The Abbott Ridge Trail in British Columbia's Glacier National Park (often confused with Montana's national…
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. It’s almost a rite of hiking passage to be able to say that you survived the trail. (In 2021 it doesn’t open until June 4th.)
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
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First a few facts
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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
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.
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 April 30, 2021 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. The trail will be open in 2021 from June 4 until September 30th.
Most memorable experiences
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.
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
Maps of the trail
A free downloadable guide
If you to decide to go hike the West Coast Trail then you can download my free guide – with itineraries for 6, 7 and 8 days. Some of the pricing is out of date, though I plan to fix that. But the day to day itinerary is still useful and something to think about. Also put some thought into what trailhead you want to finish at.
Go with a positive mental attitude and you’ll have a great time. Finish it and you’ll knock off one of the top 50 things to do in British Columbia at least according to British Columbia Magazine.
Note: You can also book a trip with a tour company; I have heard great things about BCA Tours.
Books and maps to think about
Further reading on more Canadian backpacking trips
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