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One of the beautiful beaches on the West Coast Trail
One of the beautiful beaches on the West Coast Trail

West Coast Trail – What You Need to Know

A favourite Vancouver Island hike

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  • The West Coast Trail is one of Canada’s most popular long-distance trails. It stretches from Port Renfrew in the south to Bamfield in the north on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Count on a mix of beach and temperate rainforest hiking.
  • It’s open seasonally from May 1st until September 30th.
  • Most hikers spend 6 – 8 days on the trail. A popular spot for a rest day is Tsusiat Falls. Campsites on the West Coast Trail usually fill the first day they open, but you can pick up cancellations.
  • Many people hike it solo – but you need to be aware of the hazards including the fact you could run into a black bear, slip on greasy boardwalk, or freeze in fright on a ladder. Other hikers, are at risk for all of this too BUT being alone in the wilderness does carry extra risks. Carry an inReach or SPOT in case you run into trouble.
  • Budget for a trail fee including campsite reservations, a boat ferry fee, along with getting to and from Bamfield and Port Renfrew at the start and end of the trail. You may need to spend the night before of after near the trail. And you can purchase food along the trail so consider your food budget too.

Hiking Canada’s famous 75 km long West Coast Trail is for you if you have masochistic tendencies. Every year approximately 6,000 people attempt it between May 1st and September 30th, the opening dates for 2022. It’s almost a rite of hiking passage to be able to say that you survived the trail.

The West Coast Trail offers the best and the worst of hiking experiences. It is stunningly beautiful when the sun is shining and there isn’t a campsite along the trail that doesn’t offer a memorable setting. But if it’s been raining, which it does frequently (you are in a temperate rain forest after all), then look out for above-the-knee kind of mud on slippery boardwalks through dark rainforest – and hypothermia like conditions. Obviously people aren’t dissuaded by the negative since you need to book at least 60 days in advance to get your starting dates.

West Coast Trail – what you need to know before you go

One of the many long ladders you'll climb on the trail
One of the many long ladders you’ll climb on the trail

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First a few facts about the West Coast Trail

The WCT is located on the west coast of Vancouver Island, several hours by car northwest of Victoria. It enjoys an international reputation for its beauty and difficulty even though it’s only 75 km long.

It’s on the wish list of most serious hikers – but even if you’re in great shape plan on anywhere between six to eight days to do it properly. If you do decide to do it outside of the shoulder seasons – be warned that you won’t be alone. Some campsites end up overflowing with people so it may not be the solitary experience you’re hoping for.

The trail does offer a raft of redeeming features

Enjoy beautiful sunsets on scenic, remote feeling beaches – sometimes with lots of people and sometimes alone – depending on your chosen campsite.

Lunch on freshly caught crab at Nitinat Narrows between Cribs Creek campground and Tsusiat Falls.

On the food theme again – enjoy something other than what’s in your pack at Chez Monique’s – a restaurant near the Carmanah Lighthouse (bring cash). Plus you can purchase beer and wine here too. (Empty a bottle of wine into your Nalgene bottle for dinner that night.)

Enjoy a campfire on the beach every night – if you can get it started. At the very least you can enjoy the beauty of the wild west coast from your campsite.

There’s great trail camaraderie. Everyone commiserates about their aches and pains together.

One of the main beautiful beaches you see
One of the main beautiful beaches on the west coast of Vancouver Island
Dining on fresh caught crab at Nitinat Narrows
Dining on fresh caught crab at Nitinat Narrows
Stopping for real food at Chez Monique's
Stopping for real food at Chez Monique’s
The campsite after Tsuiat Falls - Klanawa is far less busy
The campsite after Tsuiat Falls – Klanawa is far less busy
 The Tsusiat Falls campsite from the water - it's one of the busiest
The Tsusiat Falls campsite from the water – it’s one of the busiest

The negatives to hiking the trail that are worth knowing about

It’s not inexpensive to hike the trail. Fees include a $24.50 reservation fee, a national park entry pass plus a WCT Overnight Use Permit ($130.31) along with ferry fees. There is also a $10 per day National Park entry fee though if you have a yearly pass you’re covered.

At both Gordon River and Nitinat River the ferry fee is $20. And you’ll have to get to and from the trailheads. As a holiday it’s not that expensive, but as a hike when most are free, it is. There is also a Water Taxi Fee of $62.50 per person from Nitinaht Village to Nitinaht Narrows one way – should you decide to do an abbreviated version of the trail.

The weather is uncertain – even in the height of summer. If you were very unlucky you can end up hiking in rain for the entire time.

The trail is in a tsunami zone.

"Tsunami Zone"
Tsunami Zone

The trail is tough to hike as its often slippery, muddy and in poor shape – and there are over 100 ladders to climb! This might be a positive for people who want to test their mettle. For people with back, knee or ankle problems it can be a tough go. Don’t forget the hiking poles.

Slippery walking is commonplace
Slippery walking is commonplace

Other trail considerations

There are long sections when beach walking is an option – and a preferable one to walking in the forest. But it’s the tides that are going to dictate what you can do.

You can also expect a good bit of easy walking on boardwalks interrupted by steep climbs on ladders up and down ravines. Your upper body can get a workout too as you pull yourself across streams or surge channels via cable car.

Beach walking varies from hard packed to ankle deep sand. Look out for seriously deep mud and slippery logs, even in drier summers.

Buoys mark entrance and exit points from the beach
Buoys mark entrance and exit points from the beach

Tips before you book your hike

Decide how many days you want to hike. Do you need a rest day? – and if so then you need to carry more food. Six days is the minimum amount of time I would recommend unless you’re an elite hiker.

If you have never backpacked before do not begin with this trail. It will turn you off forever. Start with the easier Juan de Fuca Trail – that also starts/ends in Port Renfrew.

Dogs are not allowed on the trail.

There may be the odd bear around but we didn’t even see bear scat.

Be prepared to climb a huge number of ladders – especially near Cullite Creek.

I hiked the trail a few years ago over the course of six days. Seven days would have been better. You’re much more likely to have a positive experience on the trail if:

  • you’re fit
  • your pack isn’t too heavy (no more than 30-35% of your body weight)
  • you’ve camped before
  • you have a positive mental attitude because there is going to be some hardship
  • the sun shines
Notice the cable and the basket you pull yourself in
Notice the cable and the basket you pull yourself in

Which trailhead should you start at?

A lot of effort goes in to deciding where to start. You have two options – Pachena Bay in Bamfield or Gordon River neat Port Renfrew.

Start in the north at the Pachena Bay trailhead near Bamfield. That allows your shoulders and legs to harden up before you attempt the really tough sections. Or begin at the Gordon River trailhead near Port Renfrew and get the nastiest section of the trail over with. 

I went with nasty first and the only thing I would have done differently is to hike to Thrasher Cove on the first night – only 6 km away. Then if I’d been really smart I would have checked out tide tables beforehand so I could hike a long section of beach (I use that word loosely here) and miss much of the forest walking which wasn’t that interesting.

Tide tables are distributed at the mandatory orientation so you can figure out the day before whether the beach is accessible. (Or download them way in advance so you can figure out beach walking possibilities.)

There is no right or wrong, best or worst start/finish – though you do need to either start or finish with a ferry ride so the timing at the Gordon River may be harder to anticipate – and you could end up either missing the boat altogether or waiting for many hours. That was another big reason we started at Gordon River.

"One of the many ladders on the WCT"
One of the many ladders on the WCT

Before you go

Book transportation and organize logistics well in advance. There is a trailbus that offers transportation between trailheads every day. And you can actually get on it in Victoria, Nanaimo (with advance notice), Sooke, Port Renfrew, Gordon River, Bamfield and Pachena Bay. You can save 20% if you make a return reservation.

Book online or via the call centre for campsites along the trail with a credit card beginning on January 2, 2022 at 8 AM PST. You’ll need to know where you want to start, how many hikers there are in your group, the names of emergency contacts – and your preferred choices of start dates. 

Most memorable experiences on the West Coast Trail

Some of my memorable experiences are eating freshly caught crab for lunch at the Nitinat Narrows (bring cash), catching a gorgeous sunset at Crib’s Creek, coming upon cold beer at Chez Monique’s near the Carmanah campsite, hiking through the beautiful Hole in the Wall, talking and commiserating with other hikers and warming up at night by campfires.

Some lucky hikers catch sight of breaching whales. Unlucky ones run into bears. And on a hot sunny day there’s nothing that beats a fresh water shower at Tsusiat Falls.

The Pachena Lighthouse is one you'll pass
The Pachena Lighthouse is one you’ll pass – Photo: Judy Martin

More trails to hike on Vancouver Island

I’m glad I backpacked the West Coast Trail – but I wouldn’t do it over and over again like many people do that I met. Other trails that offer a similar experience are the Juan de Fuca Trail, just south of the West Coast Trail, the Nootka Island Trail on Nootka Island – accessed out of Gold River and the North Coast Trail at the northern end of Vancouver Island.

For a day hike that gives you an inkling of what’s ahead do the Coastal Trail in East Sooke Park.

The Nootka Trail is on the west coast of Nootka Island, just off of Vancouver Island
The Nootka Trail is on the west coast of Nootka Island, just off of Vancouver Island – and the start is the lagoon (not visible) behind this beach

Where to stay in Port Renfrew

Accommodation fills quickly in Port Renfrew. Some options to consider include Handsome Dan’s Port Renfrew, Wild Renfrew Seaside Cottages and Wild Coast Chalets.

Maps of the West Coast Trail

Map of campsites on the WCT
Map of campsites on the WCT
Location map of the WCT
Location map of the WCT

Books and maps to think about

There is a book – Blisters and Bliss in its ninth edition that is considered the bible for the WCT- along with a detailed map you might want to have ahead of time.

When the sun shines the trail is a place of great beauty
When the sun shines the trail is a place of great beauty

Further reading on more Canadian backpacking trips

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest board.

A complete guide to hike the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island

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