10/02/2010

Juan de Fuca Provincial Park: Hiking To China Beach Through Old Growth Forest




The Coastal Western Hemlock Forest

Thirty-seven kms west of Sooke on Highway 14 is the beautiful Juan de Fuca Provincial Park. This park stretches in a narrow strip along the coast from China Beach all the way to Botanical Beach near Port Renfrew. It was made to commemorate the 1994 Victoria Commonwealth Games.
 
China Beach is at the east end of the park, closest to Sooke. A short hike to China Beach takes the big tree hunter through a mature Coastal Western Hemlock forest, and down to an expansive, sandy beach (at lower tides).

The further west along the coast you drive the wetter it gets, and the more Douglas-fir gives way to abundant Western hemlock, and Sitka spruce. The forest beginning around China Beach is different from the drier Coastal Douglas Fir ecosystem to the east.

More precipitation falls here than in Sooke, only 37 km away, but not as much as in Port Renfrew. Sooke receives about 660 mm of precipitation a year, compared to Port Renfrew's rainforest-like 3600 mm.




Hiking To China Beach

The 1 km trail to China beach starts at the parking lot for the day use area. The upper trail area has been logged and the forest that has grown in is densely packed and dark. The wet climate here encourages the spongy green mosses and dripping lichens that hang from branches. This is the beginning of the coastal rain forest.

A few steps and the hiker will pass through a small clearing in the forest. There is some evidence of logging here, but the area was also affected by a major storm in the winter of 2006. Many trees were blown down, and the trail was inaccessible for a long time. The clearing gives good views of the tall trees still standing there, and the surrounding forest canopy.

A little farther and the trail enters the area of mature forest. It is hard to miss as it feels like you are going 'into' something. The trunks of thick trees are all around, and looking toward their tops gets tiring on the neck. It is special here. Hushed, muted songs of forest birds, the faint sound of the wind in the upper canopy. Waves breaking on the beach below can be heard while mist passes through the trees.

This is the domain of keystone species such as black bear, cougar, wolf, and the endangered spotted owl. These species play a critical role in maintaining the structure of this special forest. The Sitka spruce are a keystone species in this ecologically rich environment, too.

"Vancouver Island has one of the highest concentrations of black bear and cougar in the world."

Sitka Spruce

Sitka spruce,  the largest species of spruce, commonly grow to 70 meters and a diameter of 300 cm in mature forests. The largest Sitka spruce are over 90 m and 500 cm in diameter. These giants are among the fastest growing trees in the world. The cool, moist maritime climate over much of Vancouver Island grows some of the largest examples anywhere.

The second-largest known Sitka spruce, the San Juan spruce, is just a few kilometers up Highway 14 from China Beach. This tree grows at a campsite beside the San Juan River outside of Port Renfrew. The San Juan spruce boasts a diameter of 371 cm, a height of 62.5 m, and a wood volume of 333 m3 .

A little farther up the coast in Carmanah/Walbran Provincial Park big tree lovers will find the Carmanah Giant, Canada's tallest tree. This sky scraping Sitka spruce is 95m in height and 9.4 m in diameter.

A Sitka spruce on the Brooks Peninsula has a greater girth than either of the above trees. This massive spruce is 13.94 meters in diameter.







The dark trunks of the Sitka spruce can be seen along the rest of the China Beach trail. The spruce trees have grey to dark brown bark that forms large chips. There are many Western hemlock, a few Douglas-fir, and some very large Western red-cedar that make up this diverse forest. But the coast-hugging Sitka spruce is the premier tree here.

The spruce are at the front line of the battle between the sea and the forest, due to their salt tolerance and ability to withstand abrasive wind-driven sand. These tough trees brave the elements and cushion the blow for those standing behind them. The spruce trees at the waters edge are blasted into a low wedge called spruce fringe, or krummholz forest. Without it, the trees behind would be blown down.




Sitka spruce are not the longest lived trees here, attaining an age of 'only' four or five hundred years. However, what they lack in age they make up in size, height, and girth. The trunks of these columns of wood have very little taper as they disappear into the canopy. The lower parts of the trunks are free of branches so the great trunks are in plain view. One would need binoculars to see the trees' needles as they are so far off the ground.

China Beach Provincial Park contains a special mature forest. We should be saving more like it. Get a taste of what we are at risk of losing on the easily accessible China Beach trail.


At the end of the trail - China Beach

 Getting There

Drive 37 km past the town of Sooke along West Coast Road (Highway 14). When you drive through the small surfing village of Jordan River you only have about 4 km further to drive. Watch for the entrance to China Beach day use area on your left hand side, and turn in.

Drive past the parking lot for the Juan de Fuca Trail head (on the right), and to the lower day use parking lot. The China Beach trail takes you past a set of outhouses, through the old growth and on to the beach below. Watch for bear, cougar and rogue waves.



View China Beach - Juan de Fuca Provincial Park in a larger map

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