crevice next to the large boulder. My first thought was that on my second day of hiking I did not want to be another rescued hiker statistic. My first action was to get my backpack off. I quickly loosened my shoulder straps and removed the pack from my right side, then let gravity do the rest as I leaned the pack off from my left side. For about 5 mins I was crouched down next to the boulder my right hand clutching my left arm and running through the same two scenarios over and over in my mind, either my left arm gets back into the socket and I continue the hike or it does not and I need to be rescued. National Park boats do patrol the coast so if I had to be rescued it would probably be that day.
Based on the previous times I had popped my shoulder it does go back in with some cajoling. Still holding onto my left forearm with my right hand I had ever so slightly nudged my left arm up and around until it slotted back in. What a relief!
A few more minutes of rest and off I went forward along the trail.
Leaving Thrasher Cove early meant not being in sync with the tides. This was intentional. Arriving at Owen Point at high tide was a good opportunity to see how high the tide came in, take an extended “boots-off” break and snap some photos. Soon other hikers showed up. Eventually the tide went low enough for me to cross over (on top of log through the tunnel), but only if I kept my boots off and waded through water at the other end. Then I had to take my pack off, throw it up on a rock ledge and pull myself up, not an easy thing to do after injuring my shoulder earlier in the day.
From that point I effortlessly hiked on flat rock while watching out for small crevices that I have to either hike around or jump over.
A hanging trail marker at the treeline that looks like a bunch of fishing nets strewn from a branch indicated that the trail goes back into the forest.
My hiking boots of choice on this trek were the standard issue Canadian military Goretex all weather boots (8 inch height) that I picked up at an army surplus store. The boot height would serve me well in slugging through the overly muddy parts of the forest trail and to my fortune crossing the bedrock exposed from low tide, allowing me to hike in 3-5 inches of sea water across a bay as opposed to hiking around on energy draining soft sand. Since the boots were standard military issue I felt like I was back in the army doing ruckmarches, this helped me maintain focus, motivation and awareness on the trail. The only trade off was that the boots where a tad heavy.
At Camper Bay there were a few groups of hikers, some German and Australian, and some were coming from the opposite end of the trail. I did notice two guys with the same backpack (MEC Ibex series) and using Hennessy Hammocks instead of tents. Almost all the campsites are on the beach so it would be challenging to find a spot to hang your hammock; one hiker did use his poles and a large oversized piece of driftwood to anchor his lines at Tsusiat Falls.
That night I sat with a bunch of hikers around a small camp fire sharing roasted marshmallows, hiking experiences and trail tips. Good times.
Day 3 – Camper Bay to Bonilla Point (14 km)
This section of the trail took me back into the forest. The trail was unpredictable, going left, right, up and down so you do not know your progress until you see something to cross reference on your map such as a creek, clearing or swamp. It was nice to see some parts of the trail set up with extended boardwalks. The further north you go along the trail the less ladder systems you’ll encounter.
There are mini cable cars at all the wider creek crossings. These cars are a fun novelty to use but since I had 8 inch Goretex boots it was easier and quicker to wade through a shallow creek then manually pull myself across on a cable car. Though one could also take their boots off and wade through with waterproof sandals. The fact that it was not raining during my hike kept the water levels low and made creek crossings easier. There was only one time on the hike I had to use the cable car and it was a bit cumbersome.
At Trail Marker 48 (km) I arrived at Bonilla Point where I set up camp, washed my clothes in my dry bag and air dried them next to my camp fire. The young two hikers with the Ibex backpack I met at Camper Bay passed the camp site. It seems we were playing a game of hiker’s leapfrog. They would overtake me on the beach part trial and then opt to take the winding forest route while I would continue on the beach route and pass them. They were planning to camp that night at Carmanah Point. Carmanah Point was just a couple kilometres around the corner from Bonilla. It is at Carmanah Point you can take a mid-hike break and grab a burger and beer at Chez Monique for the demand-based price of $24.
Early that evening I looked out at the ocean to see the sea lions swimming around and bobbing their heads in and out of the water hunting for fish. Some where checking me out; the sea lions could think thousands of West Coast Trail hikers are a unique subset of humans that use the trail as a migration route between May and September.
Day 4 – Bonilla Point to Tsusiat Falls (22 km)
I had an early start to my day and was feeling good on how well I’ve been doing on the hike so far. On my way I passed Carmanah Point greeting the two Ibex hikers. They had an entertaining previous night. A pod of whales were swimming around their section of the beach. Even though I missed the whales I was not upset since it was a random event experience and could have happened on any beach along the West Coast Trail
I took a few minutes to have a friendly chat with the owner of the Chez Monique. He gave me some good hiking tips, which route to take around Carmanah Point, how to get to the lighthouse and how far it was from Nit Nat Narrows — the river junction only passable by boat (passage included in your registration fees).
The Ibex hikers passed me on early on trail and I met up with them again at Nit Nat Narrows. The Narrows is the only other place on the trail where you can get a gastronomical reprieve from your usual hiking fare. The boat operator that takes you across the Narrows also runs the canteen. Your options include fresh lobster and crab, beer, assorted chocolates and cola. It’s here that I took another break resting my increasingly sore left knee (another old injury) and wrapping a pressure bandage around it. I also inhaled a couple Snickers bars at $3 a piece, worth every penny.
There were a couple other hikers waiting for passage at the Narrows. The boat goes only a few set times during the day so you need to make sure you are there before the last boat, else you will have to double back to the nearest camp and wait until the next day.
After crossing the Narrows the trail took me back into the forest up until Trail Marker 30 (km) where it splits up again where you can take the forest route or beach route. The beach route offers the irresistible ocean view and refreshing sea air that no one should pass up on. I continued on the beach route while the Ibex hikers took the forest route.
The wind picked air became colder as the wind picked up and the long day of hiking through the forest and soft sand was tiring out my legs and my sore knee. I cannot remember the last time I hiked 22 km in a day.
The heavy winds were stronger at the Tsusiat Falls. It was hard to find a camping spot that provided enough shelter to block it. Luckily my small tent fit snuggly between to large boulders on the beach that blocked the brunt of the wind.
Being ahead of schedule gave me two options: do a short 12 km hike the next day to Michigan Creek or finish the hike pushing 25 km to Pachena bay. My sore knee and freshly developed heel blisters where an indicator to make the next day a final hiking day.
Day 5 – Tsusiat Falls to Pachena Bay exit (25 km)
I was on my way within a half hour of walking up at 07:00. The trail was mostly flat and my strides where longer and faster. A young group of hikers caught up with me and we took a break at Michigan Creek Campsite, 12 km from Pachena Bay.
A sign next to a creek about 4 km from Pachena Bay indicated that the creek was the last source of drinkable water before the bay (where drinkable water is not available). I doublechecked my water supply to see if I had enough.
I arrived at Pachena Bay feeling elated from a successful hike. Unfortunately the West Coast Trail registration office was closed for the day. I had to de-register off the trail and figure out transportation into Bamfield.
De-registering from the West Coast Trail involves simply dropping off a copy of the trail permit in an exterior mailbox at the registration office. This lets park staff know that you left the trail else they will think you’re lost somewhere and potentially in need of rescue.
There are advertising flyers for taxi services stapled on an info board outside the park office. A local taxi ride from Pachena Bay to Bamfield costs $10 (per person). While in Bamfield I enjoyed my first meal back in civilization, a tasty swiss mushroom bacon burger. I stayed the night in town then headed back home the next day.
It took me five days to hike the 75 km West Coast Trail. I was very fortunate the weather conditions were almost perfect for the trek. Another item from my bucket list has been crossed off.
If you are planning to hike the trail check out these third party links:
- West Coast Trail preparation guide
- West Coast Trail downloadable PDF map
- West Coast Trail Express bus