The West Coast Trail (WCT) is a physically demanding 75 kilometre (45 mile) hike stretching from Port Renfrew in the south to Bamfield in the north along the west coast of Vancouver Island. It is only open on a seasonal basis (May 1st until September 30th) and for good reason considering the likelihood of poor weather outside of that timeframe.
The West Coast Trail enjoys an international reputation for its beauty and difficulty even though it’s only 75 km (46.6 miles) 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 in summer end up overflowing with people so it may not be the solitary experience you’re hoping for.
Hiking Canada’s famous West Coast Trail is for you if you like to see what you’re made of. Every year more than 11,000 people attempt it between May 1st and September 30th. 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.
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There is a book Blisters and Bliss in its tenth edition that is considered the bible for the WCT- along with a detailed map of the West Coast Trail you might want to have ahead of time.
West Coast Trail summary
- The West Coast Trail is one of Canada’s most popular long-distance trails. Count on a mix of beach and temperate rainforest hiking.
- Most hikers spend 6 – 8 days on the trail. A popular spot for a rest day is Tsusiat Falls.
- The most popular month to do the West Coast Trail is July and August when the weather is usually at its best.
- Campsites on the West Coast Trail usually fill the first day they open, but you can pick up cancellations. Book a West Coast Trail reservation here but be flexible with your dates and which trailhead you start at. Reservations open on March 25, 2023 at 8 AM PDT.
- There are no longer any standby spaces to hike the West Coast Trail.
- 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 boardwalks, 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 Mini or SPOT in case you run into trouble.
- Dogs are not allowed on the West Coast Trail.
- Tide tables are distributed at the mandatory orientation so you can figure out when beach walking is an option. You can also download them way in advance so you can figure out before you start the hike.
Didn’t get a campsite reservation? All is not lost. Sign up and be the first to know when there is a cancellation for your desired trip dates by visiting Schnerp.
Costs to hike the West Coast Trail
Budget for the following.
- Reservation fee – $25.75
- West Coast Trail Overnight Use Permit – $160 per person
- National Park entry fee – $10.50 per day or purchase a National Park Discovery Pass, good for a year
- Ferries – Gordon Bay and Nitinat River – $28 per person per ferry
- Water taxi fee – $62.50 per person from Nitinaht Village to Nitinaht Narrows one way – should you decide to do an abbreviated version of the trail.
- Fees to get to and from the trailhead: Depends if you drive
- Accommodation the night before in Port Renfrew or Bamfield – variable
- Meals – Add in food for one extra day on the trail and a stop at the Crab Shack at Nitinat Narrows. Chez Monique’s is no longer operating.
The West Coast Trail offers a raft of redeeming features
Some of my memorable experiences are eating freshly caught crab for lunch at the Nitinaht 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 about aches and pains with other hikers, and warming up at night by campfires on beautiful sandy, west coast beaches. Don’t forget the fire starter! At the very least you can enjoy the beauty of the wild west coast from your campsite.
Some lucky hikers catch sight of breaching whales. And on a hot sunny day there’s nothing that beats a fresh water shower at Tsusiat Falls.
A few negatives you should be aware of
It’s expensive to hike the West Coast 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.
The West Coast Trail is also 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.
Are there toilets on the West Coast Trail?
At all campsites, save for Orange Juice Creek, there are toilets. You’ll also find them at both trailheads, at Nitinaht Narrows and at Ditidaht luxury tents. Even though the Pachena and Carmanah Lighthouses are manned, there are no public toilets at either of them.
Other West Coast 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.
Tips before you book the West Coast Trail hike
Decide how many days you want to hike the West Coast Trail. 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.
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
Which trailhead should you start at?
A lot of effort goes in to deciding where to start. You have three options on the West Coast Trail – Pachena Bay in Bamfield, Gordon River near Port Renfrew and Nitinaht Village.
Pachena Bay trailhead
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.
Gordon River trailhead
Begin at the Gordon River trailhead near Port Renfrew and get the nastiest, hardest section of the trail over with. Unless you start at Nitinaht Village, you do have to consider timing of the Gordon River ferry. At the end of the hike, it may be harder to meet the schedule 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.
If you want to experience a shorter section of the West Coast Trail – going in either direction or you’re into a weekend overnight comfort camping experience, this is the place to start.
I went with nasty first so I started at Gordon River 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.
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.
Camping on the West Coast Trail
Book online or via the call centre for campsites along the trail with a credit card beginning on March 25, 2023 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.
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.
Where to stay in Port Renfrew
Accommodation fills quickly in Port Renfrew. Some options to consider include the Remote Renfrew Oceanfront Retreat, rated exceptional.
A Shack in the Woods, rated fabulous, comes with a full kitchen.
Wild Renfrew Seaside Cottages, facing the beachfront in Port Renfrew, is rated superb.
West Coast Trail Maps
More reading on backpacking trips in Canada
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