Distance: 75 km
Time: 4 - 7 Days
Topographical Map: Provided to registrants
Season: May - Sept
Extending 75 km along the southwestern shore of Vancouver Island, the West Coast Trail attracts 8,600 hikers each year. Visitors, encumbered with heavy backpacks, are challenged by deep ravines with seemingly endless ladders, slippery beach trails, taxing river fords, drenching rains and, at times, knee-deep mud. Sound horrible? The rewards are less easy to enumerate but include some of the finest scenery in the world, magnificent wildlife including bears and cougars, Gray whales and orcas. For better or worse, hiking the West Coast Trail is an experience never to be forgotten. For many it may be an endurance test, but compared with the perils of a bygone era, undertaking the West Coast Trail today is, if you'll excuse the pun, a walk in the park.
Currents of Doom
Prevailing currents that sweep northward along the California, Oregon and Washington coasts run headlong into the flank of Vancouver Island as it juts out into the Pacific. Running at speeds of as much as 5 km/h, The California Current intercepts the warmer Japanese Current just offshore, creating thick banks of fog while at the same time pinning all manner of flotsam and jetsam against the rugged coastline.
Flotsam and Jetsam
Above these colliding currents, offshore winds - often raging typhoons - tend to slam everything in towards the shoreline.
Before the advent of steam, sailing ships needed plenty of room to manoeuvre under even the best of conditions. Unfortunately for many a doomed sailor the myriad rocks, islets, reefs and shoals left little room for anything once an error had been committed.
In the early days of B.C. shipping, finding the entrance to Juan de Fuca Strait on a fine, clear day could prove demanding. Locating the strait on a dark and stormy night was a daunting, often deadly task. Inaccurate navigational charts, a lack of navigational aids such as lighthouses, foghorns and beacons meant often near blind groping for the entrance at night in the worst possible weather. Little wonder that so many captains overshot Juan de Fuca Strait only to have their ships ravaged by the savage Graveyard of the Pacific.
Since 1854 some 70 or more ships big and small have been dashed to bits on the gnarly southwest coast of Vancouver Island. Over the decades hundreds have been killed. Some have been lucky, meeting death quickly and mercifully in the pounding, grinding surf. Those less fortunate met death slowly and excruciatingly. Spared a watery grave they huddled on wild beaches wet and cold, continually lashed by the elements, unable to kindle fire, too weak to find food until life slipped away with a shiver.
Countless others have been saved by the largely unacknowledged heroism of local natives. Time and time again the original inhabitants pulled survivors from the mayhem, provided shelter and food in the wilderness or ferried them as far away as Sooke and Victoria, at considerable personal risk, in their seaworthy dugout canoes. In 1906, following the loss of 126 lives from the steamer Valencia, Pachena Point Lighthouse and the West Coast Life-saving Trail were built. In addition to the rough-hewn trail, a network of rustic cabins and a telegraph line were constructed to support future shipwrecked survivors.
Lighthouse keepers and their ever-vigilant families played an increasingly important role as navigational aids were installed along the coast. Often running or rowing through many kilometres of darkness and storm, they were able to bring help to foundering vessels whenever the primitive telegraph lines failed.
Present day hikers on the West Coast Trail can scarcely conceive of the perils shipwrecked mariners faced. Often marooned in the harshest winter months, survivors had no broad avenues to follow, no suspension bridges, ferries or cable cars on which to cross rivers. There were no ladders up the sides of steep, greasy-slick ravines. Often survivors had no food, little clothing and even less hope. Yet against the odds many survived.
The Litter of History
Hikers today will encounter the old telegraph wire still hanging in trees. Rescue huts decay in the forests as boilers and anchors and broken chunks of iron and steel rust on the beaches. And in the sun, in the summer, it's hard to image the hell that was the Graveyard of the Pacific.
There are two ways of undertaking the West Coast Trail. From the south, starting at Port Renfrew, you can expect to get the worst over first, with your hike getting progressively easier as the days wear on. This northward route culminates in a pleasant, well-earned cruise along the Alberni Inlet from Bamfield to Port Alberni. The other possibility is start hiking from Bamfield (pop 400) undertaking the easiest sections while your backpack is heaviest. The theory is, your physical conditioning will gradually improve to meet the demands of an increasingly difficult route. The reality for those who try to undertake the West Coast Trail too quickly, however, is they may reach the difficult bottom end fatigued and stiff, heightening the potential for injury. The key, of course, is to allow plenty of time to drink in the sights and sounds. Backpacking should never seem to be a forced march. I have met those who try to undertake the trail as an overnighter, presumably just for the bragging rights. By any definition, doing so is sheer folly.
This book will detail access and egress to both trailheads north and south but will focus on a southward route description aimed at less experienced hikers.
The West Coast Trail Express offers one-stop shopping for transportation to either end of the trail. A fleet of maxed-out minibuses delivers hikers daily from Victoria while those originating in Vancouver can intercept a Bamfield-bound bus in Nanaimo.
If you decide to follow the trail from Port Renfrew northwards to Bamfield the West Coast Trail Express costs $30 and leaves from in front of the Island Coach Lines bus terminal in Victoria at 700 Douglas Street arriving in Port Renfrew 2½ hours later. When you finish your hike the same transportation company will pick you up at Pachena Bay near Bamfield and return you to Victoria or Nanaimo for $50. If you would prefer to avoid the dusty logging roads on the return, Alberni Marine Transportation operates a ferry service between Bamfield and Port Alberni every day in the summer except Monday and Wednesday. The ferries MV Lady Rose or MV Frances Barkley make any number of whistle-stops at cabins and fish farms along the Alberni Inlet arriving invariably behind schedule. Fortunately, bus service from Port Alberni is frequent enough to be relied upon no matter how late the ferry returns. From the Public Quay where you will get your land legs back again, the bus terminal is a mere 10 minute walk. If you've had your fill of walking, grab a cab instead. From Port Alberni, Vancouver Island Coach Lines will deliver you to the connecting Maverick Coach Lines bus in Nanaimo for the final leg of the journey back to Vancouver.
If undertaking the trail in the recommended north-south direction, arriving in Bamfield by boat is logistically difficult though not impossible. The ferries leave Port Alberni at 8 am every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, too early to be accessed directly by public transportation from Vancouver which arrives at 10 AM at the earliest. The only alternative would be to arrive in Port Alberni the day before then board the ferry at the Public Quay after a good night's sleep at a nearby motel. Needless to say the logistics and cost of bus, accommodation and boat make this alternative hard to justify.
The West Coast Trail Express is both faster and cheaper, bumping and grinding its way over dirt roads from either Victoria or Nanaimo on a daily basis. Pick up in Nanaimo is at the Departure Bay Ferry Terminal at 8:45 every morning and costs $50. You'll have to be on the first ferry [6:30 AM] from Horseshoe Bay in order to connect. [Click for details on getting to Horseshoe Bay .]
The recreation potential of the West Coast Trail area was recognized as long ago as 1926 when it was formally set aside as a park reserve by the provincial government. Ulterior designs on the land and its forests by the logging lobby were enough to convince the government to rescind the reserve designation in 1947. The West Coast Lifesaving Trail was simply too remote for recreational use they argued. In spite of the poor condition of the trail word gradually spread of this natural wonder until, in the 1960s, the federal government persuaded its provincial counterpart to set the land aside for broader usage. Pacific Rim National Park was born in 1970 and from that point forward recreational use exploded. By the 1990s recreational overuse, not the logging interests, was threatening the very wilderness values along the West Coast Trail so revered by users. In 1992, for the first time, a quota was imposed limiting the number of hikers that could enjoy the trail. Though trail beds, bridges and camping facilities including outhouses have steadily improved, hiker impact on the ecosystem has continued to grow causing regular reductions in the annual quota. At present only 26 users may access the trail daily from each trailhead. Twenty of those must have reservations while just six hikers are allowed on the trail from the often extensive waiting lists at Gordon River near Port Renfrew or Pachena Bay near Bamfield. Permits are issued to those on the waiting lists daily at 1 PM. Reservations can be made up to 90 days in advance but because of the demand reservations are usually gobbled up within minutes of becoming available. Those who show up at the trailhead can expect to wait for several days before getting on the trail. Those with reservations must pay a $25 reservation fee while all users must pay a $70 user fee at the trailhead and must carry a park use permit at all times while on the trail. The permit must be returned when leaving the trail. In addition to trail upkeep, the user fee pays for regular rescue patrols, pre-trail orientation, and each user receives a waterproof map and tide chart.
Parks Canada does not allow camping in the vicinity of either trailhead. Those on the waiting list can find commercial camping on adjacent Indian land. The Huu-Ay-Aht Band at Pachena Bay charges $18 per night for a campsite while the Pacheenaht Band at Gordon River levies a fee of $3 per night for each tent. Some hikers resent paying to wait just to get on the trail. Keep in mind, however, that the trail cuts through Indian land at many points and without the blessing of all three local bands, hiking the trail would not be possible at all. Wherever you may be recreating it is always a good idea to try to support the local economy in some small way either through the purchase of provisions, local transportation services, tacky tourist T-shirts, or even just a cheese burger in paradise. Those making a living from the recreational trade will prove to be invaluable allies if push ever comes to shove in the myriad land-use battles that define outdoor recreation in British Columbia.
Since inexperience is by far the greatest danger in wilderness situations Parks Canada staff have sought to improve the kind of information each trail user receives. Consequently all West Coast Trail users must now undertake an orientation session prior to starting the trail. Orientations are offered daily at each trailhead at 9:30 AM, noon, 1:30 PM and 3:30 PM. Given the importance Parks Canada places on accurate information it seems somehow ironic that whenever I've called as either a hiker, guide or as an author I have received inaccurate information or could not find answers to my questions at all. Parks staff will try to dissuade hikers from harvesting seafood of any kind in Pacific Rim National Park of which the West Coast Trail is part. The fact remains however that doing so is entirely legal, subject to the laws of the province of British Columbia. A fishing license is of course necessary and catch limits must be adhered to. For two good reasons it is better to sample fruits de mer than feast on them. The obvious reason is to limit the impact visitors to the area have on marine life. The second reason is to limit the impact, including death, that marine life may have on visitors to the area. Paralytic shellfish poisoning or red tide is a seasonal toxin associated with all bivalve molluscs that can cause paralysis and death. Pigging out on mussels, clams, oysters and other species of shellfish could have dire consequences even when an area is officially open to harvesting. If intending to harvest seafood contact the red tide hotline [see info grid, page 140] before setting off on the West Coast Trail.
Every morning and every evening Parks Canada staff patrol offshore in red or gray inflatable zodiacs. Those with injuries or requiring assistance can flag the boats down at any of the following preferred evacuation sites:
|Pachena Lighthouse||Carmanah Lighthouse||Camper Bay||Tsocowis Creek|
|Cullite Cove||Thrasher Cove||Nitinat Narrows||Logan Creek|
Being, as the Boy Scouts say, prepared is the single most important thing you can do to make your trip to the West Coast Trail a safe and enjoyable one. The trail is first and foremost a wilderness one. Bring enough food for an extra day should accident or incident demand it. Wear clothing that allows you to stay cool yet protects your skin on hot summer days. When it rains it pours on the West Coast of Vancouver Island and rain it does even in the summer months. Average annual rainfall is 120 mm. Clothing that keeps you dry and warm is just as essential. Cheap backpacks, sleeping bags, tents and footgear can cost you dearly. More than anything pack your common sense along with your toothbrush and you'll meet the elements evenly matched.