The West Coast Trail is a 48 mile long backpacking trail following the southwestern edge of Vancouver Island in beautiful British Columbia, Canada, and is part of what is now Pacific Rim National Park. The trail was built in 1907 as a means of rescuing survivors of shipwrecks along the coast which is part of the treacherous Graveyard of the Pacific. The West Coast Trail is one of the most challenging and top rated hiking trails in the world.
As an 11 year old Boy Scout in 1981 I hiked the West Coast Trail with my dad, Robert, another dad and 9 friends. It was the most challenging hiking trip I have ever been on with some of the most memorable experiences of my life.
1. Traveling there
Since the West Coast Trail is located on a somewhat remote side of Vancouver Island, you have to either take the hovercraft from Seattle to Victoria and grab a ride or drive up to Vancouver, B.C. and take the ferry to Vancouver Island. Either way crossing the Strait of Juan de Fuca and driving through the beautiful Pacific Northwest makes getting to the trail head a spectacular experience.
2. Angry ocean
If you have never seen the huge crashing waves of a real ocean you will not be disappointed with the waves, tidal pools, and swirling seas along the West Coast Trail. Sailors lost their boats and lives in these waters for centuries and although the trail has been updated for everyone to enjoy, these angry waters are to be respected. Those who fail to head this advice risk injury or their lives.
3. Diverse campsites
Each campsite along the trail is a treat. None are the same and most are not pre-groomed campsites anyway. From camping in woods to beautiful sandy beaches and even in a giant natural cave, you will not be disappointed with the diverse locations to lay your head. Just make sure you study your tide tables. We pitched our tents up away from the water one night but were six feet away from the inbound tide giving us a rude awakening at 2am.
4. Beating the tides
Perhaps the funniest and potentially most frustrating parts of the trip are the bits of the trail that become inaccessible because of the tides. In other words, study and learn your tide tables or you may lose a few hours or even a day of progress. From our first campsite at Owens Point we had to get up very early and hike to beat tides before setting up for breakfast. I think this a great variable on the trip and learning experience for anyone who did not grow up on a coast where knowledge of tides is critical.
5. “Surge drains”
While beating the tides is a fun part of the trip, I still have nightmares about what my dad called surge drains. Water draining off the hills onto the rocky shelves over the centuries created wide and deep chasms that we crossed by walking over narrow and slippery drift wood logs. Being 11 with 35 pounds on my back and balancing on these logs while staring at an angry sea and sharp rocks below still freaks me out 30 years later.
6. The tidal river
After days of hiking through woods, swamps, on beaches and over rivers we came upon one of the coolest natural sites I have ever encountered. The Nitinat Narrows is a tidal river whose flow is greatly influenced by the rising and falling tide. A wide, swirling and murky river (sometimes flowing backwards) the river water is not really drinkable and kind of smells funny? Well what humans find revolting Dungeness crabs find delectable and the river bottom is filled with these tasty creatures. In 1981 we took advantage of the boat crossing one of the locals had set up to cross the river and purchase some crabs for the evening meal. Highly recommended!
7. Fresh Dungeness crab and shellfish
Speaking of crab, we did catch and even buy Dungeness crab crabs along the way. Easy trick is to have a few of your friends take sticks and walk in the shallow water poking the sea bottom (be sure to wear saddles or diving boots) thus scaring the crabs towards others in your party waiting to catch them. Be sure to keep only male crabs and let the females go. Oh, and it is a great idea to grab them from the back. Back in 1981 we were still able to dig for clams and harvest mussels from the rocks with little worry about red tide (much more of a concern today). After eating squeeze cheese, sardines and Ry Crisp for lunch our seafood feasts were awesome!
8. Hiking beautiful beaches
When we think of hiking we think of trails groomed by the National and Provincial parks departments. While the West Coast Trail does have some groomed trails to guide you through the woods, hikers spend much time walking the sandy beaches. The wildlife, scenery and smell of the ocean are wonderful and make a three mile beach hike pass by in a flash.
9. Chutes and ladders
In addition to the trails and beaches, the West Coast Trail has the most unique network of over three dozen ladders, boardwalks, cable car suspensions and even fallen logs that are set up to help navigate the diverse and sometimes dangerous terrain. We called this the “chutes and ladders” part of the trail after that crazy childhood board game. While all of these made each day’s hike a lot of fun, hikers should take care as parts of the trail can fall into disrepair or be slippery due to moss growth.
10. Rope swing at the falls
We made great time on the first half of the trail and ended up camping at Tsusiat Falls, one of the most popular spots on the trail. A classic pacific storm hit the day we set up camp at the falls so we spent an extra day there waiting it out. The falls has a swimming pond below it with a rope swing that we played on for hours on end…even in the rain. Behind the falls is a natural shelf to sit on and bathe. A bit to the south of the falls on the beach is a large cave that provided us with dry shelter during the storm. We set up camp fitting four tents in the cave and our cooking fire outside away from the gear. One of the most relaxing and days camping I have ever encountered.
11. The lighthouse
Lighthouses are just cool and Caramanah Lighthouse resides on the West Coast Trail at about the halfway point. It is one of the last remaining manned lighthouses on the west coast and makes for some wonderful photos, a place to have lunch and a reminder that civilization still exists somewhere. I have heard that a few natives have set up a trading post nearby where hikers can purchase snacks on the trail. This was a luxury that did not exist when we hiked the trail in 1981.
12. The scenery and wildlife
The West Coast Trail is rich with diverse wildlife including orca whales, gray whales, seals, sea lions, eagles, and even bears. Tidal pools are abundant and kids of all ages can encounter various fish, mollusks and sea anemones. All wildlife should be observed from a safe distance and not touched (especially cute seal pups). We never saw any but bears, cougars and wolves apparently call the area home and a mandatory “dangerous animals” orientation session is offered prior to starting the trail.
The West Coast Trail has seen many changes since I conquered it over three decades ago. Powerful Pacific Coast storms in 2007 took down over 3000 trees and damaged much of the trail’s man made and natural infrastructure. Fortunately the Canadian government allocated funds to upgrade many parts of the trail repairing the damage but also making it a bit easier and more accessible. I hear the trail is still very rugged and requires a high level of hiking knowledge and fitness to complete. The trail will never be a walk in the park and is a lifetime “must do” for any outdoor enthusiast.
Photos courtesy of Paula Reedyk via Creative Commons unless otherwise noted.
Post originally published on 12 Most