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Hiking the West Coast Trail

Updated on February 22, 2020
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Nicolette Goff is a watercolourist, writer, and dedicated gardener. Her books, articles, and paintings reveal her love of nature.

Long Beach in Morning Mist

The West Coast Trail

The West Coast Trail runs across cliff tops, through rain forest, and along beaches, through 50 miles of the most spectacular and challenging terrain of Vancouver Island's west coast. Now part of the Pacific Rim National Park, it is one of the most gorgeous strips of wilderness in British Columbia, and in all of Canada.

It is one of the most demanding hikes on the continent, stretching from Bamfield to Port Renfrew, along a coast that has claimed over 60 ships, and is referred to as the 'Graveyard of the Pacific'. It was the wreck of the Valencia in 1906, and the loss of 126 lives, that spurred the federal government to improve the rough trail that existed and make it a lifesaving trail. Linemen maintained it for years, keeping the trail open from windfalls and rapid encroachment of the rain forest.

Our group of hikers at Tsusiat Falls, in 1985

Our group of hikers at Tsusiat Falls, in 1985
Our group of hikers at Tsusiat Falls, in 1985

The Trail

Now a National Park area, the trail maintenance falls to the Parks Branch. Access to the trail is limited, and hiking is now by reservation, and limited. Much of the trail has been upgraded, but ongoing maintenance is essential, as the rain, exuberant vegetal growth and limited access make it a tough job.

Hikers can expect to encounter slippery mud, logs and rock, washouts, high tides and surge channels, steep banks, windfalls, overgrown sections and the possibility of torrential rains.

Even with all these challenges, a prepared and well equipped hiker can hike the trail in five days.

The Trail's Challenges

As you can imagine, building a trail in this rough coastal wilderness was no easy job. Rivers and streams need to be crossed, and cable cars and hand-propelled 'ferries' are the answer. Cruising above a river, suspended in a small cable car seems like fun, until you have to pull yourself up the arc of the cable on the second half of the journey. Crossing a ravine on a suspension bridge, just a narrow plank and net sides, is either terrifying or exhilarating - depending on how you feel about heights!

In one area of the trail, where several ravines cut through the cliffs, you will find yourself descending a series of ladders (sometimes with rungs missing), crossing a stream, and climbing up the other side on more ladders. Hell on the knees, and watch for slugs on the rungs!

Surge Channel

The Trail's Rewards

However, the sheer magnificence of the cliffs, beach, surf and deep forest make up for any of the discomforts and challenges of this trail. You can stand atop a 500 foot cliff, with waves crashing below, and view the vast expanses of the Pacific.You can hike the trail through deep silent forests, with mossy banks on either side, and tall cedars shading you.

You can explore tidal pools, with sea anemones, multi-legged starfish, sea anemones and scuttling crabs. On the small rocky islands, you'll see seal colonies, and hear their sharp barking compete with the cries of the gulls overhead.

Here and there, you'll find evidence of the shipwrecks that littered this expanse of coast - rusty steel plates and anchors, and the memorial plaques that tell of the wrecks and the people lost.

West Coast Trail - Wow

Walking the Blowdown
Walking the Blowdown
Cable Car Crossing
Cable Car Crossing

Are You Up to the Challenge?

So, are you up for a real challenge?

We first hiked this trail in its completion in 1982; my husband and I, our 15 year old daughter, two friends, and our cousin. That's us in the photo at the top. The surge channels terrified me - I had to cross a log on hands and knees, with black water surging and foaming below me. The suspension bridge was my daughter's gremlin - she was ready to turn around and go back. The blisters formed on our heels, my 'bad' knee swelled after climbing up and down 3 sets of ladders to cross ravines. (And yes, I did grab a slug on one rung - ughhhh!) Luckily, the next day was a rest day, at the base of Tsusiat Falls.

We slithered through mud, struggled up steep banks, strode along rocky shores, and collapsed exhausted into our tents at night.

We saw misty mornings, eagles overhead, tidal flats of sand and rocky pools. We passed through towering forests, along clifftops and beaches, each vista more memorable than the last.

I wouldn't trade any of those memories for anything.


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