Distance: 47 km
Time: 4+ Days
Topographical Map: 92 C/9 & 92 C/8
Season: Mar - Oct
Access: The West Coast Trail Express services the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail from Victoria. Visit the website for rates and schedules or call 250-477-8700 or 1-888-999-2288. Catch the West Coast Trail Express from in front of the bus terminal at 700 Douglas Street. Expect to reach the trailhead in the late afternoon. This shuttle service connects to the southern terminus of the West Coast Trail as well as any of four access points along the Juan de Fuca Trail. Reservations are required. See Getting to Tsawwaasen for logistics on reaching the provincial capital from downtown Vancouver.
The 707 hectare Juan de Fuca Marine Trail connects Botanical Beach Provincial Park in the north to China Beach Provincial Park 47 km to the south. The popularity and global renown of the nearby West Coast Trail made convincing argument for the preservation of other examples of the unique environment along Vancouver Island's west coast. The Juan de Fuca Trail was officially commemorated in 1994 as a tribute to the Commonwealth Games held in Victoria that year. Creation of the trail would not have been possible without generous donations or exchanges of land from Western Forest Products and TimberWest and support from the Pacheenaht First Nation. As many as 100 local, primarily native, youths were engaged in the creation of the trail through a provincial government work experience program. Construction of the trail pumped $8½ million into the local economy. Time your visit to the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail to take advantage of the lowest possible tides. Not only will your progress along the beaches be enhanced, but innumerable natural phenomena become accessible when the tide drops below one metre.
The northern trailhead starts at the end of Cerantes Road, 2.5 km from the hotel and government wharf in Port Renfrew. Since we are following the trail in reverse, working through the easiest sections while our packs are heaviest and conditioning possibly not at its best, this hike starts at kilometre 47, counting down as we proceed. Be sure to check the notice board at the trailhead for up-to-the-minute trail condition reports as well as tide tables posted for the benefit of those who may have forgotten this essential information when preparing for the trip. Be sure to correct tide tables for daylight savings time where appropriate.
Botanical Beach was the site of a marine biology research station sponsored by the University of Minnesota from 1900 to 1906. The Juan de Fuca Marine Trail proper skips much of the rich intertidal zone at Botanical Beach. If arriving at the trailhead at low tide plan on spending some time exploring the tide pool-pocked reef and unique geology of the foreshore between Botany Bay and the start of the trail itself before setting out.
Gawking Gullivers: Three other-worldly creatures steal the sun, striking terror into the hearts of the Lilliputian community of a tide pool at Botanical Beach. Tiny fish dart for cover, hermit crabs duck into their borrowed hermitages while their less-armoured brethren scramble under rocks and plants until the towering menace retreats trailwards.
The coast parallels a fault line along the colliding North American and Juan de Fuca Plates. As a consequence, much of the foreshore is an odd mixture of volcanic and metamorphosed sedimentary rocks. At the far eastern end of the Botanical Beach low tide reveals three sea caves. Keen eyes may discern even keener eyes gazing back from a giant eagle nest nestled atop an ancient spruce. Though camping is actually frowned upon here, this secluded corner would be an ideal spot to pitch a tent if arriving later than anticipated. The site boasts both water and driftwood though building a fire too early is sure to catch the keenest eyes of all: those of the park ranger.
Botanical Beach to Parkinson Creek 10 km
The first 10 kilometres of the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail follow a route through climax forest of mixed cedar and hemlock just beyond a barrier of thick salal that rims the rocky shore. Though sometimes cursed by coastal hikers, this salal and other shoreline vegetation provides the important function of "pruning" the gusting wind blowing in from the ocean, thereby protecting the forest which rises behind it. Numerous breaches in this cover provide ample access to the unusual geology of the coast all the way to Providence Cove. The trail is generally easy with many boardwalk sections during the first 4 km. Past Tom Baird Creek watch for sea lions basking on the rocks. Anticipate many muddy sections as you climb up towards Soule Creek [km 43.]
Tiny, well-protected Providence Cove was once an important seasonal village for the ancestors of the Pacheenaht nation. Camping and fires are prohibited at the steep, pebble beach now but forest campsites, bear caches and pit toilets will be found ½ km further on at Payzant Creek [km 40.] Situated high above the stream, the site is accentuated by a delightful waterfall. Tent pads are poorly engineered, however, and fill up with rain water during even moderate sprinkles. There is no direct beach access here.
Except at high tide, less than a kilometre from the bridge at Payzant Creek, you'll have an opportunity to leave the forest and explore along the expansive intertidal shelf for nearly one and half clicks. Backtracking will be necessary to regain the trail as there is no access at the eastern end.
At Parkinson Creek [km 37.2] there are no camping facilities but you will find a parking lot, pit toilets and an information board. Minute Creek Forest Service Road provides access through the logging clearcuts from Highway 14, 3.8 km away.
You'll also find very extraordinary seal caves just west of the mouth of Parkinson Creek. The caves are only accessible from the beach during the lowest of tides. Watch for a side trail near the Parkinson Creek trailhead that leads down to a viewpoint. From the bluff peer back west to glimpse the well-concealed seal nursery.
Parkinson Creek to Sombrio Beach 9 km
Push for Kuitshie Creek 4 km further on before camping for the night. In addition to forest campsites and pit toilets the secluded beach is an ideal place from which to enjoy the long, slow evenings of early summer. Along the way hikers are periodically treated to buena vista's from the bluffs overlooking Juan de Fuca Strait. Such views must be paid for however and the trail exacts its toll in the form of deep ravines, exposed roots, mud holes, deadfalls and numerous stairs to be overcome. As contracted staff spend an inordinate amount of time chasing down delinquent hikers, trail maintenence suffers. Hikers on the other hand are often loathe to pay for such poorly maintained trails. Much of the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail is reminicient of the West Coast Trail of yesteryear: knee-deep mud and ankle-busting roots that slow progress down to a crawl.
Bushwhacker Blues: Exposed roots, pools of mud, deadfalls and impenetrable salal challenge every step along the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail. Since maintenance contracts are in part tied to user fees, contract holders spend an inordinate amount of time tracking down delinquent campers, much to the detriment of trail maintenance. As one weary hiker put it: "I don’t really feel very good about paying with the trail in such bad condition." Interestingly, while day-use areas tend to be very well-maintained, day users pay nothing for the facilities.
Just a kilometre before Kuitshie Creek the trail winds past a small grove of ancient cedars that the loggers missed.
The next 5 kilometres to Sombrio Beach through a swath of regenerated second growth are uneventful except for a camping spot at Little Kuitshie Creek [km 33] cut from an impenetrable wall of salal. Expect the usual amenities. Tent sites are gravel-topped and drain well.
Slightly more than a kilometre beyond Little Kuitshie Creek you'll encounter a suspension bridge across the ravine at Minute Creek. From here the closest approach to Sombrio Beach is just 2 clicks away. The proximity of logging clearcuts can be unsightly at times. Of more concern to hikers, these open gashes in the forest promote the proliferation of berries which can support an inordinate numbers of bears. Of the three coastal hiking routes detailed in this book the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail boasts the largest concentrations of these foraging omnivores. Failure to practice no-trace camping or hang food
The expansive foreshore of Sombrio Beach is accessible more than two kilometres before reaching the Sombrio River when tides are running low. Otherwise stay with trail, a more circuitous route, until reaching the suspension bridge. Cliffs preclude foreshore navigation when the flood reaches its peak. Those taking the boulder-strewn beach route however will be rewarded with two cliff-hanging waterfalls and, at Sombrio's western end, fossil beds richly-endowed with all manner of shellfish: snails, clams, dentalia and mussels.
A sturdy walking stick can save a lot of grief whenever traipsing across the rocky foreshore with heavy backpacks. Seaweed slick rocks have broken many a wrist or forearm. Even away from the beach the extra stability of a "third leg" will prove its usefulness time and again. Though any stick will do, a collapsible monopod-style walking stick or ski pole can be handy when climbing ladders or steep trails. Ski poles, however, can be slippery on rocks.
Sombrio Beach 2 km
Expect company at Sombrio Beach [km 29.] The access road, though unsurfaced, is short and well-marked with the gorgeous beaches attracting surfers, picnicking families and the overnight car-camping crowd. There are, however, numerous squeeky, wooden tent pads in the vicinity of the river mouth. Towards the eastern half more secluded spots for beach camping can be found.
Little actual sand will be found along Sombrio's white cresent. Starting at the headland in the west, the beach is comprised of basketball-sized boulders that become progressively smaller as one proceeds eastward. Around the river the rocks have been reduced to the size and shape of sun-bleached baseballs. Small pebbles and sand comprise the foreshore at the headland on the opposite end. At low tide, note the sea caves too at the base of the eastern cliffs.
Whenever following a route along the beach scan the sea from time to time looking for resident orcas and Gray whales. Each spring 18,000 migrating Gray whales pass by on their way to the Bering Sea from Baja, Mexico. As you rest on a driftwood log gaze across Juan de Fuca Strait to Neah Bay on Washington's Olympic Peninsula and contemplate the revival of coastal whaling that occurred there in 1999. Were the Native American whalers simply reasserting a traditional right? Was the slaughter necessary for the band to earn back the self-esteem that had been robbed from them as their culture collapsed? Or was it just an ill-thought out act of brutality by a mob of celebrity mongerers?
Sombrio Beach to Chin [Zin] Beach 6 km
The headland at the far end of the Sombrio Beach is impassible. To regain the main trail look for bright orange fish floats hanging in the trees. Most beach egress points along the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail have been marked this way. As you climb up the main trail from Sombrio Beach to the cliff top you may realize that you're leaving the easiest hiking behind. The next 18 km are particularly demanding as the steep terrain is deeply fissured from innumerable creeks that tumble across the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail from the hills above. On the other hand you'll be passing through exquisite examples of coastal temperate rain forest. After passing Sombrio viewpoint drop your packs and explore the side trail overlooking a shelf where sea lions enjoy basking in the sun.
The main trail next climbs inland eventually following a logging road before plunging down a series of switchbacks to the suspension bridge across Loss Creek Canyon. Once across, the steep terrain with many switchbacks continues for four more kilometres, finally dumping hikers out on to the beach where a new challenge awaits.
The headland just a kilometre further on is impassible at high and even moderately low tides. If the moon is on your side you may wish to undertake a side trip before rounding the headland. During times of extremely low tide, those below one metre, an arch and several sea caves reveal themselves near the western end of Chin Beach. Explore but dally not if you want to continue on to Chin Creek for beach camping at its best. Luckily, an alternative forest route exists for bypassing this barrier. From here to Bear Beach 12 km away there are very few other camping opportunities.
A small grove of giant cedars is accessible via a side trail that leaves Chin Beach just east of the outhouses. It should take 35 minutes unencumbered with packs to reach the ancient big trees. A further 15 minutes will take you to Highway 14.
Chin Beach to Bear Beach 12 km
At the east end of Chin Beach too progress may be impeded by excessively high tides and no alternative exists other than staying in touch with the moon's influences and planning accordingly. The trail to Bear Beach is a demanding slog over very uneven terrain. Thankfully backpacks should be considerably lighter than when you first started out. The trail climbs steeply up to an emergency shelter perched at the top of the bluff. This cliff top condo is a great place to dry out during times of inclement weather. If you choose to tuck in here for the night the mice who got there first should quickly convince you that tenting out is infinitely preferable. The route follows the bluff high above the beach, cutting down then up again across many ravines and canyons through mature stands of second growth timber. From Magdalena Point, just past Newmarch Creek at the 14 km post, enjoy sweeping views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca before heading back into the forest, now a surviving stand of old-growth. Imagine what human events were transpiring when these giant cedars were just seedlings. The trail rises steeply for a kilometre now before plunging an equal distance back down towards the seashore. A side trail at Hoard Creek reveals a tiny secluded beach. One and a half kilometres further on, where you and Ledingham Creek both tumble out of the forest on to Bear Beach, notice Mushroom Rock, a geological anomaly more reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote country than coastal British Columbia. A kilometre further along the beach, just before reaching Clinch Creek, scraps of a shipwreck litter the foreshore. Depending on the tide, Bear Beach may be divided by an impassible headland just west of a Rosemond Creek. Beach campsites with pit toilets have been set up on either side of the barrier for those who are required to wait overnight for more favourable conditions. Wading around the sheer cliff walls is possible during all but the highest tides, those above three metres. If tempted to risk the crossing, attempt it only during relatively calm seas. Use a walking stick for stability and don't even dream of wading barefoot. Keep in mind too, that massive rogue waves, created far out in the Pacific, can crash on the beaches along Vancouver Island's west coast unexpectedly at any time, sweeping the inattentive far out to sea.
Bear Beach to China Beach 9 km
Beneath the cliffs of the east end of Bear Beach notice the wave-sculpted arch. Back track to the last orange marker and climb a unique set of stairs up the headland east of Bear Beach before encountering the rugged terrain once again. Magnificent views from the cliff tops above the beach are more than enough compensation for the steep gorges which must be overcome. Just 6 km on you'll reach sandy Mystic Beach, an inviting place to camp if waiting for transportation pick up the next day. The end of the trail at China Beach is just 2 km away! Choose your real estate early if you want to pre-empt one of the choicer spots. Mystic Beach can get crowded on blue sky weekends. While hanging out there is plenty to explore. Stretching from a sea worn arch of sandstone at the far west end this delightful beach continues eastward for less than a kilometre past a small waterfall to the cliffs of San Simon Point. As one might expect, these features are accessible at low tide only. The trail rises steeply from Mystic Beach following a route across San Simon Point and one final suspension bridge before reaching the parking lot at popular China Beach.
Trail's End: China Beach
As with Botanical Beach at the north end of the trail, the southern trailhead too is restricted to day use only. At the far western end of China Beach during tides of 2½ metres and lower, an attractive waterfall and pool are revealed where Pete Wolf Creek pours on to the beach. If time allows continue exploring the rocky shore from China Beach 2.2 km to Jordan River before your ride arrives. The shuttle is scheduled to leave Port Renfrew at 3:30 PM but is notoriously late. Wait for your pick up from the upper parking lot.