The island’s newer road less traveled
This article first appeared in the Boise Weekly on February 8, 2012.
Our northern neighbor, Canada, is the second-largest country in the world, boasting 7 percent of the world’s land mass. Within this outdoor Shangri-la lies the largest island on North America’s West Coast – Vancouver Island. This sparsely populated island is known for its diverse ecosystem and has roughly 100 Provincial Parks and 50 Ecological Park Reserves.
From stunning rainforests to spectacular beaches and rugged mountains, some of the most captivating scenery in all of Canada can be found on the island, and best of all, it’s relatively accessible. A three-hour ferry ride from Seattle to Victoria – the island’s largest city – or a short flight will get you there.
The southwestern coast of Vancouver Island is home to two extraordinary hiking trails, the West Coast Trail and the Juan De Fuca Marine Trail. Every year, hikers from around the world descend onto the more famous WCT for sensational vistas, long stretches of open beaches and world-class, old-growth forests. But the 47-mile route has a few challenges – it is recommended for experienced backpackers only, is only accessible from May through September, has difficult trailhead access, enforces a daily quota that often fills up, and requires a trail use fee of $70.
Although geographically close to the WCT, the newer Juan De Fuca Marine Trail, established in 1994, sees a fraction of the use of the WCT but provides a compelling alternative. Reservations are not needed, there is no limit on the number of hikers, and there is no use fee beyond a $10-per-night camping fee. Four access points allow the trail to be broken into smaller journeys and access is year round.
The route does require some beach crossings that can only be made during low tide, but tide tables are available at waterlevels.gc.ca and at information kiosks along the trail.
Scenery along the Juan De Fuca is spectacular. A rugged, rocky shoreline is home to countless tidal pools and secluded beaches, and waterfalls and streams appear around every bend on the coast-hugging trail. Much of the route weaves through old-growth forests with huge sitka spruce, Douglas fir, Western hemlock and cedar trees. Cliffs and reef shelves provide unimpeded views across the Juan De Fuca Strait and beyond to the Olympic Mountains in Washington. Wildlife, including black bears, cougars, orca and gray whales, seals, sea lions and eagles can often be seen. Think of this hike as a walk through a mature rainforest with occasional visits to a dramatic beach.
From the eastern end of the 29-mile-long route, hikers start at the China Beach Trailhead, just west of the small community of Jordan River (43 miles west of Victoria along Highway 14). This easy portion of the hike leads more than one mile to Mystic Beach, where hikers can find camping and a waterfall. Beyond Mystic Beach the terrain becomes more rolling and reaches Bear Beach at the 5.5-mile mark, where hikers will need to plan ahead for an extensive segment only accessible at low tide.
One of the more physically challenging portions of the hike is from Bear Beach to China Beach, across seven miles of undulating terrain. The trail is rarely flat –ascending and descending 300 feet or more as it meanders between creek beds. There is little opportunity to camp, and beach access is virtually impossible. However, the outstanding old-growth forest and vistas compensate for the rugged workout. Camping is found at China Beach and the trail traverses a couple of beach sections only crossable at low tides.
The most-strenuous segment of the trail is from China Beach to Sombrio Beach at mile 18. The route is up and down again, however, muddier sections slow travel. Near Sombrio Beach, the rough trail traverses a high cliff requiring handholds, but highlights of this segment include the suspension bridges over Loss Creek and Sombrio River.
Sombrio Beach is a top-notch surfing location and can be accessed from Highway 14, so expect to see a few surfers. Camping is available at the beach, and hikers will again need to cross portions at low tide.
The final 11 miles of the trail are relatively level, but muddy sections are more common and the forest is younger because of logging in the 1980s. Boardwalks, ladders and interpretive signs are more prolific as the trail heads west, and hikers will cross several suspension bridges.
The Botanical Beach trailhead is located at mile 29. Near the trailhead, hikers will find Botany Bay and Botanical Beach, where extensive tidal pools provide a glimpse into the area’s rich ecosystem.
The small but quaint community of Port Renfrew is a few miles from the Botanical Beach trailhead. Since both the WCT and Juan De Fuca trailheads are nearby, the community relies heavily on summer tourism and is home to a few hotels, bed and breakfasts, restaurants, outdoor stores and gift shops. Think the charm of Stanley but replace the Sawtooths with the Pacific Ocean.
Whether you day hike or backpack the Juan De Fuca Marine Trail, be sure to put this one on your hiking to-do list. This is one of the finest adventures in the Pacific Northwest, if not in North America.