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Discovering Small Town Canada: Port Renfrew, British Columbia

Discovering Small Town Canada: Port Renfrew, British Columbia

Travelers to Vancouver Island who are looking for a chilled out time surfing and wandering through the rainforest almost always make a beeline for Tofino. But just 110 kilometres from Victoria, the tiny town of Port Renfrew has plenty of surf, giant trees and incredible hiking — without the crowds. It’s the type of place you’ll thank your lucky stars you found before everyone else did.

Ocean view from Port Renfrew, BC

Ocean view from Port Renfrew – Photo credit: Emma Gilchrist

Port Renfrew, home to just 200 people, is a former logging town located a two-hour drive west of Victoria along Vancouver Island’s rugged west coast. Long known as the starting point for the West Coast Trail, Renfrew is more than a one-trick pony, with several surf breaks in the area, world-class salmon and halibut fishing, Botanical Beach’s spectacular tide pools, the Juan de Fuca hiking trail and the town’s new claim to fame: giant trees.

In 2009, the Ancient Forest Alliance discovered a large grove of old-growth trees near Port Renfrew, which it dubbed “Avatar Grove.” Since then, Renfrew has become known more for preserving its trees than for cutting them down.

Avatar Grove is home to ancient red cedars as large as 13 metres around. When Captain James Cook first set foot on Vancouver Island in 1778, these trees would have already been 250 years old.

Canada's Gnarliest Tree. The old-growth Western Red Cedar measuring 37ft around (12ft accross) is covered with alien-shaped burls resembling Jabba The Hut. It grows in the logging-threatened "Avatar Grove" located approximately 10kms from the town of Port Renfrew BC on Vancouver Island. Photo credit: TJ Watt

Canada’s Gnarliest Tree. The old-growth Western Red Cedar measuring 37ft around (12ft accross) is covered with alien-shaped burls resembling Jabba The Hutt. It grows in the logging-threatened “Avatar Grove” located approximately 10kms from the town of Port Renfrew BC on Vancouver Island.
Photo credit: TJ Watt

“Canada’s Gnarliest Tree” — a massive red cedar with a bulbous, three-metre burl and serpent-like roots — has helped earn Port Renfrew the title of “Big Tree Capital of Canada.” Even the town’s music festival plays off the tree theme. Each June, 3,000 festival- goers descend upon Port Renfrew for the eclectic three-day Tall Tree Music Festival atop Browns Mountain.

Tall Tree Music Festival in Port Renfrew

Tall Tree Music Festival in Port Renfrew – Photo credit: Heather Dubya

The Port Renfrew area is also home to the Harris Creek Spruce and the San Juan Spruce, Canada’s largest Sitka spruce tree, standing taller than the Leaning Tower of Pisa at 62.5 metres. Visitors can pick up a map of the area’s largest trees from Coastal Kitchen Cafe before setting out to explore.

Botanical Beach near Port Renfrew

Botanical Beach near Port Renfrew – Photo credit: Emma Gilchrist

Port Renfrew hikes

After getting your fill of giant trees, head to Botanical Beach, the end point of the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, a 47-kilometre long coastal trail. Most of the trail is designed for multi-day hiking/camping, but there are some moderate day hiking opportunities from the four trailheads: China Beach, Sombrio Beach, Parkinson Creek and Botanical Beach.

At Botanical Beach, you can do an easy three-kilometre loop trail and dilly-dally on the beach exploring the tide pools (watch for starfish, sea anemones and urchins) and sandstone outcroppings.

If you’re looking to catch some waves, you’re most likely going to be out of luck in the summer. But in the winter, there are three consistent breaks at Sombrio Beach, about 30 minutes outside of Port Renfrew.

Sombrio Beach, Vancouver Island

Sombrio Beach – Photo credit: Emma Gilchrist

Where to Eat in Port Renfrew

The go-to place for breakfast and lunch in Port Renfrew is the Coastal Kitchen Café, open between May and October. The fresh local fish and chips are a crowd favourite. Another good option for breakfast or lunch is Tomi’s Home Cooking. For dinner, head to the Renfrew Pub. Be warned: this is a town of 200 people and there aren’t a ton of dining options. If you have the choice to have dinner where you’re staying, say yes.

Where to Stay in Port Renfrew

This post includes some affiliate links. If you make a qualifying purchase through one of these links, I may receive a small percentage of the sale at no extra cost to you.

Speaking of which, Soule Creek Lodge cooks up delicious three-course meals for its guests, who have the option to stay in luxury yurts overlooking the area’s ocean and mountains.

Soule Creek Lodge, Port Renfrew

Soule Creek Lodge – Photo credit: Soule Creek Lodge

Starry night over Soule Creek Lodge - Photo credit: Emma Gilchrist

Starry night over Soule Creek Lodge – Photo credit: Emma Gilchrist

If you’d like to be right down on the water, head for Port Renfrew’s only oceanfront accommodation, the Big Fish Lodge. The lodge offers all the comforts of home, including a pool table, picnic area and kitchen available for guests to use.

For a tiny town at the end of an old logging road, Port Renfrew has an impressive array of outdoor adventures to keep you busy. And the best part of all? No cellphone reception.

This guest post was written by Emma Gilchrist a journalist and citizen engagement specialist based in Victoria, B.C. She’s currently the Executive Director of DeSmog Canada, an online news magazine focused on energy and environment.

Emma has worked as a reporter and editor in Canada and the U.K., including stints at the Calgary Sun, Calgary Herald, Cambridge Evening News and BBC Essex . Her writing has appeared in the Globe and Mail, WestJet Magazine, the Calgary Herald and the National Post.

You can follow Emma on Twitter or visit her website.

Other posts you might enjoy in this series:

 

Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 57,000 followers. Her blog: HikeBikeTravel is frequently cited as one of the top travel and outdoor adventure blogs in Canada.

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta

This Post Has 11 Comments
  1. As a California girl, I confess that I’ve heard of Tofino, but I’d never heard of Port Renfrew. I do love fishing and the luxury yurt sounds like an adventure!

  2. Nice spotlight, thanks for this! That is definitely one gnarly tree!! I love it!! We just spent a week on Vancouver Island, though we didn’t manage to make it to Port Renfrew, and I would love to head back to spend some more time.

    One of our favorite activities up the whole North American coast (we drove from San Diego would you believe!!) was visiting forests with the worlds tallest, largest, etc etc trees – loved the diversity of fascinating trees!! So will def have to get back to add “gnarliest” to our list of what we’ve seen!!

    1. @Meg I’d also love to see this tree. Port Renfrew is also one of the jumping off points for the West Coast Trail should you ever want to hike that. Did you make it to Cathedral Grove on the way to Tofino or did you get that far?

  3. I’ve not yet been to Port Renfrew (that I can recall!) but I’d love to go and see that Gnarly Tree!

  4. Love Port Renfrew! We once hiked from Mystic Beach to Bear Beach and had lunch while watching breaching whales. Magic! I do love how it’s the shrubbier, tougher Tofino alternative.

  5. I went to Port Renfrew when starting (or was it ending?) the WCT. This post is making me wish I spent more time there. I was just in and out but I appreciate the reminder that there’s more to a spot than the gateway it allows access to.

  6. I wish I had discovered this before we visited Port Renfrew last September (2017). It was a great sunny day for our visit and was well worth the drive from Victoria.

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