West Coast Trail Redux

Ancient Western Red-cedar close to Bamfield

It will be 22 years this month since my first visit to the wilderness of Vancouver Island, and my introduction to the wet, wild, and rugged 75 km (46 mile) West Coast Trail (WCT). I had traveled from the Canadian prairies, a semi-desert with a lot of grasses and not much for trees. I wanted to see big trees. I was not disappointed.

The remote and scenic park passes through a narrow corridor of coastal old growth spruce, hemlock, and cedar. Some of the biggest, tallest, and oldest trees in the world live in this green, wet land. I had purchased a WCT guidebook with the curiosity of a land-locked teen. Over the years I dog-eared the pages while making plans to hike this remote coastline cloaked in fog and big, shaggy, moss-covered trees.

The West Coast Trail retraces parts of an old telegraph line cut through the coastal rain forest wilderness in 1890. The frequently wet, muddy trail passes beneath a forest canopy that disappears as it rises up through the fog.

On one side is the near-impenetrable forest, on the other, the rugged shoreline of the Pacific Ocean. This is the dangerous, rocky coast that has claimed as many as 66 ships over the years.

This section of coastline became known as the "Graveyard of the Pacific", and in 1891 the Carmanah Point Lighthouse was built to guide the increasing number of ships plying the wet coast.

Between 1907 and 1910 the original telegraph trail was upgraded for the rescue of shipwrecked mariners.

Over the years improved technology lead to reduced marine casualties and less need for the trail. In 1954 the Canadian Government abandoned the remote and rugged Dominion Lifesaving Trail.

In the 1960s when logging companies began to threaten the remote west coast, citizens interested in preserving the old trail and old growth forest campaigned for preservation.

In 1970 Pacific Rim National Park was established - the WCT was included and revived.

I first hiked the trail starting from Bamfield and hiking to Port Renfrew. Along the way is a mix of rain forest hiking and traversing varied beach topography.

Passing by thousand year old cedars and some of the tallest Stika spruce in the world made every step enjoyable. At the end of some afternoons we took series of rickety ladders down steep headlands on the way to camp for the night on sandy beaches below.

Once on the beach there were cliffs, sandstone ledges, sea caves, arches, tidal pools, and waterfalls to explore. Tsusiat Falls is the largest set of falls on the trail, and is one of the best campsites to stop at for a while. It is also a good place to fill a bottle or two with often rare fresh water.

Campsite at Tsusiat Falls

The West Coast Trail section of Pacific Rim National Park is a fragile, narrow 25,640 hectare strip of waterfront southeast of Barkley Sound between the villages of Bamfield and Port Renfrew. Hiking it when I did, before more recent regulations and upgrades, was still about adventure and survival. But upgrades have not diminished the beauty.

Wide, dry trail closer to Bamfield

The WCT is stunningly beautiful. It is a world class hike that draws hikers from all corners of the globe. In spite of this, clear cut logging of old growth forest was ongoing right up to the park boundary when I hiked it in 1989, 1990 and 1992. The destruction continues unabated to this very day.

A mini-corduroy road through dense bush and wet ground
Although we could often hear logging activity from the trail, we were blown away by the monumental trees saved within the confines of the West Coast Trail. It highlights the payoffs resulting from conservation and long-term thinking.

Hiking between the forest and the sea

West Coast Trail Facts

- 6000 people a year hike the WCT. 1-2% need emergency evacuation due to injury, illness, or hypothermia.

- Vancouver Island has one of the highest concentrations of black bears and cougars in the world.

- Although the trail can be hiked in as little as 24-48 hours, I recommend taking as long as you possibly can. Some hikers carry small day packs and try to get through in about a day. When my group was hiking it we were trying to set the 'longest time to hike' record, aiming for 10 to 14 glorious days or more. Most people take about one week, but even that is a pretty grueling pace, depending on conditions (yours and the trail's).
Long ladders, big trees

- we hiked in the days before mandatory registration and fees. Now you have to pre-register for a spot for hiking between May 1 and September 30, or arrive in person and possibly have to wait for up to 3 days. 2 weeks on either end denotes the shoulder season when conditions may not be ideal, but you get to skip the registration process.

- the more challenging section of the trail is at the Port Renfrew end, with large elevation changes aided by many ladders. As the trail approaches Bamfield it gets more level, wider, and with more massive trees.

Beach camping under the trees at Michigan Creek
- In December 2006 a winter storm with record wind speeds blasted the west coast and knocked down 3000 trees on the WCT. Other trail infrastructure was damaged, but was quickly rebuilt.

- a great way to travel to or from the Bamfield trail head is on the west coast freighter, the MV Frances Barkley, that plies the Alberni Inlet from Port Alberni.

- for more WCT information see here.

Getting There
  • Pacheena Bay Trailhead, Bamfield - gravel logging roads from Port Alberni or Duncan, approximately 3 hours; or by West Coast Trail Express Bus (wcte@pacificcoast.net). MV Frances Barkley from Port Alberni. The WCT Hiker Registration Office located 4 km south of Bamfield. 
  • Gordon River Trailhead, Port Renfrew - drive approximately 2 hours from Victoria via Highway 14; or by West Coast Trail Connector Bus from Victoria. Follow highway signs in Port Renfrew to the WCT Hiker Registration Office. 

View West Coast Trail in a larger map

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